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UK Stunned By Rioters' Racial, Economic Diversity


And in England there's still a feeling of disbelief about riots that swept the country last week. The courts are processing the paperwork for almost 3,000 arrests - people charged with looting, violence and arson.

As the residents of Britain struggle to understand what sparked the unrest, tensions are flaring between senior police and political leaders over law enforcement's response to the violence.

From London, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.�

ERIC WESTERVELT: The rioting first kicked off in largely poor, downtrodden sections of London. But the unrest quickly spread to white parts of Salford and Manchester and middle class sections of the capital, such as the leafy West London suburb of Ealing.

British writer Diran Adebayo.

Mr. DIRAN ADEBAYO (Writer): You know, initially it might have been seen as black youths and kind of, oh, black youths, you know what they're like, they're aggressive, they're criminals. But the first day that the rioters were, you know, put up for a court appearance - those who'd been arrested - you know, they numbered amongst them a social worker, a university graduate, a graphic designer.�

WESTERVELT: In some ways, the racial and economic diversity of the rioters has made it harder for Britons to come to grips with why the riots erupted and why they were so fierce, sudden and widespread.

Ash Cook lives around the corner from where a fellow suburban Ealing resident was beaten to death by rioters. Flowers pile up where 68-year-old Richard Mannington Bowes died while trying to stop looters from a store on fire. One card pinned to a bouquet of roses says: Rest in peace, knowing these savages will pay. Cook says she is still reeling from the spasm of violence in her normally quiet suburb.

Ms. ASH COOK: Its always been a peaceful family suburb, prosperous with good schools, good neighborhood. So its just completely shocking for all of us.

WESTERVELT: But just a few minutes away, deeper into Ealing, electricians apprentice Kakra Eghan, a 22-year-old black man, says hes not surprised at all by the violence.

Mr. KAKRA EGHAN (Electricians Apprentice): And its going to happen again with the spending cuts. Guarantee it. People are going to be pushed. Theres all more to come. This is just the start.

WESTERVELT: Eghan says the riots may have awakened the other Britain that too many people economically in his words, are pressured and pressed every day.

Mr. EGHAN: When the peoples voice doesnt get heard, the only way to hear it is riots and thats what happens. Like I said, I dont agree with it but theres lots of unrest. Took all of this for people to have a look and see, like this is whats happening; people are struggling out here, lots of poverty and people just need to talk.

WESTERVELT: But so far, the main talk has been sniping between politicians and police over tactics, money, the way forward and who gets credit for bringing the violence under control.

On Sunday, Britains Home Secretary Theresa May seemed to suggest it was politicians not the police who pushed a swift change in tactics.

Ms. THERESA MAY (Home Secretary): What we needed to see was the police actually dispersing gangs earlier, moving in on the gangs, stopping some of the scenes that wed seen where people in the eyes of the public appear to be getting away with criminal activity.

WESTERVELT: Prime Minister David Cameron this weekend said the U.K. hasnt talked the language of zero tolerance enough, and said the riots were going to change things.

Ealing resident, 29-year-old M. Singjeev Sing, agrees its time for a new, tougher police approach.

Mr. M. SINGJEEV SING: Well, they stand around and did nothing and they didnt really control the crowds. They should have just gone out there and beat them with sticks. Theyre talking about putting in a curfew, why didnt they? The rioters had no sense of consequence. They done it, they were getting no response so they carried on going.

WESTERVELT: But police officials are complaining of mixed messages from the public and politicians. The acting head of the London police, Tim Godwin, spoke of inconsistency from government ministers, given past criticism over alleged heavy-handed police tactics during street protests.

Police are also angry that Cameron moved quickly to hire former New York and Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton - a pioneer in the zero tolerance police approach - as an anti-crime and anti-gang consultant. The head of the British Association of Chief Police Officers Sir Hugh Orde questioned the move, saying the culture and style of policing in the U.S., and the levels of violence are fundamentally different from here.

Senior police union official, Paul Deller, added quote, "America polices by force. We don't want to do that in this country."

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, London.

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.