Wandering north up Mare Street towards central Hackney helicopters throbbed in the air ahead, tightening an atmosphere already tense with August humidity and tales of riot.1 The road was peculiarly desolate for evening rush hour, barren of the usual steady flow of traffic that trudges north–south along this inner-city artery. Remnants of some episode were visible: bins dismantled, turned over; rubbish sprawled, broken glass glittering on the open road; probably a confrontation with the cops. A fair few loitered, curious, oddly lacking intent — hipster riot tourists and other locals. A group of kids, mostly black, gathered nonchalantly about a pawn shop where a shutter and window were broken in, making a hole just big enough for a child or someone small to weasel through. A “gang” perhaps, or just some opportunists: were those casual figures playing lookout, while one or two went about stealing what they could? A few shopkeepers too, concerned for their property, milled about the street; a little further up, a smattering of police in fluorescent jackets.
Approaching the Narrowway, central Hackney’s main shopping street, smoke billowed on the horizon in the direction of the helicopters, which seemed focused still a little further north, around Clarence Road. Half way up, the police had taped a cordon, preventing pedestrians from venturing further. On the corner a black couple stood resolute while a grizzled white drunk bawled, vitriolic into their faces. Routing around the cordon towards Dalston Lane a group of kids, scarves pulled over faces black-bloc style, glided past on bikes holding what might have been minor looted goods. Almost all the businesses were closed. A shop on Amhurst Road had its shutters full down, while dimly through the gaps the shapes of women could be seen avidly watching the news, probably scared to leave, either for their own safety or the shop’s. At Clapton Square, an older Afro-Caribbean couple merrily joked with a TV news crew, “we’re the parents — come interview us!” Entering this square, architectural relic of an old Hackney bourgeoisie, smoke hung in the air, acrid. Smouldering wheelie bin barricades lay in the street at the top. Turning into Clarence Road, a car was on fire.
Clarence Road runs down the Eastern flank of the Pembury Estate — one of Hackney’s most stigmatised neighbourhoods, established by London County Council fiat in the era of interwar slum clearance, and now associated in the local press with salacious tales of turf war between the “Pembury Boys” and other local gangs; this is the Hackney sentimentalised in the months following the riots in Top Boy, a supposed British counterpart to The Wire. Through the late 1980s and early 1990s empty units on the Pembury were a magnet for squatters from Hackney’s numerous anarcho and activist scene, who established convivial relations with the estate’s tenants. And it was on Clarence Road that the Colin Roach Centre — named after a young black man shot dead in the notorious Stoke Newington Police Station in 1983 — was established with a remit of pursuing complaints about such things as police planting and dealing of drugs. The estate was cleared of squatters in 1993, just as the borough’s long-term depopulation halted, though enough units remained empty for whole blocks to go derelict. After a gradual divestment under successive Tory and Labour governments, Hackney Council sold off the whole estate, with promises of improvements, to the Peabody Trust, a private housing association with a history of paternalistic involvement in housing London’s poor dating back to Marx’s day.2 The Pembury’s notoriety for “anti-social behaviour” subsequently legitimated Peabody’s demolition of a large part of it to make way for “Pembury Circus”, a large regeneration project that now aspires to bring more owner-occupiers into the neighbourhood. As well as crime, the Pembury has a reputation for tightly-knit community; something embodied in residents’ organisations, and a sometimes vocal presence in the local media. On summer days like this strains of dancehall and reggae sometimes drift from the row of small shops that line one side of Clarence Road.
Now, diverse crowds of people milled about in the street, ranging from children to pensioners; asians, whites, slightly more blacks than others — unsurprising, given the demographics of the area. Overall probably only slightly more men than women, but the largest and most active contingent, young men, probably ranging later teens to thirty-somethings. Further down the street an abandoned black cab, door gaping open, windows smashed, rear bumper dangling off; a local convenience store offering Western Union money transfer, shutters broken through. A middle-aged black man setting out looted bottles on the pavement for people to take, finding this hilarious, shouting “free booze! free booze!” Tentatively, initially one by one, a little stream of people ducked through the broken shutters, then emerged again, clutching minor trophies: alcohol, Walkers crisps. Bedraggled-looking whites, perhaps alcoholics or homeless, took the opportunity; others just seemed to want to take part in the fun. All the while a police helicopter hovered close overhead, filling the air with tension, observing, yet the police did nothing. A gaggle of journalists, conspicuously large cameras surveilling those entering the shop, prompting cries of “no photos”, “they’re fucking feds”; then a momentary boiling over, threatening quite rationally to snatch or smash a camera. But they let him get away, under a barrage of curses. If they had known how the state would subsequently use images like that in their mass-prosecution…
There was little overt sense of “gangs” operating here, nor the simple opportunistic materialism of a “feral youth”: the composition seemed to be something of a cross-section of the community, plus a smattering of riot tourists and journalists, and the looting was perfunctory, a sideshow to the main event, which was about keeping the area cop-free. The mood was predominantly jovial, people revelling in the creation of a small liberated zone which the police seemed ill-equipped to quash. While the more “active” role tended to be played by the younger men, others offered a passively sympathetic presence, egging them on or making justifying arguments to onlookers. An older Afro-Caribbean man alternately giggled and shouted jokes across the street in the direction of the looted shop. A riot dynamic like this partly selects its own crowd: the terrified and the disapproving of course mostly vacate the scene once things get going, unless they have to stay to guard homes or property, leaving behind just those who want to make, support or observe the continuing riot. It was further up Clarence Road, on the periphery of the Pembury’s rioting area and after this local riot’s peak that Pauline Pearce — the nationally-celebrated “Heroine of Hackney”— gave her speech:
Low up the fuckin’ burning the property. Low up burning people’s shop that they work hard to start their business. You understand? Poor […]’s shop up there, she’s working hard to make her business work and then you lot want to go and burn it up, for what? So that you can say you’re “warring” and you’re bad man. This is about a fuckin’ man who got shot in Tottenham, its not about having fun on the road and busting up the place. Get it real black people, get real. We’re here for a cause, and if we’re fighting for a cause let’s fight for a fuckin’ cause. You lot piss me the fuck off. I’m ashamed to be a Hackney person coz we’re not all gathering together and fighting for a cause, we’re running down Foot Locker and thieving shoes. Dirty thief run off.3
On the corner next to the anarchist Pogo café a distressed woman lay on her back in the street, attended to by passers-by, including some black-clad types, presumably from Pogo, who brought water, trying to keep the atmosphere around her calm. Along the street were one smouldering car wreck after another, some on side streets. A motorbike had also been burned out, and more bins. Incongruously, amongst the wisps of smoke two priests in full robes were engaged in conversation with some locals; saintly nodding, downcast eyes; an older black man speaking of a need for black youth to stick up for themselves, finally. Others describing miserable conditions, the impossibility of finding jobs, feeling discriminated against by the “feds”. Some red graffiti chorused: “fuck da feds”; further up, “fuck Cameron”. The name Mark Duggan, and the police murder of a black man were on some lips, but not all; still, that event was clearly a symbol. The priests just listened. Debris indicated a pitched battle had taken place. A row of teenagers, some wearing the archetypal hoodies, on the front steps of a terraced house, consuming beer and crisps, probably looted from the convenience store; a foaming beer can lobbed at a friend.
Back down Clarence Road a new car was now in full blaze, worryingly close to a house. Residents leaned out of windows looking peculiarly calm, given the situation. Night was gradually falling, and the flames stood out in the dark. The crowd had parted around the car, worried about potential explosion. A stream of looters were still making off with items from the shop: crates of beer, bottles of Lambrini. We braved the flames to dash further up the street and into the crowd. Unprompted, a young black guy enthused to us “this is it! The fucking revolution! The people taking back the streets!” Another compared the events favourably to the student movement of 2010–11: this was “real protest”. The owner of a wool shop stood in his doorway, protecting his business, and the cabbie whose vehicle had been half destroyed attempted to extricate what was left.
After a while the police helicopter flew in low for a bit, as if to intimidate the crowd, but the cops themselves were still bizarrely absent, perhaps content to leave the riot as long as it was contained in an area already deeply stigmatised. The sound of sirens and a stroll around the neighbourhood found them massed, inactive on Pembury Road, which cuts through the estate on the west side of the area of conflagration. Were they mustering forces, waiting for a strategic moment, or just observing from afar? At the bottom of Clarence Road, the crowd was now restive, uneasy about the long absence of a their main partner in riot. “There are no cops man!”, someone shouted, “where the hell are the police!?” while the chopper just throbbed in the sky above — cataloguing, presumably, all of our faces, clothes, postures, interactions, ready for the systematic analysis that would later convict thousands.
It is a perversity of a riot like this, built entirely around liberation of territory from the cops, that the complete absence of this protagonist, while seemingly realising the riot’s very aim, deprives it of the dynamic which enables it to develop. The police, in this sense, are not an external force of order applied by the state to an already rioting mass, but an integral part of the riot: not only its standard component spark-plug, acting via the usual death, at police hands, of some young black man, but also the necessary ongoing partner of the rioting crowd from whom the space must be liberated if this liberation is to mean anything at all; who must be attacked as an enemy if the crowd is to be unified in anything; who must be forced to recognise the agency of a habitually subjected group. Now, without direct confrontation in a number of hours, the riot was starting to sag. People seemed actually to be willing the cops to return, even perhaps to the point of self-destruction. A young white man dressed like an anarchist cried “MARE STREET!” repeatedly, gesturing for the crowd to follow him that way. We drifted along with the flow as it crossed the boundary of the estate to enter the Narrowway, with its greater supply of shopfronts.
Those massed troops we’d seen had evidently been primed to oblige the crowd in response to such provocation. Almost immediately a riot van screeched in, prompting a wave of heckling: “MURDERERS!”. Some in the crowd, too, were prepared, immediately letting forth a quite intense volley of rocks, beer cans etc, which clattered into the van as it sped past. A can rebounded and thudded hard into my chest, spraying beer down my front. Some of the men started gathering around a bank on the Narrowway, smashing at its windows. A kid let off a fire extinguisher pointlessly into the street. As they penetrated the bank, a riot van sped into the crowd, forcing it to part back towards the Pembury, but suffering a broken window from one well-aimed brick as it slid by. Cops were now moving in from the south in full riot gear, at the bottom end of the Narrowway. At the end of Clarence Road a new convoy of riot vans rolled in. Again the crowd was well prepared, unleashing volleys of missiles. One flew straight for the head of a driver, shattering the window but not passing through. Kids kicked obstacles in front of the vans, trying to block their way, without success. Anything — tree branches were pulled down, rammed flailingly at the cop vehicles. Now an unfortunate bus rolled up behind the riot vans blocking Dalston Lane, its front windows already gaping — sign of an incident elsewhere in the city — and was forced to turn awkwardly around in the street, to avoid another riot that now filled the road ahead of it. Police charged. “Clear the area!” We ran, fearing a kettle.
Separated from the bulk of the crowd, we moved off. The road was clear but several shops had been hit: JD Sports, a posh sandwich shop, Ladbrokes. A gaggle of friendly alchies accosted us, an inebriated woman grabbing and kissing us. “BOO!” she shouted at a passing hipster, tense from the goings-on: he jumped a mile before she headlocked him, declaring her love and showering him with the same kisses. Were they deliberately heading for the riot? Similar types had been present in the midst of the crowd: just those left when the streets cleared of the “respectable”, perhaps, or looking for opportunities under cover of the riots? In more or less deserted streets, as we rambled through Hackney, we found only drunks and some Turkish guys — perhaps out to protect their businesses — hanging out with police. In a kebab shop we asked one cop if this was happening anywhere other than Hackney. He laughed: “Are you joking love? It’s literally everywhere”.
They were completely overwhelmed. Police organisational and communications structures seem to have more or less collapsed around this point, strained by the sheer numbers of police officers being drafted into the capital from elsewhere in the country. Individual officers were reduced to communicating horizontally with each other, using their personal mobile phones, while the backups did not have proper equipment or any instructions as to what they should do. Camden, Lewisham, Catford, Croydon, Kilburn, Peckham, Battersea, Balham, Barnet, Clapham Junction, Ealing, Barking, Enfield, Bromley, Chingford Mount, East Ham, Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol, Nottingham, Woolwich and Bromwich were all now experiencing riots or related disturbances: the rioting had clearly spread far, far beyond its original trigger point — far even beyond Greater London’s vast metropolitan sprawl; something missed in the frequent international naming of these as “London” or “Tottenham” riots. These were England riots: halting at the small market town of Gloucester, before the Welsh border, spreading a long way north to Manchester, but sparing the northernmost reaches of the country, and the whole of Scotland, perhaps due to the wet weather further north.4
So who were these rioters, and why were they rioting? A certain explanatory, justificatory discourse was already present in the midst of the Pembury riot itself, uttered by rioters and especially by the older, more passive participants to anyone who cared to listen. These explanations were not the post festum fabrications of journalists or social scientists, eager to slot the events from afar into their own pre-formed narratives or theoretical contraptions, nor the retrospective rationalisations of kids who, in the spur of the moment, acted merely on impulse, or for the opportunity of getting some loot. They were an organic aspect of the riot itself, part of its general ambience, immediately perceptible to anyone present. Looting was in any case a marginal, tokenistic aspect of at least this particular moment in the national riot-wave; there were scant opportunities for effective looting on the Pembury Estate anyway, ruling out some immediate “consumerist greed” as a significant motivation. And the extended timespan of the Pembury riot, the crowd largely inactive, palpably wondering what to do, for long intervals while the cops gathered their forces nearby, undermines any appeal to “impulse” or the vagaries of mob irrationality. No: this riot came from the start with its own conscious justifications, and sustained them through the course of a primary conflict with the cops. The murder of a black man, poor conditions, unemployment: diverse explanations were given. And no doubt there were some people merely seizing an opportunity for some free booze. But, while various, there is an obvious coherence to this set of explanations, describing a world of condensed urban deprivation, and the need for revolt against it. What’s more, one explanation in particular stood out in its frequency: the role of the police and the need for Pembury youth to stand up for themselves against the systemic harassment exemplified in generalised stop-and-search; the need to finally take a stand, to stage a real protest against such treatment.
Contrary both to the authoritarian refusal to allot any legitimate agency to rioting subjects, in order to condemn them as unworthy of recognition (and thus as worthy of exemplary punishment), and a radical reversal of signs on this reading which would like to hold up the riots as some pure space of lumpen negativity, devoid of any meaningful intention (for fear of the taint of “politics”), a coherent struggle was being waged here, with a definite and quite transparent content: to insist upon respect from the cops, force recognition of a subject where daily grind sees only an abject. The Pembury riot itself already carried this content; the verbalised justifications in its midst merely clarified something already evident. This riot demanded the presence of the police, as the immediate interlocutor for whom it was performed, whose recognition it insisted upon, whose presence and participation it invited, and through whose efforts it was constituted.
The building national riot wave which had been triggered a couple of days previously, just a few miles north in the adjacent borough — and the mounting social tensions of the years running up to it — supplied its broad conjunctural context; a deep neighbourhood history of abjection and stigmatisation, most directly at the hands of the cops, its local one. At four o’clock in the afternoon the police had supplied an additional proximate cause: manhandling two young black men in a stop-and-search at Hackney Town Hall, just a few minutes walk from the Pembury Estate, in an area already pumped for riot, and correspondingly swamped with expectant coppers ready-equipped with NATO-style helmets. The Pembury riot, that is to say, was before all else an anti-police riot. It would be a bitter experience for those involved that the direct outcome of such riots — of their fleeting rebellions against a disrespecting Police — was an extreme escalation of the social logic of abjection, in which they would be projected as little better than wild animals; yet, looking back from a year or two’s hindsight, many of them would come to affirm the experience as something they’d happily do again.
Such riots are a habit of Britain’s deprived estates, dating back to the area-based policing that developed following the Notting Hill Carnival riots of 1976 — the long, hot summer that also gave us punk. From the late 1960s, Enoch Powell’s voice in the wilderness had helped to set the agenda of both the National Front’s reborn, post-CND Mosleyism, and a nascent New Right within the Conservative Party that, in response to its defeat at the hands of the miners, would eventually push beyond the lingering one-nationism of the Heath Government to incarnate itself in an Iron Lady. Now, while a simmering monetarism, emanating from the Institute of Economic Affairs, made its way even into the ruling cabinet of “Labour Party Capitalist Britain”, and while the struggles of the workers’ movement reached their crest, a contested reconfiguration of class relations was already underway at the level of urban space, with “race” as mediation constituting the sharp edge. A metropolitan police force that had finally come round to the conclusion that black people actually were more likely to be criminals, after all; a far right eager to capitalise on this revelation through such traditional pursuits as the provocative march through minority neighbourhoods; urban communities increasingly resistant to such harassment; a rebellious punk youth who coveted the anti-authoritarian credentials of the riotous rastas: by these vectors there cohered a new politics of space in Britain, focused by — but not reducible to — race. Under the 1824 Vagrancy Act’s “sus law”, the police increasingly targeted residents of pre-identified and preeminently black “problem” areas for routine stop-and-search, now that residency in such places was considered enough in itself to provide grounds for suspicion. Thus the stigma already placed upon areas such as Brixton by their particular positions in the distribution of urban misery was given a reflexive reinforcement in the new style of policing aimed at their containment.
Defined as spaces on the margins of society, inherently lawless, to be managed under a regime of mere “social control”, these stigmatised neighbourhoods came to represent the internal limits of the restructured capitalist state; enactments of a nasty, brutal state of nature which would provide exemplary justification for the consolidating Leviathan. Under this crystallising regime, the residents of such places are only representable as warning signs to the rest of the nation, the grab-bag of failed subjects who constitute what has recently come to be known as “broken Britain”: the dole scroungers, hoodies, illegal immigrants, single mothers, chavs, drug dealers, fatherless blacks, gang members, et cetera. Yet this has never been the “ghetto” in anything other than a metaphorical sense: the symbolic exclusion represented by the marginal housing estate does not amount to a literal exclusion from economy or state, and such areas have always maintained some variety in terms of ethnic composition. And, while the development of these places cannot ultimately be separated from general global logics, the British case should be differentiated from others such as the US and France.5 Shaped by the encounter of post-colonial immigrants with remnants of an “indigenous” working class, with the decayed remainder of a post-war social-democratic housing often providing the architectural setting, the poor urban neighbourhood in Britain shares certain characteristics with the French case. But, in Britain, it was never relegated to the periphery of the city. Rather, it has typically filled the spaces left by a particular mix of (1) interwar inner-city slum clearance, (2) the razing of large areas of working class habitation by the blitz — which left sizable bomb sites in London right up to the 1970s, and (3) post-war “white flight” to suburban developments. From these factors London’s population was actually in decline for most of the 20th Century, after the peak of the Victorian slum; a tendency that only turned around in the 1990s.
The inner-urban and “white flight” connections here invite comparison with the American ghetto, but the latter is a much more pronounced structural aspect of a society forged directly in plantation slavery — as opposed to profiting off the latter from a distance before moralising about it when it suited. “Black” as a declared ethnicity is, of course, multiples higher as a percentage of the population in the United States, and the American ghetto is an expansive urban area, much larger than the marginal blocks and estates of British cities, and more a world unto itself.6 In Britain, while these places do, of course, condense unemployment and other social “dysfunctions” relative to other zones in the urban geography, residents typically continue their existences as workers, consumers or students elsewhere, beyond the bounds of these merely residential areas. Nor does the state hold back from penetrating such spaces with its own institutions: youth services; social workers; one or another remedial neighbourhood scheme. If the state posits such places as its own internal limits, it is thus important not to take it too literally at its word, for while these developments reinforce real long-term deprivation, the most salient dimension on which this exclusion occurs is a social logic of abjection experienced first and foremost in the encounter with the repressive arm of the state. Everything else follows: mediatised victimisation of residents, unending chain of aspirant cabinet members feigning deep concern, think-tank concept creation, crypto-racist scandals about a feckless, parasitic underclass.
Faced with this dynamic, residents do not always remain passive. Indeed, the imposition of such policing can contribute to the formation of at least the negative unity of a community self-organising against the cops: some neighbourhood “defence campaign”, for example, oriented around retribution for the death in police custody of a community member, or the indifference of state and media to one or another racist tragedy. Such things have been a persistent, if often submerged, current in London life throughout the decades of capitalist restructuring — decades in which hundreds of deaths in police custody, typically of blacks, have not resulted in a single convicted officer. Though it typically runs up against an impassive state, this sort of community self-organisation only rarely issues in a full-blown riot-wave: it is never on its own a sufficient condition. It does, however, provide a compact social measure of highly combustible material which, given a broader climate of social tension, risks setting the country at large ablaze. 1981, 1985, 2011: the pivotal riots of all these years have found their immediate causes in the deaths — real or perceived — of black people at the hands of the cops, in marginal areas.7 In this period, only the Poll Tax riot stands out as a major national example of a riot in which a different foundational logic was at play: that of the conventional central London demonstration which tips over into crowd violence.
And, on one level at least, such rioting works. As a Broadwater Farm resident told us: the nation will long remember the name of Cynthia Jarrett, whose death during a police raid of her house sparked the 1985 Tottenham riot in which police attending got what local leftist MP Bernie Grant described as “a bloody good hiding”— including the hacking to death of PC Keith Blakelock; “and it’ll sure as hell remember Mark Duggan”. But Joy Gardner, who suffocated to death when two cops and an immigration official wrapped thirteen feet of surgical tape around her head; Roger Sylvester, a mentally ill man they held in a restraining position that induced brain damage and cardiac arrest; Colin Roach, who died from a shotgun injury in the entrance of Stoke Newington police station… these people enter the canon of martyrs for a minor genre of long-term single-issue community campaign that has left little lasting impression on the country at large.8 Such campaigns run up against a wall of silence, obstruction and intimidation, and a media landscape that has typically been tilted against them from the very first police press statements — rushed out after the incident to provide a convenient frame for the subsequent discourses: the deceased was a gangster/ a drug dealer/ insane, or had assaulted a police officer. Delegitimised in advance, they then tend to be pushed towards an apologetic position, where the victim must be painted an “angel”, a “peacemaker” etc, while the police just go about their business. The only sort of “justice” possible in such circumstances is obviously a retributive one, and with a complete shut-out from the state’s legitimacy-generating organs, the logical place for the playing out of such retribution is in a public confrontation with the cops in which a crowd presence can generate a momentum not available to individual, orderly campaigners. Donald Douglas, whose brother Brian was beaten to death by two police when on a night out, regretted his efforts to defuse a riot situation when tensions mounted between a crowd of mourners and attending cops:
In hindsight, because you haven’t reached a kind of conclusion that you want to, you think “well I wonder, if I wasn’t so disciplined and organised and just allowed people to go and tear up the situation…” probably in hindsight that’s the best that could’ve been achieved, and at least it would’ve been a day to remember, if nothing else. And some property or whatever would’ve been destroyed and that would’ve represented the death of Brian…9
When a similar incident a few months later — the death of Wayne Douglas (no relation) — did erupt in the Brixton riots of 1995, Donald thought this probably a more fitting outcome:
Obviously it led to a catastrophe really in terms of shops being broken, cars being broken, but it clearly got the message home… because, in a sense, none of our demonstrations hit the front page of the paper quite to that extent, so it almost seems that if you want to be listened to, you’ve got to go and break something or burn something down or something.
It is probably no coincidence that the death of Wayne Douglas — a Brixton resident — precipitated a riot, and that of Brian Douglas didn’t. The precedent of a local history of rioting, active in the memories of residents, or persisting in the local folklore — plus a history of community identification against the cops — seems to play a significant part in precipitating riots in some places rather than others. Hence a particular set of names recurs in the history of neoliberal riots: Brixton, Broadwater Farm, Handsworth.
British race relations have changed significantly during the decades of capitalist restructuring, tendentially eroding the status of the black as what we might call “primary abject” of the neoliberal state — feared immigrant, “wide-grinning piccaninnie”, mugger, yardie, rudeboy — in favour of a more diffuse and less explicitly racialised set of figures: asylum seeker, single mother, chav, hoodie, benefits cheat. Second and third generations have grown up less problematically “British”, while the Right has turned instead to Islamic and European bogeymen to define its programmes. Nonetheless London’s poor black neighbourhoods have been at the leading edge of the logics of abjection through which a punitive state has come into being, and indeed their struggles within this logic are organically related to the transformations of “race” itself. If the black of the late 1970s and early 1980s was, to state it crudely, the prototype for today’s “feral underclass”, the major linking thread here is not “race” as any essential trait, nor even any stable, coherent sociological category, but a social logic of abjection by which specific figures, associated primarily with poor urban neighbourhoods, are posited as the limit concepts of affirmable social class — just as the traditional lumpen was the necessary negative corollary to a positive working class identity. A result and constitutive moment of this logic is the riot as rebellion against the police.
Prior to the beginnings of capitalist restructuring in the mid-to-late 1970s, this sort of community anti-police riot did not occur; its relative frequency over the last three decades — occurring in about 1 of every 6 years — is a notable characteristic of the period. Probably due to the dominance of an orderly system of wage bargaining over other sources of social antagonism, the riot had largely faded out as a form of struggle during the era of the workers’ movement. And where conflicts did erupt around immigrant communities, these were of a different character, such as the 1958 Notting Hill riots, when Teddy Boy racists attacked the houses of West Indian residents. The 1970s were a transitional phase in which police fears of leftist and black militancy, and tensions around the perceived hedonistic culture of blacks, underlay a ramping-up of tensions in some deprived inner city neighbourhoods, while the broader social crisis of that era set in. Immigrant workers of the 1970s entered a job market structured around a heavily corporatist and predominantly white, male labour movement that was coming up against its own limits at the intersection of the long secular decline of Britain’s manufacturing base and the beginnings of a more global downturn in manufactures. While some immigrant workers fought hard for unionisation, such as the Asian women strikers in the famous Grunwick dispute, the labour movement was predominantly elsewhere, representing someone else, and fighting its own concluding battles. Thus the demands of these workers lacked the kind of systemic integration by which governments would be, as a matter of course, compelled to consult Jack Jones, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, on matters of policy. And when unemployment hit, it of course tended to hit such workers harder.
At the same time, proliferating militancies, threads of rasta, black power and other positive identities, and elements of a certain “refusal of work” attitude, provided forms for the expression of an antagonistic culture, particularly for the young.10 It was in this context that the police came to revise earlier assessments of blacks as a low-crime group, and to start showing frustration with a militant anti-police discourse that had developed in organic relation with a series of minor riots, raids and repressions from the early 1970s. A turning point here was the Notting Hill Carnival Riot of 1976, in which more than 100 officers were hospitalised after a conflict broke out between police and carnival-goers when a bunch of black youths tried to de-arrest an alleged pickpocket. White punks in the area — Notting Hill was still at that time associated with a certain squatty, radical milieu — rushed to the scene, hankering after the boldly anti-authoritarian credentials of black youth: an encounter famously encapsulated in The Clash’s “White Riot”. From this point on, police would establish a “containment policy” for black neighbourhoods in areas such as Brixton and Hackney, targeting youths in particular for stop-and-search under the sus law, and sending into these areas specialized units such as the notorious Special Patrol Group.11 As a political actor, the Metropolitan Police now found in the emphasis on black crime an effective tool for enhancing its legitimacy amongst the population at large.12 And it was in this period that “mugging” took off as a term13, identifying particularly black street crime: a concept that would play a key role in justifying an escalating experimentation with punitive styles of policing that had not previously been used by the British police outside of Northern Ireland — perennial testing ground for the British state’s mechanisms of repression. All of this was a convenient context for an ascendant National Front, proffering a neo-Nazi message which exchanged the East London Jews of the 1930s for the Afro-Caribbeans and Asians of the 1970s. The resulting conflicts with anti-fascists — emerging from the punk, student, and Trotskyist scenes of the moment — and black and Asian communities, when the NF would march through their neighbourhoods, provided further pretext for heavy police intervention into neighbourhoods which were sinking into deeper abjection as the social crisis of the late 1970s escalated.14
1979’s Winter of Discontent, and the inability of Callaghan’s Labour government to begin in earnest the capitalist restructuring that had been set at its place, brought a Tory New Right to power with a programme of inflation-busting monetary restraint. Unemployment, rising through the 1970s, now rocketed, undermining the bargaining power of an already-embattled labour movement and further reinforcing the marginal status of some urban communities. The 1980 riot in St Paul’s, Bristol demonstrated to the authorities that it was not only the more enduringly troublesome black communities of London that could constitute a threat, and — anticipating historian David Starkey’s racist comments three decades later — that even whites could evidently prove similarly disruptive when exposed to the morally corrosive example of their black neighbours, for they had constituted at least 50 percent of the crowd.15 Exposing the constellations of a superstitious copper’s cosmology, in which urban unrest was paired up not only with blackness but also literalistically with 1970s leftist militancy, some police apparently read the appearance of Tariq Ali in Bristol shortly before the riot as evidence that they must have been the work of that eternal agent of social disturbance: the outside agitator.
But the real epochal explosion was to come a year later. In early 1981 thirteen black teenagers died in an unexplained house fire in Deptford, South East London, with many suspecting a fascist attack. Indifference of state and media prompted a demonstration in central London led by the Race Today collective on 2 March, on which the police suffered a bloody defeat when attempting to cut it short. Shortly after, perhaps smarting from these events, the Metropolitan Police launched “Operation Swamp 81”16, a “saturation policing” strategy that sent large numbers of plainclothes Special Patrol Group officers into the area around Brixton’s Railton Road, notorious as a sort of lawless semi-liberated zone in which police were often reluctant to tread, thus making low-level crime such as street-level ganja-selling more viable. Just as in 2011, this escalating stop-and-search raised tensions in the area. Then, when a pool hall brawl spilled over into a stabbing on Friday 10 April, and police on the scene were suspected of preventing the victim from getting to hospital, a riot dynamic began to develop, with crowd attempts to intervene, and more police being drafted in. Overnight, rumours spread, the incident mutating into a case of death by police brutality, and cops were warned about the risks of further inciting an already restive neighbourhood. But, eager to play their hand, they decided to push on with the stop-and-search. The next day, working class youths from the surrounding area — black and white alike — flocked into Brixton, expecting some excitement. The second trigger-point came with the stop-and-search of a cabby on Railton Road. Plainclothes police on the scene were claimed to have been found wearing National Front badges. For the next several hours there ensued the worst bout of civil unrest seen in Britain in at least a century as looting and arson spread throughout the Brixton area, and the police completely lost control of the streets, under hails of bricks and molotov cocktails against which they were ill-defended, given the lack at this time of the standard tools of the riot cop.
Indeed, it was the 1981 Brixton riot and the “summer of a thousand Julys” which followed it — reverberations being heard around the country until late July, with another major peak in Toxteth, Liverpool, also triggered by racialised stop-and-search — which really crystallised a new approach to policing. The friendly, bicycling community bobbies of yesteryear came to be replaced by something resembling a medieval army: helmeted, shielded footsoldiers equipped with hand-held cudgels for cracking proletarian skulls, plus a cavalry of mounted officers capable of moving at speed and striking from above, and the ever-present threat of CS gas, water cannon, or plastic bullets, should this not prove to be enough. This repressive configuration — pioneered by an occupying army in Northern Ireland — was now imported into mainland Britain to deal with the enemies within. And it would see its first full deployments here with the breaking of the last holdouts of the workers’ movement: the miners at the Battle of Orgreave in 1984, and the printers in Wapping in 1986–87. At the same time, the sus law — now widely perceived to be a contributory factor in the generation of riots — was scrapped, barely a month after the end of the riot wave, while the Scarman Report, commissioned in response to the riots, found some fault in the policing of black neighbourhoods, and contributed to a bureaucratic reconfiguration of policing in which the preservation of an image of race neutrality would be a priority. While mainstream media continued to deploy an animalising discourse about these neighbourhoods as social sinkholes brimming with rampant, asocial criminality — a sort of “heart of darkness” in the midst of the city — they remained home to multifarious cultures of militancy, mixing black nationalism, rastafarianism and varied leftisms into a campaigning culture of neighbourhood defence.
Local government in this era, especially in London, had been entered by leftists who set about promoting various anti-racist and positive discrimination policies, encouraging the flow of black workers into state institutions in particular. And in response there developed a neoliberal variant of anti-racism, against skin colour as identity-marker, against special treatment of particular groups as such, rather than as utility-maximising individuals. Thus it was that the Thatcher government campaigned for re-election, at the height of nationalist jingoism after the Falklands War, boasting of scrapping the sus law, and arguing that if “Labour say he’s black, Tories say he’s British”. Anti-racism of one type or another had become a matter of state policy, no matter how bigoted Thatcher and her ilk as individuals. Then, as the 1980s progressed, pushing for a more positive programme in comparison to the spasmodic activism of rioters, a generation of reformist black leftists such as Diane Abbot established footholds in a Labour Party now beginning to undergo its own restructuring beyond the politics of the labour movement.
If an anti-racist politics was on the political agenda in this period, and if certain militant identities were in the air in some of the communities that rioted, this does not make the 1981 riot wave as a whole immediately reducible to a demand of blacks to become “normal proletarians”.17It is important to remember that black communities were here — as in 2011 — only detonation points for a riot-wave which brought in many others; even the Brixton riots didn’t just involve the local black community. And while the self-organisation of such communities against the police of course expresses a certain demand to be treated another way, the immediate norm here is that of an equal subject before the law — more directly a matter of citizenship than of class belonging. While issues of marginality on the labour market no doubt contributed significantly to tensions, and the repressive role of the police cannot ultimately be extricated from a certain social imperative to keep the lid on such marginal strata, it is important to avoid collapsing mediations here which, in their distinction, constitute the only intelligible structure of such events. While they are certainly related — universal manhood suffrage was a major demand of the workers’ movement — there’s no law in capitalist society that automatically equates the normal proletarian with the full citizenship rights of the bourgeois subject. And, while the specific cultural embodiments of the politics of race which persisted in the Britain of the early 1980s have indeed faded, the same demands have persisted, for the cops have not ceased harassing black people in the street, beating them to death in cells, and attempting to smear their names when conflicts get out of control. Campaigns over deaths in police custody persist, now with a generational cross-section that leaves rastas and a certain residual rhetoric about “Africa” in the older brackets, alongside fully “naturalised” younger generations expressing similar demands in a language inflected more with grime or hip-hop; people unified thus in at least one negative sense — the conviction that police behaviour is not fair. And in this mix, the odd thread about police treatment of “working class” communities persists as a minor element, from those still attempting to conjure some broader solidarity.
If we are to periodise Britain’s urban riots, the clearest rupture is not between some positive black identity in the early 1980s and a putative negativity that followed it, but between a more consensual mode of policing in the era of the post-war settlement — an era in which class compromise was embodied in a much less polarised urban geography — and the organically entwined development of a more repressive mode with an increasing abjection of particular urban neighbourhoods, as that settlement unravelled from the 1970s. In contrast to the vagaries of political identity formations there is a clear measure here for periodisation: the anti-police riots we find exemplified in 1981 and 2011 were a novelty when they emerged in the 1970s, and they have persisted since. The logic that compels these developments is not reducible to race, but it is not incidental that black neighbourhoods were at the leading edge: shut out of a corporatist white labourism that was already in crisis as industry wound down and unemployment mounted, anyone outside and demanding entry into that movement could only swim with the flow of this crisis. Black workers would never come to be systematically incorporated into the labour movement, but black people could be formally incorporated into the one entity with which they increasingly came face-to-face as the workers’ movement receded: the state. This has been the real development of “race” from the 1980s on. But while these are important transformations — particularly in institutionalising efforts to support force with consent — a social logic of race tends to persist in asserting itself through such formalisations. The structural locations of poor neighbourhoods within the economy, and the symbolic constructs by which black = street = crime, lingered on. Black deaths in police custody continued, and neighbourhoods such as Broadwater Farm remained marginal “no-go areas”, off-limits enough to the police for them to preserve at times a certain nominal sense of autonomy, making them, for example, convenient places for the positioning of the pirate radio antennas which have played such an important role in the proliferation of London’s urban cultures during the restructuring.
Meanwhile, with the complete defeat of the workers’ movement and a breathtaking pace of deindustrialisation that outstripped anything seen elsewhere, the traditional working class that had been a central protagonist of British society since the industrial revolution, with its own peculiar corporatist culture and conservatism, found itself staring into the abyss.18 In gestures of neoliberal populism, appealing to its industrious, liberal values, this class was invited to remake itself as a sort of pseudo-petit bourgeoisie: everyone a little entrepreneur, with their little stock of capital, their little stake in some ideal future catallaxy. Not only the famous flogging cheap of council housing stock, but also the inducement to take out shares in the privatising ex-state utilities, the “Big Bang” opening of the City to barrow-boy geezers, who would make a quick wad on some reckless speculation and end up a parvenu “loadsamoney”, flashing cash in sprouting cocktail bars by the end of the 1980s… Those who were not in a position to make the necessary leap — especially those in the more emphatically industrial areas further north — got long-term unemployment, often masked as “incapacity”. And they stayed there: UK unemployment didn’t even get back to the level of the end of the turbulent, crisis-ridden 1970s until around the millennium, and it has only increased from there. If workers were lucky, they got absorbed into the burgeoning state sector that has remained by far the biggest employer in Britain to the present, or eventually made their way into one or another precarious service sector job. But either way, from here on, being “working class” was either an increasingly vague, nostalgic identity construct, tethered to Grim Up North/ Stuck-up South binaries and rosy Coronation Street images of a dead world, or something to be disavowed in favour of glib assertions that “we’re all middle class now”. Even appeals to a generic post-industrial wage-labour became increasingly tenuous evidence for a positive class identity, given the ubiquity of the wage-form in remunerating everyone from CEO to streetsweeper. While class, of course, persisted as a deep, structuring logic — and wealth polarised to an ever-greater extent — the British working class had been thoroughly decomposed, and this brute fact of polarisation translated less and less clearly into any straightforward sociological, political-economic, or even cultural schema.
The heightened structural role of unemployment in this era, mediating a broader global tendency towards the production of a surplus population through Britain’s peculiarly dramatic post-industrialism, contributed to a generalised precarisation of the wage. The workers’ movement already having been divided and defeated, at legal and policy levels employment rights were now curtailed in favour of an extreme flexibilisation. As these developments rippled through the economy, the key surface distinctions came increasingly to be between those who were more successful in navigating the tides of an insecure labour market, and those who were less so. Thus a fundamentally relative, ambiguous mode of social distinction substituted itself for the faux ontology of corporatist class culture. On this shifting scale all positive positions are defined and structured against a negative someone else. There’s “us”, and there are those who’ve failed; who don’t try hard enough; who are lazier than the rest of us; who parasitise the collective taxpayer; who don’t even care for their own neighbourhoods. Thus a fractal logic by which white professionals — come round to anti-racism — measure themselves up against feckless chavs; poor whites against an immigrant bogeyman; South Asians against lazy Afro-Caribbeans; Afro-Caribbeans against Somali criminality, and so on.
Contrary to the pseudo-sociological taxonomies of media stereotypes, the “less so” here, the someone else, has never come to constitute any coherent “underclass”, definable by its relation to welfare receipts, unemployment etc. Indeed, through this period the opposition of welfare and work came to be undermined by a proliferation of welfare untethered to unemployment, such as child benefit, or actually hinging directly on work, such as tax credits. At the same time, unemployment itself has been redefined as an ever-steeper chute back into the labour market; recent developments in “workfare” are only the latest extension of this longer term logic. Thus, while massive unemployment was the direct consequence of Thatcherite restructuring as whole major industries were demolished, this has given way to a regime of insecurity in which structural tends to segue into frictional unemployment, and worklessness appears as “jobseeking”. On the other hand, employment itself has become increasingly unstable as a category, with rising temp work, short-term contracts, and most recently the “zero-hour contract”, by which employees are guaranteed no minimum number of hours of actual work, but must simply hope for the best from one week to the next. In these senses, comparisons of actual employment levels with those of the 1970s can be deceptive, since the meaning of the work/unemployment distinction has changed so significantly over the period. If unemployment figures remain high compared to the years of the post-war settlement, employment itself is qualitatively less distinguishable from unemployment.
For these reasons it is important not to read the tendential precarisation of the wage as leading necessarily to the constitution of any neatly delimitable “surplus population”, identified simplistically by a lack of formal employment or residency in some marginal zone: it was never directly “the surplus population” that took up residency in Britain’s poor urban estates, nor was it in any immediate sociological sense a “surplus population” of unemployed that developed a propensity to riot over this period. Indeed, a majority of rioters in 2011 seem to have been either in full-time education or employed, and though unemployment remains of course higher in the marginal areas in which riots tend to generate — and was spiking significantly in the period leading up to the riots, making it legible, perhaps, as a significant contributing factor — it has remained markedly low in hyper-flexibilised Britain, compared to other European countries.19 While the general law of capitalist accumulation is to produce a surplus population, and this is a central dynamic of this epoch, we should also be wary of identifying these developments with a clearly specified “precariat” class, for the erosion of the stability of the wage is something socially general, not neatly confinable to a specific part of the population: insecurity is everywhere, only with varying types and degrees of intensity. The production of a surplus population is a matter of the deep inner logic of the capital relation; its forms of appearance are mediated with too much complexity to be easily mapped “at the surface of society”, equated simplistically with unemployment or marginality.
If the “someone else” is identified by a different social logic, it is not however an unrelated one. With generalised precariousness and the erosion of the stability of the wage-form as the core integrative moment in social reproduction, those who navigate these turbulent waters with less success come to embody in themselves the insecurity of the entire social order. The security of everyone else is premised on a constant repetition of acts of social distinction which cast out and stigmatise the less successful. The state of insecurity that underpins the social whole demands management, containment in condensed areas; a perpetual making safe of society for capital. Along a shifting but constitutive perimeter, the Police establishes itself as a substitute integrative moment, defining the security of all those who are within, against the insecurity of those without; building consent from the former with force against the latter. The social logic at play here is what we’ve been calling “abjection”.20 By this logic, those expelled or abjected are not literally externalised, but rather remain in an internal, mutually-constitutive relation with that which abjects them. The restructured capitalist state is built upon its abjects, and can never expel them entirely, for the logic of abjection is an integral aspect of the general regime of labour insecurity. In place of a regulation of social reproduction by collective bargaining around the wage relation, as that reciprocal integration of capital and labour unravels, social order is maintained increasingly by a forced subordination of society to capital’s rule, in the form of a hypertrophied repressive apparatus constantly re-applied to those who fail. Though at a very general level such stigmatising distinctions have a long and stubborn history, with even Beveridge’s blueprint for the welfare state designed to exclude some set of sub-proletarian unworthies, this is not a return to a Victorian distinction of deserving and undeserving poor, as is often rhetorically claimed. What Beatrice Webb in 1886 called the “outcasting force” was a shaking-off of the disorderly from the rigours of growing productive industry, whence they would trickle into dissolute pools of irregular employment in the East London slums of the time.21 That world is, of course, long-gone. The precarious and the irregular are no longer peculiar to some residuum left by a growing industrial working class; as that class dwindles, these tendentially become universal. The current logic of abjection — the new outcasting force — is incomprehensible in abstraction from this broader restructuring of the capital relation since the 1970s.
The marginal urban neighbourhood of this period is the exemplary symbolic location for the playing out of this outcasting force, and the black immigrant its first exemplary subject — what we above called the “primary abject” of restructured capitalist society. But this logic does not limit itself simply to distinctions of “race”. Over the last three and a half decades the urban abject has mutated to encompass a broader range of figures, while retaining an umbilical link to the immigrant communities of the 1970s. Thus the “chav”, peculiar rendering of the new “residuum”: the poor remainder of the white working class after its Thatcherite liquidation, as if this class had become a race.22 The riotous inner-urban subjects of the late 1970s and early 1980s were never really any single mono-ethnic group; even then, the meaning of “race” was given less by any notional biological attribute than by the urban environment itself as a place of danger and criminality, calling for tougher law and order. And there were plenty of whites who wanted to riot in Notting Hill, St Paul’s, Brixton. But over time the significations of the urban abject have shifted: the black militant is gone as a figure of fear, but the fatherless petty criminal remains, alongside the scandalously fertile mother. To the set has been added the Eden Lake image of the hoodied teenage chav, slouching along behind an aggressive little dog, and the multi-generational dole-scrounging family. By the social logic of abjection, those who fall foul of the regime of generalised insecurity tend to be constructed as one or another of these stigmatising figures, especially where their marginality is mediated through a specific spatial configuration, tethering them to some notorious place in the urban geography. And as such they come directly face-to-face with the most punitive side of the state, worthy of suspicion by virtue of their clothes, their place of residence, their seemingly intentionless loitering in public places…
While deaths in police custody remain a particularly racialised affliction, a broader police harassment of the poor is of course much more widely experienced. The incomplete incorporation of blacks into the British state from the 1980s, and the reconfiguration of policing around a stronger bureaucratic neutrality, helped to de-centre race as a trigger-point for large-scale social unrest. Most significantly, perhaps, the scrapping of the sus law and thus a de-prioritising of stop-and-search tactics from the early 1980s, eroded one of the major bases of common anti-police sentiment, perhaps going some way to explaining why anti-police riots following the usual black deaths in 1991 and 1995 did not spill over into the kind of larger-scale conflagration seen in 1981 or 1985. But with the rash of anti-terrorism legislation in the 2000s, we have seen a return of generalised “sus law”-style policing, this time with the need for “reasonable suspicion” entirely dropped.23 Once again the residents of poor urban neighbourhoods have been subjected to increasing levels of routine stop-and-search backed by legislation ostensibly intended for something entirely other. While, in this context, the Muslim has come to be identified as the major figure for racialised suspicion24 — alongside the immigrant, of unspecified race — anti-terror legislation has been used for the persecution of blacks, chavs, travellers, activists etc. Other legislation too, such as the introduction of the ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order) has helped to criminalise the urban proletariat (typically identified with its more disruptive, youthful embodiments).
Of course, the social logic at play is never merely one-sided. The state does not merely decide to punish the poor, but rather evolves its tactics in organic relation to the practices of the communities in question, as well as broader social dynamics. No doubt certain modes of criminality and black market activity do become more pronounced in these areas as prospects for an orderly, stable incorporation into the labour market and broader society diminish. But the relation is a distinctly asymmetrical one, in which what are at play for the police are not only the direct law-and-order issues of particular neighbourhoods, but also their own legitimacy for capital, state, and a society at large whipped into ever greater levels of bigoted frenzy by a media that well knows how to sell stories. Indeed, like the Vietnam body-count, stop-and-search has been propelled over recent years by bureaucratically-driven quotas, in which individual officers are expected to conduct a specified number in a specified time, but must at the same time supposedly demonstrate that they are not doing this on the basis of any racial profiling — which is of course irrelevant if the area in question is predominantly black.
Nonetheless, as Britain paddled in the low waters of the “Clinton boom” and beyond, such ordnance lay mostly dormant, and the locus of what little rioting did occur shifted to Muslim communities with a partial 9/11-era redistribution of the abject. For a while asset bubbles, an ever-expanding higher education sector, the auratic qualities of new tech, and “cool Britannia” bullshit projected an optimistic future in which all might hope to have a role, no matter how encumbered in debt and degradation. As the systemic wage increases of the post-war settlement receded into the past and wealth continued to polarise, glimmers of hope came from other areas. The education sector — which had already grown dramatically in the mid-20th Century to pump out escalating quantities of white collar to fill the transformed business environment of that era — continued its ascent, while the actual economic opportunities dropped away. In place of the stable, pseudo-guild qualities of the old labour movement, the labour market of restructured capitalism would be a meritocracy in which it was simply a matter of demonstrating one’s individual worth. Everyone could aspire to be, if not wealthier than their parents, then at least better educated. The gleam of qualifications would offer the semblance of class advancement, and further break the back of those recalcitrant old proletarian ressentiments which dictated that each should stick to their rightful place; that fancy words are not for me; that fine talk and poncing around are so much nothing compared to my callused, honest hands. New Labour made it policy to entice half of all school leavers into higher education, while it set about demolishing student grants. Even those young proletarians who wouldn’t make it into the university system tended to do some other post-16 education, often backed by benefits, with the hope of securing a stable, well-paid job and aspiring ultimately to buy in to the ever-inflating property bubble.
All this vanished with the 2008 crisis. Saved from outright burst by one or another state endeavour, the housing bubble hovered, frozen in air, no longer presenting itself as a proxy pension fund, yet still freezing out most remaining aspirants. When the all-out crash did not come, it was only to be a long, slow deflation instead. The grade inflation–wage deflation couplet came quickly to show itself for what it was, with fees escalating and job prospects continuing to vanish. And, with the almost overnight doubling of unemployment and a rash of austerity measures which would directly impact standards of living, the “urban outcast” was left with little prospect but further punishment for their own predicament as the police tried to keep the lid on a society riven with rising tensions. The general horizon of immiseration and diminishing future where all this has taken place is one of fractal differentiations in which broader solidarities have been generally lacking — each reaching for their own little life-raft, kicking the others away. Distinct but downwardly-convergent trajectories, capable sometimes of unifying negatively into a fleeting movement of rage at this descent, only to disperse again, each to their own particularity. Despite this negativity, this decomposition, these were years in which a long-receding tide turned.
If the longer-term logics of abjection help us to identify the typical trigger-points of modern urban riots in Britain, with their focus on police, on stop-and-search, and their racial inflections, this cannot explain the specificity of the riot-wave of 2011 as a whole. The anti-police trigger-point is only that: beyond this, the wave overspills into a multitude of events and actors too great and too various to be legible in the same terms. At such point our object becomes a national phenomenon, combusting a large part of urban England and sending the major organs of a capitalist state into convulsions. We must then pose the question of why a conventional local anti-police riot should precipitate in so large-scale a conflagration at this particular time rather than another. There can be little doubt that the general answer to this question lies in crisis era sequences of struggle, and that the riots of 2011 must ultimately be viewed as a moment in the broader global upsurge now encapsulated by that year — an upsurge in which the form of the riot has played no small part. But while the general unifying context for all these struggles is of course that of economic crisis, it is difficult to identify with precision any direct articulations between the England riots of 2011 and other struggles on a world-level. What is clear is that it was no coincidence that the rapid contagion of this riot-wave occurred in a country that was already boiling from open struggles which had been building through years of social crisis. These struggles had come to a head in 2010–11 only to sense their own impossibility in the face of a state that would brook no demand, but the proliferation of riots within the student and trade union demonstrations of that period, and the shifting composition in these towards younger and more proletarian kids, had transformed the horizon of possibility, establishing new modes of violent excitement and contestation as an immediate precedent. If inner-city communities united against the police provide a compact measure of socially combustible material then, the sustained heat of the period, and the brittle dryness of the broader terrain, set the stage for Tottenham to become England.
The first sparks of accumulative unrest came with a scattering of strikes, occupations and walkouts between January and November 2009. The Lindsey Oil refinery saw wildcat actions that appeared as a throwback to a previous era of British class struggle, when workers occupied the site in response to the new Italian contractor IREM giving a high percentage of its new contracts to Italian and Portuguese workers. These strikes rapidly led to nationwide solidarity actions — illegal in the UK since the 1990 Employment Act — in other oil refineries, and later power plants. Though new jobs were created to appease demands for a 50/50 distribution of work, the subcontractors had to turn on their heels and make half of these workers redundant again in June, provoking a second wave. In March, Ford Visteon was declared insolvent and put into receivership, resulting in the closure of three of its factories. Around 610 workers were dismissed at the close of the day with no guarantee of redundancy or pension packages. A seven-week occupation of the Belfast factory won intense support from the nearby community, where workers lived. Workers at Basildon smashed up their site — which contained no real valuable machinery — and then held a 24-hour picket. Visteon workers also occupied a site in Enfield for nine days. And, in October and November, Royal Mail went out on strike over the “modernisation” of postal work. These actions were small, particularised and very limited, but occurring with the onset of major crisis, and against a sterile historical backdrop, they appeared as the first murmurings of an approaching period of contestation. Yet they were to prove atypical in relation to the coming wave, in which immediate workers’ struggles were marginal at most: in Britain’s peculiarly post-industrial economy even the problem of struggles breaching a “glass floor” into production seldom puts itself on the agenda.
Meanwhile, localised and largely independent university campus struggles had been bubbling away in the background. For some universities, detailed restructuring plans had been set firmly in place before the crisis had materialised, often with outside hit-men parachuted in to swiftly make drastic cuts and departmental rearrangements before getting out quick. Tendencies towards privatisation, modernisation and outsourcing which have accelerated in this crisis, were of course already proceeding apace in preceding years. But while these generalised conditions caused ripples of localised protest between 2007 and early 2009, only Israel’s attacks on Gaza provoked a national wave of university occupations at this point. Though quite unrelated, these were the direct precursors for the anti-cuts occupations which followed. Campus-based anti-cuts groups emerged mostly in the second half of 2009 when Treasury figures revealed a £100 million cut in education funding scheduled for the following year — the first such cut since the 1980s. Students swiftly responded with counter-demands which were as impossible as they were predictable, the simple negation of the announcement itself: no redundancies, no increase in tuition fees, no funding cuts, reductions in executive pay, assurance of academic freedom.25 Though the formulation of such demands in current conditions produces distinct cognitive dissonance, the gap opened up by this dissonance permitted analysis to begin to develop through a variety of protests, occupations, actions, discussion groups and collective texts. It was a gap not merely between some “capitalist realism” and what this realism rules out of bounds, but between our capacity to revise long-held expectations downwards and the rate of acceleration at which prospects were really dropping away: the systemic logic by which both “stop the cuts” and the “graduate with no future” are placed on the agenda. These early localised campus struggles never began from an entirely positive, stable or homogenous identity or programme. As well as uttering the helpless pleas of anti-austerity, and reaching for the usual garb of 1960s slogans, they took up memes developed through the student movements in Austria and Germany, New York and California: “Demand Nothing, Occupy Everything” and “No Future”.
A shift came in December when New Labour let forth a “Christmas kick in the teeth”, announcing further cuts in funding of £135 million, this time specifically to universities, and additional to the £600 million general “efficiency saving” cuts of the pre-budget report earlier that month. Festive inebriation temporarily dulled reflexes to the first real-term cuts to public spending per student in decades. But these localised struggles soon intensified within their own bounds, and ad hoc connections of solidarity with other campuses began to develop. Nevertheless, as individual departments in each university were left to creatively gloss and bind the budget cuts into their own personalised agendas, students remained largely locked into local and sectional battles over redundancies, cuts to union funding, eradication of services and the butchering of unprofitable Humanities departments. One by one, cuts hit universities across the country, resulting in a spontaneous proliferation of activities: gestures of solidarity, days of joint action, carnivals, parties and meetings. By spring 2010, a wave of occupations had occurred, the most prominent being Middlesex, whose left-leaning philosophy department — one of a handful in the UK — was threatened with closure. These occupations motivated greater movement between campuses, but with occupations also came property damage and greater levels of repression. When fifty Sussex students occupied the university’s administrative building, six were suspended for trespassing and “holding staff hostage” in a protest that ended with riot police fighting students on university soil, while a tweeded Vice Chancellor surveyed the action from the hillside above.
The general election of May 2010 was a major turning point. With no political party managing to gain enough support to win outright, Gordon Brown — who, throughout his career in the Treasury, had claimed to have “put an end to boom and bust”— resigned, and the UK saw a coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the first true coalition since the Second World War. Many students had voted for Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems, based on their pre-election promises not to raise tuition fees, on which they reneged almost instantly. Tory leadership in the midst of a severe economic crisis gave the moment resonances with the Thatcher era; combined with a “little liar” sidekick, this conjured sentiments of heightened contempt within the nascent student movement. The new coalition soon released their Spending Review, fixing the budgets for every governmental department until 2014–15, with the stated aim of eliminating the structural budget deficit through drastic cuts, over a five-year rolling horizon. The hole in education funding was to be filled through a major restructuring of the education system: the Browne Report, released at the same time, recommended removing the cap on tuition fees, which were to be paid for by committing undergraduate students to mortgage-sized debts.
The lashes dealt by the ruling cabinet’s Old Etonians were not confined, though, to this fairly isolable tier. As if welcoming the broader conflict that could not but threaten to ensue, the state took on multiple other subjects simultaneously with a rash of austerity measures impacting diverse strata. Dramatic cuts in public spending led to the emergence or remobilisation of multiple groups who would change the dynamics of anti-austerity struggles. Before the election, the Save EMA Campaign, created the previous year, had made David Cameron promise to protect the EMA grant.26 Even after the election, Education Secretary Michael Gove had officially stated his commitment to it. Nevertheless, the Coalition announced plans to cut EMA funding by 90%. A parliamentary vote was considered unnecessary due to it being departmental rather than governmental spending — signalling for many that the government did not even recognise them as subjects. The Save EMA Campaign held multiple protests all over the UK in 2010 and would later begin to filter into the central demonstrations of the student movement. At the same time, in Haringey — the London borough containing Tottenham — residents returned after the summer holidays to discover eight of thirteen youth clubs mysteriously closed. Save Haringey Youth Services, a local project of around 3000 members — 2000 of whom were young people — embroiled itself in a long and frustrating campaign not just to get their youth clubs back, but firstly to discover what had actually happened to them. On 10 November they were forced to raise a freedom of information request merely to obtain confirmation of the closure. On the same day, coincidentally, came the signal event in the radicalisation of the anti-cuts movement: though a range of university and other more general anti-cuts movements had been building increasing momentum throughout this period, the real qualitative shift came when the building housing the Tory HQ at Millbank was smashed into and occupied by a bunch of A-level students and young undergraduates during a union-led student demonstration.
A week earlier, David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, had accepted the Browne Review, but decided to cap tuition fees at £9,000, essentially tripling them overnight. In response, the University College Union (UCU) and the National Union of Students (NUS) — now coming round to a recognition of the spontaneous student struggles, and at least lending them a national frame — had called the demonstration, which attracted around 50,000 university, A-level and Further Education students, as well as lecturers, teachers and other staff. It was not simply to be about tuition fees, however; at stake were also the EMA grant, unemployment, generalised precariousness. The NUS and its then president Aaron Porter — soon to become a £125/hour education consultant — cooperated closely with the police in the build-up to the march, helping design the route, then acting as guard dogs on the day, guaranteeing protesters wouldn’t stray from the righteous path. The march was to pass through Whitehall and Westminster and end at Tate Britain where Porter would give a speech. Thousands of people didn’t get that far.
Outside Parliament, texts and tweets flew about how things were kicking off at Millbank — once home of New Labour, now home of the Tories — just down the road. About 100 people had charged into the building shouting “Tory scum, here we come!”, while thousands — overwhelmingly school kids and undergraduate students — had flooded the courtyard and were cheering at the occupiers above. “Greece! France! Now here too!” When the Territorial Support Group27 arrived they were attacked simultaneously at ground level by the crowd, and from those above with eggs, sticks, bottles and, in one case, a fire extinguisher. A row of nervous-looking NUS representatives linked arms in a chain, attempting to prevent more from getting inside, to heckles of “You’re all Tories too! Shame on you for turning blue!” Angry and excited conversations in the crowd: the moribundity of the NUS, the potential toppling of the Coalition. Bonfires lit; effigies of Cameron and Clegg burned; people ecstatic; sound systems blasted — a big party that lasted for several hours. Many of the chants, banners and slogans were familiar from localised campus struggles of the preceding year; a simultaneous sense of continuity and discontinuity. This dramatically symbolic event had induced a shift in the horizon of possibilities: gone the inevitable boredom and futility of the conventional central London A–B demonstration, and in its place the possibility at least for some destructive and powerfully symbolic fun for a generation of kids born after the Poll Tax riots.
While the strike had declined over preceding decades as a major form of struggle, the demonstration had apparently grown as a means for the orderly expression of pious dissent.28 The limitations of this form had been rammed home back in 2003 when the largest protest ever in the UK — against the Iraq War — failed to do more than help establish a national consensus of polite objection to the inevitable.29 At most, the “violence of a tiny minority” on the fringes of such demonstrations could hope to create some media spectacle which would otherwise be entirely lacking in the trudge to Speaker’s Corner or Trafalgar Square. Thus a certain rationality to an anti-globalisation-style “diversity of tactics”, and a tedious ritual of dividing up “good” and “bad” protesters. The invasion of Millbank set in train a crisis in this construct. NUS, government and media sang initially, of course, from the same traditional hymn sheet, with Aaron Porter describing Millbank as the “despicable” work of a “tiny rogue minority”, and offering that time-honoured weapon of struggle — the candlelit vigil — as alternative. Having crawled out of the shadows of the Blair years, the NUS thereby promptly confirmed its own illegitimacy in relation to a student movement that was elsewhere, doing something much more exciting. From here on, less polite tactics would proliferate — destruction of property, fighting cops, occupying buildings — and the swelling groups of masked-up schoolkids at the heart of much of this activity looked less and less like a minority of “professional anarchists”. In these demonstrations we repeatedly witnessed arguments between people in the street over this spreading fractiousness, uncomfortable at the giving-way of conventional distinctions. Oxford Street; a wealthy-looking woman, bags of shopping; screaming at a group of masked-up and very young-looking teens: “Why must you cover your face?! Don’t you realise that we are not your enemy? We do support you but don’t cover your face!” The fear of a loss of order was palpable. A Guardian journalist registered surprise after talking to Millbank occupiers: “Those dressed in black were children too, and several fresh-faced excited students said this was their first demonstration.”30 Standard narratives of “outside agitators” and “militants” were now being forcibly displaced by one of “students radicalised by the cuts”. Instead, media now summoned a new distinction from the emergence of groups such as UK Uncut, and the various arts-oriented activisms that ran through this movement. Now the figure of the “good” student protestor, able to more eloquently articulate their radicality, taking part in poetry readings and performance art, was set against the acts of property damage and occupation, even though these aspects were inextricable.
It has been a trope of some interpretations of the student movement and riots to read their relation by analogy to the French banlieue riots and CPE movement of 2005–6, as another case of a middle-class student movement being troubled by more lumpen elements — sometimes with an implicit plotting of these terms on a traditional reform–revolution axis. It is a banal truth of that moment that the social distribution of misery tended to favour elements of the student movement who were not also present in the riots: one would be hard-pressed, of course, to find anywhere in the riots the sort of liberal-progressive sentiments of UCL students who knew perfectly well that there would be many graduates with rather less future than themselves.
But it would be a major distortion to grasp this as a matter of “middle-class” students having “their” movement invaded by some “underclass”. Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of university students involved in these struggles who were rather less than middle-class: in 2011 the UK higher education participation rate was around 50 percent. Though participation is obviously distributed in favour of the better-off, it remains the case that going to university is a normal proletarian pursuit, and it is not at all unusual for kids from marginal estates to aspire to some academic achievement. One might even say that the polarisation in Britain is as much about which university you go to, and which subject you study, as it is about whether or not you get a degree — the Media student from London South Bank vs the PPE from Oxbridge or LSE; the call-centre Literature grad vs the unlettered worker with a real trade. And, with the general debasement of coinage in higher education, what might once rightly have been viewed a privilege has turned increasingly into a debt burden. By 2010 the British student already typically mixed studies with precarious part-time employment to supplement their student loan, or depended on welfare — conditions that were only worsening with the deepening of crisis. It was thus no accident, nor any entirely external intrusion, that shifted the student movement towards a more negative, rebellious composition as it felt the emptiness of its own demands.
The student movement was always in some sense a “proletarian” movement, albeit one in which some members were distinctly less proletarian than others. Convention dictates that one imagine the lumpen proletarian to be young, for the young tend to blend into the idle and feckless more or less by definition — sitting as they do at the frontier of the job market. But youth, of course, is not a class: it cannot be assumed that the younger participants and “EMA kids” who came into the movement from Millbank onwards, represented in any clear sense a class distinct from those already involved in the movement. While EMA might be needed to support post-16 vocational — rather than academic — training, it was at the same time not a fundamentally separate issue from university fees: both EMA cuts and fee-increases could potentially affect the same person, who might need financial support to continue education post-16, in order to then go to university. And the same person could simultaneously be affected by youth club closures — and even stop-and-search. But what can be said with certainty here is that the diminishing futures of that moment hit not only the poorer, but also the younger, harder: while those already at university might scrape through with moderate fees for their last year or two, those a couple of years below them would get the full £9000/year for their whole university education, if they made it that far, lose the state support for their pre-university studies, enter a tougher job market when they got there, and so on. And of course, the young tend to be less cowed in their relations with the cops, having not yet been fully schooled in such things…
Following the excitement of Millbank another huge national wave of occupations took place — around thirty-five in total — providing sites for the planning of further actions. Students were becoming increasingly combative in relation to policing; one occupation, for example, putting together a custom monitoring system for mapping police action during protests. Occupations set up websites and twitter accounts, Facebook pages and so on, communicating around the clock with each other and with a general public. They attracted a huge number of visitors — lecturers, intellectuals, activists, actors, schoolkids. But they were fundamentally incapable of turning themselves into anything really confrontational: for the most part university administrations just tolerated them, and any attempts to intervene disruptively into the flows of everyday university life — such as that at Goldsmiths, where students occupied the library — tended to immediately delegitimise the occupations in the eyes of the broader student body. With these struggles ostensibly aiming to defend education, disruption of the university appeared an immediately self-contradictory tactic, leaving most of these occupations to subsist in uneasy cooperation with university authorities, working at most as bases for planning the larger demonstrations. Groups in Brighton, frustrated at the limits of their campus occupations, began making efforts to incorporate even younger kids, visiting schools to encourage walkouts and protests.
On 24 and 30 November the NCAFC and ULU,31 both freshly mobilised after Millbank, called national walkouts and protests for students of all ages, encouraging a viral spreading of the word: “…chalk the details on the pavement outside your place of education… request that folk ‘send the text viral’— i.e. text it to your own friends to text onto their friends… send texts to all your friends in different schools and different colleges telling them you’ve walked out.”32 Around this time a network of younger students emerged called “School and Further Education Students Against the Cuts” who were in constant communication with the university groups. There were noticeably much more young people at these demonstrations, and the atmosphere more like a big party. Like the riots that followed, the police had been completely unprepared for Millbank, drafting only 225 officers for a predicted crowd of 20,000 — there were actually 50,000. Consequently, later demos saw a heightened police presence, more violence and the implementation of kettling. This tactic seems to have first been used in London in 1995 against disabled people in a Disability Rights protest outside Parliament, before being fine-tuned in the 1999 WTO protests, and employed again at the 2001 May Day protests. But the bending of the judicial system towards the rapid and severe punishment of activists — sending them to the Crown Courts, where penalties are much harsher — had no such precursor.33 This seems to have set a precedent for the punishment of rioters the following August. That Edward Woollard, the student who threw a fire extinguisher off the roof of Millbank, was arrested for attempted murder and later sentenced to two and a half years in jail for violent disorder, resulted in bays of approval from a large section of the public. Taking no chances, a Chief Superintendent for domestic extremism — appointed a week earlier — began an intelligence operation to monitor the dangerous incitement of “fringe elements”, while on 24 November, the Met swamped central London with an extra thousand Greater London cops, both riot-geared and mounted. Blocking protesters from Parliament Square, their typical site of enforced containment, huge games of cat and mouse came to characterise these protests, with students running down back alleys, dodging and trying to outwit the cops, until eventually getting kettled. Initial atmospheres were festive, with dubstep and grime sound systems, lots of dancing and coloured flares being set off, but as hours passed the crowd became frustrated and started vandalising and setting fire to things. After several hours of dancing, interspersed with violent confrontations, they finally released everyone. Around the city, those not trapped in kettles were involved in a mass array of fleeting actions, and universities and schools nationwide were either in protest or occupation.
Though violence had been building and proliferating throughout the protests, the day of the vote in December — when the fee-hikes would predictably be passed — was the pinnacle of heavy policing. The police response to Millbank was the blanket implementation of kettling, mounted charges on crowds and, increasingly, generalised attacks on protesters: the baton to the head. The fact that the composition of these protests now involved an infusion of younger students and more turbulent kids seemed to solicit ever heavier responses from the cops. On the day of the vote, field hospitals were set up to deal with the anticipated victims and an estimated thirty protesters were treated for head injuries, leading to over fifty recorded complaints to the IPCC. Middlesex student, Alfie Meadows was beaten with a truncheon as he tried to leave a kettle in Parliament Square, and had to be rushed to hospital for immediate life-saving brain surgery.34 Another protester, Jodi McIntyre, was pulled from his wheelchair and dragged across the floor by cops. These were the stories that attracted the imagination of media and public, and were campaigned for by friends and support groups, but there were many more such cases.
The whole of Westminster was established as a series of mass kettles, some mobile, others compressed, which provoked frustrated bursts of fighting. In a hyper-symbolic gesture, a masked-up protester managed to break free and scale Whitehall, before smashing the windows of the Treasury, and people set fire to whatever they could find, including the giant Christmas tree on Parliament Square, to keep warm in icy temperatures. We received a text to say that the National Gallery was in flash-mob occupation. Meanwhile, on Regent Street, another highly symbolic attack occurred, this time against a caricatural British institution, when a car carrying Prince Charles and Camilla to the London Palladium for a Royal Variety Performance was attacked by protesters shouting “off with their heads!” That one protester had managed to poke the Consort of the Heir Apparent with a stick, through the car’s open window, apparently sent chills down authority spines over the proximity of the “mob”. But a large group was contained in a tight kettle on Westminster Bridge without food, water or toilet facilities for hours in the freezing cold, some needing treatment for respiratory problems, chest pains or bruised ribs after severe crushing.
In January, as eyes turned to another wave of struggle now picking up in the Arab world, parliament inevitably voted to cut the EMA grant. While the presence of younger and more turbulent kids had lent dynamism and kick before the December tuition fee vote to an otherwise more limited student movement, there was a relative lack of reciprocal participation from university students on the day of the EMA. In the same month the press informed Haringey residents that the council had officially agreed to cut youth services by 75%. A councillor had erroneously claimed that the community had already been consulted and all was fine, as there were a plethora of voluntary organisations ready and willing to step in to pick up the extra work. The council then warned that if the community did not cooperate over the cuts, it would be at the expense of “disabled and abused” children,35 but it would happily compromise and offer a consultation over the remaining 25%. Youth workers across London soon noticed the mounting tension around these issues, and some began predicting riots.36
With the tuition fee and EMA votes both lost and nothing comparably concrete on the horizon, the subsequent protests became chaotic, theatrical, fun and frustrated. The TUC (Trades Union Congress) “March for the Alternative” in March 2011 was the second biggest demonstration ever on British soil, bringing out onto London streets much of the remnant workers’ movement, and providing another organisational skeleton for the heterogeneous and more chaotic elements that had emerged through the student movement. The point of destination for all union-led marches is Hyde Park, once the site of the 1855 Sunday Trading Bill riots (considered by Marx at the time to herald the coming English Revolution37), the main assembly point for the Chartist movement and the Reform League; long a standard arena for the performance of political gestures, at a safe distance from the institutions and shopfronts of central London. A good chunk of the estimated quarter of a million people present that day trudged the weary old track to Hyde Park, to be reassured by Labour Party Leader, Ed Miliband, tottering on a plinth, that they could relax, for they had arrived at “the alternative”: the deficit need not be reduced by quite such nasty means. Through the unfolding of the student movement, building numbers had reached their limits of tolerance for such forms, preferring to hang back and preserve energy for more organic and spontaneous break-off activities, starting from one or another of the various feeder marches.
At Oxford Circus, UK Uncut were conducting a day of action against tax-avoiding corporations, and the police protectively swarmed the largest and most expensive. Riot vans surrounded the Apple Store entirely, which was nevertheless brimming with shoppers; Topshop, drenched in paint and graffiti, with several broken windows, was now fortified with layers of riot cops. Nearby, Scientologists handed out pamphlets mimicking the aesthetic of a socialist newspaper. Our day consisted of arriving at the fresh destruction of a recently expired action or event, having been directed to the scene by tweet or SMS. Everything felt more fleeting and mobile than the previous events leading up to the vote, and you could bounce from pocket to pocket of actions or interventions; some real, some performance. BHS occupied by poets; a suited woman chasing a human £20 note; a gang of Robin Hoods riding, for hours, on imaginary horses. Again a mixture of students, school kids, artists, anarchists; small, diverse groups in a large, mobile flow; a swarming mass on a tangent to the main union march, but still managing to occupy large areas of central London. Piccadilly was now under siege, and the Ritz had been smashed into. A sharper spatial distinction into divergent forms of action seemed indicative of a reduced concentration and widened scope, in comparison to the kettled concentrations of preceding demonstrations. UK Uncut had occupied Fortnum and Mason — the Queen’s favourite grocery shop — and some occupiers were on the balcony, glugging bottles of champagne swiped on the way through. The atmosphere outside grew tense as riot police were pumped into the area and began lining every side street. It seemed a conscious tactic that day to avoid the need to kettle by simply indicating it as a threat. Following those violent long hours of containment in December, the fear of kettling was explosive, and any signal sent huge booing crowds launching towards the cops until they backed off. A group of protesters momentarily surrounded the police, chanting “kettle the cops!”; a woman posed for a photo, holding a kettle and with a sign saying “Cameron, don’t put the bloody kettle on”; a severely injured man stumbled around, blood gushing down his face, reeling in shock and pumped with adrenalin: “they’re crazy!” Concerned for his life, we pleaded with cops for paramedics or an ambulance: “no, that ain’t my job love”. The bleeding man ran off into the crowd, to haunt the rest of the day. As a kettle began, the crowd went mad, frantically trying to break through police lines, and violent fights broke out, distracted eventually by an attempted break-in of a bank. The streets were brimming until late, and as we wandered the city that evening to get a sense of the damage, almost every bank we came across had been smashed in. Forensic teams on their hands and knees dusted for fingerprints. And as that day drew to a close some activists made an abstract first stab at establishing a resonance with the Arab Spring: Trafalgar was to become Tahrir. The cops had little difficulty moving them on, and it was not to be until after Britain’s own wave had crashed in August that a more self-consciously international squares movement would sprout in the alluvium…
In April 2011, reggae star and DJ, Smiley Culture — key emblem of a naturalised London Afro-Caribbean culture ever since his 1980s tracks Cockney Translation and Police Officer — died from a single stab wound to the heart during a police raid on his home, in advance of his upcoming trial on a drug-related charge. The IPCC report — which was kept from both the public and his own family — predictably dismissed the incident, concluding that there had been no criminal conduct…38 That same month, as the cuts to the benefits system came into effect, unemployment started to mount again — especially, as always, for the young — from the altiplano it had reached back in 2009 after the first outbreak of the crisis… But, briefly, the nation was tickled into stupefaction by the royal wedding. Over the days before this event, the police made a series of pre-emptive interventions, sending warning letters, making arrests of suspected activists and prominent student protesters, as well as conducting blanket stop-and-searches all over London. Sixty people arrested during the previous student march had bail terms that disallowed entry into central London the week of the wedding, and a series of raids were carried out on well-known squats to scavenge for DNA samples and other identity clues, under the pretext of searching for stolen bike parts. Crudely profiled “troublemakers” were detained in custody, apparently not being signalled for release until the newlyweds had safely sealed it with the public “balcony kiss”. On the day of the wedding, central London became a free-for-all stop-and-search zone with face masks, fancy dress, drunkenness — even singing — incurring a possible charge of incitement to violence.39 Such moves towards zero-tolerance and pre-emptive action had been developed through the course of student struggles, with students being arrested for such things as “failure to comply with a direction to leave when the police have reasonable belief that you may commit aggravated trespass”.40 This set the scene for the “total policing” strategies that would cohere and consolidate during and after the riots.
The student movement had rapidly come up against its limits and frothed over into a fissiparous, disorderly state, with no real positive horizon but a bit of fun at the expense of the cops. Where there had been vague semblances of a positive programme at moments in this movement, this had always seemed dubious, half-hearted, tinted with the baseline cynicism of a certain “capitalist realism”. All that was available as a framework for unity was a bland set of negative, umbrella demands: stop the cuts. And even this seemed — and ultimately proved — impossible. What else to do then but raise some hell? At least it would mean that there had been a fight. And what response could this invite but a further ramping-up of policing? That, ultimately, was the “meaning” of Millbank. Just as the sinister grin of the Cheshire Cat intensifies as its more seemingly contingent parts dissolve, through the development of these protests the police had increasingly appeared as the visceral presence of the state in the face of its supposed retreat or rollback. Yet somehow the consolidation of an abstract enemy into a single tangible one meant that the city — which hides itself behind the police — felt, for fleeting moments at least, more open and vulnerable, more reachable and breakable.
A short documentary published by the Guardian in late July presented Haringey teenagers discussing the impact of youth club closures. Chavez Campbell, a local teenager from Wood Green — which borders Tottenham — noted that the loss of a fixed and protected space “cuts kids’ roots off and links, and then they don’t really have anywhere to go”.41 Thrown out onto the streets, kids were both more prone to get caught up with gangs and more vulnerable to police harassment. Campbell concluded the documentary with a famous prediction:
I think it’s gonna be swarming, I think people are gonna be trying to find things to do, people are gonna want jobs, and that’s going to be frustrating… There’s going to be a riot, there’ll be riots, there’ll be riots.
This was the climate in which Mark Duggan was shot in Ferry Lane, Tottenham, at about 6:15pm on Thursday 4 August 2011. Officers from Operation Trident — a specialist unit within the Metropolitan Police which focuses on gun crime in predominantly black areas had been following his taxi. It has never been clear exactly what happened, but we know that they shot Duggan in the chest. Attempts to resuscitate him failed, and paramedics who rushed to the scene swiftly turned to walk away, heads bowed. The usual gears went swiftly into motion: an investigation initiated by the IPCC, and the scene cordoned off. As is often the case, the IPCC seems to have first engaged in some public relations damage-limitation on behalf of the police, communicating to the media the claim that there had been an exchange of fire between Duggan and Trident officers — a claim that would be discredited just days later, in the midst of a national riot-wave initiated in Duggan’s name, when it would be shown that the only piece of evidence — a bullet lodged in a police radio — had actually been fired from a police gun. Police did not inform Duggan’s family of his death, and when they pushed for information on where he was — having heard via the media that he had been involved in an incident — they were simply told to follow an air ambulance from Tottenham. Trailing this helicopter a few miles south to Whitechapel Hospital, they found only the police officer who had been injured at the scene.
In the absence of any official communication from the police, rumours quickly began circulating in the neighbourhood that Duggan had been deliberately executed, with some evidently worried about possible consequences: by the next morning David Lammy, the local MP, was already calling for calm in the face of community “anxiety”. That there was a typical riot dynamic forming here is obvious in retrospect, and indeed it was probably obvious at the time to anyone present who had the slightest acquaintance with the recent history of urban unrest: cops had not only killed a young black man, but also a resident of the Broadwater Farm estate, with its long and dramatic history of antagonistic relations with the police; and now they were again failing to supply any information to family or community. After years of building tension on an estate already considered a serious problem area by the early 1970s, Cynthia Jarrett’s death at police hands in October 1985 had precipitated an extraordinarily violent riot in which police came under armed attack, culminating in the killing of PC Keith Blakelock.42 In the 2000s, with regeneration projects and declining crime statistics for the neighbourhood, those events might have seemed consigned to the past. But police still considered Tottenham in general a hotspot for (black) gun crime, drug-dealing and gang-related violence, and punitive policing had been stepped up over recent years around “The Farm”, as it had in other such neighbourhoods. At least a day before rioting actually broke out, John Blake, who had grown up here with Duggan, saw it coming:
There’s hostility here, there might even be an uprising here, you don’t know. Mark held Broadwater Farm together.
As night fell on Friday 5 August about 400 people gathered at Duggan’s parents’ home on the estate to pay their respects, in an already tightening atmosphere. But it was not until 1pm the following day that police summoned community representatives to a meeting. At this point they were warned clearly about the potential for unrest, but deferred to the IPCC, and still failed to send anyone to discuss matters with the family or community — perhaps the example of Keith Blakelock lingered here for police, just as that of Cynthia Jarrett did for Broadwater Farm residents. At about 5:30pm, under the watchful eyes of The Farm’s CCTV cameras, a small demonstration crowd gathered and left the estate for the police station, lead by the prominent Broadwater Farm activist Stafford Scott, to demand some address. But the junior officers who were left at the station could only defer to the IPCC and Operation Trident, who were based elsewhere. Demands for dialogue with a senior officer were thus not met, with the crowd growing — and growing increasingly frustrated.
Anyone who, for political reasons, wants to hold that “The Riots” were entirely “demand”-free, a mere matter of the “negative language of vandalism” etc, will at minimum need to offer some explanation as to how they would separate these events, at which clear demands — on banners, in chants, in attempts to negotiate with cops — were present, can be separated from the riot-wave in which they issued, and which would not have occurred in their absence. Other key moments of the riot-wave in which comparable anti-police dynamics were dominant, such as Hackney, Salford, and probably Brixton, would also seem to require such explanation: for sure, in all of these cases a negative, violent mode of behaviour was prominent, rather than some orderly bargaining, but then demanding is not politely asking.
As the evening pressed on, the composition changed, with mothers and children heading home, an infusion of football supporters, a larger quotient of young men, and a significant ethnic diversity — apart from the local black community, also Turkish, Polish, white British etc. At 8pm riot police turned up to protect the station from a rowdy but still non-violent crowd. A 16-year-old girl came forward to again press the demands, perhaps throwing something, and in response the cops moved forwards, shoving her, and probably attacking with riot shields and batons. This seems to have been the moment at which the emergent logic of crowd action kicked in, and community demonstration tipped over into riot. Even for a crowd that knows full well in advance what may be coming there is a first-mover problem which prevents the riot itself from being a straightforwardly intentional act; no individual or group can simply decide unilaterally to riot, unless the riot is already in process. This is why the immediate trigger very often appears as some relatively minor act of the police which unites a crowd in indignation against them; but such tipping-points do not come out of the blue — rather, they are themselves produced from some escalating dynamic, in which a crowd can certainly play an active role. By 8:20pm the crowd was attacking nearby police cars, setting them on fire, and pushing one out into Tottenham High Road as a sort of burning barricade. It then broke through police lines to attack the police station, throwing bricks, bottles, eggs. Unrest was now spreading throughout the area. At around 10.15pm, Tottenham post office was set alight and within half an hour, more police cars and a double decker bus. The Aldi supermarket and the now famous Carpetright store too were soon burnt down — and with the latter went a number of people’s homes. More police were drafted in, including specialists from the Territorial Support Group, armed and with dogs and horses, with reinforcements from City of London Police. These arrived to jeering and chants: “we want answers”/ “no justice, no peace”/ “rest in peace Mark Duggan”/ “whose streets, our streets”. They attempted to seal off the side streets to prevent the riot from spreading, while the usual helicopters throbbed overhead. But they had already definitively lost control of events.
During the night the windows of the local courthouse were smashed, and the probation service next door was set on fire, while the Opera House club in which Mark Duggan apparently used to rave was left untouched — a pointed selection of targets, as opposed to the sort of random mob irrationality which the scared and the unsympathetic have traditionally perceived in rioting crowds since Gustav Le Bon and beyond. In the first clear example of the sort of mass-looting which would come to be associated with the riot-wave as a whole, rioting spread overnight to the nearby Tottenham Hale Retail Park where almost every single shop was looted and a supermarket set on fire. At around 3am in Wood Green — another nearby neighbourhood — some fires were started, and many shops looted. But again, some discrimination was in evidence: they apparently spared a clothes shop named “Loot”, and the pound shop. By most accounts, there was little violence in these places, the activity being mostly focused on the beginnings of the largest bout of focused “proletarian shopping” the country has ever seen.
The rapid tip-over of an anti-police riot in the centre of Tottenham into this widespread looting was nothing particularly surprising: when a large anti-police conflagration provides cover enough, it is entirely typical for the next step to involve looting, whether as a seizing of opportunities, or as another disorderly gesture to capital or state.43 Where shops are available to a rioting crowd, they will typically be looted. Appeals to factors like “consumerism” are entirely superfluous here — as if the desire to appropriate material goods needed an ideology to explain it! And loot itself aside, when shops are at hand they constitute one of the obvious objects for crowd violence, along with the premises of one or another hated institution, and things readily available in the street which will burn spectacularly and obstructively, such as motor vehicles. Brixton 1981, too, quickly crossed over into looting, once the cops had been driven from the area by swelling, aggressive crowds; also, Brixton and Handsworth 1985, Meadow Well 1991, Brixton 1995 — but not Broadwater Farm 1985, where most shops had long closed down. A distinction of 2011 was perhaps the rapidity with which ubiquitous means of instantaneous communication enabled the word to spread that police were on the back foot, opening up snowballing opportunities to take advantage of this, for straightforwardly instrumental reasons or with some other aim — such as revenge against shops that had rejected job applications, as one looter would retrospectively claim. Thus the famous Blackberry messenger communiqué that circulated widely as the disorder spread into Sunday 7 August, exhorting potential rioters to abandon the more destructive actions and enjoy the commodity free-for-all:
Everyone in edmonton enfield woodgreen everywhere in north link up at enfield town station 4 o clock sharp!!!! Start leaving ur yards n linking up with you niggas. Guck da feds, bring your ballys and your bags trollys, cars vans, hammers the lot!! Keep sending this around to bare man, make sure no snitch boys get dis!!! What ever ends your from put your ballys on link up and cause havic, just rob everything. Police can’t stop it. Dead the fires though!! Rebroadcast!!!!!
It is worth remembering though, that the contemporary state of means of communication is often appealed to in explaining the proliferation of riots: the pagers and “portable telephones” of the 1990s, CB radio in 1981… Any spontaneous unfolding of social unrest like this of course takes place in a context significantly shaped by the “affordances” of current communications technologies — technologies whose rapid development and proliferation has been one of the salient dynamics of the era. But these can only ever contribute a weak form of causality, shaping possibilities rather than driving things forward.
And while these actions should certainly be taken seriously as one of the most prominent aspects of the wave as a whole, we should avoid modes of explanation which project such things as some essential indicator of “what the riots were about”, as if national riot-waves were a sort of vessel which could contain a singular, unproblematically identifiable content. No large-scale social event, no uprising like this, can straightforwardly be read as the simple expression of an inner content, for the actors and circumstances involved are too vastly heterogeneous to be susceptible to the kind of reduction that would be required. Everyone has their own reasons — many of them no doubt held in common — but it would be a fallacy to think that one could abstract from this mess some sort of singular social meta-intention without doing significant theoretical violence to the object. Better to focus on mapping the objective and subjective contingencies of which the riot wave was a precipitate, and tracing its unfolding logic. And in this logic, it is clear that the looting, dramatic as it was, kicked off only in the space already opened by an anti-police riot, before developing its own logic of contagion.
By Sunday morning, as riots continued in the Tottenham area, eight police officers were being treated in hospital, and there were reports of bystanders getting attacked. At 7am the police convened the first of a series of crisis meetings, drafting thousands of reinforcements into London from other regions. Standard official condemnations began to issue from the usual locations: Prime Minister’s Office, local MP, commander of the Metropolitan Police. As social media — the encrypted Blackberry messenger service in particular — buzzed with speculation and incitements, police took notice that Enfield — an area quite close to Tottenham — was prominent as a possible point of eruption. Hackney carnival was preventively cancelled last minute, though this didn’t stop rioting spreading into Dalston in the evening, with several shops and the Kingsland shopping centre looted. Brixton’s carnival went ahead as planned, but as the sound systems were turned off and a noticeable tension filled the evening air, a young man was chased, dragged to the ground and bundled into a police van. A few hundred mostly masked youths gathered, and began to attack. Chain stores such as Vodafone, H&M, Footlocker, WH Smith, Currys and JD Sports were looted; KFC and McDonalds had their windows smashed; Footlocker and Nando’s were set on fire after a till was stolen. But, in another show of crowd discernment, the highly central Ritzy cinema — with its many windows — was left untouched.
As anticipated, hundreds of youths gathered with the onset of evening in Enfield centre, at an apparently pre-planned destination. And of course, plenty of cops were there to meet them. Rioting erupted sporadically, and in a very mobile manner — presumably of necessity, in direct response to the police presence — rioters generally evading them to attack shops, vehicles, etc. At 9:30pm police tried to turn Enfield into a “sterile area”, bringing in hundreds of riot cops, dogs etc. Dispersed, the crowd ran off to attack and loot a retail park, stealing televisions and alcohol as they went. Around 12:45am 3 officers were taken to hospital after being run over by a fast-moving vehicle. Then, during the night, the riot-wave spread to many other parts of London: Denmark Hill, Streatham, Islington, Leyton, Shepherd’s Bush, Walthamstow; even Oxford Circus saw some disturbances. Crowds of young people gathered in streets around London, expecting local riots to trigger. Stand-offs between restless, expectant crowds and the police sometimes occurred without a full-blown riot breaking out — a negative demonstration that the riot is an emergent social event, rather than something produced by a singular decision, some linear intentionality.
Sporadic looting; smashed shop windows; arson: a welter of the standard particulars of riot. We here find that any attempt at a singular narrative of the events necessarily begins to break down, due to their vast spread and proliferation into a multiplicity of local incidents. Thus the riot-wave becomes a different object for us, one necessitating a different kind of abstraction or summary. Something far beyond its roots in a few particular local histories of abjection and anti-police struggle, and something necessarily more “theoretical”. At the same time we pass definitively from particular immediate struggles to a national mediatic event, in which practices are spread not only laterally and locally by word of mouth or by social media but by a growing awareness, crystallised in mainstream media coverage and official press releases, that much of the country is rising in some sort of revolt. And it is largely from this vantage point that we are constrained to track events the best we can. Rioters themselves are of course not constrained to the level of immediate struggles, but relate to these as they are mediated socially, not only on a level of lateral contagion via social media, word of mouth and SMS, but also by cohering national representations via mainstream media. With the inherently mimetic way in which such struggles proliferate too, a discussion of this mediation becomes unavoidable.
On Monday morning, as the rioting continued, doubts first emerged about the claim that there had been an exchange of fire between Duggan and the police. At 12:30pm Scotland Yard announced a quadrupling of police numbers in the capital. Meanwhile the Metropolitan Police finally offered an apology for their handling of the death to Duggan’s family; the IPCC, on the other hand, blamed police for the lack of contact. In the early afternoon, shops began to shut in areas expecting unrest as rumours circulated on social media about further targets. It was at this point that central Hackney emerged as the Monday flashpoint with which we began this article. While rioting spread out from Hackney Town Hall to the Pembury Estate, down Well Street and to other areas of Hackney, 15 miles south, in Croydon, crowds of youths gathered to attack shops, buses, and bystanders. Around 7pm 200–300 ran through outlying neighbourhoods looting and setting small fires. Around 9pm events spread to the town centre, where several large and very severe fires were started, including the Reeves Furniture shop — now famous as photogenic emblem of the most destructive aspects of the riots. One man was shot; a white middle-class guy was chased, tripped and beaten; another man pulled off his scooter and also beaten.
Simultaneously, in Ealing, crowds who again seemed to have been organised through social media moved to attack rich areas — cars, cafés, boutiques and commercial properties — apparently without interest in looting. Bystanders were assaulted. A 68-year-old man was attacked when trying to put out a fire in a dustbin, and later died. In Birmingham around 200 rioters set fire to an unmanned police station in an inner city area, and tried to attack the city centre. Police fended them off with extra officers, but later in the night kids returned to loot many shops. In Battersea bystanders identified rioters as “blues, yellows and reds”— members of local gangs who had apparently called a truce for the evening. In Camden some shops were attacked and confrontations with riot cops drifted up to Kentish Town and Chalk Farm. In Peckham a hundred-strong group cheered as a shop was set on fire, shouting “the West End is going down next”. Cyclists and motorcyclists were violently dismounted with rocks, their bikes taken. With this litany of chaotic and often dark events coming to form a carousel of lumpen depravity, rotated on barely changing loops to ever-more plaintive, moralising tones, the authorised version of the riots began to consolidate: this couldn’t all be “about” Mark Duggan; no, it was the work of a deranged, feral underclass44, out to get whatever they could, at best because of some misguided “consumerism”, at worst because they came from the work-shy urban cesspits of “broken Britain”, lacking the authority of proper father figures who would have soon set them right, with a good old paternal clip round the ear. “Immorality” or “criminality” had somehow become independent variables, spiking from out of nowhere, anthropomorphising themselves into a monstrous lumpen subject out to terrorise the great and good of the nation.
Passing over into Tuesday 9 August, as the national “disgust consensus”45 consolidated, the major inner-London generation points of the riot wave, with their longer local histories of anti-police antagonism — Tottenham, Brixton, Hackney — were now quietening down; inner London boroughs were now flooded with police from around the country. But the unrest persisted in the outer London boroughs, and had now spread West and North far beyond London. Now came the various community responses, starting with the self-righteous clean-up squads of the morning, and ending with armed Turkish and Kurdish shopkeepers and far right vigilante groups in the evening. The clean-up squad — a new type of what we might call “anti-abject” community self-organisation — played a convenient role here as the positive pole in a developing manichaeism, projected as everything the rioters were not. The blitz-spirited neighbourliness and social responsibility with which these people came together, symbolised by their brooms and rubber gloves — which were for the most part merely symbolic, since state-employed street-sweepers had already done the job earlier in the morning — stood in supposed contrast to the atomised, bestial anomie of the rioters: mere vandals, absent of all community, citizens who had failed and thus justly been cast into the state of nature there below. As one of these “riot wombles” penned across her vested torso: “looters are scum”. In the discourses that now unfolded, the positive subjectivities constituted in local rebellions against this logic were definitively erased. No agency here; no reason; no intention; no grievance; no cause; no will; no morality; no community: just a big hole in society into which the bad ones fall. Politicians, of course, took care to be photographed amidst this smug convulsion; “Boris! Boris! Boris!” cried the broom-brigade, as the tousle-haired Tory buffoon turned up to ensconce himself in the collective anti-chav backslap.
The gears of political reaction were now engaged. At 11am David Cameron made his first statement outside Number 10, after cutting short his holiday to return to London. He announced the recall of Parliament, and that there would be 16,000 police officers on London streets from that evening. Further north, in Birmingham, Nick Clegg was booed and heckled as he tried to assess the damage. During the day, special measures were introduced to enable the processing of the vast numbers of people who had already been arrested, and who were now apparently herded into overcrowded, unsanitary cells, lacking in food and water. Meanwhile, on the international level, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson called for British police to “exercise restraint”, and for human rights organisations to investigate the shooting of Mark Duggan; Syrian media covered the riots in depth, focusing on the possibility that the military might be brought in; the Libyan state described the riots as a “popular uprising”. In Egypt, social media buzzed with debates as to whether the riots should be seen as the Arab Spring come to England. The Metropolitan Police described Monday night’s events as “the worst the [Met] has seen in current memory”, and stated that they would now use plastic bullets if necessary. This would be the first time on mainland Britain (Northern Ireland having already, of course, had its share). Hoping to stem the tide of youths entering onto the streets to take part in the events, local councils now started sending out email and SMS warnings to parents, advising them to keep children inside. Even the online world now saw its own manifestations of riot-related behaviour. Amazon’s top-selling sport and leisure items now included police-style telescopic batons and baseball bats, sales of which had increased by 5000% in the previous 24 hours. And at around 3:30pm hackers defaced the website of Research in Motion in retaliation for the suggestion that Blackberry users’ data would be released to the police.
As afternoon wore on towards evening, and many began to expect the return of the riots, shops closed early. In some areas — especially heavily Turkish and Kurdish areas such as Dalston and Walthamstow — they remained open, but guarded by large groups of vigilantes. At 5:25pm the IPCC announced that no shot had been fired by Mark Duggan before he was shot dead by a police firearms officer. It seemed bizarre at the time — indeed it still does now — that they would release such potentially explosive information at this point. Having no food at home, and with shops all shuttered, we headed for the only area where anything seemed open — the stretch of Turkish restaurants on Kingsland Road which had their own protection. A few shops and banks had been smashed in the night before, but the normally traffic-clogged area was now a ghost town. At Dalston Junction a lonely little Christian group sang hymns tunelessly in the dusk. Reaching the restaurant stretch, hundreds of Turkish people stood out in the street, jovial but ready for trouble: mostly young men, but also middle-aged guys and young girls, even entire families. But in the restaurant we were the only customers, alone with the Muzak. Staff were in good spirits; a sense of community solidarity palpable. Outside some dudes hauled bundles of baseball bats; the odd siren blaring; cops doing a route up and down the street seemingly more to announce their presence than anything else. We hung out in the crowd for a while. A gaggle formed in front of the Efes pool hall, with one man clearly in charge, giving orders in Turkish to the footsoldiers, but nothing came of it. This crowd was as pumped as the Pembury rioters of the previous evening, glorying in its sense of collective strength. At one point a few mostly white and hoodied teenagers hurried through the congregation, visibly on guard. A mob of Turkish men started following them down the street, turning and whistling for back-up, bristling for a fight, but it came to nothing. A little later a black couple showed up further down the street and the crowd bristled once more… but they were just there, like us, to get food.
We ducked into a half-shuttered convenience store. Showing off pepper spray and an old extendible police truncheon, the young Turk at the counter bragged: “bruv, I ain’t never been so tooled up as this!” His mate brandished a heavy length of stiff wire — a makeshift bludgeon. “We got no choice, you know, these is our livelihoods; if we lost this business that would be everything gone.” Outside, the crowd occasionally parted for police vehicles; those brutal-looking black armoured vans trundling up the road in convoy. We spied people inside. 7 or 8 of these, followed by a similar number of normal white riot vans. As this long convoy made its way through the crowd, many whistled and cheered raucously at the sign of mass arrests, treating the cops like heroes. A young copper in a soft hat wandered along the street, channelling the national consensus: “it’s not political; it’s just mindless violence now — these people are just going around smashing things up and looting — it’s got nothing to do with that shooting.” On our way home we passed two police officers stopping and searching three black teenagers, talking tensely; it wasn’t because they were black.
Ten miles to the southeast, in racist old Eltham, community self-organisation against the riots had some different nuances. A vigilante crowd of around 200–300 people gathered in the street with the stated aim of protecting their community: mostly men, some claiming EDL (English Defence League) membership, fans of the Charlton Athletic and Millwall football clubs — the latter long associated with far right hooliganism. EDL leader Stephen Lennon: “We’re going to stop the riots; police obviously can’t handle it.” Reported threats in the air that a “nigger” would “get it tonight”. Similar vigilante crowds gathered in Enfield, and Sikhs with sheathed swords and hockey sticks came out in Southall. Ominous signs of what might be in store — visions of building inter-communal strife — but little more: it all passed with little event since, while widespread conflagrations continued elsewhere the country, London had already quietened significantly — in response to such communal self-defence perhaps, or to the deployment of 16,000 police. Vigilante crowds would persist in coming out in Eltham even on Thursday — a day after the national riot wave had crashed, and two days after it had ebbed in London — still with the stated aim of protecting their communities from rioters, only to break into their own anti-police riot when cops came to clear the area. Thus the political ambivalence of communities organising in self-defence — whether against police or another community — came starkly into focus. By a perverse social logic, the mobilisation of a few territorially-defined inner-London communities against processes of abjection and police racism, its side-effects rippling out across the social fabric, had precipitated in further territorial self-organisations that were often racist, and that understood their role as one of policing; expelling the abject from the community. It is unsurprising which mode was preferred in the gathering national consensus. Many in the traditionally leftist Kurdish and Turkish community would come to distance themselves from the ways in which their pragmatic self-organisation had been incorporated into this discourse, expressing a qualified solidarity with the rioters of Tottenham in a march north from Kingsland Road to the area of the original trigger-point, a couple of weeks later.
On Tuesday night rioting continued in Birmingham, Bristol and Nottingham, and spread to Manchester, Salford, Bury, West Bromwich, Leicester, Gloucester, Wirral, Sefton and Wolverhampton. Though police claimed otherwise, it is tempting to wonder whether the massive reallocation of police to London gave rioters more opportunities elsewhere. However one explains it, Tuesday night was the night on which the country beyond London really burned: in Nottingham, at around 10.30pm, 30–40 men firebombed a police station; in Liverpool a crowd of youths assembled at 11:30pm, throwing missiles at police and attacking shops; at Birmingham’s New Street station, police fought up to 200 looters who had attacked shops and set fire to cars — shots were fired at police, including at a helicopter, and petrol bombs thrown; from 11pm in Gloucester — a small provincial market town, which had nonetheless seen rioting before — rioting and looting took place; in Manchester, though the third largest force in the country, police lost control of the city centre as looting and arson kicked off in the shopping area. But the most dramatic events were probably in Salford, a city of about 250,000 in the Manchester area, where another anti-police riot ignited.
Salford: predominantly white; above average unemployment; 15th most deprived area in the country. At around 3pm on Tuesday rumours started circulating there about the possibility of riots, and “threatening behaviour” was reported on the main shopping street. In response, police descended en masse. Around the corner on the Brydon Estate they filmed hundreds of youths stockpiling broken-up breezeblocks. Riot police were deployed, but were immediately ambushed with intense levels of violence and much larger crowds than they had anticipated. While fires burned and a shopping centre was looted, outnumbered and overwhelmed, they persisted in trying to disperse the crowd. At one point, 600–800 rioters were attacking a group of 30 cops with rocks, and at 7.40pm the police were ordered to pull out of Salford, during which time Lidl supermarket was looted and set on fire, along with several cars in the car park. The office of a local housing association was set on fire, as well as a looted shop, burning out the family home above it. From 10.45pm the local police were bolstered by officers from 10 other forces, and re-entered Salford to gradually regain control. While looting, as ever, had occurred, what was notable about Salford was the violently anti-police focus of the events. Another deprived area subject to increasing stop-and-search, Salford’s youth had followed the example of rioters elsewhere in the country and used the riot-wave as an opportunity to take some revenge.
As the riots continued overnight into Wednesday, at around 1am a fatal hit-and-run incident occurred in the Winson Green area of Birmingham. In another example of community self-defence, around 80 British Asian people had been guarding local businesses when a car hit some people in the crowd at high speed, killing two men and critically injuring a third who later died in hospital. This depressing event came to supply the icing on the cake of the national “disgust consensus”, with media endlessly re-rolling the pleas of Tariq Jahan, father of one of those killed, for inter-communal solidarity, and for people to “calm down and go home”. Winson Green borders the Handsworth and Lozells areas, which both have recent histories of rioting. In 2005 these areas had erupted into inter-communal race riots between Afro-Caribbeans and Asians, after rumours had spread about the gang-rape of a black girl. Now, with rumours circulating that the driver of the car had been black — and that the hit-and-run had been a deliberately orchestrated murder, with one car somehow allegedly being used to “lure” the men into the road before they were hit with another vehicle — the spectre of full-blown race riot reared its head, with members of the surrounding Muslim community apparently readying themselves for the exaction of reprisals. Jahan’s speech was a direct intervention into this local situation, telling the angry young men around him to “grow up” and avoid escalating existing tensions. But, decontextualised as flagship video clip in the national media spectacle, Jahan’s speech came to stand for the sane, moral voice of the nation at large, against the madness of rioters in general. Disembedded from its local referent, it came to imply that those around the country who continued to riot were now complicit in violence which, among other things, had cost a father his son. And as such, it seemed to work.
It would later emerge that the incident had been an accident, that some of those implicated had actually known the victims, and that a cop involved in the case had lied under oath; all of the 8 accused of murder were acquitted, and an IPCC investigation was launched into the conduct of the police. Many of those involved also turned out to be white. Associations of the incident with the riotous behaviour or anti-Asian violence of local blacks thus unravelled, leaving it an unfortunate but highly contingent event. Indeed, the more terrifying social dynamics that were at play in this case were less a matter of rioting in itself, than of a potential inter-communal strife emerging as racially and territorially-defined communities self-organised against the spread of the riots, and against looting in particular. Tuesday had put this prospect on the table, from broom-brigades to baseball-batted Turks, from Birmingham’s Asian community to the EDL. But: nowhere the blacks. Out of this ambivalent social logic a distorted national consensus forged a blitz-spirited smugness against the asociality of the rioter, as the gallery of riot horrors rotated endlessly on our screens: the burning of a carpet warehouse and all the flats above it; the burning of a longstanding family furniture business; the mugging of a bewildered Malaysian student; and finally, poor, noble Tariq Jahan.46
Distinctly different types of incident were being aggregated here: on the one hand the arson that comes as a standard practice of rioting crowds; on the other, crimes contingent to the riots themselves, merely occurring amidst the general social chaos. Muggings, of course, occur all the time in London; hit-and-runs are not unusual either — though they seem to have a habit of occurring amidst the frenzied action of a riot.47 Lumped together as aspects of “The Riots”— a strange synthetic object — it perhaps really did look like there had been some sort of ex nihilo upsurge of “criminality pure and simple”, an inexplicable irruption of unadulterated immorality into British society, as authoritarian discourses from state, media and beyond were by now insisting.48 Unless this object is decomposed into its constitutive events and dynamics, unless we contest the coherence of this object, “The Riots”, we end up confined to spinning one or another alternative interpretation of the same set of incidents according to our more or less “radical” political persuasions: Cameron says The Riots are about “criminality”/I say they’re about “politics”; state and media see a lack of community-spiritedness underlying The Riots/I say “fuck off with your community — I’m with the rioters”; Cameron says The Riots are about criminality/I say “great!” What ensues can only be a sort of weak rhetorical mud-wrestling match to which the opponent doesn’t even show up. And however impressive a fight we might still put up, most of the ground is already conceded in the acceptance of a fundamentally spurious object. We cannot respond to the question of what “The Riots” were “about” with any singular, univocal answer, because they were not, and could not be, about anything, in the sense of expressing some essential, singular, unified intentionality, grievance, desire etc. As emergent social events, riots — and even more, riot-waves — abstract themselves from the contexts from which they precipitate to unfold in forms and patterns entirely irreducible to any single factor, subjective or objective.49
Much better instead then, to break them down into the chain of events and highly overdetermined social logics that they are. When we do that, what is left is not merely some empiricist chaos of facts and incidents, but a rising tide of spontaneously unfolding actions, a perceptible mechanics of social upheaval by which a fairly standard community anti-police demonstration spills over into riot; by which this creates cop-free space for the usual looting; by which this looting then spreads at a startling rate, afforded firstly by the scale of the initial conflagration, and secondly by the ubiquity of lateral means of communication; by which other communities who recognise a common cause with the rioters of Tottenham then come out to wage their own anti-police riots, amidst the generalising disorder; by which this growing contagion precipitates a broader national crisis of law and order as the police struggle to respond; in which context there proliferates a chaotic mass of behaviours normally kept somewhat at bay in the “social peace”, and in response to which other communities feel compelled to self-organise against the breakdown of order; which self-organisation then threatens to erupt into inter-communal strife; which all compels the formation of a national consensus of disgust at the whole unfolding thing, before it all dies down, we all go home, and the mass-incarceration begins. The last embers of the fire faded in Liverpool and Manchester that Wednesday, with only the English Defence League still carrying the torch, in Eltham, of a riot-wave that had its clearest roots in anti-racism.
The precedent established by the end of the student struggles for pre-emption, technological surveillance and increasingly severe punitive response, was consolidated in the state’s handling of the riots. And the country was exceptionally well equipped for it too, having sleepwalked its way into being one of the most spied-upon nations in the world, with an estimated one CCTV camera for every 11–14 people. What followed was one of the biggest investigations in the history of the police force, Operation VERA, in which hundreds of specialists trawled through video footage in a race to identify the thousands of faces caught on camera. And though a new generation of student protesters had felt they had learnt their first crucial lesson in adopting black-bloc tactics, having your face covered seemed to offer no guarantee of protection in the case of the riots. The sheer extent of CCTV coverage — in designated “problem” areas especially — provided the technological capacity for resolute detectives to trail individuals over a series of hours, or even days, trying to catch just one glimpse of their unmasked faces, and assembling, in the process, incriminating montages of each one, their successive actions and, importantly, their networks. Within weeks of the riots, 4000 people had been arrested, mostly male and mostly between the ages of 18–24. That the very first batches of suspects to be rounded up were those easiest to identify — whose data tethered them firmly to the cops — allowed the government to confidently assure the nation that the riots were not the work of any average person, your normal British citizen, but that of “known criminals”. Effectively, the police had initially identified and then recalled those people most familiar to it, most close-to-hand, those so candidly referred to by ex-Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair as “police property”.50 Why would the police refer to such people as their property? Because in some sense they do own them: their solid criminal records justify that they be constantly accessible, pulled into the station at will. As police property, they are defined, somewhat tautologically, by criminality — akin to a character trait. And as we have repeatedly been reminded, the acts of rioters are not just simple crimes like any other, but criminality per se; criminality pure and simple. That the only content to be found in the riots — and, by implication, the rioters — is criminality itself, exemplifies the logic of abjection at work here, turning those who rioted into mere “property”; a homogenous, illegitimate lump that can be separated out and cut off at will, like dead wood, from an otherwise functioning social whole.
This perceived homogeneity would appear in the blanket sentencing of vastly different acts according to norms completely other than those which would apply in normal, non-riot circumstances. In its generalised exemplary sentencing of rioters, the state seems to implicitly recognise the riot’s real character as an emergent social event. Unlike individual crimes, as a socially generalising logic the riot implicitly puts society itself at stake; rather than the riot being a sum of the particular acts of rioters, these acts then become instances of this general logic. Each can thus be judged as such — as the putting at stake, ultimately, of society as a whole. The response of the Chief Constable of the Greater Manchester Police was clear:
If you as an individual go out and shoplift, that’s bad, but if you go out in a mob, that is something far more serious… because it threatens society itself. It threatens society itself. You know, we have to be honest, we’re a thin blue line out there as police officers… the system will only work if the vast majority of people observe the law.51
The necessary size of this majority has yet to be definitively established. But that the thin blue line suffered at least a drastic stretching, that the city was rendered fleetingly, yet palpably, vulnerable and breakable, meant that every event and action was potentially explosive. This point had become clear in the student protests, but even clearer in the riots, and their respective repressions in part reflected this.
An onslaught of attention-grabbing sentences followed: 16 months for snatching an ice-cream, 6 for a bottle of water and 5 for receiving a pair of stolen shorts. The newspapers abounded with such tragi-comic examples. Disorder and the threat of disorder became blurred in convictions, sometimes even being treated equally. The 18 year-old Amed Pelle got almost two years in jail for posting messages on Facebook, including one perceived to be inciting riots in Nottingham, “Nottz Riot, whose onit?”, and one with a clear anti-police message “kill one black youth, we kill a million fedz, riot until we own cities”. The same sentence was given to Dwaine Spence, who apparently led a 40-strong young, angry crowd on the “rampage” through Wolverhampton, attacking the police. But while Amed Pelle’s case involved utterances, suggesting intent and motivation, other social media activities that led to convictions were more ambiguous. And severe punishment for such intent did not require that there had been any actual consequence. Though nobody showed up at McDonald’s, the meeting point for the Facebook event “Smash Down in Northwich Town”— except the police — its creator received four years in jail. The same sentence was given to the poor youngster who drunkenly set up a website called “The Warrington Riots”, despite no resulting event. And this, of course, constitutes the dark side of social media, the contents of which can first be seized by the police, and then treated, at will, as though already constitutive of reality.
Spectacular examples aside, the majority of charges were for burglary, property damage and the vague but — by this point in the wave of struggles, ubiquitous — category of “violent disorder”. By mid-October, out of the 2000 people who appeared before the magistrates’ court on more minor charges, 40% had received immediate custodial sentences, compared to 12% in 2010. But, as in the case of the student unrest before it, many minor incidents had been sent straight to the Crown Courts (where over 90% of cases end in jail terms), whose sentencing of the rioters were an estimated 18–25% higher than in non-riot conditions. Certain London courts in particular became industrial-style justice mills, staying open 24 hours a day, to rapidly churn through thousands of rioters, who, in the face of the temporarily-implemented quadruple custody rate, had been left to wait in cells below the courtroom, often crammed to their maximum capacity. The spectrum of candidates in the 2012 London mayoral election would propose the standardisation of this industrious spectacle for the city as a whole on their glossy campaign flyers. And if this display was not enough to appease a nation hungry for “justice”, the Prime Minister would soon advise local councils that they should consider withholding the shrinking welfare cheques of all those families harbouring a rioter, or even, perhaps, evicting them — signalling to a mass of panicked parents that they should shop in their delinquent kids, to save their homes. As Nick Clegg echoed:
If you go out and trash other people’s houses, you burn cars, you loot and smash up shops — in other words, if you show absolutely no sense of respect to your own community — then, of course, questions need to be asked, whether the community should support you in living in that community… the principle that if you are getting some support from the community, you are going to have to show some support for that community, is a really, really important one.52
Community, community, community. Who’s in and who’s out? Clegg evidently understands the logic very well. A community without qualities, entirely negatively defined — the agglomerated mass of all those who do not trash other people’s houses, burn cars, smash up shops etc. What does this community hold in common? Only the fact of not rioting, and only this insofar as someone else can perform that role. Rioting produces the community that abjects the rioter who riots against this abjection. The community produces the abjects who riot against this abjection to make it a community. Sentencing closes the circle of abjection, seals the bounds of community in law, and — just in case we hadn’t noticed — prominent politicians step in to lard the whole thing in extra added legitimacy. Just as well, for the bounds of that community — marked out by a thin blue line — had started to look pretty dodgy. Just the line of a tense and faltering smile without a face.
The social logic of abjection doesn’t let up. After the riots, radicalisation of the endless restructuring under the current Con–Dem coalition proceeded at a startling place. While talking tough, the state began to make a wary few adjustments aimed at staving off similar upheavals. Every whiff of protest for a while met complete police lock-down. In the alluvium left by the crashed wave there sprouted Occupy, but in this context at least, somehow sadder, even more defeated than what had preceded it. The country had been stunned into silence by the riots; the mass of people involved in anti-austerity struggles largely put on pause; muted, mouths gaping open, heads turned, left to watch the spectacle of the riots burn themselves out. The first few attempts at post-riot protest signalled complete deflation. The march against pension reform on 30 November 2011 in central London resembled a state funeral procession, with approximately one police officer for every two protesters, and ten-foot-tall solid steel crowd-control fencing to funnel us along in a reduced and hyper-controlled version of that already-limited trudge. While the kettling of the student movement had provided the intense physical proximity, the compression to generate heat and escalate tension, the steel cordon left us utterly cold; this was autumn, turning into winter. Not only had the crisis struggles weakened, first in the face of the complete illegitimacy of their demands, second through the sheer magnitude of the systematic repression that followed the riots — the riots had also unified the country at large against the enemies within, the scum who had saddled an already crisis-ridden country with a whopping extra bill, estimated at around half a billion pounds.53 And we would surely sink from the weight of it too, perhaps like those poor Greeks!
In an Olympic opening ceremony a couple of miles from the sites of Hackney’s riots, while order is ensured with paramilitary-style policing, a patriotic spectacle is summoned from Britain’s disorderly history, throwing white punks and black grime kids from the nearby district of Bow against top-hatted Industrial Revolution bourgeois; an anarchic multicultural explosion about which we are to feel proud, included. A year after Smiley Culture’s death, Dizzee Rascal decants the last of London’s autonomous black subcultures onto the stage. Doreen Lawrence carries the torch through the South East London that lit the fuse of 1981; that murdered her son in 1993; where the EDL concluded the riot-wave in 2011. Just outside, a Critical Mass demonstration — ordinarily tolerated by the cops — is stamped on hard. Young black men continue to be stopped and searched multiples of times more than any other group, while a muted recognition that there may be problems with this approach slowly seeps through the post-riot political landscape, just as it did in the early 1980s. And in this sense at least, these riots may be said to have “worked”. Persecution of the supposed feckless again ramps up, with the state-managed class-cleansing of London estates. Thatcher’s long-awaited death lets loose a national outburst of schadenfreude as the survivors of the 1980s pour into central London to drunkenly celebrate something that feels vaguely like a victory: at least we outlived her.
It would take quite an optimist to find in all this any literal harbingers of revolution or of building class struggle. At most, for a few exhilarating moments, some had at last stood up — and it was exciting while it lasted. And the imprint of that exhilaration perhaps will persist in the political memory of a generation. But let’s not imagine this wave could, of itself, have done anything other than crash and leave a long ebb tide behind. The anti-austerity struggles had nowhere to go, no real sense of possibilities but a gleeful breaking-through into some newly raucous situation, always without aim or positive horizon; all demands impossible; the only meaningful modes of struggle — to at least give cops and Con–Dems a hard time — ruled by definition out of bounds. As such they could only invite an escalating punishment. The broader wave of struggles had crested and threatened to break as it came up against this impossibility. It would have needed some dramatic exogenous event to drive it further — another deep-sea earthquake, perhaps, from the juddering plates of the global economy, or some major harmonic resonance from global convergences of struggle. But such did not come, and here the wave intersected with the longer-term social dynamics of abjection which would make its inevitable crash all the more sudden and catastrophic.
Anti-police rioters too had been bound at best to rail in their illegitimacy against a police logic that makes them so. In themselves such riots will, of course, never constitute a significant challenge to a capitalist state whose vastly hypertrophied repressive apparatus is only the outer ring around deep social structures of consent which solidify all the more as their abjects struggle against them, even reproducing the function of police at the level of community self-organisation. Still, they can give us a good impression of what the “thin blue line” in crisis looks like. And let’s not moralise about these riots after the fashion of a venerable leftism which once could have taken them as a throwback to the past — before the workers matured and really started organising to win; for the workers’ movement is all out of actuality, long defunct as such a normative measure. And in recognising the sadness, the catastrophe of this wave, let’s not pretend there was some other obvious way it could have gone, if we had only had the right X — for if X had really been on the cards it would almost certainly have been taken up. Past waves of struggle don’t need armchair generals. But if we can scrape away the bullshit in which these things get caked, and look at them honestly, we can at least hope to figure out where we are now. Stuck in modes of struggle that rebound upon us. Residue of positive class belonging only at someone else’s expense. And for them: class branded onto their very being as mere objects of disgust. Class declared by rule of law, enforced by police patrol. Thus class, at least, put at stake.