There are memories in London that won’t go away. They span thirty years and each has a name: Cherry Groce, a Black woman whose shooting by police officers sparked the Brixton riots of 1985; Cynthia Jarrett, another Black woman whose death during a police raid on her home a few days later caused the Broadwater Farm riots; Joy Gardner, yet another Black woman who was killed by police officers in 1993; Wayne Douglas, a Black man whose murder by police officers resulted in the Brixton riots of 1995; and Roger Sylvester, a mentally ill Black man who died in police custody in 1999. Now we have another name for these memories: Mark Duggan, shot to death by police a fortnight ago in Tottenham. Just two days after his murder, the streets of north London erupted once again and spread like wildfire across the city, an anger whose tremors were picked up, remoulded and let loose as far away as the north of England.
And pretty quickly the most frightening aspects of ‘broken Britain’ were laid bare. It turned out that the IPCC lied to the public about the circumstances surrounding Duggan’s death. Our out-of-touch leaders continued to holiday even as towns and cities burned. And when they returned, calls were already being made to bring in the army or at least to equip the police with ‘better weapons’ such as tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. Some took the opportunity to give racist tropes an air of respectability, whilst others took to the streets looking to beat up Black people or called on their followers to burn down mosques. A Facebook page supporting the Met against the rioters, set up by a man who revels in racist jokes, gained a million followers overnight. There were even demands for rioters to lose their benefits and their homes as well as a review of human rights legislation. But for the odd voice, it seemed that a consensus had been reached, that everyone had turned into the model citizen standing shoulder-to-shoulder against a vast section of society that had failed to ‘act white’ and turned into mindless thugs, the embodiment of ‘criminality pure and simple’.
If these voices are to be believed, then this ‘wolfpack of feral inner-city waifs and strays’ simply awoke one morning and decided to destroy their neighbourhoods. They were greedy teenagers looking for freebies, we were told. Melanie Phillips asked whether the ‘liberal intelligentsia’ (liberalism being a synonym for multiculturalism, itself a synonym for immigration) were to blame. Paul Routledge pointed his finger at rap music. What they were really asking was: ‘Is it because they’re Black?’
When you are this determined to ignore a much broader landscape of cause and effect, you will inevitably lead yourself into such myopic narratives. Looking to race, to social media, to bad parenting, to poor education, to music, to consumerism and so forth is too easy: it begins by ignoring the structural causes of the riots and ends by offering palliatives such as stricter policing, greater controls on technology and increased surveillance.
No. People do not wake up one morning hell-bent on trashing their neighbourhoods. These riots were sculpted from the spare rib of a country laid waste by years of neoliberal social and public policies. The events of the past two weeks took place in a country that has one of the highest levels of socio-economic inequality in Europe. Unlike the rest of the population, the poorest 10% are the only group to see a decrease in their average incomes over the last decade. (The richest tenth, on the other hand, saw an increase of nearly 40%.) In early 2011, the youth unemployment rate rose to 20.3% – that’s almost a million adults under 25 out of work – the highest level since records began in 1992. A tube journey from Westminster to Canning Town will take seven years off a man’s life expectancy and five off a woman’s. This is not God creating Eve from the rib of Adam, life generating life, but death generating death, structural violence on a scale unmatched in human history.
Last week, Oliver O’Brien combined a map of the London riots with another showing London-only deciles of the 2004 Index of Multiple Deprivation (published by the Department for Communities and Local Government), which is a method of identifying deprived areas across the UK. Superimposing the locations of the riots onto the IMD layer reveals that most of the trouble occurred in areas of high deprivation, leaving the more affluent parts of the city alone. Last December, The Guardian’s Datablog created a map of all the spending cuts made to local councils in the UK. The cities that were most affected by the riots – London, Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester and Liverpool – also experienced the severest reductions in local authority budgets. This is not mere coincidence. It is cause and effect.
As if these facts were not enough, the Centre for Economic Policy Research recently published a discussion paper looking at the relationship between budget cuts and civil unrest across Europe since the end of World War I. It concludes thus: ‘Expenditure cuts carry a significant risk of increasing the frequency of riots, anti-government demonstrations, general strikes, political assassinations, and attempts at revolutionary overthrow of the established order. While these are low probability events in normal years, they become much more common as austerity measures are implemented.’ This important study disproves the government’s claim that there are no links between the cuts and the riots.
Mayhem and violence ruled our streets last week. But a greater violence has ruled our lives since the days of Margaret Thatcher (the rioters were, after all, her grandchildren). This violence is the fragmentation of people’s lives, their ‘communities’ and families. It is the poverty in which they live and from which they can find no escape. It is the wealth they see but cannot acquire. (Hackney, for example, is an Olympic borough but has this improved the lives of its residents?) This greater violence is a ‘big society’ that alienates, disenfranchises and criminalises whole sections of our society. Can we really be so surprised when the poor take to the streets?
Photo Credits: AP / http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2023924/London-riots-2011-BlackBerry-Messenger-shut-unbelievable.html
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