Commentary | There’s a difference

Why the protests in London shouldn’t be conflated with those in the Middle East

I would like to respond to Davide Mastracci’s piece on the London riots, and to draw attention to what I think are important distinctions between recent civil disturbances in Africa and the Middle East and those in England.

The civil unrest in Africa and the Middle East has occurred as a response to the autocratic, violent regimes that have been prevalent in these regions for a number of years. While violence has sometimes occurred alongside peaceful demonstrations, the movement’s aims, always clearly announced, have been the achievement of democratic freedoms and the reduction of corruption and poverty.

I believe Mastracci and I could find much to agree upon in respect to the root causes of the riots in England. We are indeed products of our culture, and a culture of persistent, generation-spanning social inequality, and of unequal access to quality education, will produce ignorance, disengagement, and violence. However, I believe it’s inaccurate to characterize the recent violence in the United Kingdom as fundamentally equal to the ongoing protests in the Arab world.

While social inequality, failing educational structures, racial discrimination, and budget cuts to community services have been convincingly put forward as root causes of the current unrest in England, the resulting lawlessness was not a political disturbance, or a demonstration with imperatives of moral or social change. Instead, it is anarchaic in purely a negative sense, an out-of-control display of greed and destructiveness that mimics more subtle social ills perpetuated by those with political and monetary power.

I found the opinion of Alan Sitkin, a Labour councillor from Edmonton, North London, quoted in the Guardian by Aditya Chakrabortty, to be particularly insightful: “Look, I’m a lefty; I believe in redistribution. I believe in the politics of the street. But to me that means Tiananmen Square; not some kids smashing in HMV. This is bullshit.”

Mastracci refers to, but notably declines to specify, political demands of the rioters. What are those political demands? In my opinion, they do not exist. There are no slogans, goals, or leaders. The rioters do not aim to fix or remove broken social institutions. Rather, it seems that they just ignore them, not in order to replace them with something better, but merely for their own personal benefit.

The public reaction to this chaos is less a turning up of the nose, as described by Mastracci, and more a natural horror at purposeless cruelty. An example: on August 8th, a 68-year-old retiree named Richard Bowes was beaten to death when he attempted to put out a deliberately-started fire next to his apartment. Anyone, regardless of access to opportunity or education, or political persuasion, should identify this as unambiguously reprehensible.

I hold that no one would desire to live in a society in which we were frequently subject to physical violence, regardless of whether other individuals, or the state, were to blame. All of us, including Mastracci, rely on the rule of law to safely conduct our day-to-day affairs, and to express our opinions without fear of reprisal. Certainly many aspects of contemporary society, supported by our laws, are unjust. But to argue that because some laws are unjust, all laws are unjust, and should be ignored, is a position of moral cowardice. I feel we have a responsibility to create a mutually agreeable society, whether that is accomplished through legitimate political protest against injustice, or through a denouncement of the destructive opportunism on display in London.

Alexander Dawson is a U1 Biology student. You can reach him at alexander.dawson@mail.mcgill.ca.


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