World
Jeffrey R. Kerr-ritchie
August 20, 2011
© Photo: Public domain

On a warm early August evening in the north London borough of Tottenham, a 29 year-old father of four was shot to death by a special police unit. The police initially said Mark Duggan fired at them. An independent police review board later determined that although the man had a gun, it had not been fired. The anger of the local community was palpable in the protest at the police station led by the family and supporters of the slain man. It remains unclear how a peaceful demonstration turned into an angry confrontation: some say the beating-up of a young teenage girl by the police triggered the burning of one or two police cars. What followed was a night of arson, looting, and attacks on police officers. It quickly spread across London and within days into other major cities like Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham, Bristol, Manchester and Leeds. All of these disturbances occurred within mainly minority neighborhoods (Toxteth, Liverpool; Handsworth, Birmingham, St. Pauls, Bristol) marked by wretched histories of poverty, crime, economic blight, educational underachievement, and regular stand-offs with cops. Several days after the initial unrest, four people had lost their lives, over 2,500 people had been arrested, and property damage was estimated in the billions.

Tottenham is one of numerous minority neighborhoods in the capital city with high unemployment among youth and plenty of criminal activity. (Two statistics are relevant here: it is estimated that forty percent of all minorities live in London; while teenage unemployment is as high as forty percent in some areas). As one would expect, relations between the local community and the police are not exactly peaches and cream. Youths who commit crimes belong to families who naturally defend them. Minority youth are often the target of aggressive policing, racial profiling, and small-time harassment. (I recall experiencing all three growing up in south London during the 1970s and 1980s.) Although relations between the community and the police in Tottenham have improved since the 1980s, there is still a long way to go. Many members of the local community feel they receive neither respect nor equitable service from public employees even though they are law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. The legitimate complaint by small storeowners that police protected more powerful corporate businesses is less well known than the tired old criticism that youthful mobs were harming their own communities by burning down local stores. This anti-rioters rhetoric ignores the fact that many small businesses are owned by people who live outside the community, feed off of the poor with high prices, and harass minority customers. It should also be pointed out that vandalized stores like Debenhams in south London’s Clapham Junction are not exactly mum-and-pop businesses.

This poor state of affairs has a long tradition. In 1981, the borough of Brixton in south London burned because of tension between the local black community and racist police policies. Four years later, riots occurred on the Broadwater Farm public housing estate located in Tottenham. It is also not restricted to urban Britain. In 1992, after an all-white jury acquitted Los Angeles police officers of the near-death beating of African-American Rodney King, a riot broke out for several days, ending with 55 deaths, and $1 billion in property damages. In 2005, minority youth with parents from North and West Africa living in the banlieue (working-class neighborhoods) ringing Paris rioted. The catalyst—much like the case in 1992 L.A. and 2011 London—was the electrocution of two youths climbing into an electricity sub-station while running from the police in Clichy-Sous-Bois in north-east Paris. What is clear about all of these events is not that police devils killed angelic minorities. Nor do these riots reveal the mindless violence of lost generations. Rather, there is understandable anger and frustration that too many young people of color are being either beaten or killed by public officials without explanation or accountability. This follows the disfranchisement of generation after generation. And it does not seem to stop. The local community gets it; many of the pundits and the politicians do not.

The extent to which some powerful people do not get it can be seen by the recent reaction to these urban outbreaks by British Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. This mediocre politician informed the British people that the riots were law and order issues that resulted from “cultural” problems. In the “good old days,” Cameron would have evoked biological explanations for why minorities rebel. Now, he and his ilk use the “c” word as if it can explain anything. Ed Miliband, his opposite number in the House of Commons, is only slightly better in his insistence that these social issues mirror the broader culture of greed that united British financiers and politicians in thievery. His critique is morally impeccable; but it does nothing to explain the origins, nature, and outcome of these social upheavals. It certainly would not have impressed his socialist father Ralph Miliband.

The most egregious example of the “c” explanation was offered by a second-rate British historian of Tudor England called David Starkey, CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) who argued that the riots demonstrated that the whites had turned into blacks. He achieved the remarkable feat of being wrong about the rioters, biting the media hand that fed him, and pissing off the chattering classes holding widely contrasting views. One wonders, however, what on earth the British Broadcasting Corporation was thinking when they invited him to comment. As an historian of slavery and emancipation, I eagerly await my invitation to discuss the role of sub-prime derivatives in the recent financial crisis.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the cultural explanation is that it has been trotted out in the past and, despite its analytical weakness, shows no signs of dissipating. The black urban rebellions during the 1960s in the United States were blamed on—not explained by—cultural problems: weak families; alienation; high crime rates; reproductive underclass; etc. The same was said about the rioters in 1980s London, 1990s Los Angeles, and 2005 Paris. If culture has any validity as an explanation for social unrest, it remains unpersuasive for urban rioters in Britain and the United States, but might have some validity in France because of powerful linguistic and religious differences between youthful minorities and the dominant society.

Some politicians and pundits claim that these riots demonstrate that British society is broken. This is nonsense. The riots and the official response suggest that it is the government that is broken. Over the last decade under prime ministers Blair, Brown, and more recently Cameron, there have been severe cutbacks in public expenditures. In the last three years, thieving financiers in the City of London have severely undermined the British economy. One disastrous consequence has been increased levels of unemployment among minority youth, together with cutbacks in social welfare programs, as well as the closing of recreational centers. Increased criminal activity, especially by gangs, obviously filled the lacunae. The same is true in other poor and deprived urban neighborhoods across Britain, France, the United States, and elsewhere.

It is also clear that political representatives and local leaders have failed these communities. One black parliamentarian used Prime Minister’s Question Time to argue against the “militarization” of policing the crisis. Surely this was the time to simply stand up and point a finger at the systemic failure of the British political establishment and its economic partners to reach these minority communities. Why are black politicians so afraid to identify either racist neglect or disproportionate burdens borne by poor minorities from certain governmental policies? The problem has become almost a cliché in the United States under president Barack Obama; while it is a non-starter in France because there are no parliamentarians of non-white immigrant origin. Another prominent black commentator could only suggest there be an international conference to tackle these issues! One hope is that minority communities will organize around pressing social and economic issues of inequality. (This is the spirit behind James Baldwin’s powerful 1963 publication The Fire Next Time paraphrased in this essay’s title). Riots usually bring organization in their wake; it is rarely the other way around, despite the politicians’ and pundits’ obsession with the role of social media—blackberrys in the streets—and gang activities. One sees the parallel in Egypt in which there has been a lot of mobilization as a consequence of youth uprisings in Cairo.

In short, these unresolved tensions in minority communities, together with wrong-headed analysis, and the absence of political and economic solutions, point to riotous times ahead.

The views of individual contributors do not necessarily represent those of the Strategic Culture Foundation.
The Riots Next Time

On a warm early August evening in the north London borough of Tottenham, a 29 year-old father of four was shot to death by a special police unit. The police initially said Mark Duggan fired at them. An independent police review board later determined that although the man had a gun, it had not been fired. The anger of the local community was palpable in the protest at the police station led by the family and supporters of the slain man. It remains unclear how a peaceful demonstration turned into an angry confrontation: some say the beating-up of a young teenage girl by the police triggered the burning of one or two police cars. What followed was a night of arson, looting, and attacks on police officers. It quickly spread across London and within days into other major cities like Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham, Bristol, Manchester and Leeds. All of these disturbances occurred within mainly minority neighborhoods (Toxteth, Liverpool; Handsworth, Birmingham, St. Pauls, Bristol) marked by wretched histories of poverty, crime, economic blight, educational underachievement, and regular stand-offs with cops. Several days after the initial unrest, four people had lost their lives, over 2,500 people had been arrested, and property damage was estimated in the billions.

Tottenham is one of numerous minority neighborhoods in the capital city with high unemployment among youth and plenty of criminal activity. (Two statistics are relevant here: it is estimated that forty percent of all minorities live in London; while teenage unemployment is as high as forty percent in some areas). As one would expect, relations between the local community and the police are not exactly peaches and cream. Youths who commit crimes belong to families who naturally defend them. Minority youth are often the target of aggressive policing, racial profiling, and small-time harassment. (I recall experiencing all three growing up in south London during the 1970s and 1980s.) Although relations between the community and the police in Tottenham have improved since the 1980s, there is still a long way to go. Many members of the local community feel they receive neither respect nor equitable service from public employees even though they are law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. The legitimate complaint by small storeowners that police protected more powerful corporate businesses is less well known than the tired old criticism that youthful mobs were harming their own communities by burning down local stores. This anti-rioters rhetoric ignores the fact that many small businesses are owned by people who live outside the community, feed off of the poor with high prices, and harass minority customers. It should also be pointed out that vandalized stores like Debenhams in south London’s Clapham Junction are not exactly mum-and-pop businesses.

This poor state of affairs has a long tradition. In 1981, the borough of Brixton in south London burned because of tension between the local black community and racist police policies. Four years later, riots occurred on the Broadwater Farm public housing estate located in Tottenham. It is also not restricted to urban Britain. In 1992, after an all-white jury acquitted Los Angeles police officers of the near-death beating of African-American Rodney King, a riot broke out for several days, ending with 55 deaths, and $1 billion in property damages. In 2005, minority youth with parents from North and West Africa living in the banlieue (working-class neighborhoods) ringing Paris rioted. The catalyst—much like the case in 1992 L.A. and 2011 London—was the electrocution of two youths climbing into an electricity sub-station while running from the police in Clichy-Sous-Bois in north-east Paris. What is clear about all of these events is not that police devils killed angelic minorities. Nor do these riots reveal the mindless violence of lost generations. Rather, there is understandable anger and frustration that too many young people of color are being either beaten or killed by public officials without explanation or accountability. This follows the disfranchisement of generation after generation. And it does not seem to stop. The local community gets it; many of the pundits and the politicians do not.

The extent to which some powerful people do not get it can be seen by the recent reaction to these urban outbreaks by British Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. This mediocre politician informed the British people that the riots were law and order issues that resulted from “cultural” problems. In the “good old days,” Cameron would have evoked biological explanations for why minorities rebel. Now, he and his ilk use the “c” word as if it can explain anything. Ed Miliband, his opposite number in the House of Commons, is only slightly better in his insistence that these social issues mirror the broader culture of greed that united British financiers and politicians in thievery. His critique is morally impeccable; but it does nothing to explain the origins, nature, and outcome of these social upheavals. It certainly would not have impressed his socialist father Ralph Miliband.

The most egregious example of the “c” explanation was offered by a second-rate British historian of Tudor England called David Starkey, CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) who argued that the riots demonstrated that the whites had turned into blacks. He achieved the remarkable feat of being wrong about the rioters, biting the media hand that fed him, and pissing off the chattering classes holding widely contrasting views. One wonders, however, what on earth the British Broadcasting Corporation was thinking when they invited him to comment. As an historian of slavery and emancipation, I eagerly await my invitation to discuss the role of sub-prime derivatives in the recent financial crisis.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the cultural explanation is that it has been trotted out in the past and, despite its analytical weakness, shows no signs of dissipating. The black urban rebellions during the 1960s in the United States were blamed on—not explained by—cultural problems: weak families; alienation; high crime rates; reproductive underclass; etc. The same was said about the rioters in 1980s London, 1990s Los Angeles, and 2005 Paris. If culture has any validity as an explanation for social unrest, it remains unpersuasive for urban rioters in Britain and the United States, but might have some validity in France because of powerful linguistic and religious differences between youthful minorities and the dominant society.

Some politicians and pundits claim that these riots demonstrate that British society is broken. This is nonsense. The riots and the official response suggest that it is the government that is broken. Over the last decade under prime ministers Blair, Brown, and more recently Cameron, there have been severe cutbacks in public expenditures. In the last three years, thieving financiers in the City of London have severely undermined the British economy. One disastrous consequence has been increased levels of unemployment among minority youth, together with cutbacks in social welfare programs, as well as the closing of recreational centers. Increased criminal activity, especially by gangs, obviously filled the lacunae. The same is true in other poor and deprived urban neighborhoods across Britain, France, the United States, and elsewhere.

It is also clear that political representatives and local leaders have failed these communities. One black parliamentarian used Prime Minister’s Question Time to argue against the “militarization” of policing the crisis. Surely this was the time to simply stand up and point a finger at the systemic failure of the British political establishment and its economic partners to reach these minority communities. Why are black politicians so afraid to identify either racist neglect or disproportionate burdens borne by poor minorities from certain governmental policies? The problem has become almost a cliché in the United States under president Barack Obama; while it is a non-starter in France because there are no parliamentarians of non-white immigrant origin. Another prominent black commentator could only suggest there be an international conference to tackle these issues! One hope is that minority communities will organize around pressing social and economic issues of inequality. (This is the spirit behind James Baldwin’s powerful 1963 publication The Fire Next Time paraphrased in this essay’s title). Riots usually bring organization in their wake; it is rarely the other way around, despite the politicians’ and pundits’ obsession with the role of social media—blackberrys in the streets—and gang activities. One sees the parallel in Egypt in which there has been a lot of mobilization as a consequence of youth uprisings in Cairo.

In short, these unresolved tensions in minority communities, together with wrong-headed analysis, and the absence of political and economic solutions, point to riotous times ahead.