As rioting plagues Ferguson Missouri, here, in the UK, we mark the third anniversary of the London Riots of 2011, the largest social upheaval this generation has ever seen. So what lessons can we impart to the people of Ferguson as the dust begins to settle on their own disturbance?

In a speech on the 11th of August 2011, David Cameron deemed the riots the result of ‘criminality, pure and simple’. Consequently, in a study of Guardian readers, 86 per cent believed the riots to be the work of criminals compared to only 69 per cent who considered them a by-product of poverty. The violent behaviour of these youths was claimed to spring from gang affiliation (in fact, a meagre 13 per cent of London’s rioters were involved with gangs), welfare dependency (62 per cent were on benefits of some description, roughly in line with the national average) or, as historian David Starkey famously claimed, ‘black culture’.

Such terminology, adopted by most in power, was largely used to denote young black men, and is not at all representative of the real demographic of rioters. In reality, a Guardian study of 600 rioters found only 13.6 per cent of them to be under 17 of the 26 per cent arrested and, whilst in London 46 per cent of rioters were indeed black, in Manchester, 78 per cent were white suggesting a far more complex problem.

This approach ignored, not only the conscious political statement made by many rioters about police-community relations – in the wake of the murder of Mark Duggan – and the effects of government cuts on low-income communities, but also the important, and often unintended, statement made by criminally motivated rioters.

Official figures, to be taken with a pinch of salt, suggested that 76 per cent of London rioters had a previous criminal conviction. Cameron capitalised on these figures and the statements of young rioters who described the disturbance as ‘like a party’ or expressed their excitement at ‘getting PS3 boxes’, to deem the riots the fault of a youth culture that ‘glorifies violence and disrespect for authority’ combined with a ‘feral wickedness’.

Admittedly, the hip hop or ‘gangster’ culture, which Cameron and Starkey are referring to, glamorises a life of crime as a route to the material possessions so valued in modern consumerist societies. But there is a fundamental disconnect between these goods, branded to denote success and status, and the poverty, joblessness, and lack of social mobility in disadvantaged communities. Of the youth involved in London, 42 per cent were on free school meals compared to the national average of 16 per cent. In this atmosphere, opening the shop doors to young people and saying ‘you can have it all’ is a very powerful thing.

However, hip hop culture is not the cause of crime, but merely a reflection of it. The criminal lifestyles espoused in ‘gangster’ culture are created by the violence that accompanies the prevalence of, and demand for, drugs on Britain’s streets. Indeed, with both the decline in working class employment, and the rise in Class As since the 1980s, in certain areas, plagued by joblessness, the drugs trade acts as one of the only functioning economies.

By 2010, one in two Black 16-24 year-olds were unemployed, compared to one in five of their white counterparts. Of the forty regions with the highest ‘claimants to vacancy ratio’, that is the number of registered jobseekers to available jobs, almost all of London’s riot-stricken areas made the list with the London Borough of Hackney having just 452 job vacancies for 10,941 jobseekers. Indeed, the National Centre for Social Research found that a key factor in preventing young people from rioting was their career goals. As one young person was to respond when asked why they did not partake in the riots, ‘I was inside, planning my future’.

The existence of criminalised rioters, so heavily influenced by ‘gangster’ culture, as opposed to politics, should demonstrate the degree of alienation felt by young Brits. The ‘party atmosphere’ that London’s flagrant looters created amongst the destruction of their own communities speaks volumes about a generation with no stake in mainstream society, and, ultimately, nothing to lose.

Surely then, by continually focusing on ‘criminal culture’, politicians only address the surface of the problem, and mask the fundamental issues that plague riot-stricken communities. Or, perhaps, this is the point.

It is somewhat poetic that, as disadvantaged men and women broke out in violent protest against inequality in British society, its political classes were sunning themselves in a variety of lavish holiday destinations. Indeed, the summer of 2011 had seen Britain’s politicians involved in claim expenses scandals, bailing out corrupt bankers, and yet still continuing to subsidise their record-breaking bonuses, while bearing witness to the media mogul and Met police collusion that resulted in the phone hacking scandal. Meanwhile, Cameron, his Tuscan tan aglow, condemned the culture of ‘reward without effort…rights without responsibilities’ and ‘selfishness’ that had fostered ‘some of the worst aspects of human nature’ in London’s rioters.

So, can Britain offer any real blueprint for a reformed social policy in Missouri? Unlikely, as, three years on, the UK riots remain conspicuously absent from both the media and political discourse. The recommendations of The Independent Riot, Communities and Victims Panel, set up by the government to investigate the disturbance, went entirely unheard. Instead, Cameron and Co. launched a post-riot witch-hunt to find and convict suspected rioters, and, in doing so, prescribed a law and order solution to a much wider moral problem. The UK riots, a historic display of disdain for Westminster politicians and their neoliberal consensus, were soon to be forgotten.

The message to the people of Ferguson? Never forget.


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