As the sun set Monday, the thick plumes of smoke rose across the London skyline, from the northeast and south, for the third night running. For the first time in three decades, London is burning.
The small crowds of very young men and women, of every skin colour, typically dressed in almost identical hooded sweatshirts, were on the main streets of the mainly poor neighbourhoods along the city’s northeastern, southern and western boundaries, engaged in running skirmishes with police, looting hundreds of shops, setting dozens of buildings and houses ablaze.
The violence spread Monday night outside London, with serious eruptions of violence in Birmingham and Liverpool, but the scale of events in the British capital was unprecedented, and utterly overwhelmed the city’s 32,000 police. Almost exactly a year before the city plays host to the Olympic Games, the conflagration has raised dark fears for the city’s security.
Police called in hundreds of reinforcements and volunteer police officers— and made a rare decision to deploy armoured vehicles in some of the worst-hit districts — but still struggled to keep pace with the chaos unfolding at flashpoints across London, in the central city of Birmingham, the western city of Bristol and the northwestern city of Liverpool.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who cut short his vacation to return to the capital, said Tuesday the events of the last three days were "criminality, pure and simple" and said “People should be in no doubt that we will do everything necessary to restore order to Britain’s streets.”
London's police said 14 people were injured, including a man in his 60s with life threatening injuries.
Mr. Cameron said some 16,000 police would be on London’s streets on Tuesday night, up from the 6,000 on duty on Monday, boosted by reinforcements from across the country.
“It is quite clear that we need more, much more, police on our streets and we need even more robust police action,” he said.
“These are sickening scenes ... this is criminality, pure and simple, and it has to be confronted and defeated.”
He said parliament would meet on Thursday “so I can make a statement to parliament and we can hold a debate and we are all able to stand together in condemnation of these crimes.”
This is the most extensive rioting Londoners have seen in a generation, surpassing the scope of the huge race riots that paralyzed the city in the 1980s, with scores of fires and skirmishes spreading over Monday night into Croydon in the far south, Camden Town in the north, Hackney in the east, Ealing in the west, an unpredictable and seemingly random set of mass crime explosions – but also the least comprehensible.
These are not race riots: Though they began, on Saturday afternoon, with a small protest in Tottenham, north London, over the shooting of a dark-skinned man by police under suspicious circumstances, they quickly became a much wider and less purposeful explosion of youth criminality.
Tottenham was the site of the terrible Broadwater Farm riot of 1985, which also began with a protest over a police shooting – but that was another London, deeply divided along racial lines, with a furious and socially excluded Caribbean community battling an all-white and explicitly racist police force. This week, by contrast, both the rioters and the police are multicoloured.
Nor are these explicitly political riots: There is no message, no motive, no cause, no slogan. Efforts by some opposition politicians to link these events to Prime Minister David Cameron’s spending cuts have been met with incredulity in the affected neighbourhoods, where those cuts have not yet had any municipal effect.
But this is clearly an event with far deeper causes than simple random hooliganism. A night of protesting and looting in one neighbourhood is not an unusual phenomenon in London, where a certain sort of mass drink-fuelled petty crime and low-level rioting never lies far beneath the surface. But three nights, spread across a dozen large neighbourhoods covering the entire expanse of this city of 10 million with scores of buildings set alight – this is an event of a much different magnitude.
There are some things uniting the London rioters. Almost all are under 20. Police reported that the youngest arrested over the weekend was 11 years old, and that almost all were born in the 1990s.
And most, according to their own accounts in interviews and Facebook postings, come from the same neighbourhoods they are looting and burning: Mostly poor neighbourhoods, thick with public-housing towers and short on employment opportunities.
“I think that there was disillusionment among some segments of the rioters,” said Heidi Alexander, the Member of Parliament for Lewisham, south London, where huge fires and large-scale rioting erupted Monday night. “There are high levels of youth unemployment in my district, they have trouble staying on in work or getting education, and they get caught up in this.”
Whether the thousands of rioters actually did express disillusionment – some did say they were angry at police or the world, but many appeared gleeful or greedy – it is clear that most had nothing else to do with themselves, and no reason to fear or feel responsible for the consequences of their actions.
This is a chronic problem in Britain, which has a “lost generation” of young high-school dropouts far larger than most other Western countries.
One European Union study this year found that 17 per cent of Britain’s youth are classified as “NEETs” – for Not in Employment, Education or Training, in other words high-school dropouts with no prospects of employment – the fourth-highest percentage in the European Union. There are 600,000 people under 25 in Britain who have never had a day of work.
Why these disenfranchised youth so explosively made their presence known in such a devastatingly violent way, and how this will all end, is not yet understood. But it puts a dark punctuation mark on what had, until this weekend, been London’s brightest modern era.
With files from AP