The British Urban Uprising of 2011
Paul T Zeleza
2011-08-11, Issue 544
For the past four days and nights British cities from London to Manchester, Birmingham and many other smaller towns have been engulfed by fires of rage. The urban riots have incinerated neighbourhoods and businesses, turned streets into war zones, resulted in hundreds of arrests, and left this declining post-imperial country deeply shaken and searching for answers, for redress, for culprits. Politicians trot the predictable banalities of disconnected leaders, calling the riots, in the words of Prime Minister David Cameron, "criminality, pure and simple". Opinionated pundits compete for explanation and epithets against the protesters and rioters as the bewildered public desperately seek the restoration of order.
As is common in moments of national convulsion, long-standing ideological positions and narratives are often reignited and reinforced. Predictably, rightwing pundits angrily amplify the government's line by condemning the protesters. The Telegraph even refuses to call them "protesters", preferring to label them instead as "looters and vandals and thieves." Beyond the "thugs" and "gangs" themselves, they blame their parents for abdicating family values, discipline and responsibility. They relish in mentioning how young the rioters are. In the words of one of the paper's commentators, "absent father have a lot to answer for." Another believes the police lost control because they "have become so sensitive to the issue of race that it is impairing their ability to do the job"; they care "more about community relations than upholding the law." Multiculturalism is blamed for creating a permissive climate for gang culture to thrive in the black community, a culture "that rejects every tenet of liberal society. It's violent, it's sexist, it's homophobic and it's racist." Talk of the pot calling the kettle black!
For their part, the liberals equivocate as they condemn the violence on the one hand and commiserate with the protesters by pointing out the conditions that created their rage. This prevarication can be seen in The Guardian. In an editorial, the paper was unequivocal: "Britain's 2011 riots have become a defining contest between disorder and order. In that contest, important caveats notwithstanding, there is only one right side to be on. The attacks, the destruction, the criminality and the reign of fear must be stopped.... There can be arguments about wider issues later. Today, in this moment of threat, the necessary position is to stand behind the police." In the meantime, the paper's columnists attribute the riots, variously, to the growth of inequality and implementation of savage austerity measures; the brutality of poverty and explosive psychology of unfulfilled consumer desires among the poor; the culture of entitlement and irresponsibility gone amok among the youth; and the perverse result of communities encouraged to fill in the gaps left by the state.
Also tempting in moments of national insurrections is the search for analogies. The Independent argues Britain has experienced its Katrina moment. As in New Orleans, the levees of social order have burst and the Coalition government looks clueless as did President Bush's Republican Administration beyond threatening more draconian police response. As with Katrina, this has been an agonizing moment for Britain, bringing into sharp view the underclass that is often invisible both to the indifferent state and elite society. "Far too little has been done by successive generations of politicians and public servants to integrate these individuals into normal society. The fuse for this explosion has been burning down for years, perhaps even decades. If any good can emerge from the horrors of recent days it will be that we finally face up to the shame of our excluded underclass."
Some make comparisons closer to home. The case of the 2005 French riots is particularly appealing. Both explosions of urban fury were triggered by police killings of black males in relatively impoverished communities with large minority populations and a long history of police violence, political and economic discrimination and disenfranchisement. The London riots are even scarier, contends one observer, because of their expansive social geography and impact. While the French riots were confined to the banlieues, the outlying suburbs of the beautiful Paris of the elites and tourists, the British riots are "surging right up to the doors of comfortable, middle and upper-middle class homes." This is facilitated by the sprawling nature of London and the mixed socio-economic-ethnic demographics of the city's low-income neighbourhoods.
Another intriguing European comparison is Greece, where the shooting of a teenager in December 2008 sparked widespread protests that rocked Athens for a week and presaged the anti-austerity riots of recent months. An author who has lived through the two sets of riots notes "both happened on the watch of conservative governments that refused to even acknowledge, let alone address, underlying discontents." Needless to say, "urban violence of such intensity cannot be merely pinned down to opportunistic motives.... If England is to learn from urban violence in other European cities, it ought to address the motivations and grievances of those participating in it. If it doesn't, trouble will return with a vengeance and it will hurt more, as it has in Athens."
All these external comparisons shine an important light on the 2011 British insurrection. Even more pertinent is to place the recent widespread riots in the context of British history. Eighteenth and 19th century Britain is littered with riots ignited by political, economic, and social grievances. In the 20th century, race increasingly added its incendiary dynamics to the periodic eruptions of public disaffection and disturbances. The postwar migration of large numbers of people from the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia, who were collectively called "black," ruptured the bonds of Englishness and whiteness, Britishness and Europeaness, and recast the ties and tensions between race and class.
Race and class have always been intertwined in and for imperial Britain, the leading slave trading nation of the 18th century and the leading colonial power of the 19th and 20th centuries. This is merely to point out the continuous circulation of the ideologies of race and class between Britain and its empire, which coloured social relations both in the colonial peripheries and in the metropolitan heartland during the heyday of empire and in its aftermath. In short, Britain has an enduring problem of racial and class inequality and exclusion, out of which riots occasionally explode. In the post-war period, race riots have broken out with predictable frequency: the Notting Hill riots of 1958, the Brixton riots of 1981, the Handsworth and the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985, and the Brixton and Bradford riots of 1995.
The specific contexts for each of these riots of course vary, but the basic text, the structural conditions remain deeply rooted in the class and racial hierarchies and marginalizations of British society sustained by Britain's increasingly feckless political class. In the 2011 riots two contexts particularly matter: First, the decline of economic opportunities, and second, the decay of democracy. Like much of Euroamerica, Britain was devastated by the Great Recession and the economy has been limping since the recession was declared officially over. In its latest estimate, the Bank of England "lowered its UK growth estimate for 2011 to 1.5%, from a previous forecast of about 1.8%, and cut its 2012 forecast to around 2% from 2.5%."
The adoption of a severe austerity program by the Coalition government involving massive cuts to social sectors and services including education threatens turning the lingering recession for the working classes and lower middle classes into a permanent depression. This has resulted in rising levels of unemployment for these classes among who racial minority youths are overrepresented. In large measure, then, the riots represent the marginalized lashing out while their political leaders enjoy foreign holidays from which they ignominiously returned to a country on fire. Clearly, the British riots are more multiracial than were the riots of 1981 or 1985 let alone the 2005 French riots. This makes them potentially more threatening and more difficult for the state to contain with cheap shots against "black hooligans" or the empty promises of multiculturalism.
At heart, this is a broken country led by a bankrupt political class, notwithstanding Prime Minister Cameron's cheap rhetoric of "Big Society" or the quaint theatrics of royal weddings. The state and its police functionaries are widely discredited. The ability of the political class to manage the economy to the benefit of the many rather than the few was severely damaged by the Great Recession and evaporated with the brutal austerity regime. In the meantime, politicians, police, and the press have been brought into disrepute by the hacking scandal involving the Murdoch media empire. The emperors of the British political class have never appeared more naked.
Many ordinary people are not impressed, least of all the marginalized minorities and the underpaid and underemployed workers. Some openly wonder why their looting is worse than that of the elites. To quote one writer, “While bankers have publicly looted the country's wealth and got away with it, it's not hard to see why those who are locked out of the gravy train might think they were entitled to help themselves to a mobile phone. Some of the rioters make the connection explicitly. "The politicians say that we loot and rob, they are the original gangsters," one told a reporter.”
In the poignant words of one commentator, "London's rioters are the products of a crumbling nation, and an indifferent political class that has turned its back on them." The scale of the social disaster is staggering. "In the bubble of the 1920s, the top 5 per cent of earners creamed off one-third of personal income. Today, Britain is less equal, in wages, wealth and life chances, than at any time since then. Last year alone, the combined fortunes of the 1,000 richest people in Britain rose by 30 per cent to £333.5 billion." The author laments "successive British governments have colluded in incubating the poverty, the inequality and the inhumanity now exacerbated by financial turmoil" and warns, "Watch the juvenile wrecking crews on the city streets and weep for all our futures. The ‘lost generation' is mustering for war."
The second context is the decay of British democracy, the destabilization or demobilization of popular participation at the local level and the centralization of power as manifested by the growth of electronic surveillance for the population as a whole and police surveillance against marginalized groups. As a veteran journalist puts it, "Outsiders witnessing the urban riots this week could be forgiven for assuming that Britain's cities were now run by the police and the home secretary. There may be municipal councils and in London an elected mayor, but they are nowhere to be seen to be in control. They have no real power and therefore little or no public status as civic leaders. At the front line are the police, and behind them only the central power of the state.... There is no substitute for proper, open, responsive democracy at any tier of government."
The growth of electronic surveillance was bolstered by the terrorist attacks of July 7, 2005. During a visit to Oxford and London three weeks ago, I was astonished at how pervasive electronic surveillance has become in the country. In 2009, the conservative tabloid, The Daily Mail, expressed shock, "Big Brother Britain has more CCTV cameras than China." It reported, "There are 4.2million closed circuit TV cameras here, one per every 14 people. But in police state China, which has a population of 1.3billion, there are just 2.75million cameras, the equivalent of one for every 472,000 of its citizens."
As has happened in the United States, the anti-terrorism measures adopted by the British government threatened to erode domestic freedoms. The main culprits of the surveillance state were the poor and racial minorities. Dealings between the police and these communities particularly the youth became more intrusive and repressive. So glaring is racial profiling that “Black people are 26 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by police in England and Wales” (compare to only 50 black professors out of 14,000 in British universities). Thus, the lessons of the riots of the 1980s and 1990s were lost in the madness of anti-terror surveillance and the centralization of state power.
The combination of economic austerity and police brutality has proven a combustible mix that has stoked the fires of rage in British cities and shaken the country. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to predict that the riots will periodically recur if this fundamentally unequal and racist society is not transformed. In the aftermath of this uprising, Britain's austerity model has lost its glow and may now serve as a warning to the limits of popular patience against the savage ravages of neo-liberalism that brought the Great Recession and has been desperately trying to arise from its ashes.
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