Policing the Crisis: The London Riots in Historical Perspective

The conflagration currently consuming London and other cities in the English Midlands is generating much heated debate. Little of this commentary demonstrates much of a sense of history.

Authorities such as Prime Minister David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson have, for example, been quick to condemn what they and significant segments of the mainstream British media represent as the wanton lawlessness of the ‘rioters.’ Metropolitan Police commander Adrian Hanstock condemned the riots as “absolutely unacceptable” on August 7, saying that a peaceful demonstration had been hijacked by a small number of “criminal elements” using it for their own gain. Racial and class stereotypes about the character of the rioters are not so carefully hidden behind these denunciations.

In the face of these stereotypes, it’s worth remembering that the riots began on Saturday following a nonviolent community demonstration outside a Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) station in the North London neighborhood of Tottenham. This demonstration was organized to demand justice following the death of Mark Duggan, a young Black Briton shot by the police during a planned operation. The London police initially reported that Duggan had fired on them, but subsequent reports by the Independent Police Complaints Commission have revealed that a bullet lodged in a police radio was in fact issued by the Metropolitan Police Service.

The killing of Duggan took place within the context of Operation Trident, a special arm of the MPS established in 1998 to investigate gun crime in London’s black communities. More recently, the MPS launched Operation Razorback in order to crack down on “troublemakers” planning to attend this year’s carnival in Notting Hill. As British activist Darcus Howe explained in a recent interview, these police operations come on top of a broader transformation in police-community relations facilitated by the war on terror that has allowed the police to engage in unimpeded stop, search, and arrest operations in Britain’s Black communities.

Despite the fact that most British police do not carry guns, being arrested in the UK is no joke. As Caroline Davies reported in an article earlier this year, 333 people have died in or following police custody in the UK over the last eleven years; not a single member of the police has been convicted for any of these deaths.

This pattern of police dragnets in Black communities has deep historical roots. As I discuss in my book Mongrel Nation, Black communities were targeted during the 1970s and 1980s by very similar special operations. In 1981, for example, Operation Swamp deployed huge numbers of police into the predominantly Black neighborhood of Brixton in South London. Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government oversaw the revival of Victorian “sus” laws that allowed police to detain anyone who they suspected might be either breaking or about to break the law. Not surprisingly, young Black men were disproportionately targeted, and a significant number of deaths in police custody ensued. In 1981, riots broke out in Brixton and quickly spread to Black, Asian, and white working class neighborhoods of cities such as Birmingham and Manchester.

Exactly the same pattern is repeating itself today. Given this fact, it’s worth remembering how these uprisings were framed at the time. The most trenchant account of urban unrest of the time, Policing the Crisis, suggested that urban “criminality” needed to be placed in the context of the organic crisis of the British state and society. For Stuart Hall and his fellow contributors, public fears about “mugging” (which anticipated and legitimated draconian tactics such as Operation Swamp that sparked the Brixton riots) were a moral panic that condensed much broader fears and redirected those fears onto the scapegoated figure of the “immigrant.” For the contributors to Policing the Crisis, that is, fears about crime helped authorities contain a much broader crisis in Britain.

What was the nature of this crisis? By the 1970s, the economic boom of the post-World War II years had played itself out. Rates of profit were sagging in the industrialized economies of North America and Western Europe. In addition, the 1960s had seen broad criticism of the hollow materialism of the “affluent society” constructed during the consumer-driven boom of preceding decades. The result was what Hall and his colleagues, drawing on the theories of Antonio Gramsci, called an organic crisis: a breakdown that cut across all segments of society, from the economic “base” to the cultural “superstructure.”

In response to these interwoven economic and ideological crises, elites in Britain, the United States, and other developed countries gradually cobbled together the hegemonic project we now know as neo-liberalism. The lineaments of neo-liberalism of course included smashing institutions of working class power, shrinking and/or privatizing the redistributive arm of the state, and beefing up the state’s security apparatus. Hall and his colleagues called this approach popular authoritarianism.

A key element of popular authoritarianism, according to Policing the Crisis, was pinning the cause of the organic crisis on the figure of Black immigrant. Black communities had of course been hyper-exploited and, in tandem, economically marginalized for decades in Britain. Nevertheless, the underground economies that developed as a result were taken out of context and classified as criminal in a process that tended to pathologize entire communities and to treat criminality as a purely racial issue. Policing the Crisis elaborates a theory of Britain’s Black communities as part of an international surplus labor population whose outsider status allowed them to be demonized by British authorities in order to explain away their inability to establish a socially and economically just society. Both the Tories and the Labour Party cooperated in this scapegoating of Britain’s Black population, as a survey of the increasingly racialized elements of immigration legislation demonstrates. This sordid history of caving in to the extreme racial posturing of the Right makes much of the hand-wringing in Europe following the recent murderous rampage of Norwegian racialist Anders Breivik hypocritical at best.

Policing the Crisis remains relevant today. As Operation Trident and Razorback suggest, Black communities in Britain are still subject to heavy, racially targeted policing tactics. Despite the admission of institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police Service in the wake of the investigation of the killing of Stephen Lawrence in 1999, police still operate with total impunity. Finally, authority figures continue to discuss criminality without any reference to the context of austerity and draconian cutbacks in the redistributive arm of the state that has prevailed for the last three decades, and that has intensified to an unprecedented level under the current Tory government.

The uprisings in London and other parts of Britain draw attention to these injustices, just as the Brixton uprising did several decades ago. Sustained organizing, in the media and on the ground, will be necessary in order to prevent the imposition of yet another round of popular authoritarianism in response to these uprisings.


Filed under class war, media, race, Uncategorized

6 responses to “Policing the Crisis: The London Riots in Historical Perspective

  1. Tamantha

    Brilliant article.

  2. A great article. I’m glad to see that the historical perspective of these riots is not lost on everyone, even if the mainstream media here in the U.K. is largely ignoring it in favour of promoting popular authoritarian measures for the sake of ‘community security’ in the future. However, the outcries of disbelief, shock and awe over here are unlikely to cultivate anything other than responses of utter condemnation for a time. Rationality and understanding has been obscured by clouds of indictment and outrage, so it’s good to hear an outside perspective.

    The Notting Hill Riots of 1958 feed into this historical perspective, offering a striking moment of nascent social unrest in contemporary British history, and providing a pivotal point in London’s postcolonial discourse. It’s a shame that the cultural significance of Notting Hill’s annual carnival is lost on so many of the younger generation who attend it.
    However, I feel there is a distinction between these other riots and the most recent events. Unlike the Brixton and Notting Hill riots, which were fundamentally fueled by racial issues and societal fears which condemned the figure of the immigrant, these riots have created a scapegoat figure of ‘youth’, (regardless of race, culture or social class) as an ailment within British society. As a 22 year old, born, raised and living in South London, I’ve been directly and profoundly affected by the riots in my city, but I’m not in the least bit surprised they occurred having grown up feeling the anger and tension in the areas and community (or lack thereof) around me. The organic state of British society has created a disenfranchised youth; a classless class, experiences weak but passions strong, who are not just aggressive but also transgressive and ready to disrupt in order to be heard. It’s upsetting to hear so much condemnation being thrust upon British youth, compartmentalised in discussion to perpetuate deep-seated, problematic ‘us’ vs ‘them’ social mores. If we cannot even disintegrate the boundaries between the different generations of our nation, then we’ve got no chance of ever creating the ‘Big Society’ our PM speaks of with such affectionate zeal.
    Whilst the catalyst of the situation was a stop-search event in Tottenham, North London at the protest for Mark Duggan, there are many other imperceptible factors which made the riots spread to South London and then across other parts of the U.K.

    Colin MacInnes novel ‘Absolute Beginners’, about the role of youth within the Notting Hill riots, is pretty portentous for the situation, as is some of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s dub-poetry.

    • Thanks for your excellent post. Seems right on the money. Since I wrote my piece, the PM has made more and more overtly stereotypical arguments about how the riots were the product of a “feral” youth culture.

      David Harvey has a great response to this: what’s really feral is capitalism. Why isn’t anyone talking about all the crooked bankers, stockbrokers, politicians who’ve been looting the UK and the US for the last four years (at least).

      Check out his piece at http://counterpunch.org/harvey08122011.html

  3. Martin Stollery

    I’m not entirely convinced that the riots are being discussed without any historical perspective. However when this is invoked it is a skewed one. Conservative politicians such as Iain Duncan Smith and David Davies have been making distinctions between the riots of the 1980s (under a previous Tory government) and the recent ones, conceding that the former had a politcial context, but insisting that recent events do not. The lack of historical perspective here is that Duncan Smith, Davies and the like ignore the fact that no Tory politicians in the 1980s shared their analysis of what are now safely historic events. Instead, the 1980s riots were at the time framed in very similar terms to the dominant explanatory framework that is being imposed upon recent events.

    • Thanks for this info. Since I wrote my piece, there has been a lot of spin from many different political perspectives. As time goes by, of course people will reach more and more for comparative historical perspectives. My point was that the initial discussions of the riots totally ignored historical precedent, and consequently reacted in purely moralistic terms (which was exactly what elites did the first time around).

  4. Great article Ashley! By pure coincidence, our band Policing in Crisis (inspired by the title of said book) recorded a song a week before the riots, and thought what better time than now to release the track as a call for arms for anyone with their own photos & footage of the events that unfolded, to show a perspective not tainted by the mass media’s agenda. If you’d like more info, please check out the following page: http://policingincrisis.bandcamp.com/


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