Thursday, August 11, 2011
Comparing England's Riots to the Arab Spring: Heralding 1968bis or Inherently Offensive?
In the last few days, what began as the "London Riots" have spread throughout towns and cities of England. Riots seems to be the appropriate term, as what began with peaceful protests of the police killing of a black man, turned into hooliganism, looting, destruction, and arson. These riots have variously been described as a social class struggle, an eruption of underlying race tensions--more so now that 3 Pakistani-Brits were killed while attempting to stop part of the rioting, and a youth movement.
When comparisons are made with the Arab Spring, some find that these rioters were "inspired by protesters in Arab countries", and some see the combined international unrest comparable to that of 1968 when youth demonstrations occurred against their governments in North American and European countries. Protesting Vietnam was at its height in many countries where the demonstrations centred around the local US Embassy. No one that I have read, heard, or watched has pinpointed "Mai '68" the month that riots in Paris came closest to revolution, and pinned it to August 2011--yet.
As tempting as it may be to see an international youth movement affecting England (and Europe) as well as MENA countries, the comparison fails in notable ways.
First is the motivation, which in England, and more obviously in other European countries (notably Greece) is primarily economic, not democratic. European countries already are democracies, functioning even with the flaws inherent in democracies, where free speech, the freedom to demonstrate, the right to vote in well-supervised elections and have those elections respected, and human rights protection all exist. They are also currently going through economic crises resulting in high unemployment, lost investments, and dramatic austerity measures.
In all the reporting and analysis that I have read or watched on "London's Riots", and now England's, the severe austerity measures announced in Britain in November 2010, and instituted January 1, 2011 have not once been mentioned. It seems announcing the Royal Engagement a few days later in November 2010, then the Royal Wedding April 29, 2011, and all that went on royally between and since, effectively obfuscated the impact of these austerity measures on the very classes being described as in conflict.
Second is in the modalities of the protests and the responses to them. The Arab Spring demonstrations have for the most part been peaceful demonstrations that turned violent when government forces attacked demonstrators. Arrests, torture, beatings, killings, and sometimes mutilation and rape, or the threat of the same, have occurred systematically in the Arab Spring uprisings, as have censorship, and blocking of internet, telephone, and media access.
In England the media, local, national, and international have been free to report on all events, including arrests, which have been the main modality of curbing rioters. The latter have used meaningless violence against property as their main modus demonstrandi. David Cameron eventually authorized police to use their batons. He has stated that, unless the riots stop, his government will consider authorizing the use of water cannons.
In light of the above motivations and modalities, I think that any serious comparison of the England riots as a European manifestation of the Arab Spring is inherently insulting.
To the extent that the Arab Spring represents a youth led aspirational movement in MENA countries the analogy to 1968 holds. However, while holding up the 2 finger V peace sign, common to the 1960's (the main years of demonstrations and protests actually 1965-72 the time of major escalation in Vietnam to withdrawal), usually in self defense, the 2011 Arab demonstrators of all ages are hardly flower power, free love, free sex, free drugs and rock 'n roll types--despite what the opposition might say.
Your comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?
*Photos here and others at London riots: update