A woman and two children walk through debris while riot police try to contain a large group on a main road in Tottenham on Aug. 6. Leon Neal, Getty Images. From the Boston Globe's chilling photo series.
Britain, or England, at least, is in absolute turmoil, with police overwhelmed by a wave of riots causing terrible destruction. The initial spark for the chaos was the shooting of Mark Duggan by the London police last Thursday.
Ironically enough, for all that immigrants, in Britain as well as here, are often derided as parasitic sources of turmoil, their communities are largely holding the line:
"It was between about nine and 10 at night," said Yilmaz Karagoz, sitting in his coffee shop next to a jeweller's shop that has been shuttered since Sunday when the rioting began and a pharmacy that closed a day after.
"There were a lot of them. We came out of our shops but the police asked us to do nothing. But the police did not do anything so, as more came, we chased them off ourselves." The staff from a local kebab restaurant ran at the attackers, doner knives in their hands. "I don't think they will be coming back," Karagoz said.
Not everything works to suffering, of course. People also used social media to organize cleanup crews.
Picture from Twitter user Andy B
Surviving unrest, in the long run, depends on more people deterring rioters and cleaning up after the carnage than looting.
Rioting is stupid and ugly: about the worst possible way to lash out at poverty or a form of oppression, and it naturally attracts those who simply want blood and loot.
It's also not exactly unheard of in London: the city has a tumultuous enough history that its history of affray has its own Wikipedia page. Then, as now, it's not as spontaneous as authorities (through the centuries) usually assert. Rioting needs fuel — resentment — to flourish. Riots happen for many reasons, but they always happen for reasons.
So, consider the following.
Throughout this year, I've followed the fate of protests — peaceful, by and large — against the sweeping cuts in social services carried out by the current government. The poor will bear the brunt of these cuts, all while there is considerable tax evasion at the highest levels of British society.
At every turn, the police have reacted with violence in attempts to suppress, especially through the notorious kettling tactic, legitimate calls to not dismantle an important part of what makes Britain's society work.
Not exactly a recipe for domestic tranquility. If that's what English police do in broad daylight, with media and thousands of observers, to peaceful protesters, imagine what they do in impoverished areas when no one's watching. Or, it probably seems to many of the inhabitants, cares.
Add in this contradiction: the same leaders making those cuts, the same ones calling for crackdown and blaming this eruption on the mysterious failing moral fiber of their nation, spent their youth as professional rioters.
Here's a handy directory
Prime Minister David Cameron, London Mayor Boris Johnson and Chancellor George Osborne were all part of the Bullingdon Club, a blue-blooded society dedicated to getting drunk, smashing up wherever they happened to land and harassing whoever they happened to dislike.
What makes this an acceptable tradition versus an unforgivable crime worthy of harsh punishment, apparently, is that they were all born into enough ridiculous wealth to avoid the consequences of their actions. That's the very definition of privilege: their law is not the same law meted out to someone in Tottenham.
Observing that dousing everything around in gasoline is a really, really bad idea does not means one endorses the inevitable fire. To carry the analogy a step further, it doesn't mean not to fight the fire. But it does mean that it's time to realize that one shouldn't turn the surroundings into a firetrap. When endemic poverty and a lifetime of rage meet an oppressively brutal police force, well, the place is ready to go.
My fear, from reactions like the lovely "let's police social media idea" now spreading across the Atlantic is that the initiative is behind trying to create stupidly useless measures to clamp things down even further. A catastrophic approach, and one that simply doesn't work.
When BBC reporter Alex Hudson asked a protester when the unrest would stop.
"When there's war." Later that night, he was beaten.
The Ice Age is coming.
That old line by the Clash was the only thing I could think about, reading those words: an escalation between ever more-desperate attempts to clamp down on ever-more brutal unrest, any hope for better frozen solid.
London (or any city in the world) has long periods of relative civil peace when most people feel they have personal and political opportunities, combined with a basic degree of responsiveness from their rulers. Take that away, and all it takes is a spark.