British society has learned numerous lessons from last month’s riots. Perhaps, however, not ones many had hoped for. Just days after the riots broke, emergent was an unmistakable one-dimensional narrative aimed at stoking fear and panic.
Though, to the scrutinising eye, what is clear is that there is no one narrative. There cannot be – the situation is far too complex. Those engaged in an earnest quest to unravel the riots know that it will be an intricate process that will take time. Only, the processes are up against narratives and counter narratives: the underclasses, or the “thug” “hoodies”, took to the streets; this, juxtaposed with a multifaceted account by Paul Lewis who shed light on the alternative view – the rioters were not a monolith. Photographs and videos floating around on the internet show that men and women of different racial backgrounds and, most strikingly, across segments of the UK’s economic strata, comprised the crowds of rioters and looters. Lewis’ piece provides a tangential avenue to analysts wanting to simply evaluate rioters on their apparent opportunism.
In the pursuit to understand what took place inside the riots – getting to the bottom of what would possess masses of youth to tear society down – it is additionally critical to wrestle with what took place on the periphery of these riots. For it is on the periphery where some of the biggest lessons about Britain’s recent riots are to be learned – these lessons, unfortunately, not coated with the altruism academics and activists would aim for. Rather, Britain’s 2011 riots are an untainted indication of how authoritarian our governments have become. Moreover, the responses from society signal the complicity the public has fostered toward the autocracy that rules them – fascism, after all, is but a process of quiet encroachment.
In his first public appearance after his return from Tuscany, David Cameron charged the rioting as unadulterated criminality. Concurrently, various medias successfully sauced up the image of lazy black mums who have neither the will nor the aspiration to contribute to society, because they would rather suck up government benefits while allowing their multiple undisciplined children to wreak havoc on the streets.
British ears have subsequently been pounded with messages that political correctness is to blame for the degradation of UK society. In other words: “we have simply been too polite to say what we really think.” Outlandish attempts by historians, such as David Starkey, insisting that black street culture is to blame for turning white kids “black”, all the meanwhile, journalist Eve Pollard reprimanding black mothers for not disciplining their sons adequately, have dominated the airwaves.
Serener voices, such as Nina Powers’ elbowing reminder that the riots have greater context, have all but gotten lost in the cacophony of the mainstream narrative. Cameron’s authoritarian language condemning the actions of those participating in last month’s riots obscured all attempts to derive collected reason within the surge of stormy debates. Sectors of the media were quick to retort any attempt at explanation often conflating deeper analysis with justification for violence and looting. The public mirrored the panicked temperament, finding examination deeply suspect.
While many Britons acknowledge that the initial Tottenham riots sparked from the fury of the underprivileged in response to the ambiguous circumstances around Mark Duggan’s death, the terminology used to describe the successive riots shaped a particular image set in motion: the “mindless” “opportunistic” “thieving” “scummy” “thug” “gangsters” were engaged in “copycat riots”. In the end, the public was left with a picture that the riots had no real political or economic cause.
“Common-sense” ruling for the mindless criminality on display throughout the UK, established that riot participants be dealt swift punitive measures. Cameron’s draconian language added to the spectacle: “We will track you down, we will find you, and we will punish you”.
Magistrate courts throughout England processed accused rioters and looters at express speed, often staying open throughout the nights. Despite raised eyebrows by civil rights groups questioning the “rough justice” tactics of the UK’s criminal justice system, courts continue to deal harsher than normal sentences to those caught up in rioting or looting. A 6 month jail sentence for a man found stealing £3.50 worth of water bottles from a LIDL supermarket, to a 16 month sentence to a looter stealing 2 scoops of ice cream, illustrate the disparity between proportionality and justice in the aftermath of the UK riots.
Collective punishment has also become a mainstay in the post-riot phase. In some instances, entire families have had their financial and housing benefits terminated. Already, entire families with one member guilty of participating in the riots have been served eviction notices from their public housing. This collective punishment tactic should sound off a familiar bell to investigative eyes: it is an eerie reminder of how societies punish violent acts by members of groups perceived as the “other”. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, house demolitions are ordered by the Israeli government if one member of the household is found guilty of terrorism.
Effectively, the top-down narratives have delegitimised the anger that sparked last month’s riots; a severe pretense. The discrepancy between community anger from criminality warrants deeper scrutiny. While criminalities are defined as “illegal” and “illegitimate” acts – in the case of the UK riots: theft, arson, and the unfortunate murders of 3 Muslim men in Birmingham – the grievances of a community, on the other hand, are wholly legitimate, and demand to be heard by the public.
The ensuing wave charging poor black mothers as responsible for the riots, from this perspective, is bewildering. The readiness of individuals to accept the narrative of wanton black culture as liable, should sound another warning signal – the demonisation of mothers as unconcerned and careless, is a customary technique used to dehumanise entire peoples – one only has to hark back once again to the Israeli/Palestinian example.
While social problems certainly exist, finger pointing will cease to bring genuine answers to the surface. Condemning entire communities intensifies hostilities and isolates communities from one another; a lesson certain sectors of the British public should be well aware of – specifically British Muslims.
Responses from British Muslims, a community accustomed to being heavily criminalised, were thus, exceptionally problematic. A Muslim woman explained her experience of the London riots: the atmosphere on her neighborhood High Street was “tense.” She continued, “There was a group of teenagers hanging around opposite the grocery store and it didn’t look right. All the locals were standing around watching them and it got really tense. Eventually a police van turned up and they ended up dispersing.” Furthermore, numerous British Muslims appeared to support the idea of bringing in the army on “shoot to kill” orders.
Another Muslim woman admitted “I am now reassured by random stop and searches in Manchester rather than appalled.” When questioned on account of the fact that stop and search practices were also cited as responsible for stirring the community tensions that resulted in the riots, she simply responded “Yeah, the approach led to a lot of problems and stereotyping in the past, but now I feel like I would accept less freedom for more security.”
The British Muslim community had their moment in the spotlight in the midst of tragic events, along with the Sikh community, as the heroes of the riots. While the efforts of local vigilantes in the absence of police to protect neighbourhoods are heroic, British Muslim communities should exercise caution in the face of moral panic and reflect on their lessons: what was it like for them to be the enemy within during the immediate aftermath of 9/11, 7/7, and the Madrid bombings?
These riots have turned the tables in Britain, and within this context, certain communities are only able to rise as heroes off the backs of other communities; chiefly Britain’s poor black communities. The attempts of numerous British Muslim organisations to extol their vigilante heroism are unfortunate and myopic, as we should know well by now: in Britain, the tables perpetually turn back and forth.
However, the devastation of British Muslims facing the death of 3 innocent young men protecting the streets reflexively causes them to call attention to the Islamophobia present in some of the rioters – and they’re correct to point it out. The rioters are but a thought provoking mirror of the wider society that has shaped and produced them – consumers and xenophobes. Members of the British public did not appear to like what was being reflected back at them.
Nevertheless, British Muslims should need only to read the accounts of poor black families whose homes have been raided in the midnight hours over the past month while the police attempt to “root out” criminals from society and feed them their swift slice of justice. One only has to substitute the names in order for British Muslims to obtain their uncanny reminder.
It is only in a state of fear and panic that a society willingly gives up its civil liberties in the name of security. The public is maneuvered into thinking it is beneficial for them to surrender civil liberties in exchange for increased security. Such willingness fosters tolerance for increased surveillance measures and the readiness of many sectors of the public to become informants. Under the “Riot Clean Up” agencies, such acquiescence by the public was praised and celebrated by politicians, police, and the media all in the name of community cohesion and national security.
In Birmingham, for example, the West Midlands Police placed large screens in the city centre exhibiting the faces of wanted riot criminals. Consequently, West Midlands Police reported that they found that the displays were more efficient in identifying and locating suspects because members of the public were more likely to make notifications in person than they would over the phone.
Intensifying criminal justice measures in poor neighbourhoods to restore order may appear logical to many. In the short term, it might provide some with a sense of satisfaction that justice has been served; but that won’t be long lasting. On the contrary, simply catching and locking away rioters and looters will not bring resolution. In light of the fact that the grievances against the police from underprivileged communities have been dismissed by the Prime Minister, increasing police presence in those very places where community distrust is so high, without remedying their grievances, is a plan set to fail.
This is precisely where the crux of the problem lies. The uni-dimensional portrayal of last month’s riots has pervaded the British ethos and has led to their historical decontextualisation. The series of enquires and resolutions that followed are all but superficial remedies. To divorce the recent riots from its wider milieu is illogical and dangerous.
An economic recession as deep as this, western governments have done little by ways of alleviating the immediate impact on their civilians. Instead of raising government spending, the public are told to make sacrifices – all in the face of bank bailouts and tax breaks for the wealthy. The poorest communities throughout the UK suffer the most with drastic cuts to social services and institutions. The youth have been pushed out onto the streets with an unwavering message: the government does not care about you.
Yet months before the spending cuts went into effect, Brits took to the streets to protest for numerous correlating motives. Not only did these protests fall on deaf ears, but the police did their best to shut them down. The spring budgets protests ended with bank windows smashed to pieces and the streets of Westminster set alight. Within months, riots broke.
Finally, one week before the riots hit, the following article published in the Guardian tells readers that Metropolitan police are now warning Londoners about a the rise of anarchists within their midst. Londoners are told that they should immediately report any and all anarchist activity to the British anti-terror police.
Britain’s lesson: the UK government knows precisely what it’s doing. In difficult economic times, the incongruous crippling austerity measures will agitate the British population – bear in mind, it is only the early days of the budget cuts going into effect. Since, the government has clamped down even harder – the riots have provided the perfect pretext. Things are set to get much worse. The government’s only logical solution: make the ensuing agitation illegitimate and criminal.