Thursday, August 11, 2011

Why riot?

11 AUGUST 2011

A hooded youth walks past a burning vehicle in Hackney, east London. [Getty Images: Peter Macdiarmid]

Richard Seymour
No-one wants to hear social and economic justifications for rioting, least of all anyone in the UK political class. But justification is not what is at stake. The issue is explanation, as that will determine the response.

Prime Minister Cameron, and London mayor Boris Johnson, have a very simple explanation: it is opportunism, a chance to smash, grab, burn and run.

Their response, therefore, is a simple policing one. Increase the numbers of police forces on the street, and arrest more people. Some go further. Liberal MP Simon Hughes called for the use of the water cannon. Tory MEP Roger Helmer urged that the army be sent in, and looters shot on sight. With towns and cities rioting across the UK, involving at least thousands of youths, this would result in a bloodbath - if a condign one by Helmer's standards.

In fact, the government's response is totally empty: it amounts to saying, people loot because they want to loot, a circular argument that explains nothing. The question remains: why here, why now? The immediate spark was the shooting dead, in Tottenham, North London, of Mark Duggan by an armed police unit. This is not the first such killing. Between 1998 and 2010, 333 people died in police custody, and not one officer was convicted for any of the deaths.

The circumstances of the killing are as important. Police initially led the public to believe that Duggan had shot first. This is untrue. The bullet lodged in a police radio, said to come from his gun, was actually a police issue bullet. Police also failed to inform the family, who found out about the death from the media. And when a protest outside local police headquarters took place, officers ignored pleas for dialogue with those present. Later, according toeyewitnesses, they assaulted a 16-year-old girl with batons and shields. There followed a night of rioting not witnessed in Tottenham since the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985.

Since then, riots have spread to dozens of London towns and suburbs, as well as to other cities such as Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Gloucester. Most rioting is taking place in poor areas where there are pre-existing antagonisms between the police and young people. And, as the riot squad's aura of invincibility has been shattered by their inability to contain the early riots, it seems plausible that others have seen the opportunity to have a go. As young people interviewed on BBC Newsnight explained, "we first lost respect of the police, then we lost fear of the police". This comes amid a major national crisis for police, whose corrupt relationship with the News International empire has recently been under scrutiny.

It also follows a generation of painstaking efforts to overcome antagonisms between police and black communities. A watershed in this respect was the verdict of the inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence, a young black man murdered by racists in the south-east town of Eltham, acknowledging 'institutional racism' in the police. Racist policing did not come to an end, and nor did brutality. But relations were significantly improved. Yet the ongoing culture of violence and racism in the police, which may have been behind the death of Mark Duggan, could now destroy the gains made by police on this front. This has added to the uncertainty in the police's handling of the riots.

There is also a class dimension at work. Young people have suffered the most from the recession, with youth unemployment reaching a record high of 20 per cent. Cuts to education and local amenities have hit them particularly hard. In Haringey borough, where Tottenham is situated, local youths interviewed for The Guardian newspaper predicted that cuts would result in riots. When rioters are interviewed for the media, they often foreground class issues, as well as hatred for the government. One witness told the New York Times that he felt the rioters were taking on "the ruling class". Rioters interviewed for the BBC explained that it was about expressing hatred for the government, and "showing the rich we can do what we want". For these young people, there is a fleeting sense of power and freedom in such actions.

The taboo on such explanations is perfectly understandable from the government's point of view. Liberal leader Nick Clegg, before the 2010 election, predicted that if the Tories implemented deep spending cuts, there would be riots. He is now part of a coalition with the Tories, carrying through cuts amounting to a fifth of the government's budget. They have an interest in denying any responsibility for this situation.

But if the government are wrong, then a simple policing response won't work. Police bullets sparked this situation; it is unlikely that police batons can resolve it. A few totemic arrests and convictions may placate the siege mentality and lust for punishment of some, but it will leave the terrain prepared for further unrest. Nothing short of justice, for those affected by cuts and police brutality, will suffice.
Richard Seymour is a London-based writer and PhD student.

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