Youth Riots: Riots – or violent urban protest?

Much has changed since I was arrested during the first systematic attack on the police launched by black British youth in Chapeltown, Leeds, in 1975. One is that it attracted no national publicity, whereas if it happened again today, it would provoke a (brief) media storm. Another is that there was no inquiry, just a trial lasting six weeks, during which everyone who pleaded not guilty was acquitted by an all-white jury.

Afterwards, five of the young working-class jurors said they believed us (eleven young black people, and me, a 26 year-old white FE College lecturer) because, like us, they had been beaten and fitted-up by the Leeds police.

The black youths were inspired by the radical politics expressed in the version of reggae propounded at that time by Bob Marley and the Wailers. They were, quite literally, standing up for their rights, and not giving up ‘the fight’.

It was during and after the 71 riots during 1981 that the notion was invented that these were the acts of mindless hooligans, usually led by ‘outsiders’. By 2011, mindless hooligans had become a ‘feral underclass’, and it seemed hard to find the outsiders.

I’ve been observing events like these in Leeds since 1975, and I have recently published my reflections. I briefly commend the effect of community organizing and tactful policing in explaining why Leeds was not the site of another ‘riot’ in 2011. The full article appears here.

In 1981 we learned a bit from the inquiry headed by Lord Scarman. At the time I thought of ‘riots’ as ‘insurrections’. Scarman’s report kick-started the move towards equal opportunity policies in government and local authorities. But it took until 1999 for Lord Macpherson to announce (contra Scarman) that institutional racism in the police force was a central issue.

One reason why both the left and the right denounced the 2011 ‘rioters’ – I now see them as ‘violent urban protesters’ – was that they had swallowed the idea that the police force had by now completely cleaned itself up. But as the LSE/Guardian’s research showed, visceral antagonism to the dehumanising effects of some police officers’ behaviour remains at the heart of the problem in our cities.

The other reason even the most thoughtful commentators rejected the idea that there could be any legitimate cause behind the conflagration of August 2011 was the unedifying sight of people joyfully stealing high-value consumer items. This ‘mindless hedonism’ is however exactly what contemporary capitalism thrives upon.

To refuse to enter the cash nexus to express the overwhelming desire for these goods – that we are all somehow persuaded to feel – doesn’t make you a revolutionary, but it does indicate that you do not automatically accept the capital’s property laws. For example, one young man, asked by the Guardian’s John Harris in one of the few intelligent pieces of journalism during that hectic August, replied to the ‘why’ question succinctly: “Free shit. And f***ing the system.”

Dara Singh’s report had some sensible (and some silly) recommendations, but all of them will gather dust. ‘There’s no money’, will be the government’s major reason. But even if they were implemented, unless we get to grips with the deep alienation felt by a significant minority of the British population, there will be many more ‘violent urban protests’.

*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society

Prof Emeritus Max Farrar

Prof Emeritus Max Farrar

Professor for community engagement at Leeds Metropolitan University

Prof Max Farrar, a cultural sociologist, is the head of community partnerships and volunteering and professor for community engagement at Leeds Metropolitan University. An adviser to several boards and organisations on the issue of race, Professor Farrar has previously lectured in sociology and written research papers on the subject.

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