Designer riots, brand Britain

If it were not so terribly sad, it would actually be funny. Young kids and drug addicts, drunks and unemployed youth made up most of the mob that went on a rampage for four nights around Britain. And what was the main target? Designer labels! Clothes, shoes and alcohol that many of them would not have been able to afford in normal circumstances. Their excuse for the “spontaneous” uprising was the alleged accidental shooting of Mark Duggan, suspected of drug running, by the police.

The mishandling of the entire episode by the police ultimately meant that the rest of the country had to pay a heavy price for what could turn out to be the most expensive public relations disaster ever: A bill of over one hundred million pounds of insurance claims for a country that is sinking deeper into the red. It is the last thing Prime Minister David Cameron had expected. And certainly it was not on top of his agenda while he was on holiday.
While there is an attempt by the liberal Left, which loves a large and soft state, to blame the “budget cuts” (which are still to take place) for the violence, the fact is that the Metropolitan Police was petrified of reacting too fast. It had already suffered an image bashing during the riots that took place during the G20 meet when one man supposedly died due to police intervention. More recently, its police commissioner and one of its best known counter-terror experts had both been forced to resign following their cross-examination by over-enthusiastic parliamentary committees set up to look into the phone-hacking scandal. At that time there was a different sort of mob hysteria whipped up by the Rupert Murdoch bashers, and it was a precarious moment for anyone who was seen to be even remotely close to the media mogul or any of his associates. Thus, quick changes were made in the police department — though fears had been expressed that the fallout of the absolute demoralisation of the police force could prove perilous. Through the actions of a few renegades it seemed that perhaps the clean image of the police had been tarnished. So a policy paralysis took place, leading ultimately to mob rule on the usually calm streets of London and other cities this week.
There are interesting parallels between what happened in London recently and in India during past incidents of mob violence. The police failed to react in time and the rioters took over. In the post-Godhra Gujarat riots, middleclass men and women were caught on camera walking off with television sets. This sort of mob violence has little ideology to back it. The interesting part of the riots in London was that the gangs organising it knew that under the chaos of the violence other agendas could be settled. Young and old alike were tempted to smash windows, jump into shops and grab designer labels. They burnt down shops and homes with impunity. Obviously, this showed up police vulnerability as over the years the police has become sensitised to racial issues and is very politically correct. From its point of view it had to be ultra-careful as the situation was a minefield of potential disasters since most of the rioters were black and Afro-Caribbean. Bad handling could lead to a race riot.
The gangs that operated in those four days, it must be mentioned, are probably known to the police, as gang wars in the inner city of London are a routine affair or happen, at least, once a month, in which teenagers are killed. The fact that young children are being used by the drug cartel is horrific. The drug mafia and the police are often engaged in a cat and mouse game and Duggan’s unfortunate death was perhaps the culmination of an obviously failed attempt by the police to gain some control. The backlash has been terrible, aided through the use of Blackberries. The swift communication meant that very quickly completely disparate elements (or perhaps even different gangs) in different cities could get organised and jump onto the looting bandwagon.
The rioters in London have turned out to be as young as 11 years and disenfranchised elements included schoolteachers and university students. Some of them have now appeared before district magistrates, and a few have actually expressed regret over their ill-judged attempt to loot under the cover of the “riots”. Many were brought into the court room wearing clothes and shoes that still had security tags from the ransacked department stores.
But to the annoyance of many now these looters will attempt to exploit loopholes in their sentencing. A few of them have already been let off with a reprimand and no matter what Mr Cameron says, it will be impossible to jail the thousands of rioters identified so far or even punish them for destroying peace. But will letting them off lightly tempt fate and encourage them to battle the “Feds” as the cops are called, again?
One worrying aspect of this incident is that like in Norway there has been too much emphasis on anti-terror activity and not enough on anti-social elements, so Britain was unable to cope with this completely different response from a mob bent on arson. Another worrying aspect is that many are reading this as a failure of multiculturism, which is actually not the case. But yes, it is a failure of the state to recognise that certain pockets of the city are showing dangerous signs of egregious violence. Even the mowing down of three Pakistani boys appears to be more of an attempt to access some rich pickings for pillage than for any racist purpose. The father of one of the murdered boys was correct to appeal for peace, saying that all communities needed to work together, rather than seek revenge.
The fact that both the government and the Opposition condemned the violence was a strong statement reflecting the universal shock over the turbulence that lurks beneath a veneer of cohesiveness. Like Norway, Britain will also have to learn to deal with different types of home-grown terrorism. Including aggression whose driving force was not jihad or socialism but Nike shoes and Burberry coats. It was the triviality of the pursuit that has rocked the nation.
In their hunt for designer labels, the looters have not realised how badly they have damaged the only brand that ultimately matters — brand Britain.

Kishwar Desai can be contacted at

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