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The days are growing shorter, the new school year has started, and Halloween products have begun appearing on store shelves. Summer is well and truly over. And what a summer it was: the News of the World affair, a devastating terrorist attack in Norway, the culmination (though not conclusion) of the rebellion in Libya, the secession of Southern Sudan, mind numbingly childish debt ceiling negotiations in the United States, the subsequent national credit downgrade, a severe economic panic that threatens a second recession, and the ten year anniversary of September 11th (to name just a few events) all defined what feels like one of the most dramatic few months the globe has experienced in living memory. For me – largely because of my proximity, I’m sure – the most immediately significant of them all were the series of riots that broke out in London, and spread to many other cities across the United Kingdom, in August.
I wrote a piece on the riots for TFW at the time, and in it I challenged the British citizenry, government, and media to do more than repeat simplistic accusations of criminality; to ask searching questions about why thousands of people had taken to the streets in determined defiance of civil authority; and to formulate some kind of social agenda that could address that group’s grievances, thereby preventing the violence from reoccurring. Two months is not enough time for all these things to happen, but the dust has settled enough to at least assess the immediate response, and perhaps gauge the chances of my initial hopes, however skeptical they were, being realized.
Hindsight also offers the opportunity to reconsider some of the arguments made in the piece. I stand by the majority of the points I made: I still believe that the government response was cynical, irresponsible, and exclusionary; I still believe the popular media too readily abdicated its responsibilities of objectivity and critical distance; and I still believe that the rioters themselves often chose actions that were less productive than they might have been in expressing political grievances. However, reading back over what I wrote in August, some sentences no longer ring as true as they did then. For example, speaking about the House of Reeves furniture store in Croydon, I wrote:
When businesses that have been family owned for five generations and have served a community since the 1860s is destroyed overnight, there seems to be little in the way of symbolic political expression in its destruction.
I certainly don’t condone this destruction, and I sympathize with its victims. But at the same time, I think that focusing on these particular incidents, as the media tended to do, misses larger points. When viewed at a local, incident-by-incident level – an approach to which 24-hour live coverage particularly leant itself – it was easy to see the riots as what the government and media insisted they were: a series of personally motivated crimes. Although attempting to resist this kind of depiction, I think that without the critical awareness that time and distance now affords, I conceded more to it than I should have. Because when we view the riots through a wider lens as a social phenomenon, rather than an event, we begin to see all the actions that cannot be easily dismissed as “thuggery” (a term with a colonial origin that belies the power relationships behind its use). We see that economic opportunism was only a part of the riots – and riots, as the British media conveniently forgot, always involve some looting. This reality doesn’t excuse the practice, but it tells us to look for more.
We cannot forget that disturbance on the scale witnessed, whether we call it “criminality,” “thuggery,” or “protest,” doesn’t ever appear overnight, or even as the result of one case of police brutality. Marc Duggan’s death at police hands was a spark, but the kindling was already there. Whether as conscious protest or less focused frustration (but not “blind rage”), the riots were reacting to a social situation. That riots spread to other cities in the country, and to Germany (a fact barely recorded in England), shows that these incidents are not isolated. “Criminal” behavior doesn’t magically spread across seas, but it is a likely reaction to similar social problems: namely high unemployment, increased polarization of the richest and poorest sections of society, cuts to social services, and increased isolation of young people – particularly those in underprivileged neighborhoods.
Since the riots, the potentially global nature of these patterns has become evident. Nicholas Kulish published an article in the New York Times last week connecting London to events further afield. In Spain, Greece, India, and Israel, Kulish writes, protestors exhibit “wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over.” Indeed, one of central tenets of the diverse agenda of the Occupy Wall Street movement is distrust of the disproportionate influence wielded by corporate lobbies in Washington. Historians know well that economic turmoil often goes hand-in-hand with a rejection of the democratic process, and as the economic mood darkens in the coming weeks for the middle and working classes, the deadlock in Congress over tax increases for the wealthy may begin to seem more like deliberate inaction than inefficiency. A BBC article recently asked whether the social unrest seen in Europe could hit American streets. The most worrying observation the author made was that the United States is currently experiencing many of the same phenomena: “the highest unemployment in decades, growing income inequality, dissatisfaction with the nation’s direction, frustration with its dysfunctional government and the threat of drastic cuts to social programmes.”
One hopes that the same violence doesn’t materialize, and thankfully it seems unlikely at the moment. Significant amounts of the population, particularly those in the Tea Party, seem ignorant of how easy the wealthiest have it (compared to the poorest) when it comes to taxes. And as long as members of the Tea Party remain pig-headedly resistant to taxes, the current situation in which the richest in society do not pay their share will, paradoxically, be maintained by near popular support. The fact that government enforced austerity measures in the United States have been considerably lighter than in Europe is another saving grace. But if the habit of European governments to ignore and exclude the most disadvantaged in society is repeated, so might the devastating consequences. The kinds of events that can trigger a riot are already a feature on this side of the Atlantic. The beating to death by police of a mentally ill homeless man in Fullerton and the execution of Troy Davis remind us that the institutions expected to protect the most vulnerable in society are often responsible for the worst abuses. It was a miscarriage of justice no less severe that ignited the Los Angeles riots in 1992.
In London, events since the riots have made even clearer why the working classes in England might feel disenfranchised and exploited. The government’s reaction to the actions of the excluded has been to exclude them more. Rioters have been convicted with a speed and severity approaching vengeance, and the government has begun stripping families of the convicted of social welfare, from unemployment benefits to government subsidized housing. Whether those who live with rioters actually did anything in the riots themselves seems to be of little concern. Choosing to further ostracize those who feel excluded from the political process (riots are, after all, almost always a last resort), seems like a recipe for further destruction. Making efforts to open dialog, or to restore means for registering grievances, seem like wiser strategies. Of course, they don’t lend themselves to the kind of tough-guy act that has become Cameron’s M. O.
The conservatives have killed three birds with one stone: they have positioned themselves as “tough on crime” (a foolproof Right-wing tactic to justify marginalizing the disadvantaged), given extra impetus to austerity measures that disproportionately affect the poor, and avoided any discussion of what responsibility government policy might have for peoples’ decisions to take to the streets. More than avoid discussion, in fact, minsters and their supporters have silenced it. When I left London in early September, a palpable, oppressive atmosphere existed in which an attempt to ask questions of the government’s role was willfully interpreted as being somehow “pro-riot.” The Daily Mail offers just one example. I have seen little that suggests this atmosphere has dissipated.
As causes, the usual suspects were offered by the right as a means to avoid serious analysis – from the existence of single parent families (the United Kingdom’s own version of the Moynihan report), to gangsta rap, and in the most extreme instance, David Starkey’s phenomenally idiotic suggestion that black culture had infected white culture. Almost as problematic though was the use of the term “underclass” to describe the rioters.
I had never heard the term used before in the United Kingdom, but all of a sudden it was everywhere. It has since disappeared again, suggesting that it’s only used to account for behaviors that we find too distasteful to properly address – the assumption seems to be that we need not discuss it, because an underclass is “criminal,” somehow pathological, and beyond social redemption. Adolph Reed, Jr. has brilliantly exposed the multiple inconsistencies in using such an epithet. They are too numerous to detail here, but suffice to say that all the behaviors an underclass is said to exhibit are just as common, but not as well documented, at all levels of society. As a remedy, Reed argues that “it is imperative to reject all assumptions that poor people are behaviorally or attitudinally different from the rest of society” (37). One columnist began to do just that, pointing out that talk of a “feral poor” looting London’s stores obscured the equally destructive criminal activities of the “feral rich.”
Reed also reminds us that “if we say that poor people are poor simply because of bad values, we let the government off the hook, even though government policy…is directly implicated in causing poverty” (38). Tim Wise often says that when we talk about the “underprivileged,” we must remember that for such group to exist, there must be an “overprivileged” counterpart. The same is true in this instance – for an underclass to exist, there must be an “overclass.” The growing distance between the richest and poorest, inequality in taxation, and the increasing sense of disenfranchisement among the disadvantaged, in the United Kingdom as in the United States, make this dichotomy ever more apparent. The situation is in desperate need of remedy. Until it happens, the specter of unrest will remain. President Obama has at least made the attempt to hold the top few percent more financially accountable for the government policies and public services that have helped garner them unprecedented levels of wealth. Success in a Republican led House seems unlikely though. In Britain, with depressing predictability, however, the government has taken the opposite course. A supposedly inefficient tax on those earning more than £150,000 per year is to be cut, but no new measure seems likely to replace it. Meanwhile, thanks to the punitive reaction to the riots, political expression and life in general for those most in need of a voice has become harder, not easier. If this course isn’t altered, I fear another red summer may be on the horizon.
Adolph Reed Jr., “The Underclass as Myth and Symbol: The Poverty of Discourse about Poverty,” Radical American 24 (Jan-March 1990), 21-38.