As a frequent participant in political demonstrations over the past decade, I have been frustrated to hear people say that the recent riots in London were completely mindless. The stories of chaos, looting, and burning of police vans sparked my curiosity, and I decided to go out and witness what was going on in the streets of my neighborhood. I believe it is necessary to take a closer look into the spark that caused these riots to spiral across the United Kingdom because such mass rioting is never just mindless.
It was alleged that Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black father of four, shot at the police. Authorities proved this by uncovering a mysterious bullet in an officer’s radio. A couple of days later, that bullet magically turned out to be a police bullet. What was a police bullet doing in the officer’s radio? Was that a set up? Since my friends and I have been stopped by the police and searched for no reason other than the color of our skin, I can relate to the anger displayed on the streets towards the police. At the vigil for Mark Duggan, the police hit a teenage girl with a baton that sparked further anger, inciting the biggest riots in decades across the United Kingdom.
As the riots spread to other deprived boroughs of London, it was clear that people were angry with the police, who have, time and again, harassed the poor and oftentimes minority people in ghettos. In Brixton, along with hurling bricks at the police, groups of angry people broke into shops and helped themselves to whatever they could grab. The glory of capitalist consumerism was in full swing and I wondered if this is what was meant by the outdated trickle-down effect (Trickle-down economics is a theory of economic distribution, which holds that concentrating wealth in a few hands benefits the poor as the wealth necessarily “trickles down” to them). Along the political spectrum, from right-wing fanatics to armchair leftists, everyone has their own theory on the events, but many fail to look at the uncomfortable truths behind the riots.
For example, the race dimension to the riots is an uncomfortable truth. Controversy arose when BBC historian and broadcaster, David Starkey spewed extremely racist remarks on national TV stating, “The whites have become black,” in reference to the riots. His attack on the white working class youth along with the blacks proves that class division is rife in Britain. What Starkey fails to address is what those “whites” have in common with those “blacks” that they supposedly emulate; both groups lack economic opportunities for advancement because of structural discrimination.
Many people in the media have called the rioters “opportunists.” However, the real greed and crimes in the city happen every weekday in broad daylight. Who is to blame for the economic downturn? Were the bankers not opportunists? Corruption in the British system is prevalent, yet many are surprised when those who have nothing suddenly come out to show their anger. Since colonial days, British elite have pointed fingers at countries like Nigeria and Pakistan for their corruption. They ignore the key detail that Britain ruled and looted these countries, leaving behind local colonials in their place to carry on this behavior to this day.
So is it really opportunism or lack of opportunity? These troubled areas have been reeking of frustration for decades. This is the difference between the haves and have-nots. The latter have nothing to lose. There is much talk of cutting the benefits of those found guilty of rioting as if this will solve the current situation. More wars and bombing do not bring world peace, and similarly more policing and criminalizing will certainly not bring safety or calm to our streets.
On the third day of the riots on August 9th, trouble started in my neighborhood of Hackney, where many live in council estates (public housing) and half the population is unemployed. With this economic unrest, I was not surprised to see cars burning and fights breaking out with the police. People were expressing the anger and frustration that is so visible outside job centers any day of the week in Hackney. The fires of anger had also spread to the north of England by then. More news coverage represented the random looting of designer stores than the petrol bombings of various police stations in the country’s poorest neighborhoods. Though the mainstream media did their best to make them look aimlessly violent, the rioters’ actions spoke louder than words.
I see a link between violent governments and their actions at home and abroad. Currently the British government is involved in at least three devastating wars in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. These wars fit into a historical pattern of years of military occupation and British aerial bombing of oil-rich cities for political control. If British role models and leaders are plundering other countries, then what can we expect from our youth?
I have attended vigils for a few other men killed by the police or in police custody in London: Kebba Jobe, Jean Charles de Menezes, and Ian Tomlinson. Those vigils did not turn into riots. I often wondered, how many vigils it would take to stop the deaths in police custody? This is what sparked the anger this August. The police have gotten away with discrimination time and again, and continue to do so. Many people of various races, not only kids, have displayed their anger on the streets of Britain. They are angry and have little to lose and that is the point.
Post and Photos by Seemab Gul
Seemab Gul is a London based filmmaker who has been a political activist involved in anti-war campaigns and worked as a volunteer in various community art projects. While she makes socio-political films, her multi-media works span themes of migration, identity, culture and politics.