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London 2012: A Jubilant Week, An Awkward Anniversary

One year since the riots, the government drags its heels on any real social response, while young people repair their communities and their image.

On the one year anniversary of the London riots, Reeves furniture shop in South London—which was torched during the riots—is plastered with positive messages of London youth.

By pretty much any measure, it’s been quite an extraordinary summer for the United Kingdom: celebrating 60 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, a Briton reaching the Wimbledon men’s final, another winning the Tour de France, and not to mention the anticipation and—finally—the enjoyment of a spectacular Olympic Games.

This week, with Team GB ranking impressively high among medaling nations, the mood on the streets of London is jubilant. What a difference a year makes.

Last August, when localized violence broke out in a north London neighborhood over the police shooting of local taxi driver Mark Duggan, few could have predicted what would follow all across the capital and in other major UK cities. Three nights of unfettered violence, torching, and looting shook the nation—vicious battles unfolded between disastrously unprepared police and seemingly fearless youths as shocked politicians scrambled to address an unprecedented situation.

For politicians it's somewhat awkward, inconvenient even, that the one year anniversary of the London riots had to fall during the capital’s shining moment. Especially because the promises from Prime Minister David Cameron and British MPs to confront the economic disparity and opportunity gap that contributed to the riots subsided in about October, right around the time the news cycle moved on.

Lucky for them, Olympic cheer is doing more than enough to stir British patriotism and divert media coverage from the one year milestone. Whether or not adequate attention is paid to the anniversary, the root causes of the riots have been largely unaddressed. Since last August, Cameron has routinely spoken in favor of cutting down on state sponsored benefits and even proposed scrapping housing benefits for UK citizens under 25.

A recent survey of 2,000 Britons found that 62 percent feel that young people themselves were to blame for the unrest last summer, not the government or social media. So who are these young people? The exhaustive "Reading the Riots" study—undertaken by the Guardian newspaper and London School of Economics—found that more than 80% of last August’s violence took place within a five minute walk of subsidized housing blocks, known as council estates in the UK. This suggests, at least to some degree, that poverty and lack of resources—both of which are widespread for youth growing up on council estates—were a contributing factor to the riots.

In contrast to the lackluster response from government, some individuals and organizations within the UK have stepped up both to find solutions and to reverse the negative image of youth that has lingered since the riots.

A film written and directed by platinum selling UK rapper Plan B, who grew up in an east London housing estate, was hailed by critics as a frank depiction of the dismal environment that a lot of youth grow up in. While he didn’t want to excuse their behavior, Plan B said he intended to provide insight into a largely unseen world.

"People hopefully will get some understanding by watching it and see that there is a reason behind every despicable crime that happens," the filmmaker told the Guardian. "It’s not just some mindless thug taking their anger out on someone. It usually stems from some really deep-seated, f***ed-up places."

A campaign by UK charity vInspired, called Reverse Riots, has also taken action to combat the negative stereotypes. To mark this week’s anniversary, the 145 year old Reeves furniture shop in South London—which became an iconic image of the riots when one of its buildings was engulfed in flames after being torched—is covered with 4,000 images of youth broadcasting positive messages about their communities and themselves.

Proprietor Trevor Reeves said that despite the destruction, the aftermath of the riots did have hopeful reverberations.

"The positive legacy of the riots was the coming together of people of all ages and from all walks of life to help mend the capital," Reeves said. "We were overwhelmed by the support that was offered to our family and many others affected in the days and weeks that followed."

Despite this positivity, there are many—including some in law enforcement—who feel certain that similar unrest is likely to occur again. This week, while the nation takes pride in the wonderful job it’s done hosting the world for London 2012, it’s worth asking if the government is willing to go to the same lengths for its own people.

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