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Who Are The London Rioters And Why Are They Rioting?

A rioter throws a rock at police in Clarence Road in Hackney on Tuesday in London.
Dan Istitene
Getty Images
A rioter throws a rock at police in Clarence Road in Hackney on Tuesday in London.

So who are the British rioters and why are they doing it? It seems like an easy question, but it's been fairly hard to ascertain. In some ways, two distinct portraits of rioters have emerged. In some ways, they're typified by two videos that have made the rounds online.

One is of a disaffected youth that's underemployed and has nothing to lose. It is typified by a video of Pauline Pearce, a 45-year-old grandmother, who was walking through the streets of Hackney and confronted rioters with some blunt speech. Here's the video, but be warned there is some strong language in it:

"The shop up there, she's working hard to make her business work and you lot want to burn it up, for what?" she said. "Just to say you're 'warring' and you're bad man... This is about a [expletive] man who got shot in Tottenham... Get it real black people. Get real. Fight for a cause. If we're fighting for a cause let's fight for a [expletive] cause. You lot piss me the [expletive] off. I'm ashamed to be a Hackney person because we're not all gathering together and fighting for a cause, we're running down Foot Locker and thieving shoes. Dirty thief run off."


The other is the one Pearce alludes to: One of communities who have been badly treated by the system and the shooting of Mark Duggan just unleashed an explosion of pent up anger, especially from communities of color who feel they've been disrespected by their government. It's what Darcus Howe, a broadcaster and writer, told the BBC in this video:

Howe said if politicians and law enforcement took a moment to "look at young blacks and young whites with a discerning eye and careful hearing" they would have seen "something very, very serious" coming.

Howe pointed to his own grandson, who he called an angel. He said the other day he asked him how many times police had touched him. His grandson told him he had been stopped and searched by police so many times he couldn't count.

That's when the BBC host stopped him and told him that doesn't excuse rioting.

"I don't call it rioting. I call it an insurrection of the masses of the people," he said.


Today Michele Norris talked to James Harkin, a reporter for The Guardian, who said the reasons for the riots are complex. He said a lot of the people who been arrested are children and that unlike the riots that hit London in the '80s, there is no overt political message to the ones happening now.

He told Michele that there were indeed rioters of opportunity, but there were others who said they felt disrespected by police.

"The reasons for this are complex and cultural," said Harkin. "And they can't simply be explained by money. It's more a sense that people really have no stake and it's a sense that either people are underemployed or if they're 11-years-old, they simply don't have much to do."

Harkin said he suspects some of it has to do with disillusionment. He said for years politicians have been promising that things will get better. But youth see that they're not and that they may very well be worst off than their parents.

Is it a racial thing? It certainly didn't start that way, said Harkin, but as the riots extended into their fifth night that's become an issue. Just today, in Birmingham, three young men of "Asian Muslim" descent were killed by a police car carrying looters. The incident has increased tensions in that city and the Bishop of Aston, Rev. Andrew Watson, warned that it might "potentially [have] an ugly race dimension."

Reuters moved a piece today that talked to people at a housing project in London. Most of the people they talked to — including an Afro-Caribbean man of 22 with a job — expressed anger and dismissed what the politicians have classified as pure criminality.

"[The rioters] were not your typical hoodlums out there. There were working people, angry people. They've raised rates, cut child benefit. Everyone just used it as a chance to vent," the 22-year-old told Reuters.

Reuters also talked to a 40-year-old woman who gave her name as Michelle.

"My son is 12 years old, and he already knows that police do not work for black people," she said. "The looting was done, not just because they can't afford the stuff, it was done to show they just don't give a [expletive] . . . . We're here and not going away,"

Pauline Pearce, the 45-year-old woman in the YouTube video, gave an interview to The Sun today. She said she was "furious" seeing poor people burning other poor people's possessions. She's served jail time and for years, she's fought against violent crime because her own 18-year-old son was stabbed.

She told The Sun the night was more complex emotionally than that video might let on.

"There were things that infuriated me and worried me and things I found compassionate and touching and moving. There were blacks, whites, everyone joining together — some guys were from Romania, Turkey — people were united."

She continued, "They need something, they need a community center to unite all the community, because they are currently segregated by postcode and that's how the gangs start."

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