NEWS ANALYSIS: Two very different flames in London
Great Britain is celebrating its Olympic heroes, but problems continue to lurk under the surface a year after the infamous August riots
By Tanja Vasama in London
Once again London has been at the epicentre of the world’s attention, just like it was around this time in August of last year.
Back then it happened for a very different reason, however.
This summer it was the Olympic flame that was lit in the city.
A year ago, on the other hand, entire city blocks were set alight as the now infamous “August riots” spread into new areas of the capital night after night.
The five days of rioting started on August 6th in the North London borough of Tottenham, where a public protest was held that day against the death of a 29-year-old local man, Mark Duggan, two days earlier.
Duggan, who had gangland connections, was gunned down by the police in connection with his attempted arrest.
When a substantial number of police officers arrived at the scene to disperse the protest, the peaceful demonstration turned into violent rioting, in which buildings were set on fire and shops were looted.
The rioting in the capital quickly spread to other cities as well. After four restless nights, the whole of Britain wondered what was wrong with the nation.
The atmosphere on Saturday August 4th, 2012 could not have been more different.
The so-called “Super Saturday” saw Team GB win six Olympic gold medals, including three in the athletics stadium in East London.
People celebrated the success loudly in Central London and the suburbs alike. On its television channels, the BBC showed images of exultant Britons from various parts of the country, many of them wrapped in the Union Jack.
The nation looked very much united.
In some people’s opinion, the super-successful Olympic hosts went even too far in their patriotic ecstasy.
Others have pointed out that just a stone’s throw away from East London’s sparkly new games venues there are thousands upon thousands of marginalised people living in conditions that give them little more to cheer about than they had a year earlier.
Jason Featherstone, director of the youth charity Surviving Our Streets, said on the anniversary of the riots on Monday of last week that essentially the issues remain just as unprocessed as they were a year ago.
Featherstone predicted that more riots might still follow.
Many others agree, including the youth themselves, as well as representatives of the Metropolitan Police.
The country also remains divided as to what the riots were all about.
There are some Britons for whom the riots were purely about feral criminality, "straightforward thievery".
“It was Gucci-rioting, people wanting to get wide-screen TVs, phones, the latest trainers, fancy furniture and the like", comments Conservative Party minister Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
This school of thought’s answer to the rioting is hard-line sentencing and restoration of discipline in homes and schools.
Then there is the part of the nation that sees the connection to the political decision-making of recent years.
The riots were not political in nature. But this school of thought points out that they occurred at a time that had seen youth clubs being closed down, student financial aid cut, and university tuition fees raised.
The opportunities for the young of Britain - and especially those of small means - have been reduced, and the youth unemployment rate is hitting new heights.
This leads to dissatisfaction.
And in a year the consequences of the recession have only become exacerbated.
London Mayor Boris Johnson said on Monday of last week that 70 million pounds (about EUR 88 million) had already been pumped into the problem boroughs to prevent new riots from happening.
At the same time Johnson noted: "What the riots revealed was, I'm afraid, a deep social problem which requires lots of different solutions.”
Johnson praised the Olympic Games as one such solution.
According to the Mayor, “the Olympics sent out a very clear message about efforts and achievement and what it takes to connect the two.”
A good example could be for example the Somali-born distance runner Mo Farah, who earned two Olympic gold medals for Team GB in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres.
Another example could be women’s 400-metre silver medallist Christine Ohuruogu, who grew up on the streets of Newham in East London, not that far from the Olympic Park in Stratford. Her family roots are in Nigeria.
A less rosy viewpoint is that in many Olympic disciplines any kind of success calls for substantial financial means. London’s poorest neighbourhoods will hardly produce athletes like Zara Phillips - the eldest granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II - who took a team silver medal in the eventing, on her horse High Kingdom.
Seen from many less well-heeled districts of London, the royal equestrian’s world is still just as outlandish as it was a year ago.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 10.8.2012
TANJA VASAMA / Helsingin Sanomat