U.K. riots: poor parenting or lack of opportunity?

By contributor Sean Carey

Politicians in the U.K. are puzzled about the cause and scope of the recent disorders on the U.K. mainland. Last night, for example, I listened to Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, co-chair of the British Conservative Party, and Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour Party, squaring up to each other on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions.

London Road looking like a tornado swept up it. Fire tenders still spraying water at lunchtime on Tuesday, more than 12 hours after the fires were set. Image/George Rex.

Baroness Warsi, the daughter of migrants from Pakistan and the first Muslim woman to serve in the cabinet, was clear about her view that the riots were caused by a failure of parenting. She said that when she was a child she would not dream of getting into trouble because of what her parents might do once they found out.

Harman, the daughter of a Harley Street physician, appeared anxious not to be perceived as “soft” on issues of law and order or to be some sort of moral relativist. She said that behind the “criminality” other issues drove the behavior of the rioters, including “lack of opportunity.”

What can we learn from some street-side fieldwork?

Most of the disorder in London took place in Tottenham, Hackney and Croydon. But outbreaks also occurred in other parts of London, including parts of Tower Hamlets, a London borough which has within its borders some of the most deprived parts of the U.K., as well as some of the wealthiest, such as the residential spaces adjacent to the Canary Wharf business district on the Isle of Dogs.

On Tuesday evening in Tower Hamlets, windows were smashed and looting occurred at a branch of Tesco, the U.K.’s biggest supermarket chain, on Bethnal Green Road. A South Asian-owned shop, Zee & Co. on Roman Road, which sells high-value designer clothing, was also targeted. Unfortunately, for the owner, Muhnir Rahman, almost his entire stock worth several hundred thousand pounds was stolen.

There were reports that an Islamic bank and jewellery shops on Whitechapel Road opposite the Royal London Hospital were about to be hit. But the presence of several hundred worshipers emerging from evening prayers in the period of Ramadan at the East London Mosque deterred a smaller crowd of would-be looters, who then dispersed.

Last night, which was Friday, I paid a visit to Tower Hamlets to get a sense of what was going on in the aftermath of the disorder.

It was a warm evening and  the end of the working week, so people were out enjoying themselves. Many were standing outside the many cafes and bars which punctuate the cityscape. I noticed that a lot of shops on Bethnal Green Road, which would not normally put down the shutters had done so. Other premises were boarded up including the legendary Italian-owned Pellici café, once a favorite haunt of the Kray twins.

It was impossible not to notice the large number of police and police community support officers walking the streets and roaming around in cars and vans. Outside the Salmon & Ball pub at the junction of Bethnal Green Road and Cambridge Heath Road, two policemen in shirtsleeves were talking to a group of white, middle-aged women about recent events. While it was all very relaxed and good-humored, both locals and the police obviously felt that they had to remain on guard.

Buildings burn on Tottenham High Road after youths protested the killing of a man by armed police. Aug. 6, 2011. Photo by Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images.

At the entrance to Roman Road, three policemen had stopped a young white boy, around 13 years of age, who was riding a mountain bike on the pavement. He was asked to dismount and his bike was placed against the wall. One of the policeman asked him to turn out his pockets and then proceeded to pat him down. Nothing was found, and he was sent on his way.

I then traveled further along Roman Road to where Zee & Co had been plundered. I went into a local Chinese takeaway but the woman behind the counter was not saying much: “I didn’t see anything,” she said in response to my question about what had gone on earlier on in the week. “We don’t open on Tuesday, anyway,” she added firmly.

One of the things I have learned from doing fieldwork is that if people don’t want to talk, then there is no point trying to force them. So I thanked her for her time and went back to the street.

A few yards down the road, I met the Kurdish owner of a mini-supermarket. Displays in front of his shop include a huge variety of vegetables in boxes. Inside, you can buy a wide variety of goods from cigarettes to green tea. The owner, originally from Turkey, had established the shop in 2000. He was more forthcoming than his Chinese neighbor. He told me that the disorder had started at around 6:00 on Tuesday night. He reckoned that around 100 or so young people were running up and down the street before deciding to target Zee & Co. He and his brother had immediately pulled down the shutters of their shop and then stood outside shoulder to shoulder to protect the premises. What about the police? “We didn’t see any until 9:00, by which time it was too late. There were only two of them in any case.”

And the ethnicity of the young people running around? “There were all sorts – white, black and Bangladeshi.” This comment accurately reflects the mixed ethnicity of young people who live in the area, so nothing surprising there. I asked him about the age of the youth involved. “From 20 all the way down to 9,” he said. And what about the proportion of girls and boys? “I would say about 80 boys and 20 girls.”

And how many of those girls were Bangladeshi, I asked. “No, no Bangladeshi girls,” he said with a smile which signaled his  awareness of the culture of control that is typically imposed on working-class Muslim girls and young women – Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Turkish and Kurdish – by parents and other family members in Tower Hamlets and elsewhere in the U.K. This control prevents Muslim girls and young women from using the street as a leisure space or a site for political protest or looting.

No doubt Baroness Warsi would be pleased to hear the Kurdish shopkeeper’s words about the absence of Bangladeshi girls in Tuesday evening’s disorder because of “good parenting,” which means the girls would have been inside their homes. But what about the brothers of these respectable girls and young women? Some would almost certainly have been caught up in the rioting and looting. Is their behavior caused by poor parenting, or lack of opportunity?

The answer to this complicated question remains elusive. It will likely vary depending on ethnic group, age, gender and social class. We need to hear the voices of  the young people who took part in the disorder as well as those who did not in order to get a better picture of what really went on and why.

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