Four Years After The London Riots

Hackney, 8 August 2011: An older man confronts the police line at the top of Mare Street near Hackney Central Station and shouts, ‘Go home!’ They tell him to be quiet. ‘Be quiet?’ he responds, ‘How dare you… Standing on my streets!’

Peckham, 8 August: A large crowd leans against the railings on the corner of Peckham Rye and Peckham High Street, drinking, smoking and laughing. Some of the more aggressive members of the crowd charge at the police and a teenage girl calls out, ‘Excuse me! You dropped your hat.’

Croydon, 8 August: Locals drive in circles on the wrong side of the road, revving their engines and cheering. A black Audi slaloms down the high street, the rear wheels skidding across the tarmac.

Tottenham, 6 August: Wheelie bins are set alight and dragged into the road to use as barricades. Young men with balaclavas peacock in front of the police line, taunting them to break rank.

Salford, 9 August: Worried the riots might spread outside London, Greater Manchester Police pre-emptively deploy riot police to Salford. As people emerge from the estates to see what’s going on, they realise that they have been invaded, and a riot ensues forcing the police to withdraw from the area.

Peckham, 8 August: The windows of a clothing shop are smashed. A rioter enters the building and throws out bundles of t-shirts and jumpers onto the streets. The garments are passed around the bystanders, inspected then discarded. Later that evening someone starts a fire in the shop, but an older man runs inside and stamps out the burning clothes.

Clapham Junction, 8 August: Someone films through the window of a restaurant where dinners lie abandoned on tables. Inside, a young man in a balaclava runs up to the window and grabs a slice of pizza from the table before waving to the camera, downing a beer, and running off. Round the corner on Battersea Rise a young man sits down in the middle of the road. Someone kicks the passing cars, provoking laughter from the assembled crowd.

Tottenham, 6 August: As the police withdraw from the area, people take out their anger on whatever is left behind. Chief Inspector John Dale describes the retreat: ‘I only just managed to get myself and nine officers crammed into the back of a carrier and depart at speed with missiles hitting the rear of the carrier like a ferocious drum beat. I was forced to abandon the carrier I had arrived in and this was promptly set alight by the rioters.’

Clapham Junction, 8 August: TVs and high value electronic goods lie smashed on the road alongside bottles, fag ends and rubbish.

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Four years ago this month, London was recovering from the worst rioting it had experienced in a hundred years. On 4 August 2011, the Metropolitan Police murdered Mark Duggan. At first, the Met claimed Duggan had fired shots at them; they later admitted he was unarmed. A protest outside Tottenham Police Station escalated into a riot that spread across London and several English cities. Over five nights 15,000 people took to the streets, hundreds of police officers were injured, and five people died. Aside from the Mayor of London’s impulsive purchase of water cannon (which he is not allowed to use), there was a conspicuous absence of political reaction.

Commentators from the left and the right were fixated on the widespread looting; the events were described as ‘shopping riots’ or ‘criminality, pure and simple’. On the left, Slavoj Žižek explained the riots as emerging out of materialism—consumer culture gone wild—and David Harvey argued that rioters were mimicking the actions of bankers and entrepreneurs by taking advantage of an asset crash to make profits. On the right, commentators focused on a collective moral decline in Britain, with single-parent households unable to teach their children the difference between right and wrong. For all their differences, the two sides agree that what the rioters were doing was creating chaos in order to steal.

But what strikes you most looking over the extensive footage of the riots is how little crime is being committed. What you see are people drinking, smoking and hanging out. Reverend Paul Perkin of the nearby St Mark’s Church described the events in Clapham Junction as ‘a carnival atmosphere… a party atmosphere — a very, very hyped up, intense celebration that, “We can do this and we can get away with it.”’ Even when shops were looted it rarely looked like calculated criminality. One interviewee described walking round the Debenhams department store in Clapham Junction filling a shopping trolley which he abandoned at the door when he realised, ‘I ain’t gonna wear none of this shit.’ Footage shows people saying: ‘What have you got? … Don’t even know!’ Others can be seen parading their stolen goods in front of crowds, sharing out packets of stolen cigarettes and alcohol. Only 12% of premises targeted were ‘high value shops’ (clothing stores, electrical stores and jewellers)—the same percentage as sold food and alcohol. This was not shop lifting or organised burglary. Looking again at those scenes—which were overshadowed by images of masked rioters making off with widescreen TVs—we see a different dynamic to ‘simple criminality’. For many, the riots were a way of laying claim to the public spaces and high streets in which they lived—places in which they were normally no more than passers-by or passive consumers. They were an opportunity for people to unite and take ownership of these spaces, even if only for a few hours.

The riots were, however, different to the recent spate of protests focussed on place: the Occupy movement, protests in Tahrir Square and Gezi Park, and squatter protests in Bristol. Instead of occupying an exceptional, political or symbolic place, people took ownership of the everyday places in which they lived—the ‘Reclaim Brixton’ events from earlier this year are a more useful referent. Many of the events were extraordinary, but the context was quotidian. The riots were multi-centred, with different foci emerging across the city, each claiming a local area. And although most disturbances took place on high streets and shopping centres, two statistical studies (one of them mine) have shown that there is little evidence that rioters were targeting high-end, commercial areas with lucrative opportunities for looting. What emerges from statistical comparisons between areas left untouched and those not is that rioters focussed on places with which they were familiar. 50% of those arrested lived within two-and-a-half kilometres of where they rioted. For those who lived locally, these high streets were not just centres for retail but also recreational spaces where they’d meet, hang out and eat. The importance of the area around your school, or your side of the river, shows that the places where people rioted were of personal significance—as one of my interviewees put it, he went down to Clapham Junction because ‘it was [his] ends innit’.

Although they were familiar, locals did not normally exercise control over these spaces. Young people might always be peacocking and showing off in public but they are rarely, if ever, in control. Police officers and private business are the controllers: their power is expressed through stop-and-search and rising prices, and their remit is broadened by the increasing privatisation of urban space. The busy high streets, which saw most of the rioting, were major thoroughfares with regular police patrols, chain stores, shoppers and traffic. In this context, the idea that people were destroying ‘their own communities’ is misleading. Most of the focus was on international brands like Footlocker, Nike and Curry’s, and small independent retailers made up only 4% of the premises targeted. This is not to dismiss the real damage done to local retailers by the rioters (exacerbated by the fact that by 2014 only a sixth of the sum claimed in insurance had been repaid), but to suggest that the most common targets were in no way ‘their own’.

The most obvious example of this is the unrest in Clapham Junction. This was some of the worst rioting in London but was contained within two short stretches of road along St. John’s Hill and Lavender Hill. When I asked one of my interviewees why he thought the rioters made no effort to challenge the fragile police line at the end of the Northcote Road (a shopping street full of high-end retail stores adjoining the main site of the riots in Clapham Junction), he looked at me as if I was mad before explaining that the Northcote Road was a totally different world to Clapham Junction proper. Those up-market, boutique stores catered to a different demographic and, consequently, are experienced as a radically different space, despite being a continuation of the same street. The rioters were staking a claim to the places in which they lived, not maximising profits, or causing maximum destruction.

David Cameron refused to launch an official public inquiry into the riots, claiming that ‘it was not a political protest. It was common or garden thieving, robbing and looting. And we don’t need an inquiry to tell us that.’ We can only speculate as to what an inquiry would have concluded. Perhaps it would have validated Cameron’s analysis, concluding the events were random acts of criminality, profiteering from the absence of authority. Or perhaps an inquiry would have reached a more liberal conclusion, identifying poverty as the underlying cause. Or perhaps the bureaucrats and politicians would have shelved the moral hysteria, looked at the images, and listened to the participants. If they had, they would have seen the joy and spontaneity that came with the rioters’ provisional control. They would have been terrified by the desire to assert this control on the everyday.

—Matteo Tiratelli

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