16 August 2011 — Morning Star
If riots are the voices of the unheard, they’ve come over loud and clear. But nothing we’ve heard from government [that] will bring an end to the causes of unrest.
If anything, the promised eviction of council tenants, rough justice in 7/11-style courts and the deployment of armed officers in a shopping centre in Manchester at the weekend are simply stoking the fire.
Riots have been misunderstood in the same terms for decades and reoccur within a few years.
Since 1981 there have been dozens of riots in Britain, ranging from the poll tax riots, race riots and, more recently, student riots.
The interpretation and response to mass expressions of anger, frustration and despair from the media, politicians or the public is like a broken record. Over and over again, we hear the same phrases and the same message.
Poor parenting, lone parenting, gang culture, poor white trash, drug abuse, lawlessness and greed are named and blamed.
The message is simple. The government has no solutions.
Riots are presented as a symptom of a diseased, deviant minority that must be punished.
People were put in fear of their lives, some lost their livelihoods, many will lose their liberty and, tragically, some have died.
This has to be fixed and fast – but it is social, not criminal justice that will bring stability and safety to our streets.
What is markedly different about recent events is that an entire generation has formed an underclass independent of background, race or national identity.
This formation is based not only upon their current circumstances but what they believe their future will be in the absence of radical change.
In 1981, Lambeth Council leader Ted Knight complained that the police presence had provoked the riots.
Margaret Thatcher responded by saying: ‘What absolute nonsense and what appalling remarks. No-one should condone violence. No-one should condone the events. They were criminal.’
Months later, Lord Scarman’s inquiry located the cause of the riots within a discourse of the plight of ethnic communities.
He viewed the riots as a consequence of the complexities of the relationship between ethnic minorities and white British.
Racism, poverty and the fictional African-Caribbean family without fathers, without discipline and without responsibility were posited as the roots of the problem.
It is impossible to separate Scarman’s interpretation from the rationale of colonialism and he excused oppressive police practices as an inability to respond to difference, not institutionalised racism.
Thirty years later, David Cameron has proclaimed that riots are ‘criminality pure and simple and there is absolutely no excuse for it … It is simply preposterous for anyone to suggest that people looting in Tottenham at the weekend, still less three days later in Salford, were in any way doing so because of the death of Mark Duggan.’
In every instance of violent urban unrest that has taken place in Britain since 1981 three factors have been present – an oppressive police presence, poverty and tensions arising from discrimination and deprivation.
An incident, in this case the death of Mark Duggan, finally ignites emotions and produces a violent reaction with its own rules of engagement and inherent logic. This is the pathology of riots.
Much has been made of the Olympic hopeful, the teaching assistant and the ballerina in the dock.
Clearly a teaching assistant earning £11,000 a year has nothing to complain about in a country where the average wage is two-and-a-half times more than what he earns in a year.
The class of 2011 was created by the belief that, in or out of work, they have no hope, no future and nothing left to lose.
The experience of young people at the hands of police during the demonstrations against tuition fees and cuts to EMA bound this generation.
The experience of young black men became the universal experience of young working-class people. Race per se was not a factor in the riots.
Riots occur when a group of disadvantaged, oppressed people are motivated by fury to reclaim the symbols and artefacts of the culture that has cast them out.
So where did this generation go to seek and destroy? The high street became the theatre for their war with society.
Cameron has made a grave error of judgement when he said: ‘Young people stealing the flat-screen televisions or burning shops – that wasn’t about politics or protest. It was about theft.’
Looting is not primarily motivated by greed or theft. It is social unrest and is a feature of riots.
Historically, looting is an ancient act of war. To plunder the enemy’s valued treasure is the reward of battle. To defile architecture and objects of a civilisation is the means by which the victor obliterates all traces of the enemy.
In 2003 Geoff Hoon regarded Iraqi looters as ‘civilians liberating those items that are in the charge of the regime by entering its former facilities and secret organisations and redistributing that wealth among the Iraqi people.’
He said: ‘I regard such behaviour as good practice.’
Looting is a symbolic act whereby cultural values are reassigned, if only temporarily.
The class of 2011 made an audacious, bold statement – if you do not give us what we want, we will come and take it.
Looters mimicked the behaviour of shoppers by selecting, displaying and parading their loot. Young women carefully packaged their goods in branded carrier bags.
This was a grotesque form of consumption borne of the excesses of late neoliberalism. ‘I am, therefore I shop’ – with or without cash or credit.
Of course this is theft, but in the context of riot, looting must be interpreted as a meaningful social act.
Riots are stripped of social and political significance in the days that follow episodes of social unrest.
Discipline, punishment and silence scab over the surface but underneath the poison of inequality festers.
Governments condemn the drift into lawlessness and disagree about the impact of poverty and social deprivation.
It’s easier to punish rioters than it is to fix the nation.
Far better to lock up all that despair in our overcrowded prisons, out of sight and totally out of Cameron’s tiny mind. Until the next time.