Blog Archives

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 

Media and the Riots Conference – The Big Debate

Citizen Journalism Educational Trust and The-Latest.Com present

Media and the Riots Conference

The Big Debate

Saturday November 26 (10am-3pm)

London College of Communication Elephant and Castle, London SE1

A unique one-day conference that brings together young people from riot areas and media practitioners in a long-overdue and much needed dialogue. The event, featuring top speakers and participants, will be informative, educative and practical with
plenary sessions and youth-focused breakout workshops. Afterwards, the plan is to produce a report,
perhaps in multi-media format, that will have a positive impact on future media coverage of our communities.

Supporters include activists and media luminaries at the BBC’s College of Journalism, London College Communication, South Bank University, Goldsmith’s, Brunel, Durham University, City University, University of Lincoln, University of Leicester, University of Kingston, University of Roehampton, The Guardian, The Big
Issue, The Voice and Gleaner newspapers, GV Media, visionOntv, Chronicle.org, Engage Enterprise,
The Afia Trust, Kids Company, Voices That Shake, The Platform, Tottenham Defence Campaign,
Birmingham Racial Attack Monitoring Unit, Unite London and East 524 Branch, citizen journalists, scholars and bloggers, young people and community activists.

What’s been said

“Martin Luther King once said that riots gave a voice to the voiceless; but the voices of those who felt
moved to take to the streets in August are still very much unheard. The lessons from the CE80s should tell
us that ignoring them will come at a cost.” – Stafford Scott, Tottenham community activist

“We need to reflect and have a deeper level of inquiry into the issues raised by the riots and the immediate
media coverage. Without that sort of analysis there’s an increased likelihood it will happen again.”
– Dr Marie Stewart, psychologist and diversity consultant

“Calls by leading right-wing politicians in August for social media, like Facebook and BlackBerry messaging, to be shut
down during times of public disorder like the riots were a blatant attack on free speech. This conference is about
people marginalised and ignored by big media getting heard.”
– Marc Wadsworth, founder and editor, The-Latest.Com

“At times like these, one gets a very real sense of two things: one is how encapsulated these journalists
(especially broadcast) are within their own narrow, little and incestuous bubbles without any
grasp of social realities in the polity. And two, how banal, hysterical and downright reactionary the
editorial slant they give to their news packages is.”

Professor Gus John, academic, community activist and government advisor

“Would love to be involved.” – Paul Lewis, The Guardian, head of special projects

“I think the idea of having a conference, looking at the coverage of the riots from the point of view of citizen journalists
and the mainstream media is incredibly valuable. It’s exactly the sort of debate that we should be part of.”
– David Hayward, Journalism Programme, BBC College of Journalism

Delegates from organisations £15 (£12 advance). Individuals £10 (E8 advance). Concessions £5 (£4 advance).
Cheques payable to: Citizen Journalism Educational Trust. 195 Hollydale Road, London SE15 21G.
Or PayPal on The-Latest.Com

UK Riots: Sociological Perspectives and Civic Responses


Saturday 15th October, 2011, Birmingham Midland Institute
£10 waged, £5 unwaged

The recent civil disturbances across a number of English cities have provoked much commentary and debate. However, there has been little sustained analysis of the events, their causes and likely consequences. This symposium is one in a series of unrelated endeavours to bring public understandings and sociological perspectives to bear upon the events of last month. To this end we have invited a diverse range of speakers to open up the discussion, and combine academics and members of the community on the stage and in the audience.  We combine speakers who will present sociological perspectives on the civil disturbances with a discussion of civic responses.

The event is organized by the British Sociological Association’s Theory Study Group in collaboration with the Department of Sociology, University of Leicester and the Social Theory Centre, University of Warwick.

Programme:

10.30-11.00 – Registration

11.00-12.30 – Panel 1: Institutional Contexts

  • Karim Murji, Continuities and Contradictions: Race and Policing, Then and Now
  • Ajmal Hussain, ‘Presenting’ the Riots in Birmingham: New Times for ‘Community’, Policing and Leadership?
  • Alana Lentin,

12.30-2.00 – Lunch

2.00-3.30 – Panel 2: Civic Responses

  • Malcolm James, The UK Riots and the Criminalisation of Young People in Public Space
  • Nina Power,
  • John Solomos,

3.30-4.00 – Break

4.00-5.30 – Roundtable: Learning from the past, looking to the future: What now?

  • Rob Berkeley
  • Sam Farooq
  • Maxie Hayles
  • Heidi Mirza

£10 waged; £5 unwaged/students/concessionary to be paid by cash or cheque on the day. There are also a number of free places for those unable to pay.

Please note, places are limited and you will need to register to attend. To register for a place, please email: birmingham15october2011 AT gmail.com

Confirmed speakers
Rob Berkeley, The Runnymede Trust

Sam Farooq, University of Gloucester

Maxie Hayles, Maxie Hayles International Consultancy

Ajmal Hussain, London School of Economics
Ajmal Hussain is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at the London School of Economics. His research is an ethnography exploring new Muslim identity formation in inner-city Birmingham, where he grew up and now lives. Ajmal also works as a Research Associate within the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Languages & Diversity (InterLanD) at Aston University.

Malcolm James, London School of Economics
Malcolm James is a social researcher and PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics. His PhD research is based around three East London youth clubs. The themes for the research are racism, youth culture and how young people live publicly. Over the last decade Malcolm has published work on young people, ‘race’ and racism, migration and xenophobia and structural inequality. Malcolm is also Editor of the online journal Critical Contemporary Culture.

Alana Lentin, University of Sussex

Heidi Mirza, Institute of Education

Karim Murji, The Open University
Dr Karim Murji is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK, where he has written distance learning materials for courses in Sociology, Social Policy, Politics, Geography and social research methods. His research interests are culture, ethnicity and racism and these are applied to fields such as race and policing, race equality and social policy, and diaspora and identity. Recent publications on these themes appear in the Journal of Transatlantic Studies (2009), the Journal of Social Policy (2010) and Policy Studies (2011). With John Solomos, he is the co-editor of Racialization: Studies in theory and practice (Oxford University Press, 2005). He is a former member of the Metropolitan Police Authority and is currently a member for the General Teaching Council and a local Safeguarding Children Board. He is also on the Equality and Diversity Forum and has recently served in many advisory roles including the BME Trust and Confidence Group, the Transformative Justice Forum, the UK Drug Policy Commission Equalities review and the Home Office Drugs Equality Strategy group.

Nina Power, University of Roehampton

John Solomos, City University London

Behind the UK Riots

Sociologists living and working in the areas affected by rioting in August 2011 examine the causes and consequences of the unrest in a series of Guardian articles.

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 

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