In the past year, we have seen protests lead to the fall of autocrats in Yemen and Egypt, and incur the full wrath of dictators in Iran, Libya and Syria—where President Bashar al-Assad has used the army to crush resistance in the cities of Hama and Deil-al-Zor. With the use of jerry-rigged web connections in Egypt that overcame the government’s internet shutdown, and social networking tools such as Twitter in Iran, Libya and Syria, we in the West have had real-time insight into these demands for democracy and the repression they have prompted. From the living room to the highest office in the land, this coverage has prompted outrage over the denial of the right to protest that we take for granted. Indeed, Britain and America have led an international task force to prevent the slaughter of civilians and to remove the odious Colonel Gaddafi in Libya.
The common theme in each of these protests has been twofold: an indictment of the ruling regime’s abuses and control, and a call for elected, representative government through open and free elections. Have some of the protesters resorted to violence in the face of troops and tanks? Most certainly, but on the whole, these demonstrations have been peaceful. Perhaps this is because the protesters realize they cannot decry regime violence if they use violence in return, or maybe they know the world is watching. Whatever their motivation, they have not used their leaders’ harsh tactics as an excuse for widespread looting, vandalism, and brutality toward ethnic minorities.
Meanwhile, in my native England, one of the world’s oldest democracies and a supposedly “civilized” nation, armed mobs stalk the streets, burning cars, assaulting police officers and looting shops. As with the riots in Los Angeles in 1992, this was not a pre-meditated campaign of violence at its inception, but rather a spontaneous response to the death of a young man at the hands of the police. It should be noted that the mob did not wait for the results of the inquest before reacting in the worst possible way. Now, with five days of rioting passed, the disturbances are indeed coordinated, with the ringleaders using the same tools—texting, tweeting et al—as protesters in the Middle East and North Africa to spread their call for anarchy.
Here, we come to the need for clear delineation. The tech tools of the desired “revolution” may be similar, but the motives, methods and mentality are not the comparable. Participators in the “Arab Spring” are rebelling against regimes that deny them freedom of speech, expression, worship and the ballot box. Every aspect of their lives—from what they’re allowed to read in a newspaper to what they can view on a throttled internet—is controlled by the state.
In contrast, the criminals, and criminals they are, who are smashing up London, Birmingham, Manchester and other English cities live in a tolerant, open society that, despite its flaws, provides all citizens with the right to vote, to speak their minds, and to express themselves. Their recent acts are like the tantrums of a toddler who is trying to intimidate his parents into getting his way. Yet a toddler is more sophisticated, for he knows that he has a defined goal—to tip a bag of flour over his head or steal a toy from his baby sister, for example. These rioters, hooded and baseball bat-wielding—have no such clear aim. Instead, they rage against “the system,” and the politicians who are supposedly keeping them “down.” To punish the rich who they despise for their monetary success, they’re robbing diners at posh Notting Hill restaurants, trying to rip wedding rings off their fingers and demanding phones and cash. They’re also breaking into and stripping clean the businesses that they think represent the “evils” of capitalism. And it’s not just electronics and luxury goods chains that are under attack, but also those run by individuals who work as hard to eke out a living as the people who built up the nationwide businesses. Gangs of armed youths killed three innocent men, and others beat up journalists and those trying to stop the looting. These are not the actions of a group that deserves the “respect” they demand for their gangs, nor the right to indict anyone for their actions.
Democracy guarantees the right to protest, and in Egypt and Yemen we have seen that this can bring about change. Hark back to the March on Washington and we see that peaceful protests led by Martin Luther King, Jr. achieved their goals. Some of the rioters in England are from ethnic minorities (although just as many, or more, are white), and live in areas blighted by drugs, crime and absent fathers. There are doubtless problems spanning several generations that could be better addressed by Cameron’s coalition government. Yet these minorities are not denied places at lunch counters, made to use separate toilets or forced to sit at the back of buses, like King and those who stood alongside him.
The fundamental, liberating thing that they’re denying themselves is personal accountability. They are just a small, unrepresentative portion of the populaces they come from—99 percent of their neighbors watch in horror as their homes, businesses and cars burn. Many have joined mass cleanup operations, have decried the rioters’ actions and have protected their homes, businesses and places of worship from the mob. Those who are not on the streets indulging in mindless violence understand that you must take responsibility for yourself, and only you can make sure you stay out of a gang, stay in school, and obtain the job that your skills merit. The government is not forcing anyone to make poor choices, nor is it preventing economic, social or geographic mobility. Yet, regardless of whether they are Caucasian or another ethnicity, the rioters are making the all-too-common mistake of blaming others for their position, while abdicating responsibility.
The only way to bring about change in poor urban neighborhoods is for each person to be accountable for their thoughts and deeds, and to work to better themselves. Government programs can help, but handouts merely perpetuate the cycle, creating fiscal reliance on the state, removing the incentive to work and further encouraging the individual to avoid looking into the mirror of accountability.
If they want to truly protest, the English people who are raging on the streets should instead exercise their democratic right to demonstrate peacefully, and be thankful that they have the chance. In other parts of the world, people who are truly oppressed risk their lives for such rights. And they’re not beating cops, stealing TVs or burning down buildings with children inside to achieve them. Those English citizens who are doing such things should also recognize that democracy is not an a la carte menu from which you can pick certain bits while leaving others on the table. Thus, the rule of law in England must be upheld, and those guilty of vandalism, murder and arson will be rightly punished in the court of law, while they set themselves and their “cause” back even further in the court of public opinion.