UK Riot Report 2012: The fire next time...
The report into the causes of the August 2011 disturbances by the Riots Communities and Victims Panel has been published. The report like most of its kind tells us what some of us already knew about the reality of life in some inner-city areas. Racism and the deadening effects of economic exclusion have degraded the quality of life in these areas. The consequences are that whole communities have been left to rot in festering islands of inequality characterized by crime and acute social strains.
In these places and spaces, hope and aspiration have left town, being replaced by desperation and cynicism. Post recession and austerity, there are now no obvious pathways out of these ghettoes of social exclusion. The doors to opportunity and employment have been sealed shut.
What we have are whole areas of depravation and poverty that are full of young people bursting with dynamic creative energy and intelligence. That latent talent remains untapped as the youth are penned in and held down by the very real chains of poverty and racism.
What we have is the absence of hope for the future. This is a most terrible and debilitating condition. It's a product of long term poverty that erodes community confidence and turns the vibrant, radiant dawn of hope and opportunity into the cold soulless night of hopelessness and despair.
As for the riots, I saw them coming. I have spent years working with communities and have perfected sensitive social radar that allows me to see emerging trends. There is no great secret to this other than I happen to live in my community. This connectivity helped me predict that civil disturbances were likely in March 2011; It was then that I described the Black community as being at "boiling point" as a result of deaths in police custody. I have also consistently pointed out that the massive rise in stop and search rates were becoming increasingly oppressive and counter-productive.
What I said then and say again today to anyone who cares to listen, was that these events were primarily connected with a widespread sense of alienation, anger at policing injustices and inequality of opportunity.
The legacy of racism and racial stereotypes that is embedded in the culture of Britain has delivered us to this pretty pass. Now the lives of young Black people in our cities are seen as nothing more than the raw material necessary to maintain a growing criminal justice system that financially feeds of the dysfunctional symptoms of racism, acute poverty and exclusion. The disproportionate sentence handed out to rioters by the courts has accelerated the criminalisation of whole communities already overrepresented in our prisons. The report completely vindicates those of us who spoke out in the immediate aftermath of the riots citing social exclusion and racism as contributory factors. We were castigated for doing so. This report supports our early analysis and critically undermines the expressed view of the Prime Minister who stated that the disturbances were “purely criminal" in character.
Disappointingly, the response of some of our “Black” politicians was lamentable. MP’s David Lammy and Chuka Umunna, both people for whom I have a great deal of respect, virtually agreed with the line being offered by the Prime Minister.
Their responses, amid the smoke and smoldering embers of the aftermath of the riot, seemed to me the equivalent of sticking a finger in the air to see which way the wind was blowing and responding accordingly. Lammy’s primary focus was on the symptoms rather than the cause, criminality rather than poverty, injustice and racism. Umunna followed a similar line describing the riots as “totally opportunistic and utterly unacceptable”.
This emphasis was wrong and ignored the larger context. That context is the toxic racism that over the last four years has infected Black communities as a consequence of the recession.
Our communities were already suffering enormously from a huge range of acute social issues. The last four years have seen the economic and social life of our communities deteriorate substantially and consequently our collective condition has become seriously aggravated. This is has not been recognised by most politicians.
Where were these voices of virulent condemnation when stop and search rates increased in London by 300 per cent? Why did we hear nothing about the fact that black deaths in custody increased by 120 per cent since 2007 or that nationally black men dying in custody has also increased?
What they unleashed with their initial comments was a torrent of right-wing media bile demonising Black youth. They gave a green light to sections of the media that have a vested interest in promoting racism. I despair for some of our Black elected representatives whose political articulation always seems to be to deny their Blackness, avoiding any real discussion on racism. That is bad enough of itself but their desperate desire to appear “mainstream” is compounded by the fact, that although Black people in the UK face the greatest challenge to their future in a generation, our MP’s are seemingly incapable of working together as a strategic group producing a policy or a program that the Black community can support and get behind. What happened to the All Party Committee on Race? Why do we not have a Parliamentary Black Caucus? Where is their call for a public inquiry into suspicious Black deaths in custody?
Reactionary statements focusing on the criminal symptoms with no substantive comment or work on underlying causes of unemployment racism in policing, poverty and exclusion is not only politically unbalanced it is both deeply disingenuous and dangerous.
This failure, however, disappointing is completely overshadowed by the sheer political ignorance on matter of race and the undeniable culpability of London Mayor Boris Johnson and his crony bag carrier Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse. Others and I repeatedly warned the Mayor in a series of articles about the precipitous decline in the confidence of Black communities in the Metropolitan Police Service and they choose to do absolutely nothing. Both were off the pace and out of touch with multicultural London.
These riots were entirely avoidable and could have easily been prevented by early intervention and genuine dialogue. Boris and Kit have no expertise in the field of race equality and Black communities. Ideologically committed to a French approach to multiculturalism, they willfully ignored the issue of race and as the result was they “sleepwalked” the country into the worst riots seen in a generation.
The riots were the inelegant inarticulate political expression of the alienated underclass. These deeply alienated sections of our communities are forced through economic exclusion and poverty to inhabit an economic subterranean twilight zone of crime and unemployment. We choose to ignore these issues and the suffering of this section of our nation at our peril.
The report cites parental failure as a factor in the riots. It would be churlish not to accept this as a reality. However, the extent to which parents can raise a child in a stable productive environment is fundamentally affected by their economic position. Both parents and children need to have access to good employment, education, opportunities and the provision of affordable houses.
Lives made ever more miserable by families crammed together suffering overcrowding, failing schools and an oppressive policing that sees entire communities as inherently criminal. The cost of living rises remorselessly.
I challenge any politician or media mogul to live in this environment on welfare benefits or a low wage and bring up healthy families. They would be running back to the comfort of their taxpayer salaries, second homes and palatial offices in a week.
As for Black communities we have seen huge increases in the use of Stop and Search (SAS is the new SUS), increasing numbers of Black men dying in suspicious circumstances without consequences. Black youth and unemployment is comparable with the unemployment of some developing countries and double that of white people in the UK. Black women and young people are particularly affected as public sector redundancies see thousands of Black people thrown onto the scrap heap in hugely disproportionate numbers.
Such is the current level of open political contempt for our communities that when these tragic deaths occur, we are denied basic respect. No apologies, no timely explanation by an Independent Police Complaints Commission that has now lost the confidence of entire communities, nor are we, as far as the police are concerned afforded any degree legal or professional accountability.
The real progress made in the decade after the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and the MacPherson Report has been squandered. The right wing and liberals alike attacked as “political correctness gone mad” the race equality policies that emerged from the recommendations of this seminal inquiry. The prevailing hostile political culture now applies to the concept of multiculturalism in general and to all formal race equality policies specifically.
In London, the Mayor Boris Johnson shared this ideological fervor to consign multiculturalism to the dustbin of history. As a result, he ignored race equality issues and dismantled the entire policy-monitoring infrastructure associated with MacPherson. The result was that over four years, the Police and London’s Black community entered into a deadly spiral of declining trust and confidence.
Blind ideological hatred of “state multiculturalism” in a city like London resulted in the riots. In a modern city like London race equality is mainstream politics and any politician who does not understand this reality will drag the city into a racially dived quagmire. It is this refusal to recognise the multicultural reality of the city, the reality of racism that cost London and the country dear.
As for race equality, such is the open political contempt for equality law that this Government has abandoned any pretence at compliance.
For example, the Treasury failed to complete an equality impact assessment of the October 2010 budget and has succeeded at bribing, bullying and blackmailing the Equality Human Rights Commission into not taking legal action despite what I believe to be the utter failure to comply with the Equality Act. Where are the results of the Commission’s investigation that were due over a year ago? It would seem to me that the Commission has been bought off and now seeks to quietly shelve their long awaited investigative report. I assume from this inordinate and inexplicable delay that their conclusions are damming of Government.
This kaleidoscope of social, economic and political issues combines to create Black people who are British in name only. This Government dispenses the high criminality of economic and social injustice as an ideological doctrine to the majority of Black and poor citizens. As a result, we are relegated to the status of third class citizens in a supposed first class democracy. Make no mistake, we suffered under the previous Labour Government but that was tempered until two years ago by economic growth and public sector spending focused on managing the worst effects of poverty and exclusion. Yes, things were bad but not impossible.
During the last couple of years poor Black and white communities have been pushed into the social abyss.
This Government’s austerity economic policy refracted through the lens of discrimination has resulted in an appalling and unremitting level of racism on a scale not previously experienced. The huge differential impact on black communities of these cuts is dismissed and ignored, and as a result our communities are becoming increasingly economically unsustainable. It's tantamount to pouring salt into our open wounds.
People like the Prime Minister, who is virulently opposed to multiculturalism and the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, exacerbate the current hostile climate toward race equality. The PM seeks to seek to target Muslim communities as being essential problematic and the source of terrorism. The widening of the remit of the once hugely successful Operation Trident to tackle gangs in London results from the equation in Boris’s mind of gangs with Black youth. Their approach to race equality defines multiculturalism promoting extremism and representing nothing more than special group pleading.
This scapegoating of Black communities is contributing toward a rise in levels of societal and everyday racism experienced by black people. Racist attacks are on the rise; the English Defence League modelled on the White Defence League attacks Black communities. Racism in public places, on the football field and the stands is on the increase. Racism in the UK is resurgent and will be further inflamed by poor communities competing with each other for scarce resources.
The report also cites that the relentless focus of materialism and advertising of brand-name goods creates an environment where young people in poor communities care for goods they can't afford. Peer pressure then results in young people seeking to obtain brand named goods “by any means necessary”. Firstly, not all the rioters were young people, and secondly the reality is that these brand name's firms have failed to implemented the kind of corporate social responsibility programmes such as they have in the US. These global brands, who in America fund community centres, sports facilities, education bursaries. However, once they come to Britain, they leave both their employment diversity strategies and corporate social responsibly budgets at JFK airport. What we need is the US model of corporate social responsibility in English cities.
What the report also ignores is that the current economic crisis has brought with it a crisis of moral and state legitimacy. The bankers trillion dollar bailout at the expense of the poor, bankers’ bonuses, MP expenses, police brutality and corruption, the phone hacking scandal has revealed the profound moral hypocrisy of British elites. In many communities that anger is rising as the public sector cuts begin the process of ripping out and demolishing precious community assets and support networks that made a real difference to people’s lives. The contrast could not be greater its one rule for the rich and wealth and another for the poor and unemployed.
I doubt that any of this report’s major recommendations will be implemented with this Government committed to paying lip service to tacking racism with gesture politics and rhetoric. If I am right and these issues remain unacknowledged I predict the fire next time will be more violent and more destructive than anything seen previously. Of course the report is welcome; there is nothing so pleasing as the sound of gently closing stable doors.