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Why London exploded last night

Analysis: TV cameras, smartphones and unemployed youth make a volatile mix.

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A double decker bus burns as riot police try to contain a large group of people on a main road in Tottenham, north London on August 6, 2011. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON, United Kingdom — I knew we were in for a rough night here in Stoke Newington in the London Borough of Hackney when my wife called me at 5 p.m. from Sainsbury's, our local supermarket, to say she was in a lock down. They were shuttering the place and the police were telling her trouble had already started outside the Hackney Town Hall. The cops told her to go home and stay off the streets.

I took her call as I was walking into the local library to return a book. Inside, the librarians were watching a BBC live feed on their computers of action a mile and a half away. One of the librarians explained he lived over there.

This morning I awoke to learn that half a dozen or more neighborhoods in London — north to south, east to west — saw outbreaks of violence, looting and arson. In other cities around the country — Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and Bristol — there were also reports of youth confronting police.

This rioting is something Britain has not seen in recent years. It is a totally new expression of anger from what sociologists would call the "underclass." That said, there are familiar elements in the build-up to last night's anarchy that might help you understand it a little.

Graphic content, police overrun in the Woolwich neighborhood of south London:

First, the chronology: The tension began to boil over last Thursday when police shot and killed a young black man named Mark Duggan in Tottenham, a predominantly Afro-Caribbean and African immigrant neighborhood in north London. In the mid-1980s, Tottenham was the scene of terrible race riots which culminated in a policeman being hacked to death by a group of men armed with machetes. Saturday night, following a disappointing visit to the police by Duggan's family and community leaders, a protest about the incident turned violent.

When the smoke cleared on Sunday morning it was obvious that the violence was not about the police and racism — as it had been in the 1980s. The Duggan family were appalled by what had happened, much of it directed against shops owned by black and immigrant businessmen. Back in the 1980s, community leaders were harshly critical of the police and the government. Local black politicians used the riots to point out the institutional racism in the police force. Now the local member of parliament, David Lammy, son of Afro-Caribbean immigrants, led the criticism of the rioters.

More from GlobalPost: London burning as riots spread out of control (VIDEO)

On Sunday night, low-level looting spread to other parts of north London not far from Tottenham. The violence's tenuous relationship to the Duggan incident disappeared. The rioters were a heterodox mix of black and white youths who did not come out on the street to demonstrate against the police. They hit the streets to take what they could: electronic goods and sneakers, and then trash the shops they had just looted.

Then last night things exploded. Why?

Partially it's media, old and new. After getting my wife's message I left the library and raced home to watch the 24-hour television news channels. Sky News had scrambled its helicopter and was showing a raw feed of action in Hackney. Police were clearing Mare Street, the main shopping street. As the crowds dispersed into the side streets, cars and dumpsters full of garbage were being set on fire. The police were not grabbing kids and arresting them, they were trying to clear space and hold it.

Meanwhile kids were able to evade police by texting each other meeting places where law enforcement was absent.

It isn't hard to imagine that young people from the same social background around the city watching those pictures and getting texts from people they know in Hackney decided it was worth the risk of arrest to go out to the local shopping area and take what they wanted.

They seem to have been right. Prime Minister David Cameron said that there were 6,000 police on the streets of