London Calling: A Society in Lockdown

Forget the Queen’s diamond jubilee – the riots anniversary tells a different story about the state of Britain

by Rory MacKinnon

The UK media reported Rodney King’s death last week with a curious lack of contextualisation. Where the legacies of pop stars and royalty apparently touch all our lives and transcend the years, King’s fate as an icon of institutional racism and police brutality relegated him to a dry historical footnote; his 1992 ordeal at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department and the ensuing six days of state-wide riots simply something that happened long ago, and far away. “A tragic end to a tragic life,” in the carefully anodyne words of one commentator.

No doubt the same platitudes were said in papers the world over. But in a country gripped by its own race riots less than a year ago, it’s inexcusable.

Not that many are willing to call them race riots, mind you: the preferred nomenclature is ‘summer riots’, a description which neatly draws a line under the unrest without even beginning to attempt an explanation. A poker-faced David Cameron and his cabinet attributed it to “criminality pure and simple” – in case there was any doubt that breaking windows and taking things from supermarkets was against the law, while others – such as Justice minister Ken Clarke – dismissed it as somehow the innate moral failings of a “feral underclass”. The cross-party committee charged with investigating the riots was even more feeble, concluding after three months that there were “no clear causes”.

Meanwhile, those pundits who were willing to acknowledge a racial dimension tended (with a few notable exceptions) to pervert it in order to bolster their own prejudice; most notably historian David Starkey’s claim that “the whites have become black; a particular sort of destructive nihilistic gangster culture” riding on the back of “Jamaican patois”. Starkey’s ramblings should rightly inspire revulsion, but they are no less elitist and bigoted than the supposedly self-evident truth of “criminality”. Criminality – if you want to call it that- is only what made it onto people’s TV screens half a world away. The systemic criminalisation of young black men is what set Tottenham alight in the first place, and there are any number of statistics to prove it. But let’s begin with the details.

It is all too easily forgotten that the riots did not begin with the news of Mark Duggan’s death; shot twice in the face by police in an apparently bungled surveillance operation of gun-running among North London gangs. The riots began in darkness three days later, after two hundred peaceful protesters from Duggan’s housing estate marched on the local police station to demand a response from the commanding officer. In spite of all existing police guidelines, the force had not supplied a family liaison officer and had not even contacted Duggan’s parents to inform them of their son’s death. Many were angered further when their six-hour vigil was greeted with a literal wall of silence in the form of armored riot cops ringing the station steps. Whatever flashpoints tipped the stand-off into violence have yet to be discovered, but the symbolism of officers closing ranks against a largely black community should be lost on no-one.

The investigation into Duggan’s killing is still before the Independent Police Complaints Commission, so only so much can be said – but that in itself is a talking point. The Commission’s investigations are notorious for their glacial pace and limited scope: in one case last year disabled student protester Jody McIntyre was told an officer had used excessive force in beating and dragging him from his wheelchair and should have been charged – but by the time the Commission reached its decision the six-month window for prosecution had expired, warranting a mere apology instead.

Thus far, Duggan’s case has fared little better: within days of the shooting, the Commission admitted that despite the near-total media blackout it “may have inadvertently given misleading information” about a bullet lodged in one officer’s vest, suggesting Duggan was armed at the time. Instead the bullet was found to be police-issue and the gun attributed to Duggan was found in a sock over a low wall between 10 and 14 feet away. To date forensic detectives have found no trace of Duggan’s DNA or fingerprints on the weapon. Meanwhile more than 30 officers involved in the operation have refused to be interviewed, with the Commission being unable to compel them.

Even where the Commission suspects foul play, it can only recommend prosecution. Despite more than 330 deaths in police custody since 1998, only 13 officers in that time have been recommended for prosecution – and not a single one convicted. Black men and women made up seven percent of deaths, despite comprising between two and three percent of the general population. But deaths in custody are just part of the picture when it comes to the police presence in black communities: black men make up around 10 percent of the prison population across England and Wales, while young black men account for nearly 40 percent of prisoners in youth jails.

But as sociologists at the London School of Economics found following the riots, many young black men in Britain grow up feeling like they’re already on the inside, even on their own streets. The LSE’s ‘Reading The Riots’ study of 270 people involved found around half self-identified as black – again, remember we’re talking here about an ethnic group that comprises less than three percent of the population overall. Three quarters of those interviewed said police had subjected them to a ‘stop and search’ order by police in the last twelve months, a form of on-the-spot detainment that requires neither a warrant nor even reasonable suspicion. Since then the School’s researchers have discovered a stop and search rate nearly 30 times higher for black people than white.

In the most shocking statistic of all, around one in four detained last year were aged between 10 and 17, with a child under the age of 10 stopped every week – typically without any guardian or legal representative present. Just one of these cases ended in an arrest. To paraphrase David Cameron, this is criminalisation, pure and simple, and it begins in childhood.

Of course institutional racism is inextricably linked with class, and the police presence in predominantly black communities is typically justified as a response to a rise in violent crimes due to economic dispossession. It’s no surprise that ethnic minority groups have been the worst hit by the ongoing financial meltdown, but the reality is that working-class people in Britain were on the breadline well before the crisis struck. To pluck out just one example, median wages didn’t change between 2003 and 2008, even as GDP rose 11 percent.

While unemployment was historically low, work placement schemes under Blair’s Labour government pushed people into low-paid and part-time work in order to keep them off the books, without any regard for living standards. or savings – meaning that when the economy imploded, the resulting layoffs and pay freezes and hiring moratoriums turned an already grim situation into a perfect storm for people of colour. Inflation has more than doubled the annual average increase in wages, assuming you’ve managed to actually keep your job.

We have 2.6 million people – eight percent of the labour force – looking for work and finding nothing, while youth unemployment – a canary in the coalmine for future economic prospects – has a rate of one in five. Yet all this is nothing compared to the disadvantages of young black men: for them the rate is now a horrifying 55.9 percent.

Meanwhile, the disregard for living standards has continued unabated under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, to the point where private contractors are drafting beneficiaries into unpaid menial labour on pain of losing their benefits – a situation with especially unnerving undertones for Britain’s black unemployed, given that it has (literally) been legally challenged, as a form of slavery. Consequently an estimated 48 percent of black children are growing up in poverty; four million young people who will face life with few prospects other than unpaid labour and police patdowns, if they’re lucky.

It is impossible to see such material conditions, and still be shocked to see kids seizing shoes and clothes and groceries from high street chains. Nor should we be even remotely surprised to have seen the riots spread to neighbourhoods who never knew Mark Duggan, but knew poverty and oppression — Hackney and Croydon, but never Kensington and Mayfair. In fact, as shocking as it may seem, last year’s rioters arguably deserve praise for their restraint. Unlike the 53 deaths of 1992’s LA riots, no reports have surfaced of black-on-white violence in Britain’s outburst – despite the white supremacist English Defence League’s mobilisation in several suburbs and the backdrop of institutional racism. In fact the riots saw angry young men and women of all ethnic groups lashing out, however undirected or unconscious, not at one another, but at the grubby grey world of late capitalism itself.

Yet at the same time we cannot shoehorn it into the same ultra-pacifist intellectual space as Occupy. But the chain stores that have squeezed the local economy from London’s high streets can call in glaziers and insurers and all the rest of it. Who will indemnify the four million starving black children, or their brothers and sisters and parents on seemingly endless rounds of job hunts and police inquiries? Who will, as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts it, consider the systemic violence of poverty and exploitation ahead of the ‘divine violence’ of an enraged populace?

Zizek, a kind of grizzly sweat-stained Oscar Wilde, is inexplicably the darling of London’s Poli Sci students at the moment. Perhaps his contrarian nature, displaying by turns both remarkable insight and insufferable ‘ironic’ prejudices, makes him the ultimate hipster philosopher. But the joke which summarises his 2008 book Violence should hopefully stir something in them beyond irony, a call to action that should by rights be just as immediate and horrific and raw as four white cops beating a black man senseless through a phosphor blur:

A German officer visited Picasso in his Paris studio during the Second World War. There he saw Guernica and, shocked at the modernist ‘chaos’ of the painting, asked Picasso: “Did you do this?”

Picasso calmly replied: “No, you did this!”