While London Calms Down, Riots Spread Across UK

There were 10,000 more police officers out on the streets of London Tuesday night. They are trying to stop days of rioting. Gangs of youths have attacked police, burnt buildings and looted stores in escalating violence since Saturday night.

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Maybe this could have been predicted. Police from cities across Britain were dispatched to London. They brought some calm after three nights of rioting. But as police moved into the capital, riots spread into the cities from which they came.

NPR's Eric Westervelt begins our coverage from London.

ERIC WESTERVELT: The rough-around-the-edges Borough of Hackney in north London was the scene of looting and chaos for several nights, with Monday especially bad. Bartender Patrick Fitzpatrick called that night's violence the worst street unrest he'd witnessed.

PATRICK FITZPATRICK: Crazy. For a Hackney born and bred, it was amazing to see the kids with no discipline just doing what they wanted, basically. The police were there, but, you know, they've got all these restrictions stopping 'em using their lovely truncheons to hit them. So, you know, they can't do nothing.

WESTERVELT: But last night, Hackney and much of London was deserted and eerily quiet. Most shops here had closed early. Several had boarded up their windows. London police brought in thousands of extra officers from outside, including 100 from Manchester who helped secure Hackney and other boroughs. The tactic worked: Several dozen police vans packed with officers swarmed this area, patrolling and stopping just about any young person on the street.

Hackney resident Andy Wager.

ANDY WAGER: I think the worst is over. I think now it's just little bits here and there. I think the police have got it under control in London. I don't know about other places, though.

WESTERVELT: But in other places - especially Manchester - violence flared again. In Manchester, young looters set a clothing store on fire and robbed several high-end shops, stealing clothes, electronics gear and breaking into a liquor store and smashing windows. A BBC radio news car was attacked and burned by a mob.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

Unidentified Man: Set it on fire, man.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

WESTERVELT: Manchester police arrested nearly 50 people overnight. Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan said the young rioters had brought shame on the city.

GARRY SHEWAN: They have nothing to protest against. There is nothing in the sense of injustice, and there's been no spark which has led to this. This has been senseless violence and senseless criminality on a scale that I have never witnessed before in my career.

WESTERVELT: The riots pose huge challenges for Britain and Prime Minister David Cameron as the country prepares to host the Olympics this time next year and as his government implements deep cuts in public spending and raises taxes to tackle a big budget deficit.

A fatal shooting of a London man by police last week set off the rioting. On Tuesday, the Prime Minister cut short a family holiday in Italy to deal with the unrest. Yesterday, he seemed to dismiss the idea there was any underlying social or economic spark. He called it criminality, pure and simple.

But community leaders in London say there's little simple about the riots, and that the growing disparities in wealth and opportunity - worsened by austerity cuts and a down economy - were key factors.

MIKE HARDY: I do think it is about that divide between those who have opportunity, and strongly perceive that they have it, and those that worry that they don't.

WESTERVELT: Mike Hardy directs the Institute of Community Cohesion, a think tank at the University of Coventry. Hardy concedes the violence was fueled by opportunistic criminality. But he says that's just part of the picture. A growing number of jobless and alienated young people here, he argues, feel their communities are being targeted for cuts and don't feel they have a stake in today's buzzing, prosperous London.

HARDY: Who don't feel that they personally share or benefit from all that energy - a London full or tourists, a London full of anticipation for the Olympics, and so forth. There is a very strongly held perception that not everyone in society is carrying a proportionate burden of this macroeconomic instability.

WESTERVELT: Now that the unrest has died down in the capital, anyway, a rigorous debate is expected over what sparked the unrest, why now, as well as what's to be done to rebuild communities and relations with the police. The prime minister has recalled parliament for a special session tomorrow.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, London.

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