Commentary  Sympathize or suffer

The West’s problematic response to the London riots

When the masses rose in Egypt, the Western public cheered. When the Syrian government gunned down protestors, Obama and other Western leaders called for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to resign.  When the rebels dug in against  Libyan Ruler Muammar Gaddafi, NATO sent aid. Yet when England’s marginalized took to the streets, the English government and citizens of the Western world alike called for heads to roll. And, so, a trend continues. When it comes to the actions of the disadvantaged within Western nations, the public turns up its nose and calls for the long arm of the law to crush those who dare to be discontent with the conditions in which they live.

Rich conservatives and middle class liberals alike deny any political motivation behind the riots. Some of the rioters may have been seeking to take advantage of the chaos for unproductive purposes. It is true that the rioters could have been more effective in voicing their political demands if they had greater organization. Yet, the riots exemplify the very essence of mass politics: those tired of not having anything taking action to get something.

Unfortunately, the marginalization of the rioters has largely been ignored, and they have often been labelled mere criminals, taking advantage of a system which is already “too kind” to them. These arguments usually come from those who, while residing in the same country as the rioters, live worlds apart. Poverty does not plague their communities, and as such, they cannot comprehend the depressing conditions in which many of their fellow citizens live.

Fuelled by this ignorance, the reactionary tide has quickly risen in England. Beyond the condemnation of middle class liberals who claim to be for the working people, self-labelled “patriots” have shown their opposition to the rioting by creating groups disengenuously seeking to “provide protection” for citizens affected by the rioting. One of these groups, created by the far right English Defence League (EDL), illustrated the racist intentions of this so called patriotism when they harassed a bus full of black youths in Eltham on August 9 until the police forced the both groups to disperse. Although the EDL is opposed to the riots, their actions give legitimacy to the rioters’ anger by providing evidence of one of the main factors motivating the riots: discrimination. The poverty ridden communities in which the riots have taken place are largely made up of people of colour, and the riots themselves were partially incited by the murder of Mark Duggan, a black man with four children, by police officers.

The dangerous reactionary response to the rioting, however, is most evident in the decision of the English government to use the riots as an excuse to unjustifiably and excessively clamp down on its citizens.  Take for example the two men sentenced to four years in prison for creating a Facebook group which unsuccessfully called for a riot in their town. Or the five month sentence handed to a mother of two for merely accepting a pair of shorts taken from a looting in which she was not involved. Beyond individual cases, David Cameron’s hint at a possible social networking ban for suspected rioters not only undermines freedom, but resembles the actions of the dictators that Cameron has been quick to condemn.

This hypocrisy demonstrates the fact that condemning governments seems to be easy for the privileged, but only so long as the government is not their own. It is easy for the privileged to support the actions of victims of far off dictatorships, but when the victims are ones of a system which has treated them so kindly, they hesitate. The disadvantaged should not have to rely upon the possibility of sympathy from the privileged to make progress. Direct action is needed, the people are waiting.

Davide Mastracci is a U1 Joint Honours student in Political Science and History. You can email him at