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Race, Civility, and a Good Cup of Tea

Considering the Political in the London Riots

Skynews reporting from a very locked down Tottenham High Street. All photos by David Hugill

Rioting began in London, UK on 6 August after a march on the Tottenham Police Station surged into a violent conflict between demonstrators and police. The protesters were marching for answers about the death of Marc Duggan, a young local black man who had been shot and killed by police in a pre-organized stop and search of a minicab on 4 August. Following a poorly handled communication with Duggan’s family and girlfriend over the next two days and an increasing number of suspicious rumours, angry locals marched to the police station to ask questions on Saturday afternoon. Amidst the rising tension on the Tottenham High Street that day, a young teenage girl was surrounded and assaulted by numerous police brandishing riot shields and batons. This was the act that set the already angry crowds off. That night Tottenham High Street smashed and burned at the hands of a raging community.

After that Saturday, rioting spread throughout various London boroughs. National and international media announced that London was under “mob rule” while showing images of people they deemed criminals, smashing and looting high street stores. In response, many observers tried to comment on the situation, drawing out grand theories of the political, social, and economic context behind the events. Some blamed social spending cuts brought on by the new Tory budget. Others drew attention to the centrality of consumerism in people’s lives. Still others decided to call the rioting pure and simple hooliganism, denouncing those involved as criminal thugs. It is to the third set of observers, those who describe the events as the result of a rampaging bunch of heathens, that I focus my attention on here. However, instead of attempting to forward another grand theory of the riots and rioters, this analysis will turn attention to the observers of said riots, or rather, the notion of the “political” in these responses.

Locating the Political

The failure to see the riots as political comes as a result of a normalized conception of the political that assumes it is synonymous with liberal parliamentary democracy. As one Canadian journalist asserted to me in a recent radio interview – “these rioters weren’t targeting government buildings”. For this journalist, the images of the events in circulation did not correspond to what she imagined to be a political demonstration; they did not correspond to a framework of liberal democracy that sought government as its aim, nor that had a political program, manifesto, or legible purpose as its mobilizing force.

Moreover, this assumption is racially coded as the discourse of law and proper political action are deeply enmeshed in conceptions of civility that undergird the very notion of the social contract and it’s upholding. As such, I argue against those who claim that race and racism have faded away from this story. Amidst David Cameron’s threats to call in the army, Boris Johnson’s decries of the violence as “mindless vigilantism,” and self-aggrandizing volunteer clean-up squads, this story has important things to tell us about race, civility, and the idea of the political in western liberal democracy.

The Persistence of Race

The first way in which race persisted in this story comes from my own observational experience of the riots. On the day following the first eruption in Tottenham, the neighborhood was strewn with anti-police graffiti. Spray-painted signs on the road, walls, street signs, bus shelters, and store-fronts forcefully conveyed to any onlooker what the take home message of the violence was – fuck the police. These messages were ignored by mainstream media outlets. After five days of following the rioting on all social networking and mainstream media websites, I had yet to see a single photo of this graffiti.

Nor was this merely a visual message - shouts of “fuck the police” and “you know you’re racist” resounded in confrontations on Mare Street and Clarence Road in Hackney. On Monday 8 August, one of the largest street confrontations between rioters and police happened just north of Pembury Estate, an event now dubbed “The Battle for Pembury.” At approximately 8:30pm, a mass of 300 largely black youth fought the police with vicious intensity, splitting the police lines and rendering the riot suited defense force impotent. No shops were looted, no innocent bystanders attacked – this was a well-mounted and virulent attack on the police. Outside of London the following night, a police station was fire bombed by rioters in Nottingham, petrol-bombs were hurled at police in Coventry, and police were attacked on the streets in Gloucester and Liverpool.

While opportunistic looting also took place in and around these events, the portrayal of rioters as mindless and without cause actively ignores the persistent anti-police sentiment that undergirded many of the events, especially in north London. This attitude stems from a long history of racialised communities fighting systemic racism in the London Metropolitan Police Service and cannot be disassociated from legacies of police violence that were also the subject of riots in Brixton in 1981 and Broadwater Farm in 1985. People who try to play down these realities fail to see the ongoing police violence and state-endorsed criminalization of racialised communities that groups such as the Newham Monitoring Project, Cageprisoners, the English Collective of Prostitutes, and Medical Justice continue to fight against.

The second way in which this story continues to be about race can be witnessed in many of the mainstream responses to the riots that appeal to “civility.” This response comes from both expected and unexpected places – from the mouth of the Conservative Prime Minister to those involved with the self-appointed “London Cleanup” entourage. The latter, a combination of voluntarist hipsters and do-gooding citizens with a few hours to spare in the middle of the day, took to the streets with brooms and garbage bags to both physically and symbolically “clean up” the streets. This makeshift group of citizens, exalted by widely circulating photographs showcasing their arsenal of sterilizing weaponry, epitomize the civilizational discourse that was at play in the varied conversations about the riots. These citizens were cleaning up the “mess” that looters left behind. However, this mess was not merely a physical one consisting of broken glass and garbage, but it is also a mess that rioters had made of the supposed social fabric of British society. In this light, the riots were portrayed as mindless and without intention, while the law – the social contract that legitimizes institutionalized politics confined to parliamentary democracy – is the bastion of reason and civilization. These voluntarist street cleaners affirm that the law that they uphold with the force of their brooms is not only the singularly legitimate route to vocalize dissent, but is proper and good. In another example, a Facebook page called “Operation Cup of Tea,” that invited Brits to show their disdain by staying at home and “having a cup of tea,” was a top Twitter trend and had over 330,000 members by day four of the riots.

This demand for proper political expression is intimately tied to the discourse of civility. Indeed, law is a civilizing force. This is most markedly obvious in its constant characterization as the opposite of savagery – a narrative well known by indigenous populations the world over who experienced the force of legally-sanctioned colonialism by the world’s various empires. These communities and its encroaching settler populations were and continue to be told that the legal violence – often termed negotiations or settlements by the occupiers – were a necessary element of creating order and founding a legitimate nation. Of course, these narratives have a deep resonance with the contemporary constitutional and political theory that undergirds the political imaginations of most of the globalized world today. These origin stories, proffered by the likes of Rousseau, Hobbes, and Locke, continue to assert the necessity of a social contract to establish authorized governmental relations that can then approve or condemn particular political action(s). This contractual relation and its ensuing establishment has been widely normalized as the pinnacle form of political association. According to these liberal narratives, law is what civilizes the state of nature, it is what safeguards the people, it is what assuages the problems of living in anarchy. What these narratives actively remove from the story, of course, is the way that law does not protect but in fact is an active perpetrator of violence.

While I do not have the space or local knowledge to list a great number of examples of the way in which the law perpetrates violence in Tottenham, the existence of popularly documented institutionalised racism in the London Metropolitan Police, not to mention the devastating conjunction between racialised neighborhoods and poverty, unemployment, and poor public services, works to further state-violence in these communities. Here the myth of law as a saving force is well known. In Tottenham, Clapton, and Hackney, the bourgeois liberal trust of the state – and especially the police – was revealed for the ideology that it is.

Significantly, the erasure of this narrative of race and civility leads us to difficulty in explaining the connection between the riots and the response by the English Defense League and other racist ideologues who are using the events as a vehicle to promote civilizational narratives about the encroaching threat of so-called immigrants and the need to return to an imagined vision of an original “great” Britain. Of course, the riots were not entirely about race either. As excellent reports from The Guardian’s Paul Lewis, among others, clearly demonstrate, rioters were people of many different colours, ages, and motivations. However, when legacies of racism are actively removed from both the events as they unfolded as well as the subsequent analysis, we miss the chance to not only understand how the riots were racialised but, how western liberal democracy is too.


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