What’s ‘pure and simple’ about what is happening on Britain’s streets?
30 years after the infamous inner-city riots in Brixton (London), Handsworth ( Birmingham) and Toxteth (Liverpool), events over the last week have given us new iconic images of rioting youth. Then as now the country was in the midst of severe economic recession that disproportionately affected young people and, in particular, ethnic minority youth. In 1981 rioting was ignited by anger at police targeting of ethnic minority youth in Brixton using special ‘stop and search’ powers. In 2011, the spark was the shooting dead of a young man – Mark Duggan – during a police anti-gun crime operation in Tottenham on Thursday 4th August that involved the Trident team, formed specifically to tackle gun crime among Britain’s black communities. Now, as then, therefore the police were the immediate target of anger. And as violence spread to other parts of London ‘stop and search powers’ were re-introduced in a number of London boroughs; reports suggest that this was the cause of the spread of rioting to Hackney on Monday 8th August.
The unfolding events have particular significance for the University of Warwick’s Sociology Department as it embarks on a major EU funded FP7 project – MYPLACE. MYPLACE stands for Memory, Youth, Political Legacy and Civic Engagement and investigates how young people’s social participation is shaped by the shadows of totalitarianism and populism in Europe. It is concerned with the way in which memory of ‘dark times’ are transmitted to and reworked by young people today and the impact this has on contemporary civic engagement. It is precisely this period of economic austerity and radical restructuring of British industry and society in the late 1970s/1980s that is the focus of the UK partner. The legacy of ‘the Thatcher years’ is not directly comparable to that of communism or fascism but it was a period of strong ideologisation of politics, social unrest, racial tension and institutional refusal to recognise the underlying social and economic context of street violence. Before the events of this week, therefore, it was clear that this was a period that had much in common with the context in which young people today are growing up. The importance of the transmission of this political ‘heritage’ was passionately expressed by Darcus Howe speaking on Newsnight on Monday 8th August when he described his grandson’s anger at the way in which he was, today, repeatedly stopped and searched, without cause other than the colour of his skin, by the London metropolitan police. In an interview with the BBC the following day, speaking amidst the carnage on the streets of Croydon, Howe claimed that neither government nor police had any idea of the level of frustration and discontent among young people in the UK. In contrast, he said, listening to his son and grandson, listening to ‘young blacks and young whites with a discerning eye and a careful hearing, they have been telling us … what is happening to them in this country’.
Then, as now, what the government hear and see is ‘criminality, pure and simple’ (David Cameron, 9th August 2011) and ‘needless, opportunist theft and violence – nothing more, nothing less’ (Nick Clegg, 8th August, 2011). Margaret Thatcher’s response to the Brixton riots echoes through such reductions of social action to the apparent simplicity of a criminal act: ‘No one should condone violence. No one should condone the events … They were criminal, criminal.’ (Margaret Thatcher, 13 April 1981). Or, still more, Norman Tebbitt’s infamous dismissal of rioting in Handsworth by reference to his father’s experience of unemployment during the 1930s recession; he, said Tebbitt, had not rioted in response but ‘got on his bike and looked for work’.
The historical continuities, of course, should not mask very real differences about what is happening on Britain’s streets today. A youth unemployment rate of over 20%, the exclusion of huge swathes of young people from the aspiration to continuing education through the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance and the tripling of University tuition fees and the severe austerity measures being implemented across the public services may have fuelled frustration among young people but do not explain the form the 2011 riots have taken. Anger at the police quickly gave way to destruction, looting and burning. From the snippets of voices of young people themselves provided by the media to date, it would appear that the aim of the majority of those on the streets was not political but to exploit the situation for personal gain. Whether this merits its description as ‘pure greed’ is questionable, however, not least in the light of comparison with that other leading figure of Thatcher’s Britain – the ‘yuppie’. No great fortunes have been made – items of everyday consumption – clothes, shoes, alcohol, drugs, mobile electronic equipment – were the primary target of theft with large or expensive items often just abandoned in the street. Moreover, the explanations of events given by young people also indicate the importance of moment and crowd. As word spread quickly via social networking channels that police services were stretched and unable to respond forcefully, the momentum towards the street and the ‘chance’ to take advantage accelerated at a rate unimaginable in 1981. Being there, being part of the unravelling spectacle, was crucial and its immediate replaying through new and old media added to the party spirit. A pair of new trainers, the smell of smoke becomes a sign of having made a mark, having ‘got one over’ on those normally in control. It is, as Dick Hebdige (1988, Hiding in the Light, London:Comedia), once argued, a way for young people to translate the fact of being under scrutiny into the pleasure of being watched – a way of ‘hiding in the light’.
There is little that is ‘pure and simple’ about what we have seen in Britain over the last few days. Criminality has not, yet, been traced to a particular genetic structure. And, as reporters and politicians, move unwaveringly onto ‘cultural’ territory (‘where are the parents?’, ‘feral behaviour’, ‘correct upbringing’), the question of what is happening and why becomes increasingly complex. It is not only the sense of social and racial injustice talked about by Darcus Howe that has been passed down from the 1980s and fermented away until a new economic recession and ‘trigger’ spark a new violent response. Along the way, resistance to social injustice has been mixed with the absorbtion of Thatcher (and post-Thatcher) imperatives to create your own life chances, aspire to wealth and security (as displayed in High Street and shopping centre windows) and grab the opportunities that come your way. But not everybody is an X-Factor contender. For most the stage they can make their own and the audience they can play to is much smaller. But,’ if you want it enough, you can make it happen’. It just did.
Professor Hilary Pilkington