Black, Asian, minority ethnic communities and inner city riots
The following speech was delivered at the “Beyond the Unrest – Community Safety & Civil Society” seminar, promoted by the BME Leadership & Engagement project, on November 29th, 2011.
The subject I have been asked to address is vast and it is simply impossible to do justice to it in the time I have been given. For one thing, a ‘historical perspective’ raises the question: where does history begin?
I say that because there have been riots in England involving ethnic minorities since the 12 century, at least. At his coronation in Westminster Abbey on 3 September 1189, for example, Richard I barred all Jews and women from the ceremony, and when some Jewish leaders arrived to present gifts for the new king, his courtiers stripped and flogged them and ejected them from the Abbey. A rumour spread that Richard had ordered all Jews to be killed and the people of London began a massacre, robbing Jews, beating them to death or burning them alive. Many Jewish homes were burned down, and several Jews were forcibly baptised. Richard later punished those who were known to have been involved in the massacre.
To span the decades and centuries between 1189 and 2011 would be instructive if not deeply depressing. More to the point, though, it would keep us here till this time next year and I do not for one minute suppose you love me that much.
So what I want to do is say something briefly about the types of riots there have been that have involved black and ethnic minority people and to look in more detail at the riots thirty years ago, the riots in August this year and what they tell us about the society and how the nation should respond if they are not to become an even more regular occurrence in a society that remains decidedly ill at ease with itself.
A crude typology of riots involving black and ethnic minority people in the UK in the last couple centuries would look something like this:
- Riots erupting in the course of labour disputes, especially where employers tried to use black or ethnic minority labour to break strikes;
- Riots in the struggle against fascism;
- Race riots in which white supremacists try to run black and ethnic minority people out of their neighbourhoods;
- Riots against racial harassment and racist attacks perpetrated by neo-Nazi groups and far right extremists;
- Riots against poverty and unemployment;
- Riots against businesses and financial institutions seen to be ‘taking liberties’ with white and black inner city dwellers;
- Riots against the police and state oppression, including ‘stop and search’, the killing of black people while in police custody and the apparent endorsement of such practices by the courts and politicians;
- Riots arising from racial tension between Asians and Africans, fuelled to a large extent by the style of operation of Asian businesses in predominantly African communities;
Within this classification one could place the Cardiff riots (1911; 1919), the Liverpool riots (1919), the Stepney riot (April 1919), the St Anne Street riot ( May 1919), the Cable Street riot (June 1919), the Tonypandy Anti-fascist riot (1936), the Liverpool riot (1948), the Nottingham and Notting Hill race riots (1958), the Leeds Chapeltown riots (1975), the Bristol St Pauls riots 1980), the Brixton riots (April 1981), the Liverpool riots (July 1981), the Birmingham riots (July 1981, 1985), the Manchester Moss Side riots (July 1981), the Leeds Chapeltown race riots (1981), the Peckham riot (1985), the Brixton riot (1985), the Haringey Broadwater Farm riot (1985), the Chapeltown riot (1987), the Dewsbury race riot (1989), the Bradford race riots (1995); the Oldham race riots (May 2001), the Burnley race riots (June 2001), the Bradford race riots (July 2001), the Stoke-on-Trent riots (July 2001), Birmingham Lozells/Handsworth/Aston race riots (2005), the London, Birmingham, Manchester riots (2011).
In order to help us understand the issues involved, I will ask and try and answer two questions:
1. In 1981 there was a national period of reflection after the long summer of riots across the country. There followed the Scarman report on the Brixton riots and the Hytner report on the Manchester riots. In 1985, Geoffrey Dear, the then Chief Constable of the West Midlands Police reported on the Handsworth riots as did Julius Silverman. and of course the Scarman report. The riots in 2001 and 2005 also resulted in public enquiries. In 2011, the government resisted all calls for a public inquiry, electing instead to appoint Darra Singh to look into the civil unrest, principally from the point of view of victims and communities. Given the scale of the unrest, the fact that five people lost their lives and the estimated cost of the damage, why no public inquiry this time?
2. What are the implications of that decision for the future of this nation?
It is now 6 years since the last major civil disorder in Britain as occurred in Lozells in Birmingham in 2005. In this instance the conflict was principally between Asian and African youths. One young man, Isaiah Young-Sam was fatally stabbed and his cousin suffered serious stab wounds but survived. While there were calls for a People’s Inquiry into those disturbances, no such inquiry was set up, nor did the state establish one.
The 1981 Brixton riots triggered the Scarman Inquiry, commissioned by Home Secretary William Whitelaw.
The Inquiry into the 1981 Moss Side riots was conducted by Ben Hytner on behalf of the Home Secretary and the Greater Manchester Police Authority.
The 1985 Birmingham riot, triggered by the attempts of the police to arrest a black man who had been given a penalty notice for illegal parking, was followed by two inquiries, one conducted by Geoffrey Dear, the then Chief Constable of the West Midlands Police and the other by Julius Silverman.
The riots of August 2011 were sparked by the police treatment of a young black woman in an incident following a peaceful protest by Mark Duggan’s family outside Tottenham Police Station following the shooting dead of Duggan on 4 August 2011 when they stopped the minicab in which he was travelling. It is alleged that a handgun was found in the car.
Bystanders protested the police treatment of that black woman and that protest turned into violence against vehicles and shops. Tottenham burned that night and the violent civil disorder escalated without the police being seen to do very much to quell the violence. In the days that followed, other districts in London were subjected to attacks on shop premises, arson to vehicles and looting of goods.
Five people lost those lives during those disturbances.
There has since been much speculation as to the causes of the riots and the role played by ‘known criminals’, by organised ‘gangs’ of youth and by ‘opportunistic thieves’.
As two very distinguished writers on crowd psychology and on riots wrote in a recent book:
‘Our policymakers are rushing forward on the assumption that the riots were purely criminal. Their ‘solutions’ are as much about political opportunism as they are about prevention.
There remains an urgent need for a far more comprehensive interpretation of events. But that investigation will never materialise so long as we remain under the impression that we already know all the answers’
Steve Reicher and Cliff Scott (2011)
There have been calls for a public inquiry into the disturbances. The reasons given for wanting such an inquiry include:
- It was not a ‘race’ riot because although the shooting of Mark Duggan and the actions of the police on Saturday 6th August triggered the unrest, those taking part were not fighting one another as black and white, but were engaged in ‘criminal’ activity together as black, white and other ethnic groups;
- That the police ‘caused’ the riots by first not showing respect and concern for Mark Duggan’s grieving family by formally receiving their delegation and accepting a statement of their demands and second, by physically assaulting a young black woman who allegedly was expressing her frustration at the way the Duggan family had been treated by the Tottenham Police;
- That the police stood by and let the violence escalate and that it was only because the police failed to intervene and stop the damage to premises and vehicles and the looting that the protesters were joined by more people who collectively took control of the streets;
- That it was the fact that the police seemed to be outwitted and caught off guard, unable or unwilling to respond, that encouraged people in other boroughs to take to the streets and repeat the same pattern of rioting, i.e., not between people of the same or different ethnic groups but with shop premises and the police and emergency services as their targets;
- That it was necessary to establish whether there is evidence for the belief that the riots spread because ‘organised gangs’ in the black community had called a truce and were orchestrating violence and lawlessness in other parts of London through the use of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Smartphones;
Tony Parsons in the Daily Mirror, for example, wrote with seemingly incontrovertible certainty:
‘Without the gang culture of black London, none of the riots would have happened… The snarling, amoral pack mentality of gangs that are often a substitute for family, school and work made the riots possible. These youths were the shock troops of the riots, and its inspiration’.
- That given the spread of the civil unrest to cities outside of London, it was necessary to rule out the possibility that the failure of the Met Police to quell the unrest in London gave a green light to people in other cities to take to the streets as suggested by the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, Paul Fahey;
- That it was necessary to establish whether the up-to-the-minute media reporting of events as they were occurring encouraged more people to take to the streets and extend the unrest;
- That it was necessary to establish whether the unrest was perpetrated mainly by criminal elements wishing to undermine ‘law and order’ or whether unemployment, poverty and people’s sense of not having a stake in the society had any significant part to play in the spread of the unrest;
- That it was necessary to establish whether the way the media and politicians described the rioters (feral, feckless, criminal thugs, not just criminal but sick, etc) caused people to erupt in anger and join the rioters;
Ken Clarke writing in the Guardian on 5 September 2011 referred to those who took part in the disturbances as ‘a feral underclass’. Liz Pilgrim, owner of a ransacked boutique in Ealing told the Daily Telegraph she condemned the ‘feral rats’ that had attacked her store.
- That it was necessary to examine the responses of politicians and of the police and learn lessons from the way positions were adopted, statements made and claims and counter claims bartered in public before anyone knew who it was that had rioted and why.
The Prime Minister has refused to commission such a wide ranging inquiry. Instead, there are two parallel processes in train:
a) On 31 August 2011 deputy prime minister Nick Clegg announced the appointment of ‘a grassroots panel’ to look into the causes of the August riots. That panel is led by Darra Singh, Chief Executive of JobCentre Plus. According to Polly Curtis in the Guardian (31 August 2011), Clegg, during a visit to Tottenham where the first riots began, said that a proper analysis of the causes of the outbreaks of violence and looting across the country was essential. “The August riots were on a scale that many people have never seen in this country. I saw devastating scenes of burned out shops and houses in neighbourhoods around the country. I met traumatised families who no longer had homes,” he said. “Only by listening to people who have been affected by the riots – the victims – will we ever be able to move on and rebuild for the long term. This is not just about individuals, but entire communities. These victims, who stood side by side and refused to be beaten by the senseless destruction, hold the key to how residents, shopkeepers, parents, young people and communities can move on.”
b) Keith Vaz MP, Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, is leading an inquiry into the riots and is gathering evidence from communities around the country.
So, why is there not a public inquiry into the August 2011 riots? I believe the reasons are any combination of the following:
The Police Response
There are clearly questions about the way the police in Tottenham dealt with the peaceful protest led by the Duggan family on 6 August 201 and the extent to which their treatment of the family helped to inflame passions against the police.
There are questions also about the information reported as coming from the police that they had been shot at by Duggan which allegedly could have resulted in a policeman being shot dead but for the fact that a police issue radio stopped the bullet.
There are questions, too, about the failure of the police to deploy personnel in sufficient numbers to prevent the violence and disorder from escalating.
There has been much speculation that that was a deliberate ploy by the police to show Boris Johnson and the Metropolitan Police Authority what the consequences are of planned cuts in police numbers.
A major part of any public inquiry would therefore have to focus on the police, their own failings and the political spat between them and those responsible for policing in London.
The Politicians’ Response
Various politicians, notably Theresa May, Home Secretary and David Cameron, the Prime Minister, came out with not unfamiliar responses:
- Labeling and condemning those who took part in the unrest (feral, thuggish, criminal, feckless, sick, lacking in morals, irresponsible, criminal gangs, etc);
- Making claims about groups thought primarily responsible for orchestrating the disorder, e.g., criminal black gangs, when there was no evidence to support those claims;
- Rubbishing any suggestion that the unrest was associated with if not ‘caused’ by government policies and by the economic hardship poor people were experiencing, laced with excessive police activity in their neighbourhoods, especially ‘stop and search’;
- The public spat between Theresa May and the Acting Metropolitan Police Commissioner about bringing the situation in London under control and who was responsible for the actions to be taken, or that were taken, to effect that;
- The public spat between Theresa May and Hugh Orde of ACPO about political and operational jurisdiction and what politicians can and cannot direct the police to do;
The Media Response
- The media reporting of the riots, including the inaccurate and misleading reports about Duggan’s role in the shooting that took place on 4 August which led to his death and the role and pronouncements of the Independent Police Complaints Commission;
- The extent to which the media was simply reporting on the basis of police bulletins and of victims’ responses to the disorder;
- The media condemnation of the rioters as ‘feral’, ‘criminal thugs’, ‘morons’, etc;
- Sections of the media lambasting those who advanced economic arguments and social justice considerations to explain the riots;
- The media projecting national outrage about the riots and the need for the police and the courts to be seen to deal mercilessly with those arrested for their involvement in the disorder;
The Community Response
- An overwhelming display of shock and revulsion at the conduct of the rioters (reported in real time) and a concern about the apparent incapacity of the police to bring the situation under control;
- Growing concern as the disorder spread from one London borough to the next and from one city to the next, with vivid scenes or burning buildings and widespread looting;
- Widespread sympathy for victims and concern about the wanton recklessness of the rioters;
- Concern that the number of people killed might rise;
- Concern about the wide age range of those seen looting;
- Concern that the courts should deal robustly with those who caused the community such distress and lost the livelihoods of so many shopkeepers and those they employed;
From all of the above, I surmise that whereas in the past the situation was much more clear cut, e.g. the community in Brixton resisting Swamp ’81; eruption against the police in Moss Side and violence clearly directed against the police, including Moss Side Police Station itself; the community in Lozells, Birmingham, actively defending a black man as he resisted arrest by the police (1985); Asian and African youths in conflict , again in Lozells, over the alleged gang rape of a young African girl by Asian shop owners (2005), the 2011 riots directly involved the police by way of commission and omission. The fact that ‘in real time’ news reporting showed the world that the disorder escalated without any visible police presence caused a problem for the state.
I believe that having regard to all the factors highlighted above, the government found it more expedient and less risky to ride on the general mood in the population and concentrate on ‘victims’ experience and perceptions of the riots, as well as what they want to see done, rather than have an inquiry such as the Lord Scarman’s, as such an inquiry was bound to look into the range of matters listed above.
In summary, therefore, I believe David Cameron and Theresa May ignored calls for a public inquiry because they wanted to save themselves, personally, huge embarrassment and the Government and the police strident criticism about their handling of the Duggan affair and the unrest that erupted on that first day, Saturday 6th August.
The Guardian reported that ‘the government agreed to the inquiry under pressure from the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, amid a rush of government suggestions of how to deal with the riots including social media shutdowns, benefit withdrawals for offenders and a promise of “zero-tolerance” from the prime minister’.
It was more convenient for them to do so as a damage limitation exercise since they clearly had to be seen to do something. The scope of that inquiry, however, is such that it is unlikely to shed light upon the many matters which were felt to justify a public inquiry in the first place.
Yesterday, Monday 28 November, Darra Singh submitted his interim report to the government. It makes interesting but disturbing reading and a good number of its recommendations are highly problematic.
What does this mean for the future of Britain?
In my keynote address to the Media and the Riots Big Debate on Saturday 26 November, and in my book ‘Moss Side 1981 – more than just a riot’ published the week after violence erupted in Tottenham, I point to the failure of government, the police and the media to learn from past civil unrest and from their reactions to previous riots.
This is how I ended my talk:
The Metropolitan Police who stood by in Tottenham, Clapham Junction and elsewhere and let the unrest escalate while their helicopters took thousands of images of those involved were quick to pronounce afterwards that they would ‘put fear into the hearts of the rioters’. They are, as ever, eager to invite the media to witness and report them busting down doors at ungodly hours of the morning and ‘putting fear into the hearts’ of young and old alike, innocent and still to be proven guilty alike.
Ever since the skirmishes with the police during the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival, each new wave of urban protest, violent civil disorder, uprising or whatever term you might care to use has given rise to more militarised forms of policing, or at the very least demands for the same. The new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, robocop Bernard Hogan-Howe, is taking the opportunity in this post-August 2011environment when it is felt the nation has a stomach for these things to push the boat out as far as possible.
Terence Morris, writing in New Society in November 1985 commented:
‘Riot confers no license for generalized violence on the part of the agents of the state’.
I would add, nor does it confer license upon housing authorities, the benefits agency, Transport for London, or any other non-judiciary body to mete out rough justice arbitrarily to those accused of or convicted for offences associated with the unrest. It is not the business of Transport for London to punish young people who were arrested and charged for their part in the disturbances by withdrawing their travel pass.
Let me end with something I wrote in the journal ‘Race Today’ in January 1986 in response to Mr Geoffrey Dear:
While Commissions of Inquiry meet to analyze causes and cures, and police and community leaders scurry around demonstrating that theirs is a ‘common sorrow’ and that they have no fundamental disagreements, not even about what ‘returning the situation back to normality’ means, the injustice machine accelerates in the cause of law and order, and the safeguarding of people’s rights and civic entitlements is considered an almost obscene concern, given the circumstances. In one fell swoop, magistrates and judges, not to mention solicitors and barristers, manage to engender in defendants, their families and their communities the kind of resentment which remains deep seated and festering, ready and waiting to be given expression in full force on another day, whether or not by the same people.
No one is deterred. Others see no one as ‘an example’. They do not learn to respect and abide by ‘the consensual values’ of the society any more than they did before. They don’t go running in droves to the nearest community policing facility. They and their communities are subjected instead to more of the vicious treatment which is visited upon the community by an occupying force on whom no checks and balances are imposed in the wake of the warfare on the streets, even as the consultation and the community liaison is stepped up in an effort to restore ‘normality’.
And if the law and order gospel and the pilgrims within the police and the community and inside the courts fail to achieve what they want now, they would be no more successful with the baton rounds, CS gas, and water cannon at their disposal’
(Extract from ‘Oh Dear! That criminal minority again – Gus John examines the police report on the Handsworth riots’, Race Today, January 1986; in Taking a Stand – Gus John Speaks on education, race, social action and civil unrest 1980-2005, Gus John Partnership 2006, reprinted 2010, Gus John Books, London)
That was 1986. This is 2011.
The more things change…., the more they remain the same, producing new generations of casualties in their wake.
I do not believe that the government and the nation will understand the 2011 riots any more than they did those that occurred in the thirty years up to August 2011. For one thing, the failure to mount a wide ranging inquiry such as indicated in the first section of this response could mean that key lessons will be missed, the focus will remain on criminals and their victims and on the need for more robust, militarised policing and harsher punishments for rioters and looters.
The stage has already been set for same, with the courts routinely denying bail and keeping accused rioters and looters in custody for months before their case comes up for trial and handing down draconian sentences even for first offenders.
That is why in a recent article for the current issue of Race Equality teaching, I wrote:
The emphasis has been on revenge and on showing the country that the state has not lost control and that the government is still tough on crime and social disorder, rather than on dispensing justice and treating each offence and offender on its own merit.
But, responding to the civil unrest by blaming it on criminal elements motivated by lawlessness, greed and a lack of respect for ‘our’ values displaces the need to examine wider structural issues which help define both the people involved and their actions. Worse yet, when the Prime Minister and members of his government speak of those ‘criminal elements’ as belonging almost exclusively to ‘the black community’, they send out the message that the unrest was an aberration visited upon the otherwise consensual nation by people who don’t belong among ‘us’ anyway and who are showing no gratitude for being allowed to dwell among us.
The response of the state was epitomised by the Recorder of Manchester, Judge Andrew Gilbart QC, who produced his own sentencing guidelines. Sentencing Stephen Carter, David Beswick, Linda Mary Boyd and Michael Gillespie-Doyle for their part in the disturbances in Manchester city centre and Salford Precinct, the Judge stated:
Those who choose to take part in activities of this type must understand that they do so at their peril….. In my judgement the context in which the offences of the night of 9th August were committed takes them completely outside the usual context of criminality. For the purposes of these sentences, I have no doubt that the principal purpose is that the Courts should show that outbursts of criminal behaviour like this will be and must be met with sentences longer than they would be if the offences had been committed in isolation. For those reasons I consider that the Sentencing Guidelines for specific offences are of much less weight in the context of the current case, and can properly be departed from.
As a starting point, it seems to me inevitable that any adult offender out and about in the City Centre or at Salford Precinct that evening who took part in crimes of the type I have described must expect to lose his or her liberty for a significant period.
David Cameron had himself encouraged the Courts to ignore Sentencing Guidelines and send out a clear message to the ‘rioters’.
The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, saw things very differently, as he told Mary Riddell of the Daily Telegraph:
We should not treat these cases as a separate category to be dealt with differently. We should treat them as we do any other case. We need to keep our feet on the ground. In other areas, such as big terrorism cases, we have resisted the temptation to call for special measures. With disorder cases, we should adopt the same approach.
The Appeal Court, sitting to consider the first cases to come before them from the summer disturbances also criticised the Manchester Recorder for his remarks on sentencing and for setting his own tariff for the crimes committed during the civil disorder. Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice remarked that ‘if other crown courts had circulated alternative tariffs for various crimes it would have been a “recipe for chaos” in the judicial system’.
The UK government has amply demonstrated its support for citizens engaging in mass protests against regimes that Britain sees as tyrannical, regimes with which it was happy to do business and cement bilateral trade relationships before those popular uprisings. It even went to war on the side of ‘rebels’ in Libya. Some, at least, of those uprisings were organised with the aid of social networking media, the same media Cameron et al are hellbent on shutting down.
The one issue that the government cannot duck is the issue of whether the riots were nothing but criminals and amoral people indulging in sheer criminality or whether at the root of the disorder were serious concerns about equity and social justice, including:
- the way poor communities are policed
- ‘stop and search’ and its disproportionate effect on black communities, young people in particular
- deaths in police custody and the apparent endorsement of those by the government and the Crown Prosecution Service
- The ‘ethnic penalty’ suffered by four generations of black people since the Second World War
- the way long term unemployment affects generations
- neo-liberalism and its social and economic consequences
As I observed in my talk on Saturday:
Unemployment, alienation, disaffection, breakdown of family discipline, fatherless and single parent households and all the rest of it do not necessarily lead to violent protest on our streets and theirs. But when imposed leisure, wagelessness and your visibility on the streets, individually or collectively, lead the police to target you relentlessly, whether through ‘stop and search’, the use of ‘sus’ laws or the sheer indulgence in racist conduct, resistance can assume unpredictable forms.
Even if the government, the police and the media are locked into the criminality argument, the fact remains that the outbreak of criminality on such an ‘unprecedented scale’ (to use Clegg’s words) must have a context.
The much publicized display of ‘Big Society’ fervour, with neighbourhoods leading the big clean up and Boris Johnson running around with broom and pail like a buffoon might have brought some comfort to David Cameron and Nick Clegg. It nevertheless exemplifies the ‘them’ (rioters/looters/criminals destroying our community) and ‘us’ (decent, law abiding citizens living in the same neighbourhoods and facing the same economic constraints as ‘them’ but who rather than rioting are showing them that they will not win and that we with our decency and shared values will clean up their mess and rebuild our communities)
What did Nick Clegg give as his justification for the kind of inquiry the government wanted (as quoted above)?:
“Only by listening to people who have been affected by the riots – the victims – will we ever be able to move on and rebuild for the long term. This is not just about individuals, but entire communities. These victims, who stood side by side and refused to be beaten by the senseless destruction, hold the key to how residents, shopkeepers, parents, young people and communities can move on.”
That situates the problem and the challenge more or less exclusively within communities themselves. Those engaging in ‘senseless destruction’ on the one hand and those in the same communities who ‘refuse to be beaten’ by it on the other. In other words it has nothing to do with:
- the state of two-track Britain
- poverty and unemployment
- wagelessness, the consequent visibility of young people on the streets and the role and practices of the police
- wasted lives and the futility that comes with the abandonment of hope and the death of aspiration
- young people in those communities dying with their aspirations
- the neo-liberal agenda
- the painful straining and groaning of late capitalism
I therefore see a more polarized Britain in the future and burgeoning social exclusion. I do not see communities absorbing and rehabilitating on release those thousands of people being sent to jail for their part in the riots. I certainly do not see the jails rehabilitating them and equipping them with the skills, aptitudes and attitudes necessary to confront the stigmatization they face now and will face even more when they are released back into the community.
By failing to address those critical issues through the lens of a wide ranging public inquiry and through the insights and recommendations that might emerge from it, the government is undoubtedly storing up massive problems for the future.
When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. When you are cast out as ‘feral’, ‘feckless’, ‘moron’, ‘criminal’ and ‘sick’, you cannot be expected to respect those or the values of those who attach such labels to you. When you have nothing to lose, you might just deal with them in a manner that the labels they pin upon you suggest.
Without peddling gloom, it is for those reasons I believe that sooner rather than later the nation will be confronted with more of what it experienced in August 2011, irrespective of whether or not Bernard Hogan-Howe and his counterparts across the country get the kit and the powers they seek to deal with such an eventuality.
If you would like to download this speech in pdf format, please click here.