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The sad truth behind London riot
By Martin Fletcher, NBC News correspondent
LONDON -- As political and social protests grip the Middle East, are growing in Europe and a riot exploded in north London this weekend, here's a sad truth, expressed by a Londoner when asked by a television reporter: Is rioting the correct way to express your discontent?
"Yes," said the young man. "You wouldn't be talking to me now if we didn't riot, would you?"
The TV reporter from Britain's ITV had no response. So the young man pressed his advantage. "Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you."
Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere.
The truth is that discontent has been simmering among Britain's urban poor for years, and few have paid attention. Social activists say one out of two children in Tottenham live in poverty. It's one of the poorest areas of Britain. Britain's worst riots in decades took place here in 1985. A policeman was hacked to death. After these riots, the same young man pointed out, "They built us a swimming pool."
Poverty, joblessness cyclePolice and local leaders in Tottenham made real progress in improving community relations in the intervening years and that's true about all of Britain. The best way to prevent crime, the theory goes, is to improve the lot of the people, then they won't need to commit crimes. But caught in a poverty and joblessness cycle, young people in many British urban areas have little hope of a better life.
So when a local 29-year-old father, described by police as a gangster, was shot dead by an officer, the response came quickly.
Mark Duggan was killed Thursday. On Saturday night about 50 relatives and friends protested outside the Tottenham police station.
Local young men, almost all with their heads covered by hoods -- known here as "hoodies" -- took advantage to indulge themselves in a favorite sport: cursing the police. This quickly escalated into a night of hurling rocks, bottles (Jack Daniels, one young man told me -- "we broke into the liquor store, drank the Jack Daniels and threw the bottles at the cops"), burning two patrol cars, torching buildings, smashing shop windows and carting off hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of phones, cameras and clothes.
The looting and rioting had nothing at all to do with the killing of Mark Duggan. That was the spark. The bonfire had been prepared by years of neglect, fueled by the anger of young men with no stake in the system, angry at everybody and quick to exploit fury at the killing of a local man, even if he did allegedly fire at the police officer first.
So now the question people in Tottenham are asking is: Will the government pay attention to the social issues underlying the anger?
And a wider question is: Would anyone care at all if there had not been violence?