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English riots were neither mindless nor purely criminal

London’s burning: but the rioters had a point. EPA/Kerim Okten

The powers that be describe the street violence and social upheaval which took place in England’s major cities last week as “mindless”. Yet it was anything but.

Prime Minister David Cameron, among others, has called the young people involved “criminals”, but the riots were an exertion of power by those who often feel they have none, and the wonton destruction of the many symbols and spaces they are both told to desire and ordered to vacate.

But it was not structural violence, which claims inequitable social arrangements deny ordinary people access to resources and solutions available to those in power.

Nor was it symbolic violence - the unconscious acceptance of everyday social habits exerted over the public so that people do not notice structural violence. It was quite different.

Criminalising young people

Following the New York City “broken windows” approach to policing, the New Labour government in the UK introduced Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) in 1998.

In New York, policing small things such as graffiti and breaking windows was credited with improving the social life of the city, and New Labour wanted to do the same for Britain.

But ASBOs soon became a battle about norms. How loud is too loud to play music? How many young people can congregate on a street corner? When does speaking up for one’s self become “talking back to authority”?

Under ASBO legislation, young people were cleared from street corners, banned from shops, told to move on, told they were not welcome. Shops put up signs stipulating only one or two “students” could be in a shop at a time.

Surveillance cameras or private detectives followed groups of young people in shops, and quickly groups of young people in cars in empty parking lots became the objects of observation and detention.

The communities of young people became communities of suspicion. The police became the arbiters of what was “normal” behaviour.

But after the September 11th attacks in 2001 this power was joined with something altogether different.

Stepping up the anti-terror campaign

The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act had always allowed for unsupervised stops and searches of the public.

But new legislation became an important tool in counter-terrorism operations, allowing officers to stop an individual on the street because of a “hunch” and to search them without a warrant and on the officer’s sole initiative.

Yet in 2010 the Open Society Institute found that black people were 26 times more likely to be stopped than whites in Britain.

Nearly 200 in every 1,000 Afro-Caribbean people were stopped between 2007 and 2009, while only 49 white people per 1,000 were similarly stopped and searched.

And although almost half a million stops were made under Section 44 of the new Terrorism Act, not one resulted in a successful prosecution for terrorism offenses.

Young people were being stopped but it did not seem to be stopping any crime.

The shooting of Mark Duggan

An initially peaceful protest spilled over into violence across London, and other English cities. EPA/Kerim Okten

The initial protest that led to the rioting was sparked by the killing of Mark Duggan by police on August 4.

A peaceful march saw protestors ask to see the senior officer in charge for an explanation of events, but four hours later no-one had come to meet them. They shouted “we want answers” but none were forthcoming.

For many, this felt like yet another example of inequality in access to the state.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission subsequently found there was no evidence that Duggan had shot at officers, as had been claimed.

But perhaps it was less the actual shooting than the police’s handling of the event that contributed to the violence.

The political response

David Cameron has missed the point about young people and the law. EPA/Andy Rain

In the days following the violence and property destruction that erupted on English streets, David Cameron vowed that the perpetrators of the violence would experience the “full force of the law.”

But he misses the point that these young people experience the full extent of the law everyday, whether as ASBOs or stop and searches on the street.

Cameron further threatens that anyone who participated in the violence, and lives in government-supported housing may be evicted. In terms of punitive action, with little regards to the consequences, the British people are facing direct government caused homelessness, simply as a means of demonstrating that the political elites will not tolerate unrest.

Government cuts

We are all in this together. So proclaimed the Conservative party campaign posters last year.

Across Britain large billboards appeared everywhere with the face of the prime minister to be, David Cameron, looking earnestly across the political landscape, suggesting that, unlike previous conservatives, he was just a “regular guy”.

He spoke of a “big society” in which ordinary people looked after each other, without the need of a social safety net.

After forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative party set about to make the Big Society a reality, at least the part of living without a social safety net.

This would be a privatisation scheme that would make Margaret Thatcher proud. Nothing was out of bounds and everything was on the table, even if it would cost tax payers more to privatise a sector then to leave it under state management, as with the forestry trusts.

Public sector hit

Once in power, everything was to be slashed to the bone. The halls of power were theirs again, and they would be damned if people unlike them contested their vision for the future.

Even the National Health Service, once the pride of socialist-oriented Britain, was to prepare for “efficiency savings” which represented massive cuts, according to a coalition of political activists.

Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts described how the cuts in the public sector, in education, in health services, in local authorities all disproportionately hurt black people.

Yet the government describes the cuts as across the board. Any critique of how they affect minorities is met with the slogan “we are all in this together”, which begins to sound curiously like the corruption of Orwell’s seventh commandment concluding that “some are more equal than others.”

Rampant unemployment

Youth unemployment is at record levels, nearly 21% in February 2011. Another three quarters of a million are not counted as unemployed because they are seen as “economically inactive”.

The former Labour government cut apprenticeship programmes in favour of developing universities in the 1990s and early 2000s, now the Tory government is cutting university budgets and there are no longer apprenticeships in the trades.

Not since Johnny Rotten sang it in 1977, has it seemed so true that there may be “no future” for this generation of youth.

Embracing capitalism

CCTV images show looters taking advantage of the police being overstretched. EPA/Metropolitan Police handout

The looting in Britain is clearly not “mindless” when weighed against the principles of consumerism. In a world in which everyone is told they are measured by what they consume, it is extremely troubling for young people with no job and no disposable income to be immeasurable.

If we are what we consume, then those who do not wear the latest brands, have the latest phones or listen to the latest music are nothing, are non-entities.

Many commentators (usually over the age of 50) suggested that the young people involved in the disturbances were simply thieves. But they miss how important brands and consumer identity have become.

Far from disregarding the values of society as has been alleged by many members of the government, the young people who were involved in property theft were enacting the very values that are communicated to them every day through advertisements and public culture.

They obtained the latest fashions they were told that they could not live without by looting Debenhams; they grabbed the newest must-have telephones by ripping apart a Carphone Warehouse; and they exerted the agency that they never had felt before by “doing it for themselves”.

These young people embraced the values of capitalism and the engaged in the activities that are lauded to endeavor except they did so without the medium of exchange: money.

All cuts are not equal

So many of these young people have nothing, and they are told that they must accept that they have nothing. Increasingly the political and social discourses regarding the politics of austerity demonstrated that not all members of society are experiencing these cuts equally.

Moreover counter terrorism strategies have demonstrated that security is for particular segments of society, not for everyone equally.

With so many structures stacked against them, many young people acted out in the only way they knew how: they went shopping!

That they did not pay for anything echoes the innumerable television commercials and soap opera plot lines that the unemployed follow religiously out of boredom. Walk into a shop with desire and walk out with goods; payment is never acknowledged.

This is the repetition of the television commercial.

No single cause

Most importantly the events in England were not caused by “something”. They have no single cause. Rather, the tensions that built over years and explored over the past week were brought together through complex social interactions.

Simple causal explanations themselves are forms of symbolic violence. If something cannot be detailed in a single sentence it is deemed to be too complicated to be presented.

Soundbites and thumbnail sketches are not only about condensation but also about erasure and destruction.

What is not included in a soundbite is never heard and what falls off the canvas of a thumbnail sketch is never seen.

Complex problems require deep and reflexive dialogue. Unfortunately, simple solutions, one-to-one correlations of causality and result, and ever decreasing spaces for conversation make it increasingly difficult to facilitate the types of contemplative exchanges that are necessary to work through the social problems which lay beneath the days of unrest in Britain.

No escalation of rhetoric

Police arrest a riots suspect in South London. EPA/Anthony Devin

Most importantly, communities of colour in general, and young people in particular, feel the full extent of the law every day.

Cameron’s law and order rhetoric surely feels more of the same rather than an escalation.

The very focus on criminality is evidence of the deafness of social problems in many neighbourhoods, and inflexibility of the terms of discussion is a powerful demonstration of Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic power.

The present government wants to control the terms of debate in such way as to suggest that they do wield violence in all of its forms: direct, structural and symbolic.

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