London Riots Put Spotlight on Troubled, Unemployed Youths in Britain

London – “I came here to get my penny’s worth,” said a man who gave his name as Louis James, 19, a slightly built participant in the widening riots that have shaken London to its core. With a touch of guilt on Tuesday, Mr. James showed off what he described as a $195 designer sweater that he said he took during looting in Camden Town, a gentrified area of north London.

In recent days, young rioters and looters like Mr. James have dominated front pages and television reports around the world, prompted a recall of Parliament to a special session and forced the deployment of thousands of police officers.

Widespread antisocial and criminal behavior by young and usually unemployed people has long troubled Britain. Attacks and vandalism by gangs of young people are “a blight on the lives of millions,” said a 2010 government report commissioned in the aftermath of several deaths related to such gangs. They signal, it said, “the decline of whole towns and city areas.”

The government investigation revealed that though only a quarter of such incidents were reported, 3.5 million complaints were nonetheless made to the police. An iPhone app is available to track attacks, and one enterprising inventor marketed a device, called the mosquito, that emits a high-pitched noise that can be heard only by young people as a means for store owners to keep gangs away.

Politicians from both the right and the left, the police and most residents of the areas hit by violence nearly unanimously describe the most recent riots as criminal and anarchic, lacking even a hint of the antigovernment, anti-austerity message that has driven many of the violent protests in other European countries.

But the riots also reflect the alienation and resentment of many young people in Britain, where one million people from the ages of 16 to 24 are officially unemployed, the most since the deep recession of the mid-1980s.

The riots in London began when protesters gathered outside a north London police station after the shooting of a local man by officers. The police have long had troubled relations with racial and ethnic minorities in Britain and have sought to repair these relations, although the protesters have come from all backgrounds. Days later, in Hackney, where some of the fiercest riots took place, a young man in a gray hooded sweatshirt shouted directly into the faces of riot police officers: “You know you all racist! You know it.”

The combination of economic despair, racial tension and thuggery has “a devastating effect on communities,” said Graham Beech, an official at the crime-prevention charity Nacro. “It’s something that ordinary people see on their walks to work — street drunkenness, vandalism, intimidation — and that affects the general fear of crime.” As the British government’s austerity measures begin to take effect, young people will also see their chances of employment dwindling and their financial and community support cut, Mr. Beech said. “Boredom, alienation and isolation are going to be factors,” he said.

In many ways, Mr. James’s circumstances are typical. He lives in a government-subsidized apartment in northern London and receives $125 in jobless benefits every two weeks, even though he says he has largely given up looking for work. He says he has never had a proper job and learned to read only three years ago. His mother can barely support herself and his stepbrothers and sisters. His father, who was a heroin addict, is dead.

He says he has been in and out of too many schools to count and left the educational system for good when he was 15.

“No one has ever given me a chance; I am just angry at how the whole system works,” Mr. James said. He would like to get a job at a retail store, but admits that he spends most days watching television and just trying to get by. “That is the way they want it,” he said, without specifying exactly who “they” were. “They give me just enough money so that I can eat and watch TV all day. I don’t even pay my bills anymore.”

Jonathan Portes, the director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research in London, says that Mr. James’s plight reflects a broader trend here. More challenging students, Mr. Portes says, have not been receiving the attention they should as teachers, under pressure to meet educational goals, focus on children from more stable homes and those with greater abilities and social skills. Disillusioned, those who cannot keep up just drop out.

Headlines here, which often describe the young people as “feral,” have been dominated in recent years by the gangs’ turn toward bullying the most vulnerable. Almost 30 percent of the victims of antisocial behavior surveyed in the government report said they had “longstanding illness, disability or infirmity.”

In one incident typical of those described in the report, in 2007 Fiona Pilkington, 38, pulled her car to the side of a secluded highway. Inside, her learning-disabled daughter, Francesca, 18, watched as Ms. Pilkington doused a pile of old clothes in the back seat with gasoline and set them on fire. The two burned to death.

She was driven by a campaign of intimidation that stretched back over a decade. A gang, with some members as young as 10, pushed dog excrement through the letterbox of their modest home, beat her son and threatened to kill Francesca, who had the learning ability of a 3-year-old. The mother said she made 33 requests for help to the police, to no effect.

It was this culture of impunity that forms one context for the current riots. The most vulnerable people feel trapped, said Margo Milne, 49, who uses a wheelchair part time because she has multiple sclerosis. A disabled friend of hers reported looting in a neighborhood convulsed by rioting. “But she is worried that if she reports them to the police they will come for her,” Ms. Milne said. “And what would she do?”

In a low-income housing complex in Hackney on Monday, an elderly woman was hospitalized after a riot in which as many as 300 people rampaged, setting fire to cars and looting stores. Two priests, one in full robes, were brought in by the police to persuade rioters to allow an ambulance to take her to safety. “We need to get these people out,” one of the priests was heard telling a police officer. But as soon as the ambulance left, officers abandoned the neighborhood and looters struck up in earnest once more.

Later, when one young man, kicking a trash can into the street nearby, was asked why he was rioting, he just shrugged.

This article, “London Riots Put Spotlight on Troubled, Unemployed Youths in Britain,” originally appeared in The New York Times.