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Britain's rioters: young, poor and disillusioned

Associated Press
The Riot Club Premiere Photocall - Dave Hogan
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LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 15: Sam Caflin, Sam Reid, Josh O'Connor, Max Irons, Freddie Fox, Jack Farthing, Mathew Beard and Douglas Booth attend a photocall for the film 'The Riot Club' at The BFI Southbank, London on September 15, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)

LONDON (AP) — Each of the young rioters who clogged Britain's courthouses painted a bleak picture of a lost generation: a 15-year-old Ukrainian whose mother died, a 17-year-old who followed his cousin into the mayhem, an 11-year-old arrested for stealing a garbage can.

Britain is bitterly divided on the reasons behind the riots. Some blame the unrest on opportunistic criminality, while others say conflicting economic policies and punishing government spending cuts have deepened inequalities in the country's most deprived areas.

Many of the youths themselves struggle to find any plausible answer, but a widespread sense of alienation emerges from their tales.

"Nobody is doing nothing for us — not the politicians, not the cops, no one," a 19-year-old who lives near Tottenham, the blighted London neighborhood where the riots started. He only gave his nickname, "Freddy," because he took part in the looting and was scared of facing prosecution; he was not among the youths in court.

Britain has one of the highest violent crime rates in the EU. Roughly 18 percent of youths between 16 and 24 are jobless and nearly half of all black youths are out of work.

As the government battles colossal government debt with harsh welfare cuts that promise to make the futures of these youths even bleaker, some experts say it's narrow-minded to believe the riots have only been a random outburst of violence unrelated to the current economic crisis.

"There's a fundamental disconnect with a particular section of young Britain and sections of the political establishment," said Matthew Goodwin, a politics professor at University of Nottingham.

"The argument that this doesn't have anything to do with expenditure cuts or economics doesn't stand up to the evidence. If that's true, then what we have here are hundreds of young, crazed kids simply acting irrationally. I don't think that's the case."

Nearly 1,200 people have been arrested since the riots erupted Saturday, mostly poor youths from a broad section of Britain's many races and ethnicities.

Courts have been running nearly 24 hours a day to hear all the cases since the rioting began. Most cases are heard in a blink of an eye and only give a snapshot of some of the youngsters' lives. Many of the defendants haven't had a chance to talk at length with their attorneys, and most can't be named because they are minors.

An 11-year-old boy from Romford, Essex, was among one of the youngest to appear in court on Wednesday. Wearing a blue Adidas tracksuit, the youngster spoke only to confirm his name, age and date of birth.

The boy pleaded guilty to burglary, after stealing a waste bin worth 50 pounds. A charge of violent disorder was dropped.

Attorneys for some of the defendants said their clients were good kids who have caring families but got caught up in the violence.

Daniel Cavaglieri, one of the lawyers for a 17-year-old who appeared at Highbury Magistrates Court, said the youth was studying mechanics and trying to finish school. He was accused of following his older cousin to loot a clothing shop, and charged with intent to steal.

"His mother is furious he was out and about at that time. She genuinely thought he was at a friend's house," Cavaglieri told the court. "He's going to be grounded."

Another defendant, a 15-year-old immigrant from Ukraine, pleaded not guilty to using or threatening unlawful violence. He already has a criminal record for theft, and police said he threw stones and other missiles in the thick of Tuesday's rioting in London's Hackney area.

Prosecutors said the boy is an only child who lives with his widowed father. He came to Britain from Germany three years ago after leaving Ukraine when his mother died.

It's unclear what role racial tensions have played in the riots, if any.

In Tottenham, most residents are white but blacks from Africa or the Caribbean account for around a quarter of the ethnic mix. It's also home to Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Asian immigrants. The rage has appeared to cut across ethnic lines, with poverty as the main common denominator.

But there's a history of racial tension in many of these neighborhoods, and the riots themselves were triggered by the fatal police shooting of a black man in Tottenham.

In 1985, the neighborhood was home to the Broadwater Farm riot, an event seared in the memories of many of the rioters' parents. Back then, violence exploded area when a black woman died from a stroke during a police search. The area remains a hotbed of ethnic tension: In the past year, police have logged some 100 racist or religion based hate crimes.

Other social problems afflict the places where rioting erupted: high teen pregnancy rates, gun crime and drug trafficking.

Under the Labour-led government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, authorities tried to penalize badly behaved youth with Anti-Social Behavior Orders, or ASBOs. The orders have since become badges of honor for many of Britain's youth.

In 2008, there were more than 1 million reported cases of violent crimes in England and Wales alone. By comparison, there were 331,778 reported incidents in France and some 210,885 incidents in Germany. Violent crime carried out by children and teenagers is also among the highest in Europe.

"There's income inequality, extremely high levels of unemployment between 16 and 24-year-olds and huge parts of this population not in education or training," Goodwin said. "There's a general malaise amongst a particular generation."

Britain's Conservative-led government is implementing painful austerity measures in an attempt to get the country's finances in order. Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged 80 billion pounds ($129 billion) of spending cuts and 30 billion pounds in extra taxes to trim Britain's huge deficit, swollen after the government spent billions bailing out foundering banks.

The plans to cut services from welfare to education sparked violent protests last year, as students took to the streets to demonstrate against the tripling of university fees. The government is also cutting civil service jobs and benefits, raising the state pension age from 65 to 66, hiking the amount public sector employees contribute to pensions and reducing their retirement payouts.

The austerity measures will also slash housing benefit payments used to subsidize rents for the low-paid, threatening to price tens of thousands of poor families out of their homes and force them toward the fringes of the country's capital.

Economists at the Centre for Economic Policy Research say such cuts promise more unrest. Most of Britain's deepest cuts haven't even come yet.

"There's usually something that sparks these things off," said Hans-Joachim Voth, a research fellow at the center. "The question is why is it that in 90 percent of these cases that nothing happens? Why is it that some places just end up like a tinder box?"

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Gabriele Steinhauser in Brussels and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.

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