By Ryan Bridgewater
Angry, young and poor:
Youth unemployment in Britain stands at over one million and those who are employed face low pay or even no pay in the case of exploitative internships. The taking away of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) for less well-off students and the tripling of tuition fees effectively puts up a barrier to working class young people entering further and/or higher education. The failure of successive governments from Thatcher onwards to build more council houses to replace the ones they allowed tenants to buy has meant that young people cannot move out of the family home until much later in life. This loss of independence coupled with un- or under- employment breeds frustrations. When police in Tottenham shot dead a black suspect on 4th August 2011 a protest march was held two days later that finished at the local police station. Upon arrival the police refused to listen to peoples’ concerns and a young woman was allegedly manhandled. This triggered scenes of unrest which soon spread to other areas of London and then throughout England between 6th-10th August.
The average person involved in the riots was young and poor, as the Guardian has illustrated by combining a map of deprivation in Britain with a map of incidents of rioting. On the rare instance when journalists at the time actually bothered to ask underprivileged young people what they thought about it all, the responses they got were perceptive. “The only way we can get out of this is education, and we’re not entitled to it, because of the cuts” said an unemployed young man in his early 20’s who was interviewed on a housing estate in Hackney. One of his friends said “Everyone’s heard about the police taking bribes, the members of parliament stealing thousands with their expenses. They set the example. It’s time to loot” (2).
It was not until December 2011 that the voices of any significant number of the rioters were out in the public domain. The Reading the Riots project interviewed 270 participants in the unrest from London, Birmingham, Manchester, Salford, Nottingham and Liverpool. One 22-year-old man from London said: “I been out of work now coming up two years, 18 months, and it’s just like a depression, man, that you sink into and I don’t know, whether it’s a sort of release … whatever you wanna put it, it felt like I needed to be there as well to just say: ‘Look, this is what’s gonna happen if there’s no jobs offered to us out there’”. This was a representative comment with 86% of interviewees citing poverty and 85% policing as “important” or “very important” factors. The research showed that interviewees had been stopped and searched by police at eight times the rate of the average Londoner in the previous year. One 18-year old black man from Birmingham said he had stopped wearing tracksuits in an attempt to prevent police stopping him. “If you’re of ethnicity, you’ll get stopped: ‘Where you going? What you got pushing?’”.
From “hug a hoodie” to “shop a rioter”:
The response of senior figures in the government to the riots was to ignore the material context in which they took place. David Cameron and Theresa May both denied the significance of poverty and repressive policing. They instead claimed that it was nothing more than “sheer criminality” and they hoped that this line would diffuse throughout society by means of the tabloid press. The government could not accept the role of deprivation in the unrest because then they would have to concede that they too shared responsibility for it. Furthermore, the logical conclusion of accepting this would require them to change their policies and not plunge the country into austerity. The effect of branding the riots as “criminality, plain and simple” was to create a stifling atmosphere whereby any attempt at explaining the causes of the riots and the context in which they were taking place was deemed to be “supporting” them. Having an enquiring mind was seen to be a criminal offence.
In stark contrast to the sluggish pace that the MPs involved in the expenses scandal were dealt with and the ongoing tedium of the inquiry into the killing of Ian Tomlinson by PC Simon Harwood, the courts processed rioters with haste. In Manchester this lead to the wrongful arrest of an underprivileged 18 year old man. Dane Williamson, who has spent most of his life in care, had to endure nine days in prison for an act of arson of which he was found to be entirely innocent. It is likely that his two previous convictions, one for the virtual non-offence of cannabis possession, contributed to police believing him to be a suspect. Mr Williamson was even told by a prison officer that he was “scum”. There were also numerous examples of prison sentences given for very minor offences. A mother of two who slept through the rioting in her area was given 5 months for accepting a pair of looted shorts from her housemate, as Greater Manchester Police bragged on Twitter. A young man was given 6 months for stealing a £3.50 case of bottled water from a Lidl supermarket.
Perhaps the most ugly and blatantly classist retribution that politicians sought for the disorder was the threat of kicking families out of their council homes if a child in the family had been involved in any way. This was collective punishment that would hurt relatives of those involved in the events, risking making them homeless. Those whose offspring participated in the riots but owned their own home need not worry; only the poorest section of the population was to be targeted in this manner. The inequality and injustice that lay behind the events of summer 2011 in Britain were to be compounded by government policy in response to said events.
Has anything actually changed?
Six months on from the riots the prospects for young working class people in Britain are no more hopeful than before. Unemployment is increasing, not falling. One of the few career opportunities available to young adults carries the risk of ending up in a coffin draped in a Union Jack. Youth centres are being shut down as part of the austerity measures. The Scarman report following the 1981 riots recognised the deprivation and police racism that were causal factors. As we have seen, there has been no attempt from the government at acknowledging the issues underlying the riots 30 years on, let alone addressing them. There are two spectacles this year that the ruling class hopes will defuse resentment by appealing to a misplaced sense of national unity: the Summer Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Furthermore, these events will provide an excuse for increased policing and surveillance as well as the presence of the military on the streets. It is possible that this will work in preventing unrest but it is equally possible that these opulent spectacles will further alienate Britain’s young poor. After all, the Royal Wedding last year did not prevent the August riots. Nonetheless, whether or not there is a repeat in 2012, there will be a continued threat of unrest in the coming years as many young people feel not just their ambitions but their simple expectations slipping away from them.
The alternative to involvement in riots could be provided by participation in political activity, such as trade union mobilisations and local anti-cuts campaigns. One major difficulty with the former is that the one million plus young unemployed cannot, of course, go on strike. Added to this, union membership is much less in the private sector where young people mostly work. The casualised and dispiriting nature of work in supermarkets and call centres means that the turnover of workers is high and therefore unionisation is an uphill struggle. However, these are questions that we need to address if we are to provide a positive alternative both to the misery of austerity Britain and to the predictable consequence of rioting.