Friday, October 21, 2011

The End of Muammar Gaddafi

“Your armed forces have overthrown the reactionary regime, which was corrupt and backward... Libya is henceforth free and sovereign… There will be no more oppression, abuse or justice, no more masters and slaves; rather there shall be free brotherhood and equality… Then we shall build our glory, revive our heritage and reclaim our dignity…Its time to begin our work, let us go forward!”
This sounds like a statement issued by the National Transitional Council following Gaddafi’s capture and death yesterday. But it isn’t!

Muammar Gaddafi in 1969
This is actually a broadcast by Radio Benghazi in the early hours of  1 September 1969, when a 27 year old Colonel Muammar Gaddafi having just overthrown the regime of King Idris took the leadership of the new Arab Republic of Libya.

In the four decade long Gaddafi rule, all these ideals disappeared and what emerged was a monster government that fed on it own people. The rise and fall of Col. Muammar Gaddafi shows how a young soldier with hopes of creating a better Libya turned into a tyrant and led to the destruction of his country.

But when the Arab Spring hit Libya, unlike his counter parts in Egypt and Tunisia, Gaddafi refused to step down. He fought and fought hard even though each passing day brought his end nearer, he did not give up.
Muammar Gaddafi in 2011
I distinctly remember Gaddafi’s last speech on state television in February which I called Ramblings of a Frightened Man where Gaddafi vowed to fight on and die a "martyr" in a highly dramatic way shouting and pounding his fist calling on his supporters to take back the streets from protesters who wanted his ouster.

Today the photographs of Gaddafi drenched in his blood and lying limp with the rebels around rejoicing his capture flashed on the front pages of every newspaper. Many call the gruesome images poetic justice.

Yesterday in Libya the NTC’s Abdel Hafez Ghoga said:
“We announce to the world that Gaddafi has died in the custody of the revolution. It is an historic moment. It is the end of tyranny and dictatorship. Gaddafi has met his fate."
The NTC will soon come up with a statement on the visions of the new Libya post Gaddafi in Benghazi on Sunday. I fear it may perhaps sound similar to Radio Benghazi’s broadcast of 1961.

But I just hope for the sake of the millions of Libyans this time a good intention is followed by good action.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Execution of Troy Davis killed justice

Troy Davis, an African American man, on death row for two decades, was executed last night in Georgia by a lethal injection.

He is the 33rd prisoner to be executed in the United States this year. Georgia is one of the 34 states that has death penalty for crimes that may otherwise get only life sentences in other states. But what makes capital punishment even more brutal and barbaric is a case like Troy Davis.
Troy Davis’ case is no ordinary one and rightly created a huge uproar with people all over the world appealing for his clemency. I did too through Amnesty International and then again yesterday when his clemency was rejected I appealed to the parole board like thousands of others to reconsider the decision. He was supposed to be executed at mid night (GMT) and I remembered him then and said a little prayer before going to sleep. I prayed he would be spared.

Alas I woke up to the news that he was executed. RIP Troy.

It seemed minutes before they injected him with the lethal dose, he asked to speak to the family of the murdered off-duty police officer and told them ‘I did not have a gun. I was not the one who took the life of your father, son, brother. I am innocent.’ Yet when Troy died, it was reported that some family members walked away with a smile.

This is the sad nature of a grotesque society that believes in capital punishment. Death penalty enjoys broad public support especially in states like Georgia.

To rejoice on the death of a fellow human being is inhuman. Yet what is more inhuman is to kill those whose guilt is shrouded in controversy. Troy Davis was declared guilty until proved innocent and that’s the mockery of the judicial system.

His crime: Troy Davis has been alleged to beat up a homeless man in a dispute over a bottle of beer and then shoot to death an off-duty police officer, Mark MacPhail, who apparently jumped in to help.I believe Troy deserved clemency simply because there are too many unanswered questions about his guilt.

1. Hostile witnesses: After his conviction, seven of the nine eye witnesses who appeared at his trial in 1991 recanted their evidence. Some said they were pressured by the police, others said they were illiterate and didn’t understand what they were signing.

2. ‘Murderer’ turns witness? Only two have stuck by their testimonies. One is Sylvester Coles who has been himself accused of the murder and as such his testimony holds little value. In fact nine individuals have signed affidavits implicating Sylvester Coles.

3. Even some jurors have gone on record to say they wouldn't vote to convict him if they knew then what they know now.

4. There is no forensic evidence to prove that Troy committed the murder.He was even refused a lie detector test. Why?

5. Where is the murder weapon? Troy said he had no gun and none was found. Coles however later admitted to owning a similar weapon but claimed he lend it to a friend that night.
It’s not proved without a doubt that Troy Davis murdered McPhail. In fact, it gives good evidence to the contrary.

Is this the new apartheid or the return of the Southern lynching behaviour we now see in the form of ‘legal lynching’ as Davis’s lawyer describes his execution?

Even in the United States, Justice John Paul Stevens calls the death penalty "unconstitutional." He believes that African-Americans who are charged with murder are dramatically more likely than whites to be executed.

A study conducted by American Bar Association in 2006 to evaluate fairness and accuracy in death penalty system in Georgia found that ‘the race of the defendant and the race of the victim predict who is sentenced to death, with white suspects and those who kill white victims being more likely to be sentenced to death than black suspect and those who kill black victims'.

Why in such a progressive society like the United States do we still have such barbaric laws - laws that cannot deliver justice without prejudice; laws that promise to not hang the culprit unless there is no doubt of his crime, yet do the very opposite?

In the name of justice, Troy Davis was executed yesterday. Yet today it is justice that is hanging from the gallows.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Iraq lessons: Ten mistakes Libya must avoid

As Libya enters the crucial phase of rebuilding and creating a new entity for itself, it is important to ensure that mistakes made by Iraq in an eerily similar circumstances are not repeated. Here is my list of the top ten:

Lesson 1: Don’t topple the entire government

Forcing all the bureaucrats, academics, and technical experts whose knowledge is important to keep the country running would be a grave mistake although Gaddafi’s cronies will have to go. 

Iraq did that with de-bathification when the removed all Baath party members out of government posts but little did they acknowledge that many had been required to join the Baath Party to hold their jobs. This would create a huge vacuum in Libyan government that would be open to exploitation.

Keeping some of the old members has two important benefits. One: It would ensure a smooth transition into a new government as they have the insight into the running of the government and two it decreases the pool of rebels trying to topple the new government. Libya is a heterogeneous state with hundreds of tribes that would look for some participation in the new elections. Creating a perfect balance with the old and new leaders would be one of Libya's biggest challenges.

Lesson 2: Don’t disarm the entire army and military

The dismantling of the Iraqi Army in the aftermath of the American invasion is now widely regarded as a mistake that stoked rebellion among hundreds of thousands of former Iraqi soldiers and made it more difficult to reduce sectarian bloodshed and attacks by insurgents.he huge Iraqi army of more than 400000 men simply vanished. These men were well-trained in the arts of combat, now abandoned, bitter and jobless. They knew where the weapons were kept and did not take much time in looting them and aiming them at the foreign military that they believed was destroying their country.
Every country needs a security apparatus and it’s important to retain a part of the army (of course Gaddafi loyalist have to go) to hold fort and train the new cadres. Iraq disbanded the entire army of Saddam Hussein and this led to chaos on the streets where troublemakers and terrorist groups flourished.However it is important to ensure that Gaddafi's people of mass destruction are captured and brought to book or else they could create trouble with the help of the loyal fringes in an attempt to regain power.

Lesson 3: Don’t rush elections

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the west led elections backfired tremendously. It made great news but was of little consequence. The issue of timing of elections was a crucial factor in Iraq where we learnt that ill-timed and ill-prepared elections do not produce democracy, or even political stability, after conflict. A country’s constitution should be decided by the country’s people and not any outside nation. It should not be rushed and should take in to account the country’s ethnic and demographic nature; only then will it succeed.

In Angola in 1992, in Bosnia in 1996, and in Liberia in 1997, rushed elections set back the prospects for democracy and, in Angola and Liberia, paved the way for renewed civil war. Expecting Libya to suddenly turn into a democracy overnight is wrong and unrealistic. It’s better to let Libyans decide on their pace of reform.

Lesson 4: Not just an empty head to lead Libya

It’s important that Libya has a strong and powerful leader with a vision to not just pull Libya out of the mess it is in but also build it to greater heights while maintaining peace and meeting public expectations. Post war Iraqi President was too weak to lead and a complicated system of caucuses to form a parliament that could not do much. 
Paul Bremer, shakes hands with the country's interim president, Ghazi al-Yawar

The 25-member Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), which was appointed in July 2003 was not really a “governing” council, as the American diplomat Paul Bremer III made it clear that he would continue to exercise supreme power, including the power to veto any IGC decisions. Libya does not need a figurehead president or a west puppet master but someone who has a vision and the capability to lead Libya to greater good.

Lesson 5: No foreign army to march on Libyan soil

Outside military in any country gives its enemies within the reason to harp on patriotism and turn rebellious. Allied forces in Iraq are still engaging with insurgents in preventing total chaos but the mere presence of these forces is also a constant stimulus to insurgency. Until foreign forces are fully withdrawn from its soil, Iraq will never truly be at peace.
An Iraqi woman and her children walk by a US Soldiers from the First Battalion, 17th Infantry, as he guards other soldiers from possible sniper fire as they conduct a vehicle search at a checkpoint in Mosul, north of Baghdad (AFP Photo / Cris Bouroncle)
A foreign military presence in Libya risks stoking rebellion within and also brings back horrible memories of the Italian occupation of Libya in the 1920s and 1930s – a time when Libya faced a fate worse than Gaddafi’s regime as tens of thousands of Libyans were killed in concentration camps. NATO air support was crucial in bringing about Gaddafi’s downfall but bringing the foreign army into Libya can turn the NATO supporters into opponents.

Lesson 6: Put trade above aid & defence

While in Iraq and Afghanistan, the allied forced extended help for defence making huge mistakes. In Iraq it was particularly important to create jobs, this could have been done rapidly if the repair and reconstruction contracts had been channeled more extensively through a wide range of local Iraqi contractors, but instead it had to pass through cumbersome process of the big U.S. corporations. This combined with widespread terrorism and violence, meant that most of the $18.4 billion reconstruction money of November 2003 was not spent within the first year, adding to Iraqi frustrations.

In Libya the NATO should extend aid by unfreezing assets and promoting trade between the Europe and Libya. This would help the economy gain strength from within and making it capable to support itself in some years without much foreign aid giving it a respectable position in the global political and economical circles.

Lesson 7: Let there be light

Iraq public life has deteriorated after the war. 24% of children suffer from various diseases. They are undernourished. Thousands have become handicapped, 25% Iraqis are illiterate and the unemployment rate is over 15% and electricity is only available for a few hours every day.
Looting in Iraqi Cities continued for months after Saddam was toppled
Cities cannot survive chaos in the dark and this would lead to rioting and looting as we saw in Baghdad post invasion. The first weeks of America’s post-war engagement in Iraq were chaotic and ineffectual, as most of the infrastructure of the country was systematically looted, sabotaged, and destroyed while American troops stood by. As a priority the Libyan council must restore electricity, ensure there is adequate food and water for its citizens, reopen schools, universities, businesses and ensure there are jobs and salaries are paid. If employment hits high, it will lead to discontent which will further looting and rebellion.

Lesson 8: Don’t slip on the oil

It’s very important to ensure that the Libyan oil is safe from the mafia, the militia and the foreign opportunist so that it does not end up becoming a source of corruption as in Iraq but its benefits and revenue are invested in rebuilding Libya and improving the lives of its people.
First Gaddafi’s clan pilferaged the oil revenues and it would be treachery if the west used the rebellion to seek unscrupulous benefits through oil trade or see billions disappear from the rebuilding funds.

Corruption of oil revenues was a huge factor that led to the discontent among the Libyans. A factor cited for Iraqi discontent. But corruption did not leave Iraq after the war. According to Transparency International Iraq comes 175th (the last one) in terms of struggle with corruption. More recently a corruption scandal discovered that the Development Fun lost $40 billion.

Pre war Iraq never exported oil. Now Iraqi oil is available over the counter in the USA. Three British American firms have secured a 20 year contract for oilfield development. Crude oil export revenues are used by the Iraqi government to purchase US arms and fighter jets amounting to $13billion by 2013 over foodstuff for its public.

Lesson 9: Don’t shoot your foot

In recent months, a great many people in Libya have found themselves armed with all sorts of weapons – some handed down by the NATO, some taken from the Gaddafi army and others just found in the many hiding places of the Gaddafi regime. There are too many weapons unaccounted for in too many hands. After the battle against Gaddafi is won, they weapons could be used for wrongful ‘rebellions’ – be it political or tribal. There should be a system incorporated to dispose off such weapons from the public sphere.
Iraqi rebels with weapons
In Iraq the security forces are weak and civilians still own several weapons. This leads to chaos on the streets everyday. Murders, kidnappings and looting happen daily. This has forced the local authorities to depend on the foreign military to control the situation.

Lesson 10: Don’t forget Iraq

The New York Times in 2008 published an unpublished federal report called Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience highlighting what I believe is an example of what not to do but of how not to do it. The west believed that military power should not just topple the government but also bring about economic reform and sustain growth. However Iraq proved them wrong.

A military power can work to conquer foreign lands but miserably fails if used to run them. It’s important for the west to realise the limits of its power in rebuilding a country. Mistakes made in Iraq should not be repeated in Libya or we have just taken the country from the devil and thrown it in the deep blue sea.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Anna's 'monster' Jan Lokpal scares me

Anna Hazare has good intentions but his Jan Lokpal Bill scares me.

I can understand the anger in India today. I can understand why hundreds and thousands have taken to the streets. I can understand why corruption needs to be tackled on an urgent basis. But what I don’t understand is why we need to create a monster to fight a monster. I don’t trust monsters.

When India got democracy 64 years ago, we set out to create a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Started off with good intentions and decades later we are sure that the government is of the people (a separate corrupt class) by the people (who need them for corrupt means) and for the people (who are ready to offer bribes and kickbacks).
Team Anna wants to create another draconian structure because they say that the draconian structures we already have in our society are no longer any good. The premise of Jan Lokpal bill is based on a system of 'respectable non-corrupt' officials with the powers to prosecute anybody in the country, who are demanding life sentences for corruption and the right to dismiss and penalize anybody they deem corrupt.

While this may seem the perfect solution to eradicate corruption from our society, think carefully if it would work in reality? Who are these non-corrupt officials who will run the Lokpal and Lokayukta, who will in a sense hold almost unlimited power in the country?  I know the Jan Lokpal Bill has clearly defined how the process will be done using terms like ‘transparency’ and through various ‘respectable’ committees, but I don’t see it work.

One of my many worries with this bill is that it will end up seeing many of the people on Anna’s stage today running the Lokpal from the centre and the Lokayuktas in their states tomorrow. So who are they really campaigning for- the people or themselves? And my worry is why are we giving so much power to a fraction of people? 
Team Anna argues that corruption in India is systemic and I agree but I’m not sure that the Lokpal will escape this systemic corruption. Power corrupts and there is no guarantee that this system will eventually not succumb to corruption. Then who will police them? Team Anna reply to this in their bill does not convince me. I only see it as a vicious circle which will eventually succumb to a mutual parasitic relationship and infest society further.

If these so called non-corrupt people have managed to garner such a huge fan following among the masses with the Team Anna tag attached to them, then why don’t they stand for elections and see changes happen within the system. Team Anna can form a political party and these non-corrupt supporters, then as elected members, be a part of various governing bodies and monitor the corruption within the system.

It may not seem like a quick fix solution to rid India of corruption overnight but it’s in my opinion a far better solution to eradicate corruption and sustain non corrupt practices in the government departments. Why create a parallel system? And how many parallel systems will we create? Tomorrow we may not like something else in this country (and I’m sure there are many more issues we despise) are we going to hold the government to ransom and create more parallel structures?

We all hate corruption and we want an end to corruption. So why not force the government to become more transparent by holding them accountable. Why not use the same model that Jan Lokpal bill uses for transparency – form a single body to hold inquiries in corruption related cases; publish status reports of corruption cases, keep the cases in public domain, issues penalties for delayed cases etc.

I also agree it would be a good idea to get politicians, bureaucrats to disclose their assets periodically; and to liquidate their assets if they have swindled taxpayers’ money in scams. But why not lobby to include these provisions in our current judiciary system? Give power to the judges and monitor them through a strong Judicial Standards & Accountability Bill which I believe is a step in the right direction.

An independent body can monitor such cases and since the documents will be in public domain, study them and lobby for a speedy trial. The media will only be too happy to campaign for it as we have seen their constant 24x7 coverage to Team Anna.
I respect Anna Hazare, at 74, to believe in a cause and campaign for it. But Anna is no Gandhi and his coterie is not fighting for our freedom against an alien oppression or occupation. Bringing the Gandhi cap back in vogue, celebrity endorsements, crowds chanting freedom slogans, Anna fasting-unto-death, shooting dramatic videos messages inside the jail to reach the masses waiting outside are just gimmicks to liken the movement to the freedom struggle. Tackling corruption is important but the theatrics is ludicrous.

Team Anna has picked up an issue that has mass appeal and timed it perfectly with the many scams we saw early this year to rake up emotions. While I’m happy to see India unite against corruption, I doubt many even understand the finer print of what they are campaigning for.

It’s easy to get swept by the Arab Spring but India is not the Middle East. While the Jan Lokpal model would work beautifully in some Middle East countries who have just began to form democratic structures, India is a mature democracy and already has structures in place. We just need to make them more transparent and productive and the Jan Lokpal bill has some suggestions that are worth implementing and some which will require further analysis, but creating a separate entity like Anna’s Lokpal is not my solution to corruption.
One positive thing from this campaign is that people have found a voice. And I really hope this voice can also be channelized to create awareness on other important and urgent issues.

While Show Anna is on at the Ramlila grounds, there are simultaneously many other issues across the length and breadth of India that require a strong united voice and the media spotlight to lobby for them: Keywords: Irom Sharmila against AFSPA, POSCO protestsKoodankulam nuclear plant protests (and many more).  

Many livelihoods are getting lost; many innocent people are getting shot, villages are getting destroyed and families are burying a loved one every day. They are however going unheard.

Simply because they are not as glamorous as this.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

God, Syria and no Bashar

 If you say ‘God, Syria and Bashar’, I say ‘God, Syria and My people’, I Bashar Al-Assad will remain dutiful and faithful to my people and will walk with them to build Syria…
Powerful words from Syria’s President yet drowned by chants of ‘God, Syria and Freedom’ and ‘Syria is protected by God’ as millions of Syrians take to the streets of Damascus and other cities standing united and strong against the oppressive regime. And as the global leaders unite to put sanctions against Assad, will this succeed in ending Assad's brutality? 

Hafez al-Assad with his sons Basel & Bashar
Bashar al-Assad became Syria’s president by accident. Though not originally the first choice to succeed the iron fisted Hafez al-Assad, as the President of Syria, Bashar was thrown into the spot light after his elder brother Basel was killed in an accident in 1994.

An eye doctor trained in Britain, Bashar’s sudden change to a military career and his super progression from June 2000 when his father died to mid July when he took over his father’s place, was the aftermath of Hafez’s efforts to ensure his son was his successor.

Rifaat al-Assad with Hafez al-Assad
Hafez was afraid his disgruntle brother Rifaat would be staging a coup to take over Syria’s presidency after him. Rifaat, a hardened politician himself, who commanded a ruthless army of 55,000 men with arms & ammunition fell out with his brother in 1984 and since lived abroad in exile. Rifaat had showed his displeasure at the inexperienced Bashar contending for the Presidency.

But Hafez’s faithful coterie of Alwaties ensured that Hafez’s last wish came true. In the next month and half; the constitution was amended to lower the age of Presidency from 40 to 34 (Bashar’s age then), Bashar was made the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, then promoted to the military rank of lieutenant general, made the head of the Ba’th party. He was then endorsed by the leadership for presidency, nominated and then duly elected for president with 97 per cent of the Parliament voting for him.

A novice in politics then, Bashar tried to bring in some reform- he released 600 political prisoners, relaxed few controls on the economy and the press. Syria saw emergence of private banks and universities and the private sector got some room to grow. The Damascus spring which saw the slight opening of the economy and the political system did not last long. But never a believer in democracy, Bashar still kept the country in the four decade old martial law.

Syria’s foreign policy too saw turbulent times. Bashar’s influence in Lebanon cannot be underestimated. He forced the Syrian constitution to pass an amendment in 2004 to extend Emile Lahoud, the then Lebanese president term for three years. Lahoud has been a Syrian puppet and Bashar had vested interest in doing so which also led to allegations of Syria orchestrating the murder of Rafik Hariri, a leading politician who opposed it.

United States imposed sanctions under the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (SALSA) in May 2004. SALSA bans all U.S. exports to Syria (except food and medicine). This has hit Syrian aviation particularly the State-owned Syrian Air, Syrian oil and gas production and other projects that depended on US technology and US parts for their operations. Also companies specializing in major high-tech projects shunned operations in Syria for fear of angering the US.

A UN Resolution in 2004 forced Syria to remove its troops from Lebanon which were posted there since 1970s. But after the Israeli & Hezbollah war in Lebanon in 2006, Syria’s influence in Lebanon once again grew as they were the main suppliers of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah. This forced United States to acknowledge that Syria was an important player in the Middle East peace process.

In 2007 Bashar was re-elected the President with 97.62% vote, not surprising since there was no other candidate which reinforced that any political reform was just lip service.

In this picture taken on June 13, 2000, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, right, his brother Maher, centre, and brother-in-law Major General Assef Shawkat, left, stand during the funeral of late president Hafez al-Assad in Damascus, Syria.  (AP Photo, File)

But what was perhaps Bashar’s biggest political mistake was to remove many of the old and seasoned politicians – Bahjat Suleiman, head of intelligence, Hasan Khalil, head of military intelligence, Adnan Badr Hassan, head of political security and Vice President Abdel-Halim Kaddam.

What followed was the emergence of the triad of power: Bashar, his brother Maher who heads the Republican guard and his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat who heads military security.

What Bashar perhaps did not foresee was that the narrower the coalition became the greater the opposition grew.

Syria’s opposition was organized by a group of activists online inspired by events in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. The group, called the National Initiative for Change, said that its members in Syria represented a broad spectrum of groups opposing the leadership. From the initial sparks of unrest online, the opposition grew in numbers and determination over the months. Syrian revolution has moved from above to below. A revolution from the grassroots has a far disastrous impact on the elitist regime that that from its own clan.

In a country where any political meeting of more than five people required a permit from the government at a two week notice with the names of speakers and attendees duly given, thousands take to the streets everywhere defying the state. Battles continue as the army fires on innocent civilians but that has not deterred the proponents of democracy.
Assad is spraying bullets at his people to stay in power, inspiration gained from his friend Muammar Gaddafi who is turning Libya red with protesters blood. It’s important for the international community to mobilize support against Assad’s regime. However their experience in Libya had put them on a back foot.

The new sanctions imposed on Assad and his faithful coterie by the US and the EU came too late. Assad's regime can still survive on its reserves of $18bn dollars held in its central bank and Iran too has pledged financial support of almost $6bn. However it cannot survive forever and soon when the money runs out and the isolation sets in, Assad will have to decide on a plan B. There is no doubt Syria will eventually get its freedom, at what price to its people is the worrying bit.What is also worrying is that exiled politicians like Rifaat Assad might use this opportunity to support the revolutionaries in a bid to get back the throne he was never given but thought was always his. Syria needs to watch out as Rifaat would be as bad as the rest of the Assad clan.

US turning against Syria is a good sign as in the recent years they were hoping to garner a partnership with Assad to isolate Iran and broker peace in the Middle East. Recently the Obama administration condemned the attacks on Syrians in these strong words; ‘Syria would be a better place without President Assad’.

And for once billions worldwide agree.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

London’s dark underbelly

‘It’s a shame, it’s a shame’, muttered Jeremiah, a 30 something Jamaican man from Tottenham. Jerry walked with a swagger and carried a crooked smile as he sat comfortably in a chair opposite me.

‘It’s a shame,’ he repeated.

‘You mean the rioting?’ I asked.

‘No, no, rioting was the good thing. It’s a shame they- police, government, media- still don’t get it,’ he explained. 

Jerry told me then of how he saw the family of Mark Duggan, the young man, shot by the police during an anti-gun operation last Thursday in Tottenham, wait for hours outside the police station on Saturday and be ignored.

‘That’s what they do to blacks,’ he said angrily. They (police) pretend we (blacks) don’t exist unless they are out to make arrests. Then they can only see the blacks.’ 

But there were people from all colours, all backgrounds joining the riots, I intervened.

‘Yes, because many poor people today feel they are the new blacks. The young who have no decent living feel they are the new blacks; and the youth who cannot go to college no more and have no job no more feel they are the new blacks,’ Jerry spoke in a matter-of-fact way.

Then Jerry, who did time for theft, looked me in the eye and asked me, ‘You be honest, Miss, will I ever get a job?’

‘If I do get a job in a supermarket, everyone will be looking at me with suspicion all the time and if someone nicks a can of beer, they would first think it was me,’ Jerry voiced his concerns.

He told me it is easier to join a gang than look for a job. I asked Jerry, who is expecting a child in November, if that’s what he wanted to do. ‘Hell no, Miss, that is why I am trying to find a respectable job’.

The new blacks

I thought about Jerry’s comment on the new blacks and put a question to another young boy from Enfield – a white European, call Troy.

Troy laughed when I asked him if he was the ‘new black’. You mean because I joined the riots?, he asked. ‘Loads of white boys and girls were there in Enfield Town. Everyone hates the police and the politicians - they lot screwed up the world. I know people born here who hate them.’

Troy came to this country four years ago. Too old then to be put in school, he slipped through the system until the job centre sent him to an English school a year ago. Now he can speak far better than he can read or write. He wants to work in a shop but has so far been unsuccessful. He spends his days ‘hanging out’ with friends.

‘I like to be white,’ he confessed. ‘I think life here is better if I am white but sometimes I pretend to be like the black – talk like them, walk like them you know because a lot of my neighbours are black and I feel we have a lot in common. We all live in bad houses; we have no education and no jobs. They are like my brothers here, you know…’ he explained.

It’s true that people who share similar circumstances bond together in brotherhood. The blacks for centuries were considered the ‘underclass’, the oppressed, the destitute- a feeling that is now increasingly gaining prominence among a section of the youth (of every colour) in this country. With broken homes, parents unemployed, school education deteriorating, university education out of reach for many, cost of living rising and no prospects of jobs, many young boys and girls today only see darkness ahead.

Raj, is a 50 something Asian man from Kenya, who worked in the City in a respectable job for over two decades but was made redundant a year ago. He thinks that some progress was made to improve racial relations but believes that the recent cuts have once again pushed his community back and widened the gap between the rich and the poor. 

‘Only the poor are suffering and cuts have made them poorer. Bankers are still rich and can send their children to private schools, universities and get them great jobs in the bank or even in politics; what about people like us?’ said Raj.

Raj paid taxes for 26 years; but is now jobless and has no money to put his youngest son to university. ‘I’m also too old now to get a good job. Is it fair? My neighbour a English man has the same problem. His girl can’t go to university because the old man has no job anymore. Maybe now we all are the new blacks.’
The term- ‘new blacks’- worries me. Firstly it signifies that the negative stereotypes associated with the black community are still very much existent. Secondly, government policies instead of moving the have-nots upward in society have managed to push a significant number of more people to the bottom.

Youth gangs

I spoke to a group of young boys on the streets of Edmonton. They are a part of one of the 200 odd youth gangs that exist in London. I promised to keep their identity a secret but they said they didn’t mind their names being used. Then on second thoughts suggested I use pseudo names.

I wasn’t surprised they didn’t want to hide their identity. Gangs thrive on popularity and there is a lot of competition among gangs to be more famous than the other. But I also understand their hesitation as the police is now on a lookout for gang members in their areas. None of them deny they support the riots. All of them hate the police.

The ‘uniform’ of most gangs is similar- track pants and trainers, hoodies, a lot of bling around their neck and wrists and of course a blackberry.

Jonathan, 16, told me that they have seen their fathers been subjected to the searches by the police so often that it built a resentment towards the police even when they were as little as five. Now they go through the same.

Young boys like these bond together and thrive in a gang culture. Schools in the UK lack discipline and with many coming from broken homes, gangs are where they find the much needed ground rules and objectives. ‘It’s not just cool to be a part of the gang but it gives you a sense of belonging, brotherhood and shared culture and wisdom’, says David, 17.

‘My brothers (gang members) watch my back if I’m being bullied at school or on the street. They tip me off when there is trouble and teach me some tricks of the trade. It’s useful to be in a gang, ‘cos if you are alone, you are in trouble,’ he adds.

Gangs give a sense of cohesiveness, create fear and demand respect among their peer. It’s also a shot at fame. ‘Every kid knows the gangs in their areas. People don’t mess with me, they know I’m in a gang so they know what I am capable of,’ says David while quickly sending off messages on his blackberry.

‘I’m just telling my mates the plans for the evening,’ he replied seeing me eye his Blackberry.

‘It’s the best way to connect with everyone. This is how we all knew what was happening during the riots,’ adds Jonathan.

There are gangs of all hue and colours. Inter gang rivalry has seen a lot of bloodshed on the streets of London. Some gang members have guns while most carry knifes and in times of trouble even machetes. ‘It’s more to scare people off. Like self protection,’ says David.

But not many of these young ones want to be a part of a gang forever. Some have aspirations to go to university, find jobs and settle down in life peacefully.

‘No one will stop you if you decide to leave. Maybe if I can go to university then I will quit the gang because anyways I won’t have any time to hang out here,’ said the 18 year old. ‘But I don’t think I can go to university as I have no money. Maybe I’ll work on cars. I’m good at the kind of stuff.’

Phil, 17, who sat quietly until now asked me, ‘what do you think about the riots?’ It was their turn to question me.

Seemingly satisfied that I wasn’t in cahoots with the police, they decided to give me some advice, ‘the police are scumbags, don’t ever trust them!’

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

David Cameron's bungled speech on riots

The London riots were not about race, government cuts or poverty, declared  David Cameron in a speech at Oxfordshire on Monday.

Mr Prime Minister, I beg to differ. I believe the riots were about all these three and more. And here is why.

Cameron: ‘These riots were not about race: the perpetrators and the victims were white, black and Asian’.

Yes they were. Let’s go back to what started these riots- black anger at the police. A black man called Mark Duggan was shot dead in suspicious circumstances, his family and friends protested outside the police station and were ignored. This is the single most trigger to the riots. The riots started off as clashes with the local police and were later joined in by the other members of the black community and then when the looting began, everyone got in.

Dismissing race as a reason is just shirking away from answering the difficult questions on why racism still exists in the police and why a certain community is still feeling victimized. By Cameron’s own admission, ‘in Tottenham some of the anger was directed at the police’. Perhaps if he asked why, he would know the answer had to do with ‘racism’.

Cameron: These riots were not about government cuts: they were directed at high street stores, not Parliament.

Economics research scholars  Hans-Joachim Voth and Jacopo Ponticelli say that the more the governments cut back, the greater the chances of social unrest. This is their unambiguous conclusion after analyzing 90 years worth of data for 26 European countries.  
They say,
“Of course, not every rioter or looter in the streets is merely trying to make a public statement against coalition cuts., but the chances of things going wrong in a spectacular way increase as the fiscal conditions change. Once cuts go above 2 percent of GDP, a major surge in the frequency of destabilizing incidents can be expected.”
The rioters were able to successfully carry out the mayhem for four days because they did not strike the parliament which is well protected and has little public interest value (remember the students protest) compared to the high street stores in several parts of the city and country – a tactic that worked in the favour of the rioters to create enough destruction before the police could mobilize themselves.

And yes, it was also a lucrative proposition because the looters thought they could benefit too – from the treasures in the high street store that due to government cuts and job losses many find beyond their meagre means.
Cameron: And these riots were not about poverty: that insults the millions of people who, whatever the hardship, would never dream of making others suffer like this.

I agree that not all poor people would resort to such activities and that gives hope to society that all is not lost. Cameron’s blames a ‘broken society’. 

Somehow every problem seems to linger on a 'broken society' and every solution on a 'big society'. This Observer cartoon by Chris Riddell in 2008 (below) seems very appropriate every today. Not much has changed- just replace 'global financial crisis' with 'UK youth riots' and you have Cameron saying the 'burning issues of the day IS this broken society.'
Yet, Cameron does not think the riots had anything to do with poverty. Dismissing poverty is just an excuse to not address the growing income gap in this country (the bankers are still getting bonuses) and the ever growing number at the bottom (job are lost everyday).  

Perhaps he should glance through this map that shows that the riots took place in some of the most deprived areas of London.

Or he could look at some preliminary research on the demography of the riots in Manchester. Liverpool University urban planning lecturer Alex Singleton, who studied the data that Guardian has been collecting for people accused of riots going through the magistrates courts around Manchester, found that:

• The majority of areas where suspect live are deprived - and 66% of them got poorer between 2007 and 2010, when the last survey was published
• 41% of suspects live in the 10% most deprived places in England

Singleton says,
 ‘Those people who have been appearing on riot-related charges (typically young males) live in some of the most deprived areas of our largest cities, and in neighbourhoods where the conditions are getting worse rather than better. Rioting is deplorable, however, if events such as this are to be mitigated in the future, the prevailing conditions and constraints effecting people living in areas must form part of the discussion. A “broken society” happens somewhere, and geography matters!’
As the leader of a country that has seen one of the worst youth riots, its time, Mr. Prime Minister, you addressed the difficult questions.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Looting & arson must not define London riots

Now that we have all overcome the shock and horror at the images we see on television or in our neighbourhood of the looting and the burning, we should ask ourselves- was it really so shocking?

Looting and property destruction have always been a part of rioting. Looting is a mass recruiter and maintains the momentum of the riots. Looters are often called the foot soldiers of a riot. Without looting, it would just be police confrontation and it could be easily diffused by the police either not reacting at all and waiting for the mob to get bored and disperse or violently reacting chasing them away or arresting them. In either case it wouldn’t generate much interest in the issue in the media, political circles or among the general public.

Arson too has often been a part of riots. The Swing riots of 1830 saw English farm workers facing layoffs and wage cuts burn farmhouses and barns to make their point (see map). There was widespread attacks and violent clashes. The hatred towards the affluent class by the poor farm workers was apparent (as in this letter).

Several riots since have too seen arson. Looting and arson are the catalysts in riots. In almost all riots, it begins with bottle and stone throwing, followed by looting and then burning. This is how riots happen everywhere across the globe for centuries. So why was there so much shock and horror?

And why are we so surprised that among the looters we find 'teaching assistants and grammar school girls'. Why are politicians and commentators using this to show that the riots have no legitimate reasons as 'these people seem not so poor'.

Several interviews conducted after riots everywhere show that many who take part in looting are otherwise respectable people who have joined the riots because there is a great emotional attraction and social magnetism for a collective response- to lend their voice to the cause. There are some opportunist too but that doesn't mean you label everyone that.  Instead of using this to say the riots were nothing but 'greed', the diversity of people involved should be seen as a real cause for worry.

Experts have been saying that resentment towards the police has been simmering for decades. The poor economic conditions, large scale cuts and bleak prospects for the future have just added fuel to the fire. Were the politicians and society leaders so out of touch with their community that they did not see this happening? Or does it serve better to just call the young boys and girls who took to the streets as ‘criminals’ and ignore the underlying causes?

It seemed no lessons were learned from the experiences of the riots in 1980s. The underlying factors seem eerily similar.

One such factor - also the trigger to these recent riots was the death of Mark Duggan, a young black, father of four who was shot dead during Operation Trident (against gun crime). Interestingly another police operation in 1981 called Swamp (against robbery) was an important factor for the discontent in the Brixton riots (in pic below).

Between April 6-11, 1981, the police rampantly stopped and searched 943 people in the Lambeth area mostly from the black community. Lord Scarman, who the UK government appointed to hold an inquiry into the Brixton riots of 1981 reported that ‘Swamp 81 was a factor that contributed to a great increase in tension’ in Brixton and in short, ‘was a serious mistake’.

Two decades later, the police’s stop and search policy seems to target the same community and most of the areas where the recent riots unfolded find the youth there often stopped and searched by the police. It also seemed to be the reason for the clashes in Hackney on Monday. Darcus Howe, a West Indian Writer and Broadcaster spoke on national television recently about how his 15 year old grand son is often stopped and searched by the police and the effect it has on the young minds. He believes this is due to the colour of their skin and builds resentment towards the police- something that he says the white politicians would never understand.

As my work involves constant interaction with the disadvantaged youth in Tottenham, Edmonton & Enfield, I am aware of such incidences. I have written more about their hatred for the police on London Riots: A Generation Lost.
If you still need a good reason to delve deep into the youth’s grievances – then remember that you can prevent the mayhem today by putting 16000 officers on the roads but what happens tomorrow when we go back to one fifth of that number? Unless you nip the reasons for the riots in the bud, what stops the youth from doing it again?

A shorter version of this article is on Liberal Conspiracy:  Looting? Arson? You shouldn't be surprised

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

London Riots: A Generation Lost

If I hear once again the politicians call the events of the past few days 'mindless criminality' I will scream!

Who are the rioters? The rioters on the street are school going kids or drop outs taking to hooliganism because the government has destroyed discipline in the school through various silly policies, raised tuition fees making it almost impossible for kids to go to college and has shut down youth centres where they could learn a skill or two.  Inflation is on a rise and there are no jobs. It’s not a justification but the blame needs to be shared by those who are just pointing fingers! The country whose youth instead of aspiring to be progressive citizens have turned to hooliganism should bow its head in shame.

The youth in this country don’t trust the police for a number of reasons. Since my work involves interaction with the youth in Tottenham, Edmonton and Enfield, I have heard several stories of police mistrust.

A Turkish man living in Tottenham, lost his brother when a police car ran over him walking on the pavement at the Phillip Lane junction in Tottenham where the riots broke out on Saturday evening. He took the case to court; his lawyer ran some investigations and found that the police driver was involved in a similar accident previously but somehow survived as he was on ‘duty’ that day. 

It seemed the police were rushing to mediate a fight between an angry couple- hardly an emergency for which his brother, a young father of two, lost his life- I was told by the man who was investing a great deal of time, effort, money and emotions in trying to get justice, but in vain. He called the police expletives that I cannot write here but reflects the hatred he felt for the men in uniform.

Another young man of twenty three from Edmonton told me of the number of times he was stopped and searched. He said he never saw his ‘white friends being subjected to the same humiliation’. He strongly believed the police are racists. ‘Why aren’t there any black police officers on the streets?’ he asked.

I have often seen young boys ask the police ‘why me?’ when they are stopped and asked questions about their whereabouts. There is an undercurrent in the minority community in London especially among the black youth that they are targeted, they are victimized and they will always be looked upon with suspicion.

But it’s not just a Black community issue. There is definitely an undercurrent of hostility towards the police and denying it is living in fool’s paradise. Look at the profile of rioters - they are in all colours and come from everywhere. 

Decades of building police-community relations have been a success, claim politicians, although the recent riots bear witness that they have terribly failed. But I think these riots are more than just a showcase of the hatred towards the police or a reaction to Mark Duggan’s killing although it was a definite trigger point.

They have evolved from decades of degradation of family values and a deteriorating education system. A majority of these rioters are from dysfunctional homes with little education and/or no expectations. Are parents so blind they don’t know where they kids are? What do parents do when the child comes home with a 40 inch LED TV, Gucci sunglasses or a funky pair of trainers? Do they learn at home that looting is ok because the parents who have lost jobs or never worked are encouraging them to get the stuff they can otherwise not. If parents can’t get their children to see reason, know what right and wrong; then the society has terribly failed.

The dismal education system is another reason. Schools treat students like kings and the teacher is almost powerless to punish their indiscipline as every punishment- big or small require layers of red tapism and in the end favours the student. Most of these kids don’t go to study; they just ‘hang out’ at school. Most of them will never go to college (the increase in tuition fees has made it beyond their reach now); most of them will not get jobs – unemployment is high and with degree holders battling for jobs alongside, the drop outs stand a slim chance.

The benefit system that their parents saw as a safety net is now filled with holes through which they can easily slip. Cuts, cuts everywhere especially in poorer boroughs have massive implications. There is growing uncertainty and increasing frustration among the youth and its erupting. But who will rein them in- their parents; the school; the politicians, the police or the army?

An idle mind makes these young boys and girls join gangs where at least they feel they are doing something - where there are rules and objectives. Here a blackberry is the uniform and sticking together the anthem. There are almost two hundred such youth gangs in London. They were perhaps easier to monitor and curtail as long as they fight against each other. But when they all come together and stand strong against one common enemy, this is what happens – the police, the government, almost everyone seems powerless against them. It’s a frightening situation.

Contrast this to the kids sitting at home. These are the youth who have strong values and principles, who give importance to family and education, who are studying/working hard to build a better future. Chances are some of them can afford it, others are encouraged enough to want it. These kids will bear the brunt of the stigma that will now be associated with the youth of this city. They are not hooligans but they too will be looked upon with suspicion.

This country has been held hostage by thousands of disgruntle youth who have resorted to violence and crime initially to perhaps raise a voice against oppression but now it seems to be overtaken by blind mob behaviour, greed and cruelty. If we don’t stop the mass carnage on our streets; we are just sending the wrong signal. The violence has to stop. The guilty have to be punished. But the innocent should not be made collateral damage either by the rioters or the police.

Also calling it ‘mindless criminality’ is not the answer. The government needs to acknowledge and understand the factors that have pushed thousands of young people into criminal behaviour. If we don’t listen to the grievances of our youth; if we don’t do something to improve their future, then tragically we have lost an entire generation.