When riots have colour

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

– Langston Hughes

Allowing a poem to do the conceptual groundwork for a sociological article published at an academic journal, amounts to relegating yourself in the dustbin of scholarly prestige and inviting endless scoffing from your interlocutors; yet this is precisely the risk I’m wholeheartedly taking in the remainder of this paper. What follows should be read as a civic and not an academic response to this summer’s social unrest, following BSA’s laudable initiative to devote an open forum for sociological perspectives on the recent English riots.

Borrowing Langston Hughes’ evocative imagery of a dream being deferred; that dream being the ambition to escape the institutionalised abbreviation of citizenship that Black Britons routinely face in their interaction with the police, I advance the intentionally loaded proposition that the wave of civil unrest that gripped English cities in August, was racial and political and not the arbitrary and unfortunate by-product of consumerism’s allure on disenfranchised youth, living under the spectre of neo-liberal economy’s tyrannical excesses. To do so, the article is divided into four parts, each addressing the following questions; (a) why race? (b) just race?, (c) why politics?, (d) just politics? , presided by a brief overview of the recent Guardian/LSE study, aptly entitled; Reading the Riots: Investigating England’s summer of disorder.

According to the first round of reports on the findings of that study, published on last Monday’s edition of The Guardian, the riots allegedly captured a ‘widespread anger and frustration at the way in which police engage with communities’ and columnist Gary Younge (2011b) was quick to single out ‘indifferent elites’, ‘economic hardship’ and police brutality’ as reasons to riot based on the study’s findings.  What is startling about these comments is a noticeable discomfort and a conceptual mismatch between envisaging the riots as an emotive revenge, driven by opportunism and consumerist greed on the part of the summer looters; accusations that featured rather widely and sonorously in the immediate aftermath of the events, and a newly discovered acknowledgement of ‘deep seated and even visceral antipathy of the rioters towards the police’. Additional mention was surprisingly reserved in the report for issues of race and politics which was rather conspicuous in its absence in the initial outbreak of commentary following the riots. ‘Race was never far from the surface of the first person accounts of rioters. The most acute sense of a longstanding mistrust was among black interviewees’ writes Raekha Prasad (2011), reiterating black interviewees’ descriptions of incidents that involved being ‘handcuffed, beaten, kicked, spat on and called ‘nigger’ and ‘black bastard’, or episodes of stop and search operations where one police officer asked a colleague ‘Mate why don’t you ask him where Saddam [Hussein] is. He might be able to help out.’ On the statistical side of things, Younge (2011b) cites a 75% of the respondents who considered the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan as ‘an important or very important cause of the riots’, with additional figures of stop and search operations, revealing that 73% of the respondents reported that they have been stopped and searched in the last 12 months, while an additional chart in the study shows a 28% of London’s black population to have been stopped and searched by the police.

If race came as a surprise to the Guardian/LSE study on the riots, it is also intriguing to notice its accompaniment by a cameo appearance of politics too, in the critical delineation of the study by the newspaper’s commentators. Gary Younge (2011a), in keeping with an earlier article of his in The Guardian, finds the rioters to be ‘far more politically conscious than even many of the left’ and finds politics to be the first of the ‘two particular themes [that] have helped correct some initially flawed impressions’, the second being the ‘contempt between rioters and police with tales of petty harassment, abuse and humiliation’ appearing commonplace and, I would add, racially driven.

Why Race?

In my emotional and intellectual memory of the riots, race starred as ‘the elephant in the room’, impossible to ignore yet largely unaddressed. Let us retrace the steps of this gigantic omission in the initial reporting of and media, political and expert discourses on the outbreak of the riots, by means of rendering race as a visible cause for the incidents that shocked and awed many, commentators and pundits featuring large among them.

On Thursday, 4th of August, Mark Duggan, a black kid from Tottenham was killed as a result of a terrifying shoot-out with the police.  A few days later, Sunday, 7th of August, Stafford Scott, a consultant on racial equality and community engagement and co-founder of the Broadwater Farm Defence Campaign in 1985, was interviewed on Sky News where he saw the spark of rioting as both a response to the Duggan killing and a lingering coda of a similar incident, involving the death of Cynthia Jarett during a police raid in 1985 also at the Broadwater farm estate in Tottenham. In his Guardian article published the next day, Scott (2011) made a comment that is impossible to ignore; ‘if the rioting was a surprise, you weren’t looking’. It is this degree of inattention and pathological degree of amnesia that I should wish to highlight in my reading of the riots as triggered by the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan; insisting that no other ‘cause’ adequately explains them.

Before pleading for recognition of a link between the riots and issues of race and racism, it seems vital to give more insight into the immediate aftermath of the Duggan killing and its lamentable if not unpardonable treatment by the police.

Defying normal police procedures, the police failed to send out a family liaison officer to inform Duggan’s relatives about his death on Thursday, 4th of August (they found that out from the media) and the family did not receive an apology about this until Monday, 8th of August. Stafford Scott (2011) recalls that the family was disgusted by the complete disregard to their feelings by the police and along with other members of the community, went to the police station to speak to a senior officer demonstrating peacefully until that would happen. Scott adds that the police kept ‘prevaricating’; “The most senior person they gave us was a chief inspector. We said that person wasn’t senior enough – we wanted a senior ranking officer of superintendent or above. Eventually they sent for a superintendent, but by then it was too late. We’d told them: don’t prevaricate, we wanted to hear what was happening so we could explain to the community what was taking place. [..] had they dealt with us earlier in the day, we would have removed ourselves from this area, we would have gone back to Broadwater Farm”, and had that happened, the streets of London would probably not have erupted in violence.

In the light of such testimony, it seems timely and relevant to argue that the police shooting of Duggan is by no means new nor does it amount to an isolated incident or a historical first, if one is willing to follow both the history of rioting in Britain and the uneasy relationship between Black British citizens and the(ir) police; the names of Joy Gardner and Roger Sylvester, killed in police custody in the recent years come immediately to mind not to mention reggae star Smiley Culture’s death in police custody under the most mysterious of circumstances earlier this year.

To make matters (appear) worse, it could be provocatively argued that a historical account of Black British experience can indeed be narrated along the lines of racism and violent clashes with the police and many literary and non-literary landmarks of Black British Culture could be mobilised to testify that; be it Trevor and Michael Phillips’ historical Windrush: The Irresistible Making of Multi-Racial Britain, Paul Gilroy’s sociological classic There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, Winston James and Clive Harris’ polemical Inside Babylon: The Caribean Diaspora in Britain, Philip Cohen and H.S. Bains’ poignant Multi-Racist Britain, Courtia Newland and Kadija Sessay’s playful IC3 anthology of New Black Writing in Britain borrowing its name from the police identity code for ‘black’ (IC3), Alex Wheatle’s transfusion of rioting into writing in Brixton Rock,  Linton Kwesi Johnson’s ferocious dub poetry, Trinidadian calypso’s biting and piquant social commentary of London scenes, or the very lived experiences and oral testimonies of the Windrush pickney themselves.

To witness the riots of 2011 in the light of earlier disturbances is to allow oneself to guide the ‘how’s’ and the ‘why’s’ through a moment’s recollection of some key moments in black British history where the police has clashed violently with the public with the common thread of such animosities being the social, cultural and political signifier of race.

In 1959, Kelso Colchrane’s unsolved murder in the streets of Notting Hill sparked tensions in London; setting the scene for what James Whitfield (2004) would refer to as the ‘unhappy dialogue’ between the Metropolitan Police and Black Londoners in post-war Britain. In 1976, Notting Hill carnival , a key cultural institution of (Black) Britain, ended in riot and violent clashes with the police, followed by the 1977 National Front March, described as ‘deliberately provocative’ by the NF itself and in that spirit renewed its rendez-vous with racism in 1979 leading to the Southall riots. In 1981 the notorious Brixton riots broke out aggravated by “Operation Swamp” and persistent stop and search operations in the area, while later that year in the tragic New Cross Fire in Deptford 13 young, black people died in a house fire set ablaze by racists. 1985 saw the Broadwater Farm riots triggered by Cynthia Jarett’s death in a police raid, spreading contagiously to Brixton, Toxteth and Peckham, while in 1999 the murder of Stephen Lawrence re-introduced the term ‘institutional racism’ and sparked the most profound re-appraisal of race relations and the justice system, since Brixton 1981, leading to the MacPherson report on racist attitudes within the Metropolitan Police force.

What these incidents have in common is the lived experience (not any abstracted narrative) of race as and by means of exclusion and that in a rather alarming sequence of events, the effect of which is impossible to ignore, even if we allude to those events as cacophonous exceptions in an otherwise smooth-running multicultural society which condemns such incidents and provides for their extinction from public life ever after.

Just race?

Envisaging the 2011 English riots solely through what W.E. Du Bois (1920 and 1961) articulated as the ‘racial veil’ may appear problematic, yet looking through that veil has its respective merits, if a broader definition of race is put in motion. Race is very rarely just race and it is here imagined as a modality through which the riots can be understood, reminiscent perhaps of Stuart Hall’s (2006) well-known definition of race as a ‘floating signifier’. Race is not skin colour but a social division that is better understood alongside other insignia of social distinction such as class. In other words, I interpret race as class given that both share an exclusionary life in British political life. To detach race from other social divisions is to render its understanding almost impossible, as social divisions more often than not come in a bundle, as if zipped together, making our understanding of them possible only if we use the right software to unzip and unpack these notions and examine their antagonistic interdependence as belonging to the exclusionary spectrum of political and civic life.  Jonathan Rutherford’s (ed.) (1998) excellent book on Identity is a laudable work in this direction of understanding social divisions together in our effort to understand the social life of difference in a political community with race being no exception and rarely being just race. Race itself, in the context of the riots, functions less a veil and more as a mirror if not a probing X-ray , attesting bitterly to the lack of tolerance, acceptance and positive identification; values that otherwise constitute the nuclear weaponry of multiculturalism and cosmopolitan citizenship, defying neo-racist proclivities reminiscent of Powellism, ‘grinning picanninies’ and ‘Rivers of Blood’.

Why Politics?

In the time that has elapsed since The Guardian/LSE study on the riots, the mainstream punditocracy attributed the riots to some superficial criminality, mindless looting, disenchanted youth otherwise dominated by torpor and apathy, scenes of urban pathology, ideological orchestration with the use of new social media and technologies (Twitter, Blackberry), and predominantly to the tyranny of the market celebrated by a neoliberal agenda and consumer society as the loving flower of the romance between market despotism and state ideology/power.

Such explanations of the riots as apolitical manifestations of the homo consumans and neo-liberalis however seem rather vague and only marginally attentive to what these riots may mean. To say that citizenship has been eroded making way for consumer society and that the market economy is to blame for the waste of human potential, is to state the obvious. Online journals like Prof. Ben Agger’s Fast Capitalism prove themselves to be righteous scholarly custodians of this intellectual position.

A recurrent complaint was that this summer’s civic unrest had ‘no cause’, an argument that re-appears in times of crisis, austerity and trouble with the riots of 1976, 1981 and 1985 being no exception. What can be learned from it though is our sclerotic outlook of politics; what counts as and what is political?  Could rioting itself not fare as a form of disruptive protest?

Paul Gilroy (1987) reserves some room for this, with reference to the radicalism of Black Power, while the Situationists (1965) also noted the militarization of elements within the Black Power movement exploding in the Watts riots of 1965 in Los Angeles with the question of ‘How do people make history under conditions designed to dissuade them?’ as their motto.

While not celebrating violence or advocating a position that defends looting as a political practice, it would be unwise to discard such views irrespective of our views on using violence to express civil disobedience, political defiance or to respond to police harassment and the repressive use of the legal system as has been the case in Britain and the US respectively.

Like race, a political cause is not singular, not one but many; multi-dimensional, complex, interdependent and multi-directional. A cause can be as blurry as to even make towering historical figures of Western political philosophy appear vague in their efforts to pin it down; for Hobbes it was ‘Leviathan’, for Adam Smith it was an ‘invisible hand’, for John Locke it was ‘the identity of interests’ and for Marx it was ‘class struggle’. It becomes rather clear that, perhaps with the exception of Marx, neither of those necessary evils is recognisable and ‘tactile’ so that we can work on them and re-model them politically in some direct manner. If that zigzag into political philosophy shows anything it is that a political cause is very hard to capture and is by no means a moral absolute that is set in stone, but a dialogic and interpretive experience even for those participating in the deliberation of any political cause. In the case of the recent riots that political cause may not be the attempt to win or seize state power, as this was not the case in either 1848 or 1968, but an emotive response of the ‘unclassed precariat’ facing a floating, fleeting and ‘liquid’ world as Bauman (2007 and 2011) would have it.

Just politics?

Having politicised the seemingly apolitical we now need to depoliticise the political, by arguing that what may count as a political stance may be a symbolic, personal and ritualised affair; thus not exclusively mediated by or situated in the ballot-box but rather based on the routine, everyday management and negotiation of our daily lives.  The trivial, the mundane, the banal can give rise to sentiments and affiliations that can be politically expressive with mugging and looting seen as acts of resistance through rituals to quote a sociological classic. In the words of Simon Winlow and Steve Hall (2006) ‘the rapid emergence of diverse forms of the political in a world in which the reproductive momentum of old class cultures appeared to falter, allowed new interstitial opportunities for the creative construction of identity and meaning. As the rather awkward mixture of consumerism, radical politics and the libertarian insinuations of the transatlantic ‘counterculture’ began to encroach upon traditional forms of enclassed identity; spaces appeared to be opening up in which young people could explore new forms of individuality and small-scale collectivism by adopting and reworking the rich symbolism of consumer styles’.

My admittedly risky proposition here is that if the riots were political they might also be suspected for consolidating a ‘new’ form of politics, one that does not deny our social and political participation as citizen-consumers but rather affirms it in our symbolic and branded political sphere. Politics is not just politics but graduates to an extension of our participation in the turbo-capitalist polity. In that context, rioting, even if interpreted exclusively through acts of foraging for i-pads and branded footwear, appears political by means of a consumerist expression of political values.

In the light of the above and to filter the article’s title through the veil of Langston Hughes’ poem; when the riots have colour they do not simply amount to the inarticulate bravado of swaggering street toughs but rather testify to a tuneless second class citizenship and a deferral of a civic dream seething on the edge of an explosion.

Lambros Fatsis


(i)Lambros Fatsis is a final year DPhil student at the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex. His doctoral thesis concentrates on discussions of public sociology, the role of the University and intellectuals, while other research interests include black music, urban culture and the history and sociology of the Jamaican soundsystem. He also performs as a reggae selector/radio presenter under the name Boulevard Soundsystem and is a contributor of Billboard magazine on reggae music.

(ii)The initial reporting of the riots came under the heading ‘UK riots’ which was then changed to ‘English riots’ as England and not the rest of the UK was affected by them: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ariel/14488492


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