Police Presence High, But U.K. Riots Continue

Violent rioting that began in London spread to other U.K. cities on Tuesday. Prime Minister David Cameron has said "nothing is off the table" for police drawing up plans to restore law and order. Global Post's Michael Goldfarb provides an update on the unrest.

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NEAL CONAN, host: Relative quiet in London last night but only after thousands of police were called in to the capital to quell three nights of mayhem, and the riots raged on in many other cities. There was a trigger, a black man shot and killed by police in North London, but the violence, burned cars and shops and widespread looting seemed to lack any clear motive. Joining us now from the BBC's Western House in London is our former colleague Michael Goldfarb, now a correspondent for the online newspaper GlobalPost. Michael, nice to talk to you again.

MICHAEL GOLDFARB: Nice to talk to you, Neal.

CONAN: And it's nearly 8 o'clock at night where you are. What's going on now?

GOLDFARB: Not much so far. I have a feeling, but I've been wrong on this one a couple of days in a row. I have a feeling that things, at least in London, seemed to have quieted down, not least because people are going home early and shopkeepers are boarding up shops. And it's very clear that there's a certain amount of vigilantism augmenting the extra police presence. People are going to defend their property, and that seems to have cooled things down quite a bit.

CONAN: You talked in one of your stories about the shopkeepers, the Kurdish shopkeepers in your neighborhood preparing to defend their properties with skewers.

GOLDFARB: Yes, indeed. The - I live in a very, very cosmopolitan neighborhood, and most of the local restaurants are run by Kurdish exiles, immigrants from Turkish Kurdistan, my Peshmerga friends, as I call them. And they formed a chain, basically, across the road. As the riot - as the mob stormed from Hackney to Dalston and turned north, towards Stoke Newington, where I live, they were confronted by these guys, and they turned around very quickly.

CONAN: The Peshmerga, of course, were the Kurdish guerillas who were willing to conduct guerrilla warfare against the Iranians and indeed Saddam Hussein's Iraqis as well. So they are formidable indeed. The situation, though, Michael, as we look around the country, many people in Britain are saying, yes, there was a trigger, but they don't understand what's gone on here.

GOLDFARB: Well, what's interesting about this, Neal, is that the initial violence came out of - it's almost retrograde. A young black man was killed last week, last Thursday night, was shot by police in circumstances that are still not entirely clear, and it will take some time before the inquest gets all of the facts straight. And there was - this was in Tottenham, and, Neal, I think you were probably the NPR correspondent in London when Tottenham exploded in 1985 and...

CONAN: Indeed I was, yes.

GOLDFARB: And the, you know, in those days, race relations in this city were appalling. The Metropolitan Police were, you know, almost entirely white. It was just a dreadful situation, but, you know, things have moved on in the last 25 years. And what happened very quickly was the situation got hijacked by a kind of lawlessness that was so far beyond anything related to race relations that it's almost that this young man, Mark Duggan is his name, had been completely forgotten within 24 hours of the violence occurring.

And it built over a couple of nights, and the third night was Monday night into Tuesday morning, and that's when London burned. Sixteen thousand police went into the street in London last night, and the rioting - copycat rioting spread into provincial cities. The whys and wherefores are very difficult to explain. I mean, because it's a question of sociology, I think, Neal, more than politics. Twenty-five years ago, there were real political issues about racism and immigrants being represented in the institutions of society.

Many of those questions have been answered. This is now about something else. I mean, sociologists would say this is the underclass. These are young people, 16 to 24, most of them unemployed, no prospects for employment, poorly educated. And it's summertime, and they're bored. And they had a chance, they thought, to go out and get something, and they were very specific in what they went after. They wanted better sneakers. They wanted to upgrade their cell phones and their computers. And that's what they've done. And it's just shocked, absolutely shocked London to the foundation, because no one can explain this because there's no obvious political reason for this unrest.

CONAN: I wanted to read some comments from some of the British news outlets. This is from the Manchester Evening News. A blogger Paul Taylor wrote: The picture that emerged from the live blog on the Manchester Evening News website was one of stupid vandalism, petty theft, bravado fuelled by the reports of rioting elsewhere, young hooligans playing at anarchy. But in such numbers, the effect was sinister, unsettling. They were rebels without a cause, no mission, no principle beyond the desire to hear breaking glass and the crackle of fire and to go home with something plundered. This was not a race riot, not an uprising with a just cause. This was nothing but ugly mischief, and second-hand mischief at that.

GOLDFARB: I'm inclined to agree with that. I think that that's very - a very reasonable summary. You know, you can pick a part why it got to the levels it did. I mean, I wrote today that - I mean, there are some strong questions about the Metropolitan Police at the moment. Last month, you were probably talking about Rupert Murdock and The News of the World and the phone hacking scandal, and the top two officers in London's police force resigned over that scandal. Three weeks later, we have rioting, and you have to wonder whether losing your two top commanders in such circumstances meant that maybe the chain of command wasn't as agile as it might have been had this started and they were still in place. And there are things, as well, related to police, you know, and...

CONAN: But you wrote about a man named Ian Tomlinson, not part of this riot, but maybe in a knock-on effect, yes, part of this.

GOLDFARB: Yeah. Exactly right. I was just coming on to that. You know, two and a half years ago, when the G-20 met here to try and save the world economy - and the jury was out whether they succeeded - there was a small demo - there was a demonstration. I was there. I was cattled in by the police. And at the fringes of that demonstration, a passerby, Ian Tomlinson, was knocked to the ground by a policeman at the end of a long day of taking abuse from, you know, anarchists and people who want to overthrow the system and whatever. He died - Ian Tomlinson. And that policeman, in June, was remanded and will face criminal charges of manslaughter.

And, you know, it's a kind of question that you could ask every policemen in the world and they wouldn't give you an honest answer about it, every policemen in London at least. And they wouldn't say - give you an honest answer to this question. Did the fact that the cop who knocked down Ian Tomlinson and caused his death is going to be facing charges of manslaughter, does that affect the way you approached your job on Monday night in London? And my guess is that, it has to be niggling at the back of peoples' minds that, you know, if I lose my temper with some thug and smack him up side the head and hurt him, will the force back me? Will the society back me?

Based on what happened with Ian Tomlinson, they would say no. And consequently, maybe they just stood back a little until they got to - you know, unless they got direct orders to engage.

CONAN: And they did, maybe, stand back with the knowledge that, if they did unleash the truncheon or the rubber bullets or the water cannon, all of this would be recorded on cell phones.

GOLDFARB: Exactly right. There was a - there's been a lot of terrific photography here, because many of the riots and - the rioting in Hackney - I mean, half the freelance photographers in London live in Hackney - we're out there in force.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GOLDFARB: And it's true - media central. And there was a photo that I saw of, you know, a thug, right? I'm going to describe him as a thug. He's got his face covered with a (unintelligible) or something, and he's standing in front of line of about seven or eight cops, shields, riot gear, truncheons at the ready, and he's baiting them. And he's got a cell phone hang - you know, videoing himself yelling at the cops. It's only - and you can almost imagine that he's saying, what are you going to do? Hit me? It's all going on YouTube right now. What are you going to do? And this is a real dilemma in the modern world, where we do have these things which can be great tools for communication, but, you know, in the wrong hands, can be tools of intimidation of the very people who are meant to be protecting ordinary citizens from thugs.

CONAN: And let me ask now about the backlash. And let me read this from British journalist, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings - also a well-known military historian - writing in the Daily Mail where he described the young rioters, black and white, as quote, "essentially wild beasts. I use that phrase advisedly, because it seems appropriate to young people bereft of the discipline that might make them employable, of the conscience that distinguishes between right and wrong. The depressing truth is that at the bottom of our society is a layer of young people with no skills, education, values or aspirations. They do not have what most of us would call lives. They simply exist."

"Nobody has ever dared to suggest to them that they need feel any allegiance to anything, least of all to Britain or their community. Unless or until those who run Britain introduce incentives for decency and impose penalties for bestiality which are today entirely lacking, there will never be a shortage of young rioters and looters such as those of the past four nights, for whom their monstrous excesses were a great fire, man."

GOLDFARB: Yeah, Max Hastings is a real Tory. And what's interesting is there's a fair number of people who would, on almost any issue, say, oh, Max Hastings, you know, he's - you know, he won the Falklands War, and he's a real conservative and all of that. But any number of people who, you know, disagree with him in almost political issue who might not take that much exception to what he writes there. I mean, I think that this is why I say - this - the events in London and also just around England - and we have to emphasize that it's England, not Britain. This hasn't happened yet in Scotland or in Wales - that this is a problem of sociology.

And it's, in many cases - extreme majority of cases, it is, you know, people who have not - who have no stake in the society and they don't care. And there's no prospect, by the way, of many of this people ever having a job. They haven't got the skills to begin with, even if there were jobs and there are not, so it's really a big problem.

But beyond that, I mean, at the fringes, you know, in London, especially in my part of London, there's a kind of very, very thin group of anarchists who turn up on virtually any demonstration and try and turn it into violence. We've had a number of large demonstrations since the new government came into office a year ago and started their austerity measures. You know, half a million people come out for a very peaceful march in London in - was it late March, early April - mostly school teachers, it has to be said, very peaceable folks. And at the edge, there were these kids who put on balaclavas and go around, and at the end of the day trying to smash windows to make a point. They make no point.

And so it's very difficult to see how you get hold of this situation and engage with these kids, because Max Hastings, as you've just read, touches on them. This is the absolute bottom in the - that were out on the streets doing this. And I don't know how you reach in and begin to turn people around. I mean, I supposed to take an opposite view from Max Hastings. You would say, well, the one thing you do is in your austerity measures, you don't cut, you know, the five million quid, five million pounds, that goes on youth centers that tries to reach out to these kids. And these are programs that, of course, disappearing as the government's austerity measures take hold.

CONAN: We're talking with Michael Goldfarb, London correspondent for GlobalPost. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And people might add, Michael, that maybe you don't cut the police either.

GOLDFARB: This is a big, big debate. I mean, it's been interesting to watch from afar the debates about reducing the size of government in the U.S., you know, as the House drives, you know, kind of frames the terms of the debate and to compare it with the conservatives here. I mean, at least the conservatives here, when they try and set up an austerity program, they raise taxes. They cut defense. And listen, there's no - you know as well as I do, there is no more true blue - Tories are blue here. It's kind of confusing. They all are schemes this side of the Atlantic. But there's no more true blue conservative thing than law and order, and yet they're arguing about how many police have already been taken off the street in the last year because of budget reductions.

I heard an - I have to call it an allegation, an assertion - just an hour ago on the BBC from someone that, within two years, there'll be 10,000 fewer police on the beat in England. Now, if that's number is accurate, I have a feeling that that is something that will be looked at quite closely on the back of these events, and they may have to find savings elsewhere.

Because clearly, reducing police forces, you're not - if you don't have bobbies on the street, particularly in the housing projects, the council estates where the - most of these rioters live, if there's not a constant police presence, it will only breed more violence. Sporadic, no particular cause; can be somebody being shot; it could be somebody, you know, just being hold over by the police and asked to show his ID. It doesn't matter. Anything can kick off if there's not enough police presence in the street.

CONAN: And to what degree is the prime minister being blamed? To what degree is the mayor of London being blamed?

GOLDFARB: Well, in the initial polling - there's a very interesting polling group here called YouGov. And listeners, if they're curious and like to follow British stuff, they can go to yougov.com and look at it. It's an online polling group, but their algorithms are very specific and they factor out, you know, like, you know, anybody can join in and send their opinion, but they're very, very accurate, I feel, actually. The initial poll, 24 hours after the riots showed that 57 percent of respondents thought that David Cameron had handled the situation badly. Now, that will change. It's a very flexible number.

I think there are similar things - there are similar problems for Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, and has an election next year for that post. It's really very hard to say. They Johnson, who's also a conservative, is already fighting with David Cameron. They were almost classmates at Eton and Oxford. Boris is two years older, so they, sort of, overlapped with each other. So they're cut from the very same posh bit of cloth. They're already arguing in public about whether to cut the police.

This could be a moment - I mean, David Cameron has had a very bad run. He's very close to the whole Rupert Murdock scandal saga. The economy is very poor. But if he can make something out of this issue and reflect the public anger over the rioting, he might be able to build something off it.

Boris Johnson has a slightly bigger problem, in my view, because he's a very entertaining figure. But this is a real crisis and his usual bluff, blustery, you know, I say what comes to mind and, you know, it just - that doesn't wash. People want a very firm leader, and he hasn't been.

CONAN: Some have described this as David Cameron's Katrina moment. We shall have to see if he can seize it.

GOLDFARB: Yeah. I mean, I'm not sure if it's his Katrina moment and - because, you know, in the end, Neal, the riots will be over. London will go back to normal. The phone hacking scandal will go away. But if the economy continues to tank - and there's no growth here, manufacturing was - is off by half a point now - if that continues, Katrina doesn't amount to a hill of beans, if jobs don't come, if the economy doesn't grow and if austerity kills off what hopes of recovery there are.

CONAN: Michael Goldfarb, thanks very much for your time today.

GOLDFARB: A pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: Michael Goldfarb, London correspondent for GlobalPost. Tomorrow, we head into rural America, where populations are dwindling, airports are closing and the USPS is threatening to close post offices. Join us for that. We want to hear your stories if that's where you live. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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