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Why London exploded last night

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

London last night. That sounds like a lot but London is a vast city. A few hundred people looting in Ealing in the west, a few hundred in Clapham in the south, a few hundred more in Croydon at the city's edge, a few hundred more in Hackney, and three or four other places, all these neigborhoods separated by long distances — five to 10 miles. You can see how thinly stretched law enforcement was.

That explains why things spread so quickly last night.

The underlying causes of the rioting are difficult to determine with certainty, but one key fact must be considered: youth unemployment.

The rioters were overwhelmingly teenagers and kids in their 20s. About 20 percent of 16-24 year olds in Britain are unemployed. That figure is much, much higher on council estates — the British term for housing projects. (You can leave school at the age of 16 in this country). Unemployment statistics in Britain are sadly vague, but a reasonable estimate of youth unemployment just in Hackney is 33 percent. (Those attending college or performing any form of unpaid apprentice work are considered to be employed.) There don't seem to be any statistics for youth unemployment on council estates. As I live in the neighborhood I would say well above 60 or 70 percent is a good guess.

The reason I say this is that unlike in Paris or New York, London doesn't wall its poor people into ghettos or suburbs. There are streets in Hackney where very ordinary row houses cost a million bucks but on the corner there is a council estate. The kids who grow up in the million dollar houses go to college and then on to jobs; many of those in the estates leave school at 16 and find no work. If a third of Hackney's youth is unemployed and the middle class kids are all going on to higher education, the segment of the population pulling the unemployment figure up must come from the estates.

When there are that many young men with nothing to do and no money to spend, it doesn't take much to set off violence. The immediate flash point — in this case the death of Mark Duggan — is quickly forgotten. A group hysteria takes hold.

Having covered riots in Northern Ireland for many years I can say with certainty that this kind of hysteria can take time to burn itself out. With TV cameras focused on them and smartphones at the ready, it may be a few nights yet before the fever subsides. There is very little the police can do.

What happens after the rioting subsides is difficult to predict. Entry level jobs are in short supply these days, and as the government's austerity measures begin to bite here, it's not likely to get better any time soon.

But the government has to be seen to be doing something. British Prime Minister David Cameron flew back to London from his holiday in Tuscany early today to deal with the situation. He told reporters that all police leave had been canceled and that 16,000 officers will be on the streets of London tonight. Parliament has also been recalled from its recess to hold a one-day emergency debate on the rioting.

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