London riots

August 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

Sharing a few thoughts, quotes and links related to the riots that started in Tottenham – just down the road from my house – and spread across London in the past 3 days. Most of the links I include here were brought to my attention by my friend Leyli Behbahani.

Darcus Howe, a West Indian Writer and Broadcaster

Comments from community leaders

“People feel like caged animals”

Al Jazeera “Inside Story”

“Just a normal day” – a short documentary by PostCode Films on the experience of being stopped and searched

One of my favourite quotes:

As political and social protests grip the Middle East, are growing in Europe and a riot exploded in north London this weekend, here’s a sad truth, expressed by a Londoner when asked by a television reporter: Is rioting the correct way to express your discontent? “Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”

This is not a justification for the rioting and looting. What is happening is criminal behaviour. But it is not just criminal behaviour.  It’s just that I think that if we want our society to work better – perhaps if we want to avoid things like this happening again – we need to look for answers and attribute blame beyond the rioters and looters themselves. This quote offers one example of how we might begin to see the broader social context of the riots: by asking questions like “how else can the poor and disenfranchised get their voice heard, if the media only pays them any attention when they start destroying things?”

I don’t think it is possible to get around this by saying “But by saying that you are somehow justifying this violence.” That argument misses the point that the violence of the rioters and looters is a response to the violence inflicted on them by the state and society. Tottenham is one of the poorest and most deprived areas in the country. Young people there do not believe they have a future, that they are going to be able to get jobs, and over the past year the government has closed a number of programmes set up to increase their social mobility and give them options. Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) has been closed, so the future of these youths’ education – the key to social mobility – is in question. In the past 6 months Haringey Council has cut funding to youth centres/outreach programmes and to voluntary sector organisations working with young people in the borough in response to budget cuts imposed by the central government, reducing the number of alternatives to spending time on the streets (a point highlighted in an article by the Guardian just over a week ago, and by London Assembly member Jenny Jones yesterday), and a decade on from the Stephen Lawrence inquiry black people are now seven times more likely to be stopped by the police than white people (for a report on the stats see this Guardian article).

One of my friends wrote on Facebook that BBC News in Tottenham said the following:

The police are taking backhanders
The MPs are fiddling expenses
The media break the law without compunction
…The bankers have looted our economy
Our politicians are sunning themselves in luxury
How do you expect young people to behave?

On the whole, media coverage is not adequately making these connections, and is instead emphasising other (largely spurious or misleading) connections. I was particularly struck by BBC TV news coverage of the first night in Tottenham, in which the studio anchor started by asking the reporter-on-the-scene “So, this area has a history of racial tension, right?” This seemed a rather misleading way of approaching what would be described more accurately as the racialised relationship between police and youths in Tottenham (see above).

I found an academic study of media coverage of the 1985 riots, which highlights exactly the same fixation with strong leadership and law and order articulated by Theresa May in her pre-recorded statement. Some of my Facebook ‘friends’ were decrying Ken Livingstone’s intervention last night, in which he pointed to precisely the broader social conditions that are the context in which these riots have emerged. (There was also some political point-scoring but hey – that comes with the job.) Is it not sort of inevitable that if the politicians and media only focus on what is happening on the streets, and fail to ask why this is happening now rather than at any other time, then they are only going to come up with the short-term solution – “arrest the perpetrators, restore order” – rather than the longer-term solution of “ok we might need to think about whether some of our policies need to change”? If you don’t understand history, you are doomed to repeat it, right?

It just so happens that at the same time as all this is going on I’m preparing a lecture which requires me to look through writings on the concept of moral economy developed by historian E.P. Thompson and anthropologist James C. Scott. In his study of the rioting around changes in agriculture that led to the repeal of the Corn Laws in eighteenth-century England, Thompson argues that in every riot or crowd action there is

some legitimising notion…I mean that the men and women in the crowd were informed by the belief that they were defending traditional rights or customs; and…that they were supported by the wider consensus of the community…It is of course true that riots were triggered off by soaring prices, by malpractices among dealers, or by hunger. But these grievances operated within a popular consensus as to what were legitimate and what were illegitimate practices in marketing, milling, baking, etc. 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. (E.P. Thompson, “The moral economy of the English crowd in the 18th century”, 1971, pages 78-9)

In his analysis of some of the major peasant rebellions in early twentieth-century Southeast Asia, Scott defines ‘moral economy’ as a community’s “notion of economic justice and their working definition of exploitation – their view of which claims on their product were tolerable and which intolerable” (1976: 3). This does not quite fit the riots in London, where it seems more likely that the central (although not verbalised) grievance of the rioters is that they don’t believe they will be able to get into a satisfactory position to produce (and earn). Yet I still think there may be something in the concept of moral economy that is useful here. I need to think about this more, but my idea (simple as it is) is something like this: that when it comes to identifying the circumstances in which a riot becomes more likely, perhaps what is more significant than the actual level of deprivation and oppression is the sense of injustice. Many commentators have argued that Tottenham is much better now than it was in 1985, and some of my friends have noted that conditions in the UK are not as bad as conditions in many other countries. What is more significant is the rioters’ perception that this society does not want them, that this government is reducing their opportunities and options for getting out of their position, and that this is not right. And this is one reason why the portrayal of the riots by politicians and the media as ‘mindless thuggery,’ ‘without cause,’ and motivated solely by ‘greed’, is problematic.

Maybe a good quote to end with is this:

When you cut facilities, slash jobs, abuse power, discriminate, drive people into deeper poverty and shoot people dead whilst refusing to provide answers or justice, the people will rise up and express their anger and frustration if you refuse to hear their cries. A riot is the language of the unheard. (Martin Luther King)

But, on second thoughts, maybe it would be better to end with a question: who’s up for getting involved in the clean up?


Scott, James C. (1976) The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia London: Yale University Press


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