August 2011: a riot of our own

Issue: 132

Jonny Jones

On 7 August 2011 the Observer ran a column by Nick Cohen with the headline “No riots here, just quiet, ever-deeper misery”.1 After outlining the Tory attacks on working class people, he states, “These arrant insults ought to push the most mild-mannered people into revolt. Yet in Britain they provoke only students to riot. The wider public remains resigned rather than enraged; indifferent rather than incandescent”.2 The article was obsolete before the newspaper had hit the newsstands. The previous day had seen the eruption of a riot in Tottenham that was to spread across the country in the biggest wave of rioting for 30 years.

On 4 August the police had shot dead a 29 year old man named Mark Duggan near Tottenham Hale tube station. The reports that emerged were desperately confused. The BBC website reported that three shots had been fired, two by police and a third by Duggan.3 The Telegraph was even less circumspect, reporting that “a policeman’s life was saved by his radio last night after gunman Mark Duggan opened fire on him and the bullet hit the device. Armed police immediately returned fire and Mark Duggan, 29, who was under surveillance, was shot dead in the street in north London”.4 The article went on to quote police sources who referred to Duggan as a
“well-known gangster” and, more seriously, “An Independent Police Complaints Authority [IPCC] spokesman said: ‘We understand the officer was shot first before the male was shot’.” Despite this, the police failed to offer an explanation of events to Duggan’s family. As the community activist Stafford Scott explained to Sky News:

Up until now they haven’t come and helped them or advised them. They haven’t met with any family liaison officers at all. We were absolutely disgusted by that, so we decided that we needed to come to Tottenham Police Station, because they may not be aware that a murder has been committed… We came to the station to have a peaceful demonstration, and it was largely peaceful. [We explained] that we wanted someone senior from the police service to come and explain to us what was happening.5

The protest of around 200 people had marched to Tottenham Police Station on the evening of Saturday 6 August from Broadwater Farm—the estate that had been the location of riots in October 1985 following the death of Cynthia Jarrett after a police raid.6 Scott continues: “They kept on prevaricating. The most senior person they gave us was a chief inspector. We said that person wasn’t senior enough—we wanted a senior ranking officer of superintendent or above. Eventually they sent for a superintendent, but by then it was too late”.7

Anger had boiled over. Protesters had begun shouting at police. According to a local eyewitness:

the violence started after a 16 year old girl “threw something, maybe a stone, at the original riot police line”. He added that this was met with a furious response, with around 15 riot officers pounding her with shields. This description of events was corroborated by another local who spoke to BBC News. He said that the girl was “set upon” by police and that the crowd surged forward in anger.8

Within a few hours the numbers on the streets had increased significantly: “Many hundreds of people took to the streets. They reflected the local population—all ages, black and white, Asian, as well as many Hassidic Jews”.9 Police cars, buses and shops were set ablaze in a stand-off with police that lasted until the early hours of the morning. Looting took place at high street shops and at a retail park, with rioters targeting large electronics firms. According to some reports, “youths stormed McDonald’s and started frying their own burgers and chips”.10

The following day saw the rioting spread across London. In Brixton, the annual Splash Festival faced greater than usual policing; it erupted in the evening as young people clashed with riot police, who had begun to use baton charges and dogs to disperse the crowds.11 Violence also flared in Enfield and in Chingford Mount.12 Smaller incidents occurred in Dalston, where a shopping centre was looted, Islington, where a police car was attacked, and a number of other areas.13

By the morning of Monday 8 August all 32 London boroughs were on riot alert.14 The Metropolitan Police stated that over 100 people had been arrested and 35 police had been injured in clashes with rioters.15 Despite the deployment of 1,700 extra police in London, rioting of varying degrees had spread across dozens of areas of the capital. Stores were looted and burned down, notably in Croydon where the House of Reeves furniture shop was reduced to ashes. Young people in Hackney fought pitched battles with the police, often forcing them to retreat under hails of rocks and bottles. Rioters overturned bins and set cars alight as barricades. In one incident:

Hundreds of young people were running from the police but a bus was blocking their way. They surrounded it and suddenly realised the driver was still inside. Two young rioters knocked on the door and beckoned for her to get off. When she left the bus everyone clapped. Only then did they trash it.16

By the end of the day rioting had spread across the country. In Birmingham police were stopping and searching black and Asian young people in the Bullring shopping centre. One eyewitness reported:

We were pushed out into the street. The police corralled about 1,000 people. Then they kettled a group of young people who started to get angry because they hadn’t done anything wrong. Then they charged into the crowd and people started running through the city. The police had started a riot. There were black, white and Asian young people together, furious at the way they were being treated.17

The riot quickly spread across Birmingham and a police station was set on fire in Handsworth. Police clashed with thousands of young people in areas including Bristol, Leeds and Liverpool. In Nottingham police cars were stoned and a police station was attacked with petrol bombs.18

That morning the Guardian had reported a source in the IPCC saying that “initial ballistics tests on a bullet, found lodged in a police radio worn by an officer during Thursday’s incident, suggested it was police issue—and therefore had not been fired by Duggan”.19 The IPCC report the following day confirmed that Mark Duggan had not opened fire on the police before they shot and killed him.20

On Monday evening, David Cameron returned to Britain from his summer holiday in Italy, just hours after announcing he had no plans to do so. In a statement on Tuesday morning, he denounced the rioting as “criminality pure and simple”, promising to flood the capital with 10,000 extra police officers that night, bringing the total to 16,000.21 This seems to have had the effect of reducing the rioting in London considerably, though incidents broke out in Manchester and Salford for the first time, and confrontations with the police continued in towns such as Gloucester and Cambridge.22

On Wednesday, Cameron announced that a “fightback” was under way, and that police would be given permission to use rubber bullets and water cannons.23 By Wednesday evening all but a few limited skirmishes had come to a halt. It was the end of the biggest explosion of urban rebellion in a generation, with police announcing they were pursuing 30,000 suspected rioters.24

Who predicts a riot?

In April 2010 Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg gave an interview with Sky News in which he warned of “Greek-style unrest” in response to the Tories failing to win an overall majority in the general election but then forming an administration which would “then turn around in the next week or two and say we’re going to chuck up VAT to 20 percent, we’re going to start cutting teachers, cutting police and the wage bill in the public sector”.25 Needless to say, the warnings were swiftly forgotten when Clegg decided to enter a coalition with the Tories and promptly increased VAT to 20 percent and began to make swingeing cuts to the public sector.

One of the first and most visible responses to the cuts was the emergence of a student movement in Britain in November 2010. The 50,000-strong protest against tuition fees and the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA)26 exploded into militant action as the Tory party headquarters in Millbank Tower were laid siege to. Windows were smashed and protesters rushed into the building, making it as far as the roof. In the protests which followed, significant numbers of young college students from working class areas of London joined university students. Their attitude was best summed up by one young man, interviewed on BBC News on the night of the 9 December protest outside parliament:

We’re from the slums of London, yeah. How do they expect us to pay £9,000 for uni fees? And EMA is the only thing keeping us in college. What’s stopping us from doing drug deals on the street any more? Nothing!27

The protest saw huge clashes with riot police around Parliament Square and resulted in thousands of protesters being kettled on Westminster Bridge for several hours.28 The involvement of large numbers of young working class people in the student movement, with its accompanying destruction of symbols of authority, alongside the experience of harassment from the police, may have made participation in riots a natural evolution.

Less than a week before the riots broke out, the Guardian website put up a short film reporting on cuts to youth services in Haringey, which included the closure of eight out of 13 youth clubs. One interviewee says, “They were something for us to do. Now we’re just out here, getting up to no good.” Throughout the film people comment on the senselessness of the cuts, before one concludes, “There will be riots”.29

These factors were just the tip of the iceberg for poor young people. Unemployment among 16 to 24 year olds has risen sharply. In 2004 the figure stood at 12 percent. By the onset of the recession in 2008 it had risen to 15 percent, and by 2010 one in five was unemployed—more than three times the rate for older workers. In London the figure stood at 22 percent in 2011.30 These averages mask much sharper concentrations of youth unemployment. In Haringey, for example, half of all unemployed people are aged between 16 and 24. Some 40 percent of young people in the borough live in poverty.31 Racism also plays a role. In January 2010 the Institute for Public Policy Research found that “mixed ethnic groups had seen the biggest increases in youth unemployment since the recession began, rising from 21 percent to 35 percent in the period”. This trend echoed previous recessions: in the early-1990s recession, unemployment grew among ethnic minorities by 10 percent, as opposed to 6 percent for the population as a whole. The report indicated that while the average unemployment rate for black men stood at around 20 percent, among young black men it was a massive 48 percent.32

The other crucial factor that had an impact on the onset of rioting was the behaviour of the police towards young people. Under New Labour repeated moral panics and repressive policies targeting young people were launched. The introduction of Anti-Social Behavioural Orders (Asbos) was a key plank in Labour’s “tough on crime” stance. As Owen Jones explains:

They could be imposed for minor incidents and restrict the individual’s behaviour in various ways: like banning them from a street, or forbidding them from swearing. If the Asbo was violated, the culprit could be sent to prison for up to five years. Originally, New Labour promised that under-18s would have Asbos served only under exceptional circumstances but, as it turned out, year on year around half were imposed on the young. Overwhelmingly, those on the receiving end were both poor and working class.33

For young people living on inner city estates, hassle from the police is almost a way of life. In May 2008 the then home secretary Jackie Smith announced that the police “should be harassing badly behaved youths by openly filming them and hounding them at home to make their lives as uncomfortable as possible”.34 Later the same month, in response to a spate of knife attacks, the police launched “Operation Blunt Two”, which saw 27,000 people stopped and searched between May and early June. Knives were found on less than 2 percent of those searched.35 And these powers have been disproportionately used against young black and Asian people. Research conducted by the London School of Economics and the Open Society Justice Initiative in 2010 showed that the chance of an Asian person being stopped and searched was 630 percent higher than a white person, while the comparable figure for black people is an astonishing 2,660 percent. This is all the more shocking since the figures had increased sharply in the course of a year—up from 1,070 percent for black people and 220 percent among Asians.36 In 2009 Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, wrote an article in the Daily Mail suggesting that the charge of “institutional racism” (which had been levelled at the Metropolitan Police by the 1999 Macpherson inquiry into its mishandling of the investigation of the racist murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence) was no longer valid.37 He was followed a month later by the then justice secretary Jack Straw.38 These pronouncements rang hollow in the light of the stop and search figures.

The killing of Mark Duggan was the immediate spark for the events in Tottenham, but behind it lay a long list of grievances. Duggan himself was the latest in a series of deaths in police custody. According to the charity Inquest, 940 people have died in police custody in England and Wales since 1990, with another 473 killed in pursuit, road traffic incidents or shootings.39 No police officer has been found guilty of a criminal offence relating to any of these deaths.40

What is clear is that the frustrations of young working class people at a system that was denying them even the future they had expected, let alone the one they had hoped for, were running high. Police arrogance and intransigence in the wake of Duggan’s killing were understandable sparks for what followed. The Financial Times reported from Peckham that “young men from the area told the FT that if any single motivation to riot could be isolated, it was existing methods of police control—particularly the practice of stop and search, in which officers search people regardless of whether or not they have grounds for suspicion”.41

Why riot?

One of the most popular responses to the riots was questioning why people would damage and destroy the areas which they themselves lived in. David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham, summed it up by suggesting that “there will be profound questions about what has happened with a particular constituency of young people that their values are such that they could steal, rob and endanger life in their own neighbourhood in this way”.42

In his landmark study conducted in the wake of the 1981 riots Chris Harman suggested that, while riots had been a long established feature of urban life:

They were among the forms of popular protest that pre-dated industrial capitalism proper. With the development of forms of struggle based on the strength workers can exercise at the point of production—with strikes and unions—the role of the riot tends to diminish. But it can re-emerge in two instances—when strike action alone no longer seems enough to win workers’ demands, or when sections of workers lose their faith in the ability of the organisations based upon industrial action to achieve their goals.43

The recent riots clearly relate to both these instances. While it is impossible to get a definitive picture of those involved in the riots, research by the Guardian and the London School of Economics into the demographics of people who have been charged with offences over the riots show the vast majority of defendants to be under 25, with over a quarter under 18. Of these, the majority were not working (whether unemployed or students).44 A separate study by the Financial Times found that, “Overall, two thirds of all suspects live in neighbourhoods with below-average income, and only 3 percent hail from the wealthiest 20 percent of areas”.45 While the enormous trade union protest on 26 March and the coordinated industrial action on 30 June will have had an impact on many people’s consciousness of working class struggle, a large proportion of those involved appear to have been young, unemployed and un-unionised.

Other groups that might have traditionally provided focus for political frustrations have also witnessed varying levels of decline in the past 30 years. The Labour Party’s drift to the right under Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair was accompanied by the running down and dismantling of the once-vibrant Labour Party Young Socialist (LPYS) branches. At its height during the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, there were over 581 LPYS branches. However, as Charlie Kimber explains, “to the leadership’s horror, the dominant voice was that of Militant. So as a part of making Labour electable, the youth section had to be purged. Unfortunately for Labour, in the process of saving the innocent youth section from the hands of ‘unrepresentative extremists’, the leadership also destroyed it”.46 By 1993 only 18 sections remained and the LPYS was wound up.

In the same period black separatism declined, as black and white workers were integrated more and more, both at work and in communities.47 But the politics of black self-organisation became more and more bound up with the Black Section inside the Labour Party during the 1980s. The emphasis was on elevating “black faces into high places”.48 Emblematic of Labour’s shift to the right are the contrasting voices of the former Tottenham MP and Labour left winger Bernie Grant, who said after the 1985 Broadwater Farm riot that the police “got a bloody good hiding”, and his successor, David Lammy, who said in the wake of the riots this summer, “We must never, ever allow gang members and criminals to run the streets.” He was not referring to the police: he was calling for more of them.49

Taken together, it is clear that for young people from all ethnic groups there are few consciously “political” outlets available to direct their anger at the system. The collective action embodied in rioting can be a liberating experience. As Harman explained in another article written shortly after the Brixton riots of 1981:

Those without hope are capable suddenly, virtually out of nowhere, of shifting from apathy to anger. And that anger can break through all the restraints that education within capitalist society is supposed to build into people’s consciousness. The local streets suddenly take on the aspect of a revolutionary battleground, with barricades and burning cars and instant solidarity against the state.50

This sense of solidarity, of coming together in the face of an oppressor and in revolt against a world that denies the opportunities, means that:

For many of those who took part in the riots, it will have been one of the great experiences of their lives. For riots, even more than strikes, provide people who have often lived desolate, atomised, boring lives with an experience of solidarity, of collective power, of being able to affect the course of society at large instead of merely being on the receiving end. That is why after great riots the participants and onlookers rarely express regret at what has happened, even though the casualties on their side are invariably greater than among the police.51

The riots can embody a rejection of the poverty that surrounds the rioters. As one bystander remarked in 1981, “I hope they do burn down our homes. They would be doing us a favour”.52 Harman continues, “The power of the rioters lies in their ability to drive the police from the streets and to burn down symbols of oppression. But the streets they briefly control are streets of poverty. They burn down parts of the old society but do not have the means to build a new one”.53 While this points to the limitation of riots, it in no way downplays why rioting seems such an empowering and relevant activity.

Closely allied to the rationality of rioting is its legitimacy. Why is it that people involved in rioting should not express regret, not feel as though what they have done is wrong? In his analysis of food riots in the 18th century, EP Thompson suggested:

It is possible to detect in almost every 18th century crowd action some legitimising notion. By the notion of legitimation I mean that the men and women in the crowd were informed by the belief that they were defending traditional rights or customs…

This in its turn was grounded upon a consistent traditional view of social norms and obligations, of the proper economic functions of several parties within the community, which, taken together, can be said to constitute the moral economy of the poor. An outrage to these moral assumptions, quite as much as actual deprivation, was the usual occasion for direct action.54

There seem to be two lessons that can be taken from this analysis and applied to today’s very different context. The first is that rioting can embody a revolt against the diminished prospects of receiving things that a group felt they were entitled to or likely to acquire (employment, EMA, higher education, a car, etc). The second is that this affront to a sense of entitlement is more relevant than absolute poverty—while it’s true that those with nothing have nothing to lose, they can also feel even more hopeless.

This is one reason why an otherwise helpful piece of research by academics at the University of Essex fails to grasp the dynamics of rioting. Using survey data on people’s general propensity to break the law, they suggest:

Clearly, not all those who were prepared to break the law were involved in the August riots, but it can be safely assumed that a willingness to violate the law was a necessary condition for involvement. Sections of the general population that are prepared to violate the law may therefore constitute a pool of potential recruits from which potential rioters could be drawn.55

Such a static view of who might be involved overlooks the sense of solidarity one feels from being part of a large group, the feeling that one is justified in striking back against a state of affairs which has lost all legitimacy.56

For the same reason, one should be wary of left wing arguments which bemoan the lack of politics exhibited in the riots. Slavoj _i_ek, for example, contrasts the rioters’ lack of a message with the student protesters who, while turning to violence, “were making clear that they rejected the proposed reforms to higher education”.57 David Harvey suggests that capitalism should be put on trial for its crimes, but “this is what these mindless rioters cannot see or demand”.58 While rioters may not have a formulated list of demands, the riots were clearly a political act. As EP Thompson suggests, “it is not usually helpful to examine [riots] for articulate political intentions”.59 Many urban riots have been treated as irrational outbursts of criminality at the time, only to later be seen as understandable events which have had arisen from legitimate grievances and may have even had positive effects in the long term. In 1981, for example, there were “almost no overt politics in most of the big riots. They were spontaneous eruptions, led by those without worked-out political views, drawing behind them a cross-section of the youth in their areas. Yet the experience of the riots will have been a very political one”.60 We should bear in mind Frederick Engels’s observation that “contempt for the existing social order is most conspicuous in its extreme form—that of offences against the law”.61

“Burning and a-looting tonight”

Looting was undoubtedly a major aspect of the riots. In media coverage and in water-cooler conversations, however, it often seemed as though it was the only aspect of the rioting—with reports of stand-offs with the police relegated in favour of a focus on looting that served to depict rioters as criminals blinded by consumerism. It was noticeable that the revelations about the nature of Mark Duggan’s death barely troubled the news broadcasts, their lenses trained exclusively on broken windows and burning shops.

The liberal left found itself especially confused by the looting. One columnist for the Labour List website complained, “These are poor people but they’re not making a stand against inexcusable wealth, they’re looting Poundland not Tiffany’s. They’re not looting out of necessity, they just don’t see a downside”.62 Zoe Williams, writing in the Guardian, echoed this mood by saying, “I think it’s just about possible that you could see your actions refashioned into a noble cause if you were stealing the staples: bread, milk. But it can’t be done while you’re nicking trainers, let alone laptops”.63 But this kind of moral handwringing misses the point.

For many of those who are engaged in looting, it represents taking collectively, by force, what the system denies you—though in this day and age, it is denied to you only after you have faced a barrage of advertisements telling you how much you need it. As Alex Callinicos has suggested, “this reflects the intensive commodification of desires in the neoliberal era”.64 Stores that sell trainers, mobile phones, large-screen televisions, etc, were the most popular target of looters, alongside bookmakers and pawnshops. Media coverage focused on this at first, before moving its attention to the more emotionally affecting plight of small business owners. Yet in reality small businesses seem to have been much less affected than the bigger chain stores. On the morning of 9 August, after the heaviest of the rioting was over, the Association of Convenience Stores put out a press release stating that “93 stores had been affected, either directly or in that newspaper wholesalers cannot get deliveries to them”.65

Even accepting that small businesses were affected, we should also remember that for many of those involved in looting, even small business owners might seem far more wealthy and privileged than themselves, regardless of their actual wealth. In one revealing interview with the BBC, two young women comment on their involvement in the riots, saying, “It’s not even a riot. It’s showing the police we can do what we want, and we have.” In response to being asked why the riots have hit local people, they respond, “It’s the rich people. It’s the people who’ve got businesses. That’s why all this has happened, because of rich people. So we’re just showing the rich people we can do what we want”.66

In fact, it would be a mistake to give too much ground to the novelty of looting. David Harvey, for example, rightly denounces “feral capitalism”, only to suggest that rioters “are only doing what everyone else is doing, though in a different way—more blatantly and visibly in the streets”.67 This is misleading in that it implies a moral equivalence between rioters on one hand and politicians and bankers on the other,68 but it also overlooks the fact that looting has played a major role in almost all urban riots.

In the wave of riots by black Americans that shook the US between 1964 and 1968, looting was a common feature. One study of the impact on small businesses in the riot-hit areas argued:

No group experienced so much property damage as the businesses operating in riot-torn areas… Rioters looted and burned some 100 businesses in the Harlem riot of 1964, 600 in Watts (1965), 1,000 in Newark (1967), and a mind-boggling 2,500 in the Detroit upheaval. According to one “low” estimate, rioters looted more than 10,000 stores overall… Nearly all of these businesses were small businesses; chain stores avoided the inner city.69

Nor was it true that looting was only of essential items: The targets “often included stores containing goods that could be easily consumed, such as liquor, cigarettes, drugs, and clothing. Looters generally avoided stealing goods that would have to be sold”.70 These riots caused a backlash by those who suggested that riots had alienated “white allies and supporters”, and yet they represented the “forcible entry” of the black masses onto the political stage. “Black poverty, deprivation and racism in urban areas went from being political non-issues to one of the most important issues of the decade”.71

Similarly, the riots in Britain in 1981 witnessed widespread looting. Harman’s account of the riots suggests that it occurred in Brixton, Toxteth, Wood Green and Luton among other places. He quotes a Guardian report stating that “with the area clear of police, ‘there was an assumption that anyone who was not police would help themselves’ in the wholesale looting of shops”.72 The riots forced the Tory government immediately to backpedal on some of their cuts. In inner city areas new recreation centres opened up and there was a massive expansion of further education to remove young people from the streets. The Scarman report that looked into the riots, though loaded with the language of racism, had to concede that the police role was counterproductive and that some anti-racist training had to be introduced.73

Elsewhere in the world similar patterns can be found. In 1989 a rebellion flared up in Caracas, Venezuela, in response to President Andrés Pérez’s decision to implement IMF-approved neoliberal restructuring. What began as a localised protest over price increases soon spread. As Margarita López-Maya explains:

The Caracazo spread within hours from the capital to all the main and secondary cities of the country, which suffered barricades, road closures, burning of vehicles, stoning of shops, shooting and widespread looting… The Caracazo was a turning point in Venezuela’s political history, producing an irrevocable change in relationship between state and society.74

Here too, looting was widespread. Documentary footage shows people streaming out of shops carrying electrical goods and other consumer items.75 Yet this does not reduce the importance of the events in any way. As Mike Gonzalez explains, “The Caracazo, in some ways, should not be seen as a single event, but rather as the beginning of a continuous process of popular resistance… In many ways, the failed military coup led by Hugo Chávez in 1992 and the process that it initiated should also be seen as a slow unfolding of the political implications of the Caracazo”.76

Or consider Argentina. As Naomi Klein mentions in a recent article, the mass riots that gripped that country in 2001 were known as
El Saqueo—The Sacking:

The economy was in freefall and thousands of people living in rough neighbourhoods (which had been thriving manufacturing zones before the neoliberal era) stormed foreign-owned superstores. They came out pushing shopping carts overflowing with the goods they could no longer afford—clothes, electronics, meat. The government called a “state of siege” to restore order; the people didn’t like that and overthrew the government.77

In a more recent example of mass urban rioting, we saw the explosion
of the French suburbs, the banlieues, in 2005.78 As Klein points out, these riots were “marked by mass destruction; the looting was minor”.79 However, one should not look to some kind of French exceptionalism to explain this. Rather, as the sociologist Michael Fize points out, “the reason they didn’t loot much in France…is because where they were rioting, there weren’t any shops”.80

As these examples indicate, looting has traditionally played a large role in urban riots. The comparison between France in 2005 and the riots this summer help us see more clearly what made looting so widespread. In most British cities, and especially in London, the expansion of the commercial sector has seen the development of large “high street” retail parks and shopping centres outside the city centres. So, for example, rioters in Tottenham were close to both the Tottenham Hale retail park and the Wood Green shopping centre.

This economic geography also played a role in underlining the stark imbalances of wealth in the inner cities: “London is marked by a flagrant polarisation between rich and poor. It is the most unequal city in the developed world. But, because of how gentrification has developed, you have neighbourhoods—Clapham is a good example—where rich and poor live cheek by jowl”.81 In fact, gentrification has even swallowed up some of the evidence of deprivation—in Hackney, for example, old industrial sites which had previously employed local people have been redeveloped into luxury accommodation that locals could never hope to afford.

The violence that the media and politicians seize upon to create a sense of moral panic is nothing compared to violence doled out to young people who face having their hopes for the future dashed. That small number of people whose homes burned when fires spread from shops to their flats are victims of the riots, but the relevant comparison is with the 18,100 homes repossessed in the first six months of 2011—an average of around 100 homes every day.82 And what is the looting of a television from a retail park compared to the looting of the public purse conducted by MPs fiddling their expenses or the bankers getting their bailouts? Some may find such comparisons crude, but they are an essential antidote to the hypocrisy of those politicians and pundits who wish to exploit the riots to create a sense of moral panic.

Feral youth and moral panic

In 1978 Stuart Hall and others wrote in Policing the Crisis of how the importation of the US term “mugging” led to a panic, fuelled by racism, about street crime perpetrated by black men—a panic that had no statistical basis but served to legitimate police harassment of young black people. They suggested that the onset of economic crisis meant that the state’s role in maintaining its authority—not simply in terms of street crime but also in disciplining organised labour—required a move to a more coercive state.83

Even before the riots of 2011 we had seen attempts to generate a moral panic around the student movement and “anarchist infiltrators”. This was carried through to those arrested during the TUC demonstration of 26 March, over “black bloc” anarchists who had smashed some windows and UK Uncut activists who had occupied the Fortnum & Mason’s store. These moral panics involved more than just alarmist news stories—protesters found themselves receiving or threatened with punitive prison sentences as the state looked to discourage people from protesting against the raft of cuts it is trying to push through.84

The riots presented a far more visible and far more widespread object of panic: “feral youth”. For David Cameron, the riots “were not about poverty”,85 and proved the need to act against “slow-motion moral collapse”.86 Similarly, Melanie Phillips wrote in the Daily Mail: “What has been fuelling all this is not poverty, as has so predictably been claimed, but moral collapse. What we have been experiencing is a complete breakdown of civilised behaviour among children and young people”.87 There is here a striking comparison with 1981. Then the riots were condemned as the result of a “permissive revolution”, stemming from a “revulsion from authority and discipline”.88

Much of the media was quick to paint the rioters as being “outside” of normal society. This could be seen in the way right wing tabloids seized on the “Riot Clean Up”, a largely white, middle class phenomenon
originated on Twitter that saw people flock to the streets carrying brooms. An Express front page led with the headline “Sweep The Scum Off Our Streets”, and several papers featured a picture of one woman in a T-shirt emblazoned with “Rioters Are Scum”.89 More worrying was the way the vigilantes “defending” shops and neighbourhoods were praised as “have a go heroes”. While in some areas these were shopkeepers and their families, in others they were members of the racist English Defence League who subjected local black people to racist abuse.

The Tory historian David Starkey used the BBC current affairs show Newsnight to launch a racist tirade in which he approvingly quoted Enoch Powell and blames black culture for the riots: “What has happened is that a substantial section of the chavs…have become black… The whites have become black”.90 Starkey’s intervention was quite calculated, and feeds into the notion that rioting was undertaken not by frustrated young people but by what justice secretary Ken Clarke described as “a feral underclass, cut off from the mainstream in everything but its materialism”.91

Of course, the extent of this moral panic has gone far beyond mere rhetoric. Those who found themselves charged with crimes during the riots have faced crassly disproportionate sentences. A student from south London was jailed for six months for stealing £3.50 worth of water from a Lidl supermarket. “Anderson Fernandes, 22, took two scoops of coffee ice cream, and a cone, from a posh Manchester cafe after finding the door ajar. He took one lick and then gave it away to a passer-by as he didn’t like the taste.” He was jailed for 16 months.92 Two men found themselves jailed for four years after “inciting” riots on Facebook—riots that never occurred.93 In fact, emails brought to light by a Freedom of Information request by the Guardian revealed that the sentencing was highly political:

Magistrates were urged to abandon sentencing guidelines when dealing with rioters last month because “nothing like this was envisaged”… The text of two controversial emails circulated to justices’ clerks immediately after August’s disturbances raises questions about judicial independence and the use of blanket guidance irrespective of individual cases… The documents [were] written by a senior justices’ clerk in the London regional office of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service.94

In some ways the sentencing has made it easier for socialists to intervene in events. Many people who may have been swept along with the moral panic while the riots were occurring see that the sentencing is outrageous. Even Ken Clarke has used the row around sentencing to renew the fractious discussions within the coalition government over prison reform. There has also been a shift in the rhetoric from Labour. While Ed Miliband was initially at pains to stress that the riots could “never be excused…never be justified”, he quickly moved on to criticise the government’s “kneejerk” response and to tie the scandals around bank bailouts, MPs expenses and phone hacking to the riots.95 Why? Partly it is because the Tory narrative that the riots had nothing to do with cuts and poverty looked increasingly ridiculous: interviews with those involved in rioting regularly highlighted these as a reason for their activities,96 and public hostility towards the cuts is growing.

As the months pass by, the sanctimonious demands for “condemnation” are fading and the question of what we do next is posed more sharply. In the aftermath of the riots, large public meetings were held, with hundreds attending meetings in Tottenham, Hackney, Tower Hamlets and elsewhere. Defence campaigns in support of those now facing punitive charges have started to emerge. These are not only campaigns we should be involved with on principle; they also offer a way for socialists to begin developing roots in areas where riots occurred and to try to build up lasting political organisation. It is difficult to intervene directly in riots. Our challenge is to build something out of the aftermath, something that connects the frustrations of those who took to the streets in August with the power of organised workers who are now moving into action.

This is a challenge that socialists all around the world face as we witness a wave of youth rebellions—from the Chilean student movement that has sparked general strikes, to the indignados of Spain back to the rioters here in Britain. What all of these (mainly young) people have in common is the realisation that the future they had been promised is being snatched away to bail out a system in crisis and to line the pockets of the rich. i_ek suggests that “the fatal weakness” of recent protests is that “they express an authentic rage which is not able to transform itself into a positive programme of sociopolitical change. They express a spirit of revolt without revolution”.97 While this is a valid point its message is rather fatalistic. Socialists must be central to intervening in the _processes of revolt, whatever form they may take, seeking to organise alongside those who are prepared to work with us. It is only through involvement and engagement that we can hope to build our forces and offer direction. As Tony Cliff said in the wake of the 1981 riots:

The riots and looting have been fantastic, but they have not gone far enough. Because they have not been organised, the kids have attacked shops when they should have been attacking factories. We must teach them to take the bakery, not just the bread.98


1: The arguments in this article were greatly strengthened by discussions I had, both in person and online, during and after the riots. I would especially like to thank Ali Alizadeh, Mark Bergfeld, Anindya Bhattacharyya, Robin Burrett, John Game, Steve Henshall, Tash Shifrin and Mike Simons. Chris Harman’s 1981 article “The Summer of 1981: a Post-Riot Analysis” remains an indispensable text for understanding the dynamics of riots.

2: Cohen, 2011.

3: BBC website, 4

4: Daily Telegraph website, 4 August 2011 –

5: Scott, 2011.

6: See Ruddick, 2010.

7: Scott, 2011.

8: Gallagher and Farrell, 2011. Footage of the alleged attack can be seen at

9: Orr, 2011.

10: Gallagher and Farrell, 2011.

11: Jones, Lewis and others, 2011.

12: Socialist Worker, 2011a.

13: Lydall, 2011.

14: Dodd, 2011.

15: Jones, Lewis and others, 2011.

16: Socialist Worker, 2011a.

17: Quoted in Socialist Worker, 2011b.

18: BBC website –

19: Laville, Lewis and others, 2011.

20: Vasagar, 2011.

21: See Guardian website live blog:

22: Ross, 2011.

23: Sparrow, 2011.

24: Edwards, 2011. The breadth of the rioting across the country is too extensive to cover in this article. Clashes with police, looting and burning were recorded in dozens of towns and cities across Britain. While this journal does not generally use Wikipedia for referencing purposes, this permanent link to an entry on the riots includes links to over 200 news articles from around the country reporting on disturbances that gives an impression of the scale as well as providing a portal to explore specific incidents –

25: Jordan, 2010. “Greek-style unrest” refers to the enormous protests which had surrounded the general strike in Greece that occurred shortly before the interview. These events had been portrayed in much of the media in Britain as uncoordinated rioting.

26: EMA was a payment of up to £30 a week for young people in further education. It was particularly important for people from poorer backgrounds as it helped towards travel costs and the costs of stationery and other equipment.

27: BBC News, 9 December. Available online at

28: For more on the events of the protest and the student movement in general, see Callinicos and Jones, 2011, and Swain, 2011.

29: Topping and Robertson, 2011.

30: Figures taken from The Poverty Site –

31: Socialist Worker, 2011c.

32: Figures from IPPR, 2010. For a discussion of how unemployment hits different sections of society in different ways, see Harman, 1981b, pp15-19.

33: Jones, 2011.

34: Wintour, 2008.

35: Choonara, 2008.

36: Townsend, 2010.

37: Phillips, 2009.

38: Topping, 2009.

39: See the Inquest website –

40: PC Simon Harwood has been charged with the manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests in London in 2009. His trial has been set for October 2012.

41: Gainsbury and Culzac, 2011.

42: NPR, 2011.

43: Harman, 1981b, p6.

44: Guardian, 2011.

45: Gainsbury and Culzac, 2011. This methodology is useful for providing a snapshot of those involved in rioting but has limitations when it comes to serious detail. For example, people who have had previous convictions or contact with police are far more likely to be identified and arrested than those without.

46: Kimber, 1993. Militant Tendency, the forerunners of today’s Socialist Party, was a Trotskyist group operating inside the Labour Party which was witch-hunted as part of Kinnock’s drive to the right.

47: Dorling, 2005.

48: Richardson, 2011.

49: Gimson, 2011.

50: Harman, 1981a.

51: Harman, 1981b, p31.

52: Quoted in Socialist Worker, 11 July 1981, p9.

53: Harman,1981a.

54: Thompson, 1993, p188.

55: Birch and Allen, 2011, p9.

56: It also ignores the fact that all of us are willing to violate some laws under some circumstances, but we choose different laws to violate, go about it in different ways, and have class-related and race-related differential chances of getting caught and prosecuted. I am grateful to Gareth Dale for this point.

57: Zizek, 2011.

58: Harvey, 2011.

59: Thompson, 1993, p246.

60: Harman, 1981b, p36.

61: Engels, 1845.


63: Williams, 2011.

64: Callinicos, 2011.

65: See

66: See

67: Harvey, 2011.

68: An equivalence strengthened by Harvey’s suggestion that “Everyone, not just the rioters, should be held to account.”

69: Bean, 2000, p169.

70: Bean, 2000, p166.

71: Taylor, 2011.

72: Harman, 1981b, p2.

73: Bennett, 2011.

74: López Maya, 2002.

75: See

76: Gonzalez, 2004.

77: Klein, 2011.

78: For a comparison of the French and British riots, see Henley, 2011.

79: Klein, 2011.

80: Quoted in Henley, 2011.

81: Callinicos, 2011.

82: King, 2011.

83: Hall, Critcher and others, 1978.

84: Philip Green, whose Topshop stores had been targeted by UK Uncut activists over alleged tax avoidance, linked the student protests and UK Uncut actions to the riots, suggesting the police needed to return to “good, old-fashioned policing”-Fletcher, 2011.

85: Lewis, Taylor and Ball, 2011.

86: Shipman, 2011.

87: Phillips, 2011.

88: George Gale, writing in the Express, quoted in Pearson, 1981, p4. Pearson’s Hooligan shows how the right have traditionally sought to blame the perceived ills of society on a mythical “moral decline”. While the book is now out of print, the Economist published excerpts in a piece which is useful in drawing parallels between moral panic now and in the past-Bagehot, 2011.

89: Reynolds, Twomey and Flanagan, 2011. It was notable that the “Riot Clean Up” coverage very much resembled the kind of “Blitz Spirit” nonsense that much of the press display in the face of strike action.

90: BBC Newsnight –

91: Quoted in Lewis, Taylor and Ball, 2011. Again compare this with 1981: “Brixton is the iceberg tip of a crisis of ethnic criminality which is not Britain’s fault-except in the sense that her rulers quite unnecessarily imported it”-Telegraph, 29 November 1981, quoted in Bagehot, 2011.

92: Walker, 2011.

93: Carter, 2011.

94: Bowcott, 2011.

95: Evening Standard, 2011.

96: See, for example, Abbas and Holton, 2011.

97: _i_ek, 2011.

98: Quoted in Birchall, 2011, p452.


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