So the riots in England and for a brief moment Wales; are over… for now at least, and the evaluation of how, why, who to blame has begun. In the general expression of outrage and rightful condemnation of the violence; the political opportunism has begun; with the resurrection of ideologies from the incumbent politicians aiming to reinforce control measures within the public realm before the activities are truly understood in their socio-political and economic context.
Much talk has been made of links between the Toxteth and Brixton riots (of 1981), for me these connections are an oversimplification based on geographic specificity, and most importantly misunderstands the subtlety of the context behind those particular riots. The Brixton Riots were a critical time when assessing the issue of the power of political protest. Although spontaneous these riots were a reaction against the new ‘sus’ laws which allowed low enforcement officers to arrest individuals on the ‘suspicion’ that they might commit a crime in the future (not so dissimilar to the terror laws introduced from 2000 onwards). However, the riots were an expression of public outrage and led to the repealing of that law. There is no such political context here in 2011.
This is not to dismiss the fact that the communities in Toxteth (Liverpool) and Brixton (South London) were active in the most recent riots. However, this has more to do with the fact that their communities still live in areas of general disaffection and relative poverty. For me the stronger lines of continuity should be extended to the disturbances in France in 2005. Here two young men (Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré) from the Banlieue of Clichy-Sous-Bois died as a result of electrocution as they hid in a substation from police officers. This tragic but relatively innocuous event sparked 20 nights of rioting across France, moving from HLM to HLM (habitation à loyer modéré – poor housing projects), vehicles were ceremoniously torched, property was destroyed, social media was used to not only to insight the violence but to create a series of digital shrines; showing homage to the actions of those (predominantly young) men involved. It was said at the time that these were the actions of the French underclass expressing their fury against segregation, disaffection under representation and general; relative poverty. fast forward 6 years and a short trip across the channel and there are parallels, but the lessons to be learnt are very different.
Although triggered by the similarly tragic but again seemingly innocuous event (the killing of Mark Duggan by police on the streets of Tottenham), the 4 days of what commentators were first calling protests was rapidly modified to riots and before the end of the disorders had regressed to the loaded term of mindless violence. This development misses the complexity of what took place; and in particular misunderstands the importance of the actions of those so often described as bystanders.
Clearly there is a perception prevalent within certain communities that they are treated unfairly and disproportionately targeted by law enforcement officials. As such, the peaceful protest by the Duggan family which was high jacked and subsequently spiralled into violence perpetrated by others in that community; fast became an expression of deep seated discontent as these wilful acts of violence had the role of liberation from the perceived repressive status quo.
This effect was made more apparent to me when I visited the immediate aftermath of the riots as they swept through Hackney. Four hours after the first reports of rioting on Mare street; cars where still burning on the back streets of Clapton. The streets were populated by hundreds of people, these people were not looting, many of who were residents, some were passers-by and some had arrived as spectators. This had led to an atmosphere which was cordial and strangely calm. Whilst police officers remained conspicuous by their absence on the edges of the activity / destruction zone; the clearly visceral post-apocalyptic glow of liberation is one that could only have been seen in an air of general disaffection brought on by recession and impending cuts. It was as if the careless activities of the few had culminated in sympathetic feelings from the many.
My argument is simply this; that the activities of the rioters emerge from feelings of disenfranchisement which are latent issues created by continual cycles of poverty; unrelated to the latest economic events. However, the willingness of many to observe and not intervene and by that offer support and indeed to partake as onlookers was one triggered by a growing consciousness of unhappiness surrounding the most recent economic activities and impending cuts.
The greatest distinction between the Franco and Anglo activities lies in the targets for the actions. Although there is a danger in oversimplifying the disparate and individual actions of thousands of people; there is a clear difference in target and tone between the Chanel, even within these related acts of wanted violence. In France; actions were ostensibly targeted at the police; this often culminated in actions as poignant as attacks on town halls, police stations and vehicles. This was not the case in the UK, fast food outlets and clothes stores popular with young people were repeatedly targeted. These were as much misguided acts of protest against the system as acts of commercial opportunism with no clear conceptual boundary between the two.
Balance of power
Just as Jacques Chirac declared a state of emergency which was continually extended during the France riots; David Cameron has expressed a wish to introduce his own set of draconian measures including the suspension of social networking sites during times of ‘emergency’ granting police officers powers to force people to remove facial coverings garments, the loss of benefit entitlements to those who partake in acts of civil disobedience (which extends to their children). Of course none of these proposals deal with the endemic issues which create the social divisions which trigger activities which unearth latent tensions.
In fact it is inevitable that there will be more protests and riots, the context will change, and the link to August 2011 will be seen as tenuous, but the existence of a discontented populous will be there.
The tragedy is that each protest is at is essence an attempt and opportunity to force the powers that be to reassess their actions and to divert their current trajectory. Whether they are elected officials, law enforcement officers or powerful commercial companies. If a group of civilians want officials to change their behaviour, or to highlight failings in their current operational practices; then ‘a form of protest’ will have to be engaged with as a way to highlight and contest this issue. That was the point and the potential power of the peaceful protest by the Duggan family.
Ironically everything that followed has only served to strengthen the resolve of the police and the government in the way they control the contested space of the public realm. In a mere 96 hours events have culminated to create a momentum to have greater restrictions on the public realm without addressing any of the causes of the riots.
This article was written in 2011 and as such is written in the context of the social and political conditions of the time