Darcus Howe Cites Racial Profiling As Key Factor In London Riots
The riots that broke out across England this week were the consequence of years of built-up resentment among Britain's young, mostly black, underclass, the Caribbean-British writer and activist Darcus Howe told The Huffington Post on Wednesday.
"It's an insurrection of a generation of poor, primarily, black people from the Caribbean and from Africa," said Howe, who became something of an Internet sensation on this side of the Atlantic after his recent appearance on the BBC turned into a testy exchange over his claims that the authorities were failing to listen to the riots' underlying cause.
The police "do not have any sense of what informs the explosive character of what is happening here," Howe said, pointing his finger at the increasingly controversial practice of stopping and searching youth in working class neighborhoods.
The killing by police last week of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man from the London neighborhood of Tottenham, has been widely credited with setting off the flood of outrage that led to the riots. (The police say that Duggan was armed, and suggest he may have fired first; an investigation is underway.)
"That was the catalyst, and residing in the catalyst is the cause," Howe said. "And the cause was the constant stopping and searching of young blacks."
The few emerging voices of young people who took to the streets in London -- or shared their common cause -- in recent days point to much the same set of complaints.
"Why did people do this?" asked Yohanes Scarlett, a student who said he knew some of the rioters, on the BBC show "Newsnight" Tuesday. "There's a lot of anger and aggression in the streets. There's many people out there who knew this was coming, who saw that this was coming, and have warned this was coming. Government, police ... they have not listened."
By and large, the response to the riots across British society has been outright rejection and condemnation, with the youth in the street branded wholesale as thugs and criminals.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister David Cameron told the press that "nothing was off the table" in the government's response to any future rioting, including the use of water cannons or rubber bullets.
"This continued violence is simply not acceptable, and it will be stopped," Cameron said. "We will not put up with this in our country. We will not allow a culture of fear to exist on our streets."
In a poll published Wednesday by the conservative newspaper The Sun, a third of respondents said they would welcome the use of live ammunition against the youth in the streets.
Howe told The Huffington Post that while he did not condone the rioting, he did not think the government's response had shown much indication that conditions would improve.
"They're all behaving like President Assad," he said, referring to the embattled Syrian leader who has lately confronted a popular uprising inside his country with tanks and mortar shells.
"What we found out recently is the prime minister and his ilk have no idea who their citizens are," he added. "Even the blacks among them do not know who they represent. There is a black member of parliament from Tottenham when the riots broke out, and he said, 'These people who burned the place down are not from Tottemham; they came from elsewhere.' Nobody knows where Tottenham begins, and where it ends."
Howe, who was born in Trinidad and is 68 years old, has a long history of social-justice activism in England, and has become a familiar face to British television viewers on the subjects of race and urban discontent.
In the 1970s and 1980s, he was a leading figure of a movement of West Indian-born immigrants to the outskirts of London who deplored their treatment by the police and government officials.
"Since 1968 he's been a black radical, organizing street-level campaigns against police racism," said Robin Bunce, a politics professor at Cambridge University and author of a forthcoming biography on Howe.
Howe, Bunce said, was instrumental in organizing a 1981 demonstration in his neighborhood of Brixton, that was a near precursor to the now famous riots there -- but was not a participant in those riots.
"He was living in Brixton but not involved other than as a kind of commentator," Bunce said. "Darcus' big concern today is police stopping and searching black people, mainly black young men, and this is really the same thing that started the Brixton riots in 1981."
The youth of today, Howe said, are much more determined and disappointed than even his own generation, and they see in the present moment an opportunity to express their discontent.
"They are much more mature and they have greater expectations," Howe said. "[In the 1980s], we'd say, 'Well, we weren't born here, we must accept that.' But this is a generation who has this feeling, like instinctive animals, about who they are, and what they won't put up with, and that is what has brought them to the streets today."
"There is a sense of uprising, because the kids see it on the television," he added. "They see the Arab Spring. And once [the police] killed Mark Duggan, they felt, 'No. They've gone too far.'"