In the very midst of the August riots a youth worker posted us a response from the streets, in which she noted,
I met a group of young people I know on my way home tonight. They said the police had it coming, that the riots were overdue, that people have been angry for a long time and now the police have killed someone it’s no surprise there are riots. They said young people from rival postcodes were united last night against the police. They said they are angry that they are not listened to, there are no jobs and the police treat them badly. One of them said, ‘they call us violent but the prime minister has a button to set off a whole load of nuclear weapons that would kill everyone, that’s violence’.
This perspective was ridiculed by Cameron and Company, who preferred to talk of ‘mindless thugs’ and the centrality of gang culture.
Three months later the Guardian and the London School of Economics are publishing the findings of their study, Reading the Riots, in a range of articles.
Rioters interviewed for the study say they sought retribution for what they saw as police abuse of power in their communities. These are but a couple of paragraphs from this piece.
Antipathy towards police within black communities appeared to transcend generations. One young black man in Liverpool spoke of how participating in the riots was an expression of his identity: “Grown-ups … the elders of the community … were making it known that they didn’t like the police so … that made me personally feel more like yeah, I was representing them.”Nowhere were frustrations with police tactics more apparent that when rioters spoke about stop and search. Of the Reading the Riots interviewees, 73% said they had been stopped and searched in the past 12 months – they were more than eight times more likely than the general population in London to have been stopped and searched in the previous year.
One 32-year-old black man from south London said police “stop you for nothing” and “violate” his personal space. “Because you might live on that estate or you might hang round that estate … OK, I fit the description. What’s the description? Young black male … I just come out of my yard and I’m chilling for you to come and stop me and search me up. And violate me. Because that’s what it is, a violation, talking to me like I’m nothing.”
In this article Gary Younge argues that “this summer’s social unrest in Britain was destructive and incoherent, but it was still a form of protest”, concluding,
In a year that started with the uprisings in Tunisia and is ending with police raids on occupations protesting inequality across the globe, only a naïf would understand these disturbances as a random, isolated moment of mass social deviancy particular to Britain. It would be like claiming that the two black athletes who raised their fists on the podium during the Mexico Olympics in 1968 engaged in individual acts of protest in no way related to the students in Paris, the massacre in My Lai or the passing of the US civil rights act.
The 2011 riots would probably win gold as the year’s most destructive, least coherent protest of disaffected youth against indifferent elites, economic hardship and police brutality. Rioters were more likely to give the finger than clench the fist. But what this report makes clear is that they belong to the same category of protest.
Looking ahead those involved in the riots see them as a beginning rather than an end. From the point of view of those involved in youth work this is a salutary message. Efforts to draw a line between deserving and undeserving youth – most embarrassingly symbolised by the NCVYS ‘Not in my Name’ opportunist cuddling up to the Coalition’s demonising agenda – lack any sense of contradiction, betray a short-sightedness that hides behind the self-congratulatory rhetoric of Positive for Youth.
Four out of five participants in summer unrest think there will be a repeat, with most believing poverty to be a factor.
And here is the link to the Newsnight piece on the implications of the research with the rioters underlining their hostility to policing, whilst the Coalition minister and ex-commissioner of the MET remain in deep denial.
And as Gus John observes in reflecting on the 1981 Moss Side disturbances and the significance of poverty, to what extent is education and that includes youth work, anything to do,
with giving people the tools to take control of their own lives, equipping people to act collectively to bring about change, and it is certainly nothing to do with understanding the evolution of British social history, such that we can as a society learn from our advances and defeats. That kind of discourse is seen as a throwback to the days of ‘red-led’ protests of the past for lefties. The assumption is that it is not necessary to think in terms of class or the individual up against the state, and that we should be counting our blessings. Meanwhile, stratification within society becomes more entrenched. Those who are poor are not just disenfranchised by lacking wages through which they can live dignified lives; they are also denied the tools by which they can organise in defence of their lives.
Thirty years on, plus ca change? Discuss and argue.