Nobody doubts that the rioting that we witnessed nationwide in the summer of 2011 was often criminal, copycat activity. There was also much sheer materialism. But underlying the riots, particularly in London, were long-standing issues about the relationship between inner-city communities and the state. These issues have yet to be resolved. And they may even be exacerbated by the politics of austerity. It is also important to note the original disturbances in Tottenham bore all the hallmarks of a classic race riot. Significantly they were triggered, like the 1980s Brixton riots before them, by the death of a black person at the hands of the state.
The Westminster village has moved on from the 2011 riots. Even Labour members of parliament are content to dismiss them as criminality. For our current London mayor, Boris Johnson, the riots have been an excuse to burnish his ‘law and order’ credentials and pander to the Tory right by wasting nearly a quarter of a million pounds on water cannon. Cannon that are, in practice, unusable. But many of us know that the roots of the 2011 disturbances run deep and the underlying problems have not been resolved.
A year after the 2011 riots I organised and chaired a meeting at the House of Commons to mark the first anniversary. It was 12 months later and nobody at Westminster was talking about the riots. But I knew that the community was still anxious to discuss the underlying issues. My meeting got no publicity. It was not organised for that. But it was packed. One speaker was Chief Inspector Ade Adelanke, who had been in charge of Tottenham police station on the night of the riots. The hatred expressed by the rioters and the sight of Tottenham in flames had clearly had a searing effect on him. But he braved his critics by coming to my meeting and everyone heard him out respectfully.
Another speaker was Tim Newburn a criminologist and researcher on the Guardian/London School of Economics ‘Reading the Riots’ project. That project was a data-driven survey of: 270 interviews; 1.3 million words of rioter’s first person accounts and 2.5 million tweets. He set out, what most of the audience already knew, how alienated many young people were and the role ‘stop and search’ played in inflaming feelings against the police. Unfortunately many members of parliament (including Labour colleagues) have been curiously dismissive of the ‘Reading the Riots’ work. Often on the basis of themselves never having spoken to a rioter at all.
At the time of the riots David Cameron claimed that they were largely about gang culture. In fact education failure played a bigger role. Research revealed that one in three rioters had been previously been excluded from school and the majority had special education needs. Education results in London continue to improve, but disproportionate numbers of young black men continue to fail. There is no doubt that if Boris was prepared to spend the £200,000 he has spent on water cannon on supporting London’s children educationally this would be rather more effective in guarding against further riots.
Since the 2011 riots I have gone on to organise a series of meetings in parliament to explore issues around the relationship between inner-city communities and the state. In 2013 I had a packed meeting on ‘stop and search’ attended by: Home Secretary Theresa May; QC Courtney Griffiths; the Hackney Borough police commander; young anti-‘stop and search’ activists and hundreds of members of the community. This year I was pleased to see that, although May has been blocked by David Cameron from making progress on the issue, she has publicly acknowledged how abuse of non-evidence-based ‘stop and search’ has poisoned relationships between inner-city communities and the police. No Labour home secretary has ever said this. Earlier this year I held a big meeting in the wake of the Mark Duggan inquest. And most recently I organised a meeting about immigrants held in detention.
Commentators like to talk about recent riots as somehow exceptional or even instigated by immigrants. In fact London has a tradition of riot going back to the middle ages. On May Day 1517, for instance, over 1000 apprentices congregated at Cheapside in the City of London and erupted into rioting which ended in 300 people being arrested and 13 executed. Such riots are always initially dismissed as mere criminality. But for centuries riot has been the way the London underclass makes its voice heard. Politicians fail to listen at their peril.
Diane Abbott is member of parliament for Hackney North and Stoke Newington
Photo: Todd Geasland
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