A year on from the riots: Five instances we can be proud of
Since the riots of last August, many have analysed the negative impact. This article counts down five positive instances of the riots which perhaps have so far been underplayed.
It was this time last year – Saturday, 6th August 2011 – that began the most significant and widespread example of civil unrest in the country since the 1980s. The events that followed this date (street violence, looting, arson and vehicle and other property damage) were a result of an initial gathering at Tottenham police station protesting the lack of information regarding Mark Duggan’s death in a police shooting. The unrest spread to the rest of London (Hackney, Lewisham, Croydon) as well as other parts of the country (Nottingham, Birmingham and Liverpool).
On the 10th August Haroon Jahan, Shahzad Ali and Abdul Musavir were killed in a hit-and-run in Birmingham. The three young men were out protecting their area from the looters and rioters that had descended upon the neighborhood. What followed in the coming days was a public emotional appeal by the father of two of the victims, targeted at the Asian community with the intention of dampening any possibility of ‘revenge attacks’ against the perceived offenders (the Black community). This man refused to let his sons’ deaths become a catalyst for an outbreak of violence in an area already known for its fragile inter-ethnic relations.
In the aftermath of the riots many politicians based their version of the truth on government agenda when attempting to explain the situation. In fact, David Cameron stated:
What we know for sure is that in large parts of the country this was just pure criminality
Such comments depicted British society as “sick” and “broken”, with the looter and rioters presumed to be from a “feral underclass”. The government assumed that the disturbances were as a result of the gangs operating beforehand in the area. Statistics published were used to support arguments that the majority of rioters were Black or Asian, under 30 years of age, had previous criminal convictions, and were unemployed.
Those who have not concurred with such arguments have been spurred on to carry out research and have emphasised eyewitness accounts, to uncover an alternative narrative. This has led to the discovery of some instances that do not fit into the dominant discourse.
These include the high-profile case of the millionaire’s daughter who drove looters around London for a ‘spree’ of sorts and as well as the one of the primary school teacher who admitted to looting. What’s more a number of public figures/witnesses, including the Mayor of Southwark, Althea Smith, have gone on record to emphasise that it was not gangs that were the cause of the violence but individuals on the streets.
Questions are being asked as to why the riots occurred. Runnymede Trust’s publication entitled ‘Riot Roundtables’ attempts to further analyse the statistics and has found that the percentage of Black and Asian looters/rioters brought to court were only higher in the areas in which there was a significantly lower population of either.
For example, in London, where the local population in some parts consisted of only 10% black people, 45% were brought before court. This suggests that Black and Asians were not looting for the sake of looting; rather they were reacting against a feeling of exclusion felt in areas where they were a minority. The Runnymede roundtables come to the conclusion:
The death of Mark Duggan appeared to trigger a deep and real memory of historical injustices and grievances that BME communities have had with the police and the criminal justice system.
Thus the positive here has been that instead of playing up stereotypes of Black and Asian members being criminals because criminality is somehow linked to their ethnicity, an effort has been made to find the root causes (historical, cultural etc) of the disturbance so that solutions can be found.
One story given precedence in the news had been that of the burning down to the ground of a furniture store, House of Reeves in Croydon, which had been at that particular site for 140 years. This story seemed to confirm the stereotype of the rioters as vicious criminal youths.
However, a year later the adjacent building has been refurbished and covered with photographs of young people holding up cards with various positive messages regarding the local community. Co-owner Trevor Reeves said:
We are blessed with so many bright, inspirational and positive young people in this country and I believe it's important that we don't allow the actions of such a few to cloud our judgment of the many.
This instance demonstrated that, far from being the ‘lost generation’, the youth do feel they have a stake in society and are prepared to engage with the communities for the general good.
Pauline Pearce gained media attention after footage of her giving rioters a piece of her mind (“I’m ashamed to be a Hackney person!”) ended up on youtube. She was dubbed the ‘Hackney Herione’ thereafter. It is not that she thought the rioters were wrong to protest over the death of Duggan;
The riots started with the right intention, and then it all went very wayward.
Pearce has since decided to work with fashion label the Dalston Coathanger to design a clothing range
…to keep the memory of the riots alive, in a good way.
In the immediate aftermath of the looting, hundreds of volunteers gathered around the areas of London to get a clean-up operation underway. They used Twitter and Facebook to organize and also planned to take care of the elderly and raise money to support those whose businesses and homes had been destroyed. The movement, a hashtag on Twitter named #riotcleanup which started off in Tottenham, worked towards this end and had the support of the band Kaiser Chiefs and singer Kate Nash.
Other websites aimed to keep people off the streets. ‘OperationCupOfTea’ is a website which encouraged people to post pictures of them having a nice quiet cup of tea as opposed to going out onto the streets. It has since raised funds for owners of lost businesses and properties by selling OperationCupOfTea merchandise.
Other groups attempted to help the police. The Facebook group ‘Supporting the Met Police Against the Looter’ aimed to support and encourage the police and put up photos of rioters with the aim of getting them identified and justice being carried out.
These five instances demonstrate that whilst the London riots took much away from local communities and Britain as a whole, they also provided an opportunity for various sections of British society to stand up and act on the values they hold dear to themselves. Britain is by no means ‘broken’ yet.