After the Riots, “Broken” Britain Grows Still More Fractured

Lost amid all the racialized, anti-youth invective is the story of youth on the margins, whose voices go ignored until they explode in collective rebellion. Michelle Chen explores what happens next for London's fractured neighborhoods.

By Michelle Chen Aug 18, 2011

In the aftermath of the riots, politicians have promised to rebuild Britain’s "broken society." But their eagerness to restore order threatens to tear apart an already fractured urban landscape. Speaking at a youth club in Witney, Oxfordshire, Prime Minister David Cameron played on public panic to declare war on the unruly elements that flared up in the riots. Dismissing the notion that race or class issues factored into the unrest, he instead blamed a "moral breakdown" of family structure and social values, and "people without proper boundaries." But the audience (some of whom heckled the Prime Minister) didn’t need to be schooled about boundaries, as they’ve seen the limits of their future prospects grow narrower by the day. A local teen quoted by Reuters didn’t see Cameron’s Britain in his community: "He wants people to get in touch with families, but for some, their families aren’t there, and the youth centre is the only place where they can talk to people…. But he’s shutting all the youth centres." The scene encapsulated the government’s myopic reaction to the disturbances. Cameron has declared a full-scale "fightback." This includes plans to "hand police, local authorities and the courts sweeping powers to mete out severe punishments to those involved in the unrest," and perhaps even crowd-control tactics like water cannons, according to the AP. There is talk of imposing curfews or controlling communications technology to prevent rioters from coordinating actions (an eerie echo of crackdowns on social media and youth gatherings in San Francisco and Philadelphia). Stung by criticism about an inadequate police response, Cameron also called for a "concerted, all-out war on gangs and gang culture." And he’s getting coached by American "supercop" William Bratton, an advocate of the much-maligned "broken windows" strategy that deploys zero tolerance on everything from graffiti to squeegee men. English courts are working overtime to churn out swift retribution for hundreds charged with riot-related offenses. Extreme jail sentences have been imposed for infractions like stealing bottled water and sending an incendiary Facebook message–in sharp contrast to the relative impunity that scandalized officials and disgraced corporate giants have enjoyed in recent months. Meanwhile, lost amid all the racialized, anti-youth invective is the story of youth on the margins of that tattered society, whose voices go ignored until they explode in collective rebellion. Waiting to Happen The tragedy of the riots was in part their predictability: the spark that ignited the chaos was a clash between police and youth in Tottenham, a racially mixed London enclave where another historic anti-police uprising took place in the 1980s. Following a peaceful protest demanding justice for Mark Duggan, a young black man who died in a police shooting, officers reportedly assaulted a young girl. Instantly a generation of simmering resentment boiled over, clearly fueled by the patterns of racial bias in aggressive police stops and searches. Zita Holbourne of BARAC UK, a national racial-justice coalition that campaigns against budget cuts, told Colorlines that while communities like Tottenham are saturated with an overbearing police presence, other public institutions, like support programs for youth who need education or jobs, are vanishing:

Essentially, there is almost nothing for young people. Where are they going to go? What are they going to do? So you end up with them building up anger and frustration, hopelessness … and you can see that Tottenham was waiting to happen. Whether it was Tottenham or somewhere else, it was waiting to happen."

Garrisoned Communities The government has beefed up its crackdown by encouraging communities to police themselves. The BBC reported that in police in Manchester had tried to shame families into submission with "shop a looter" advertisements by encouraging parents to turn in children suspected of wrongdoing. And if police can’t force parents to snitch on their kids, then they can always resort to collective punishment. A convenient statute allows for the eviction of public housing residents who break the law, according to the AP:

Currently, authorities can boot out residents who commit offenses in their own neighborhood only–and evict about 3,000 of Britain’s 8 million public housing tenants each year. If the new plans are approved, it won’t matter where a person has committed their crime.

Eric Pickles, Britain’s Communities Secretary, acknowledged the policy could leave some people homeless.

"That may sound a little harsh, but I just don’t think it’s time to pussyfoot around," Pickles told BBC television. "They’ve done their best to destroy neighborhoods. Frankly, I don’t feel sympathetic towards them."

So vulnerable kids, along with their struggling families, may soon be forced out onto the same streets that got them in trouble in the first place. Whatever moral lesson the authorities are trying to teach, it’s not the one they should have learned from Tottenham. The Post-Race Riot Cameron and other politicians have stressed the participants included people of many racial backgrounds and that "these riots were not about poverty: that insults the millions of people who, whatever the hardship, would never dream of making others suffer like this." It’s true that the destruction cut across racial or socioeconomic lines. Many "normal" middle-class folks joined in the rioting, and some of the heaviest damage was suffered by working-class communities of color. One of the most poignant examples is the three young Pakistanis killed by a hit-and-run while guarding their Birmingham neighborhood. Yet erasing race and class elements from the public conversation only deepens the political establishment’s willful blindness. The law enforcement crackdowns, combined with stringent budget cuts, will have a disproportionate impact on the poor and people of color (people who are more likely to depend on public services, live in public housing, or get entangled in the criminal justice system). As they try to recover, the gulf between the day-to-day injustices surrounding them, and victor’s justice being touted by officials, will continue to widen. Tottenham youth worker Symeon Brown commented on CNN, "A moral judgment is easy: ‘They are wrong, people are suffering, they are selfish, they are thugs,’ but we are using a system that these boys do not comply with." You won’t find the most troubling "moral breakdown" in London among its youth. It reveals itself in every humiliating police search, every shuttered youth club, every corruption scandal ingrained in a political structure that walls off ordinary people. Repairing the Cracks On England’s scorched streets, communities seeking to rebuild face a crossroads. In many cases, the riots catalyzed grassroots solidarity. Communities immediately mobilized "across ethnic and racial lines" in self-defense, reported Judy Beishon of the UK Socialist Party:

Sikh men in Southall organised to defend mosques and Hindu temples as well as Sikh temples. Turkish, Kurdish and Bangladeshi shopkeepers mobilised in Hackney to defend major streets and premises.

It was also the case that after the riots, in many areas a mass of people turned out onto the streets to help clear up the mess and restore things to normal and donations poured in to help those who had lost homes and small businesses.

At the same time, activists fear that the far-right will capitalize on public fears by using neighborhood recovery efforts as a political platform. Referring to reports of the white-supremacist English Defence League partaking in "vigilante" patrols and local clean-up initiatives, Holbourne said, "They’re talking about, ‘They’re cleaning up the street’ as in ‘cleaning up Britain.’ And when they’re saying ‘cleaning up Britain,’ they [mean] cleaning up Britain from black people. They’re using it as an opportunity to spread racial hatred." If the fear sparked by the riots leads to even more criminalization of youth and people of color, then Britain may end up broken beyond repair. But the embattled streets could also clear the way for a paradigm shift. Communities might start to question the state and think past some of those those "proper boundaries" that hemmed them in before. And then a broken society might really figure out how to put itself back together again.