London Faces 3 Straight Nights Of Arson, Looting

London saw the worst violence and disorder in decades Monday night. It was the third night of unrest in that city. Trouble is also spreading to other parts of Britain – to Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol. Prime Minister David Cameron has cut short his vacation in Italy to try to deal with the crisis.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

A tweet came yesterday out of Pakistan from a writer and consultant. Writing from that deeply troubled nation, he sarcastically said there was a travel advisory for Pakistanis headed to the U.K. because of high levels of violence.

MONTAGNE: London has faced three straight nights of arson and looting. The violence spread to other British cities, prompting Prime Minister David Cameron to warn today of many, many more arrests.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves was on the streets last night.

PHILIP REEVES: London's looters are having a profitable evening. They've smashed their way into a Foot Locker, and are now calmly stuffing shoes into plastic bags. Across the road, there are more rich pickings. A crowd has forced its way into a big department store, Debenhams, and is now happily helping itself.

No one seems worried about the handful of police who're looking on from a distance, but not intervening. This is a prosperous street in Clapham, South London. The road's carpeted with broken glass and rubble. Almost all the nearby stores are vandalized.

Peter Tete-djawu is watching from the sidewalk. He says people have been freely looting for hours.

Mr. PETER TETE-DJAWU: I went all the way down there to Curry's, and I just see a huge number of people just breaking into Curry's. They broke into Curry's, got whatever they wanted.

REEVES: That's an electronics shop, isn't it?

Mr. TETE-DJAWU: Yeah, the electronics shop, Curry's. I come down the road and see JD Sports, T-Mobile, Phones 4U, Debenhams, TK Maxx, the whole bunch in it. That's what I saw.

REEVES: So a lot of shops down that street that we're looking at?

Mr. TETE-DJAWU: Have been robbed, yes.

REEVES: Many looters are disguised with masks or hoods. Most seem to be young lads, but there are teenage girls too. Some have mobile phones which they use to communicate amongst themselves. One girl, who looks about 14, walks calmly past - her arms full of stolen clothes, still on their hangers.

Some journalists, witnessing scenes like this in London in the last few days, have been attacked. A masked looter points menacingly at NPR's recording machine.

Unidentified Man #1: You record the wrong thing and that's getting smashed up. I tell you that. It will get smashed up.

REEVES: As the looters carry on stealing, just a few feet away, Lloyd Arthurs offers his theory of what's happening. Arthurs is 45, and works with kids in this neighborhood. He says the area has lots of gangs.

Mr. LLOYD ARTHURS: If you have a gang situation getting bigger and more established, it is only a matter of time before you find that those individuals will organize themselves, will channel all of that. 'Cause remember, these rebels or gangs are dotted all over the place.

REEVES: You call them rebels?

Mr. ARTHURS: Yeah, that's what they are. This is rebels. 'Cause at the end of the day, there is a cause in this. But most of the people are participating in it don't give a damn about the cause.

REEVES: The immediate cause, at least partly, is to do with a North London man shot dead recently by the police. The circumstances are disputed. There was a peaceful protest over this killing Saturday in Tottenham, followed by riots that have gone on ever since.

Finally, vans full of riot police draw in. Armed with shields, batons, and in some cases dogs, the officers disembark.

Unidentified Man #2: Members of the public, please disperse this area now.

REEVES: Most of the looters scatter, some departing in cars and motor scooters.

The spectators here are aware that gangs of youths are also, tonight, rampaging through at least a dozen other London neighborhoods, torching cars, stores and homes. An argument begins among the spectators about what lies behind the violence.

ALISON: The kids, they ain't got nothing. They have nothing, nothing at all. And everything's going up. So where's the wages?

Unidentified Man #3: And they also had nothing to do under the Labor government too.

ALISON: Yeah, but hold on a minute. You can say that as well, but this government has come in and made it worse for the children.

REEVES: That's a woman called Alison. She's fearful of giving her full name.

British government and police officials are portraying the rioters as mindless criminals. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, says they're thugs and thieves who will be brought to justice.

Alison also views the looting and vandalism as completely unjustifiable. But Britain's undergoing the most severe public spending cuts since the Second World War. Alison says it's important to remember that.

ALISON: What do they expect? You know what? My 21-year-old goes out there every single day looking for work and there's no work. But yet still, he'll get penalized in this country for not having a job.

REEVES: The British leaders now scrambling to restore order have been battered by scandals over parliamentarian expenses claims, over their cozy relations with Rupert Murdoch's tabloid newspapers, over bankers' bonuses.

On the streets of London, some argue such tawdry conduct in high places has fueled disillusion among Britain's young and poor.

Alison says the government is simply out of touch.

ALISON: This government is for the rich. It's not for the poor. And it's not for the people that are trying. They fiddle their expenses, they con us out of our money. They do this. They take away housing benefits which helps people have a decent sort of living. It's not fair. It's not fair.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

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