7th to 11th August 2011 will be four days of social unrest forever remembered. England saw a level of violence, rage and criminal behaviour on our city streets that many have never seen before; or so it would be thought from the media coverage given to the riots. However, in every decade excluding the noughties there has been rioting. In the 1950s there were the Teddy Boy Riots; in the 1960s, mods and rockers rioted on the beaches in Brighton; in the 1970s riots erupted due to the economic downturn and were often conflated with and/or linked to the general strikes; in the 1980s the miners’ strike fracas’ (much like the Falklands ‘fracas’) did not seem to get such support, nor did the riots in Tottenham, Brixton and Toxteth which brought to light the extreme racism suffered by the ethnic minorities in the UK; in the 1990s even the middle class rose up and got involved with the poll tax riots (after all, it was economic and actually affected them), and now we have the riots of 2011. If we look further back in history, England has a long history of rioting although it is sometimes called ‘revolt’ or ‘revolution’. This of course depends upon perspective, historical analysis and whether the ‘rioters’ were successful or not. History, as we know, is written by the ‘victors’.
Looting, irrevocably linked to rioting in the media reports despite being two entirely separate activities with myriad motivations intersecting in a Venn diagram-ish manner rather than being the same thing, even occurred during the war. The Blitz1 is often spoken about as creating a ‘war spirit’. However, it also created a lot of criminal opportunity, and looting was a frequent occurrence of bombed out homes in London and Coventry.
How did this particular period of rioting begin? Well, a young family man who it appears had been involved in the fringes of criminality (although he had only ever been held on remand with regard to a minor offence in his youth), Mark Duggan2, was shot by the police in a planned stop and seize operation. He was a back-seat passenger in a taxi cab. There is no evidence that he was armed, but the main problem was the lack of information being received by the family with regard to the investigation of the shooting. So a peaceful demonstration, from Broadwater Farm to the Tottenham police station, was organised. Unfortunately it appears from anecdotal reports that upon remonstrating with the police verbally, a 16-year-old woman was hit by four members of the constabulary. It is this incident which applied the spark to the tinderbox of simmering resentment, oppression, racism/classism/discrimination and anger felt by members of the community, and it is this which burst into flames and began the initial riots on Saturday 7th August 2011. Broadwater Farm was already a name resonant with history and political meaning, being the location from which the 1980s riots commenced3, the motivation for which is being conflated in media reports for the current troubles now.
The rioting then spread to other areas in north London, and the next two days across London. By Monday 10th August riots were reported in several cities across England – Nottingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham and Leeds. The term ‘riot’ covers myriad events. I was caught up in the riots in Lewisham, caught between the police line and the rioters line along with many other bystanders in Lewisham town centre. Two shop windows were broken, people gathered and threw rocks and other missiles without apparent aim or serious intent towards the police, some car windows were smashed around me, and two or three burnt out cars were evidence of the Lewisham riot. That’s it. Compare that with Croydon which suffered utterly destroyed and burnt out family businesses and shops, or Woolwich, again which suffered massive destruction of property; or other areas where commercial property was lost, or family homes, or where lives were endangered by fires set without thought to the people who may be caught in them. The all-encompassing title of ‘riot’ is not a label which fits all, and most definitely does not include ‘looting’. A riot is defined as civil disorder by organised and/or disorganised groups against authority figures or groups. Looting is theft of goods not only during a riot but also during such events as delivery of humanitarian aid to stricken areas. It is significant that the two terms are interchangeable in media and conversation.
No event occurs in a vacuum. The politics of individualism reduce the causes to either/or, but this reduction is misleading. The causes are many, varied and never simple. The social unrest due to disenfranchisement of ethnic and lower class groups of people, the recession having resulted in all services in my area of south London (which was one of the areas worst hit by both government cuts and the riots) for youths and unemployed being cut, anger boiling over, adrenalin and mob mentality, are some of the many reasons so far put forward. There were also organised gangs of criminals inciting further riots and looting, there were opportunist crimes occurring.
In the UK and especially in the cities, there is a massively growing divide between the rich and poor. Our government last year was also caught out in a massive expenses scandal for which only about four MPs have ever been prosecuted. The Banks received huge amounts of tax money in bailouts and have lately been awarding the higher level bankers bonuses for their work, whilst unemployment has been rising higher than ever. There is a lot of social discontent. What is the morality of the society in which these events occurred? Here are some figures:
“Highest estimated cost of riots: £100m.
This is in comparison to the following costs:
Tax avoidance in 2010 by richest people in UK: £7 Billion
Tax payers bill for banking crisis: £131 Billion
Total MP expenses bill (2007): £87.6m
Tax Avoidance by Vodafone: £6 Billion [as one example of corporate tax avoidance]”.4
Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, The Mayor of London Boris Johnson and our Chancellor George Osborne all have a history of being involved in arson and vandalism similar to, but on a far smaller scale, to that which occurred in riots.5 Even our Deputy Prime Minister has admitted to being an arsonist in his drunken youth6; this is the same Nick Clegg who warned of the potential of riots should the cuts we have now seen enacted, in an 11th April 2010 interview with Sky News.7 This information has been widely reported in the media, but the social and financial privilege enjoyed by these people who admit their guilt has resulted in no long-term implications for their actions.
Then there is the initial spark. 334 people have died in police custody since 1998. There has been only one conviction, not of a police officer but of a civilian employed by the police, and enquiries are held internally by the police to investigate such things. Len Jackson, IPCC interim chair, said: it is clear that juries quite often find it difficult to convict police officers.”8 At the same time, the police are not trusted by those sectors of the public most often targeted, being ethnic minority groups and young people. Children of 11 (the earliest age of those I have spoken with) are regularly stopped and have their details taken by police whilst hanging out in the street or even going to and from the shops. They are treated as potential criminals and so this has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Think of the newspapers you read, or news outlets you source. How often are members of minority groups, either through ethnicity or class or financial status, seen as perpetrators of crime? How often are poorer people’s crimes reported and punished, as opposed to what is known as white-collar crime such as that committed by the MPs, or by bankers, or by defrauding insurance companies for example? The latter costs us more, but the former is reported more. We end up with a disproportionate reportage which evokes a discriminatory view of society and of those whose ethnic identities, whether real or perceived, are not that of the majority. Those whose faces are white or perceived so, are poor. Even in the riots, which were enacted by members of all ethnic groups, have been reported with a racial basis. The BBC, a organisation many respect for its impartiality, and whose mandate due to being funded by a licence fee is to provide impartial news coverage, has been forced twice to apologise for racially biased reporting.9 Respected voices such as Historian Dr David Starkey and Big Issue Founder John Bird have both made racially-biased comments with regard to the riots. This viewpoint is pervasive; can we be surprised that there is little trust in society and towards the legal system from the communities towards whom such profiling is targeted? Yet it is shown, time and again, that these riots were not enacted by particular ethnic groups. So one must question why this viewpoint is perpetuated.
Peaceful demonstrations about many topics, but most latterly the stringent cuts which have been forced disproportionately onto the poorer sectors of society, have produced no results, so people (not all, but some and in growing numbers) are seeking other ways of being heard. Those attempting peaceful demonstration and occupation in Fortnum & Masons during the March for the Alternative demonstration were lied to by the police and were both kettled and then arrested having been told neither of these actions would be attempted upon their exist from the store.10 The activist Jody McIntyre was forcibly removed from his wheelchair and dragged to the side of the road, an action which could have caused him serious damage as the police were unaware of the nature of his disability. The police have been investigated and their action has been defined by the IPCC as ‘excessive force’, yet the timing of this finding means that the office may face ‘management action’ but the criminal charges the IPCC recommended have been timed out.11 12 Mistrust of the police grows, and the awareness that peaceful demonstrations seem not to work permeates society.
How is justice being delivered? Wandsworth Council have already taken steps to evict a mother and her 8-year-old daughter whose 18-year-old son has been charged with involvement in riots outside the borough, although if acquitted they have stated they will withdraw the application to evict. The threat of eviction will remain hanging over the heads of a mother and child whose only crime is to have a son accused of involvement. From Housing Minister Grant Shipps “In a letter sent to landlords in England on Monday he wrote: ‘Where a social tenant or member of their household decides to wreak havoc in someone else’s community, social landlords should have some scope to take action.””13
The anger felt by the communities which suffered, and by society at large, is strong, immediate, and feels dangerously close to mob justice. Already one young man, Dane Williamson of Manchester, who was wrongly identified, arrested, held for 9 days and subsequently acquitted of all charges and absolved of any suspicion of involvement in the riots, has been made homeless by an arson attack against his home.14 Even the Law Gazette has warned against such vigilante style justice.15 There are fears that those remanded may suffer violence in whilst being held, and indeed three have already been attacked.16
There is no consistency with regard to those who may or may not be evicted, although all are in social or council housing. Some organisations will evict, some won’t, some are undecided. There is no level playing field; those in private rented accommodation or those who own their homes will not face equitable punishment. Those who are to be evicted, it must be remembered, are guilty of nothing other than having family members arrested, not necessarily convicted, of being involved in the riots. Evicted before the court case has been heard. Guilt presumed by association, let alone the presumption of innocence until proven guilty which is the cornerstone of our legal system and fundamental to the rights of every person living in England.
Sentencing is also inconsistent, with seemingly comparable offences receiving a wide variety of punishments. Our prisons, already overcrowded, are being further strained by the imprisonment of people with no previous convictions, who under similar charges not related to the riots would receive non-custodial sentences. The prison population is currently just over 86,000 and rising with 80 out of the 132 prisons in England and Wales officially overcrowded.17 Again, this seems inequitable, and to me seems to be legally-sanctioned vengeance rather than justice. Don’t get me wrong, those who committed criminal acts knew they were doing so and should face justice. But that is the all-important term; it is justice that they should face, not vengeance.
It is so important we analyse what happened; it is the only way to prevent it recurring. There are no simple answers. Criminal behaviour should be punished, but we must be wary of placing blame where none exists and we must ensure that justice, not vengeance, is served. If we don’t understand the social pressures and issues which sparked the riots, if we don’t attempt to reform those societal inequalities which exist, then history will continue repeating.
7. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DiymCgwXDK0 – Sky News interview with Nick Clegg
10. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJKdFKigfAw – Guardian report on Fortnum & Mason occupation
11. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82fKkQpT8o4 – bystander video of McIntyre dragged by police