It is now a year since riots swept through London and other British cities. To mark the anniversary, many newspapers, politicians and TV pundits are making retrospective statements on what took place. Now, as at the time, much of the political establishment has chosen to portray the events in moralistic terms, shrill denunciations with very little in the way of objective analysis. Blame is placed on an underclass of moral degenerates, frenzied with nihilistic materialism and to blame for their own poverty. In contrast, the journal Race and Class has recently published an article by Warwick University academic Lee Bridges (see here), who examines the evidence and draws a markedly different set of conclusions.
The strength of Bridges account is that it places the riots in context – the killing of Mark Duggan by the Metropolitan Police in Tottenham took place in an area of long-standing tension between the local community and the police. Tottenham MP David Lammy made much of supposed improvements in relations, but statistics suggest otherwise. 6,894 stop and searches had taken place in the local borough of Hackney in the three months preceding June 2011, of which only 87 resulted in arrest and conviction.
National statistics confirm that the practice of stop and search by the police has steadily increased in recent years and continues to be disproportionately targeted at black and Asian youth. Many of the young black people targeted by police today come from families where parents and even grandparents suffered similar discrimination since arriving in Britain. Police harrassment has not been limited to specific, largely black areas of London. When the Guardian and London School of Economics launched a survey of those involved in rioting, the complaint of regular police harassment, “humiliation, unjust suspicion and lack of respect” was made in every city in which research took place, “by interviewees of different racial groups and ages.”
This sense of resentment and injustice was exacerbated by the nature of Mark Duggan's death. Following his shooting by the Metropolitan police, his family were not contacted by either the Met itself, nor the Independent Police Complains Commission for several days. There was no explanation or apology and no senior police officer visited Tottenham.
Popular anger in Tottenham was further stoked by a lack of police response to the various stories in the press. Newspapers described Duggan's death as having followed a shoot-out with police, one officer supposedly having been hit. This later emerged as false, but no denial by either the Met or the IPCC was made. Reports of Duggan having been “a well-known gangster” (a claim denied by the community and family) and even a claim that he had been dragged from his minicab, held down and shot, all met with silence on the behalf of the police.
The Duggan family say they they have not been given any information about the direction of the investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
A peaceful protest was staged, the plan being to march to the local police station and demand information on the killings. The Met report says the demonstration was to be policed in “facilitative” manner, but with a Tactical Support Group and anti-knife unit held in reserve. Neither the duty inspector nor the chief inspector were able to answer the demands of the protesters, and a call was made to a senior officer to come to Tottenham. As darkness fell, anger boiled over and by the time the officer had arrived, missiles had already been launched at police lines and police vehicles had been set alight.
The Met/IPCC report of this first night of rioting is the first indication that the narrative provided by politicians and the mainstream press doesn't provide an accurate picture. The next day, local MPs blamed the riots on “mindless, mindless people”, fuelled by “nihilism” and “hedonism”. And yet the Met's own report does not describe a mass outbreak of theft but a very concentrated lashing out at the police. It says attacks on police property continued for several hours, and that looting of nearby shops took place primarily to get bottles and other objects to be used as missiles against police.
Rioting spread rapidly in the next two days, with the number of affected areas proliferating far faster than the number of police reinforcements could deal with. HMS Inspectorate of Constabulary claim that a ratio of three to five police officers to each rioter is needed in order to actively put a stop to large-scale unrest. While the number of available police gradually increased each night, riots spread to 12 and then 36 locations, spread over 22 of London's 32 boroughs. A substantial end to the riots only came on the fourth night, with London swamped with officers from the rest of the country, peaking at 16,000 in total.
After the riots had finally come to an end, a frenzy of denunciation, cod-sociology and righteous indignation erupted from an increasingly hysterical press and a flustered political establishment.
David Cameron described the riots as “criminality, pure and simple”, Nick Clegg inveighed against “needless and opportunist theft and violence”, and Kenneth Clark resurrected the old tabloid favourite of the “feral underclass”.
More awkward was the position of Labour politicians, simultaneously eager to jump on a moral band-wagon, but also vaguely aware that racist policing and social inequality were things they were traditionally meant to acknowledge and condemn. David Lammy got round this contradiction by seeking to draw a clear line between the past, where racist policing and systematic social exclusion did take place, and the present, where, the factors having vanished, rioting must purely be the product of “sinister elements” with “mindless” impulses.
The Tottenham riots were different from the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985, Lammy explained, because while that riot (sparked by the death of a black woman, pushed to the ground during a police raid of her home) was sparked by racial tensions and abrasive policing, this had since “improved immeasurably”, leaving very little reason for grievance. The testimonies of many residents of Tottenham, or, indeed, a close reading of the evidence or of the Met/IPCC's own report, contradicts this claim.
None of this is to deny that looting and theft did make up a larger element of the rioting in other parts of the city and the country. Or that burning down homes (as happened in Croyden). Or the hurt people suffered when the looting occurred is morally defensible. But there must be more to say.
In the strictest terms, David Cameron's description of the events as having been “criminal” are technically accurate. Throwing bottles at policemen is indeed illegal behaviour. So is the smashing of sports shop windows or pinching a wide-screen TV from Curries. But, as Guardian journalist Gary Younge has argued, “insisting on the criminality of those involved, as though alone that explains the motivation and the context is irrelevant, is fatuous.”
The problem for the Tories and other bourgeois politicians was they felt compelled not only to denounce the violence and to promise to restore order, but also to provide some explanation for what had taken place. Why had so many people felt so enraged and disenfranchised from the system that attacking the armed wing of the state, as well as burning down large portions of their own neighbourhoods, had seemed like an attractive idea? But any serious answer, that takes into account crippling poverty and unemployment, endemic racism and disenfranchisement, would require a change of policy to address these issue. Since such policies run in contradiction to the interests of the Tories and their allies, a different explanation had to be provided.
Examples of such explanations, and suggested remedies, could be found in the report of the Riots Communities and Victims Panel.
The RCVP, set-up on a cross-party basis in place of a judge-lead inquiry, produced conclusions so Victorian in their outlook as to be laughable if they weren't so appalling. While the riots were indeed linked to poverty, this poverty was blamed on a lack of “moral character” and family break-down. Impoverishment had less to do with a 50% unemployment rate among black youth, and more to do with a lack of father figures. The solution? Councils should encourage community volunteers, “local uniformed organisations” such as scout groups and girl guides.
Failing schools, rather than needing support, should be penalised. These same schools should be monitored for “building character” in their pupils. The grotesqueness of these suggestions is contrasted with the grim material reality of what is happening in Britain's poorest areas. In the Borough of Haringey where the riots began, eight out of 12 youth groups have been closed due to Tory austerity, with the rest under threat. Social support and employment services have been slashed, with replacement Youth Work Promise schemes not guaranteeing employment until two years of a candidate not having work.
The Tories tell poor young people to buck up their ideas, that poverty is their own fault, while simultaneously cutting any means for the same people to improve their situation. As Gary Younge says: “The primary challenge of integration ... is convincing a sizeable section of British youth, of all races, that they can be integrated into a society that won't educate or employ them.”
It is imperative that the left provides an alternative to this malicious drivel, and makes the case to working-class people that a world shorn of these miseries is possible, and that the rage of the riots can be channelled into a militant and transformative political struggle.