LONDON — Last Thursday night, in circumstances that remain unclear, police shot dead Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man. The next day, a group of 200 protesters gathered outside the police station in London's Tottenham district, demanding an explanation. In the hours that followed, the peaceful protest somehow disintegrated.
Four days later, after rioting and looting spread first to other poor suburbs but then reached wealthier areas Monday in the worst civil unrest Britain has seen in years, Britons were undertaking a national debate over the pervasive poverty and unemployment that many think have fed the disturbances and what role the country's austerity drive has played in making matters worse.
London's former mayor, Ken Livingstone, blamed the turmoil on the economic challenges young people face and the disenfranchisement many feel.
"A generation are growing up completely uncertain about their future," he said in an interview on BBC News. "They're not certain they can get a home. They're not certain they can get a job. They see politicians that don't engage with them. They don't care. They don't have a stake in society."
As in the United States, Britain's economy is weak and struggling to recover from the Great Recession. The government has undertaken deep budget cuts to try to close its burgeoning deficit, and many now are worried that that push for austerity has cut too far into services for underprivileged areas.
"This has been brewing for some years: the delayed effect of the credit crunch, the recession. It's gradually having an effect, especially on young people," said Paul Bagguley, an expert on the sociology of protests. "People have very much got the impression that the government doesn't listen to them."
Adding to the tensions, Bagguley said, is rising anger over a controversial "stop and search" policy that allows police to stop "suspicious" individuals in an effort to control crime. Advocates say the policy focuses disproportionately on young black men.
One young mixed-race man from North London, who gave his name only as Kay, described the aggressive treatment he'd received from police in London: "If you're a young guy they take you aside politely enough. But then they get tough with you."
The anger is palpable in many of London's poorer communities. In one audio clip that being widely circulated on Twitter and other social networking sites, a BBC journalist interviewing two teenage female rioters draws an answer that summarizes the emotion:
"It's all about showing the police we can do what we want," one of the girls says. "We're just showing the rich people we can do what we want."
In Notting Hill, once the heart of London's Afro-Caribbean community but now a wealthy residential area, an angry mob of around 50 youths attacked diners at one restaurant and beat a waiter at another one nearby.
Nathan Leeks was in the street and fled from the mob as they threw bottles at him. "They're mindless criminals who have nothing better to do than ruin other people's lives," he said. "They're not protesters. They've got no meaning; they've got no point."
Britain's government has branded the rioters as opportunistic criminals and vowed to crack down hard on offenders. "This is criminality pure and simple, and it has to be confronted and defeated," said Prime Minister David Cameron, who returned early from his summer vacation in Italy to deal with the riots.
Others complained that an insufficiently tough line had been taken with the rioters.
In Hackney, a gritty area near Tottenham where rioters fought an hours-long pitched battle with police Monday, Nishanthan Nabesapilai described watching the police stand by as a group of youths looted a sportswear shops: "They were kids, young kids, and the police were just standing by and watching it."
On Tuesday, despite the afternoon sunshine, shops throughout the area were boarded up and there was a high police presence on the streets.
"Moral standards are slipping," said Laura, 30, a charity fundraiser who asked that her surname be withheld for security reasons, and who was handing out leaflets on the main street. "People just don't care. It's cool to be a gangster. It's cool to have a gun."
(Walker is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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