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Socioeconomic struggles at heart of riots in London

London riots

London riots Photo Credit: Getty Images

As British police continue to wrestle control of the streets from young rioters and looters, amNewYork spoke with Mark Galeotti, academic chair and clinical professor at NYU's Center for Global Affairs about the four days of violence that have shaken the nation.

Why are these riots happening?

On one level, the shooting of one young black British guy on Thursday, Mark Duggan, brought back all sorts of myths and memories of similar shootings. But that wouldn't have done so much had there not been a rising level of tension within the country, particularly between the poor underclass and the ethnic minority poor underclass. ... That's a lot of people who really feel that basically society cares nothing for them.

How have the police and government responded?

The first few days, there were just too few officers on the streets, and frankly, the government was not doing anything to help. [Many politicians] were on holiday, and no one was responding to the police's concerns of being outnumbered. ... Eventually they did add extra police, and that had a real impact, but the point is it took several days for that to happen.

How does this end?

They'll burn themselves out. The massive deployment of police did a lot to calm this down. ... You'll continue to have individual local disturbances, but the police are beginning to get much more of a handle on it, and there's now a lot of backlash from the community, even young British people, from the majority who aren't doing this. ... There could be a few more hot nights, but I think we've seen the worst of it.

Could any real social or political changes come out of this?

Yes. I think there are enough people who realize that yes, while this is about crime and opportunistic looting, it comes from somewhere. I think we're going to see government being more aware now of the social costs of its austerity programs.

How does this compare to unrest in the Middle East and North Africa?

Comparisons can be made on a tactical level, but when it comes down to it the riots are really just a primal expression of dissatisfaction with the economic status quo. ... These are economic and social disturbances. Britain, for all its flaws, is a working Democracy.

Could the riots serve as a cautionary tale for the U.S.?

There are key differences, particularly in the relationship of ethnic minorities to society ... particularly when there's a black president. There's not a direct comparison, and I don't expect to see riots ravaging U.S., but on the other hand, it is the cautionary tale of what happens in an austerity era.

How has social media played a role in the riots?

It's allowed people to connect, even people who would never otherwise have anything to do with each other, and it's allowed them to create these ad hoc communities. ... It's allowed a whole bunch of individuals who are just feeling unhappy, feeling like all the odds stacked against them, all of a sudden to connect and realize, 'My God, there's a lot of us, and there's a lot more of us than there are police, and we can go out and do what we want.' "

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