During and since the recent riots, the language in the media has been apocalyptic – moral breakdown, unprecedented scenes, bring out the army. But for the last 30years, summertime riots have been a fairly regular occurrence.
Looking at the the 4 major disturbances of the last 30 years – Brixton in ’81, Tottenham ’85, Oxford/ Newcastle/ Cardiff ’91, and Burnley/ Oldham/ Bradford ’01 – we can see that with the exception of Tottenham in 1985, they occurred 10 years apart. This facile observation aside, there are a few more similarities which undermine the idea that these riots were a one-off or in some way unprecedented.
Whenever I go into town all the restaurants and pubs are full of people spending like drunken sailors. Despite this fact, we are apparently in a deep recession. Unemployment is rising and prospects for young people are grim. In 1981 and 1991 Britainwas also in recession – in ’81 because of the deflationary policies of the Thatcher government, ’91 because of the fallout from the mid 80s boom. Localised depression is even more relevant – unemployment among young black men in Brixton in ’81 was 55%. The disorder in Oxford in 1991 was among young people who in previous generations would have worked at the Cowley car plant. Once they stopped hiring, there were no other jobs to be had. I’m sure a better economist than me could link these and recent events to the boom-bust cycle of the modern economy. Oh look, they have.
Heavy Handed Policing
Lets be honest: inner city communities and the police will never play happy families. This predates immigration – the police were not popular in the East End as far back as the 19th Century. Once people start getting killed the shit really hits the fan. The ’81 riots were in part caused by the police use of the SUS laws against young black men. This gave them the right to search them without any prior suspicion or evidence. As you might imagine, this led to some differences of opinion. The riots in ’85 kicked off after the Met managed to bungle not one but two home raids, injuring Cherry Groce in Brixton and causing the death of Cynthia Jarrett in Tottenham. In ’91 the police in Newcastle were accused of causing the death of two joyriders by running them off the road. So again, the shooting of Mark Duggan was very likely to be a catalyst for disturbances.
Some commentators have worked themselves into such a fury about BBM, Twitter and Facebook they are in danger of giving themselves a hernia. One thing that is noticeable about all of the summer riots since ‘81 is that copycat events occurred. And, guess what? No Facebook, BBM or Twitter. The ’81 riots started in Brixton then spread to Southall, Moss Side and Toxteth. In ’85 Tottenham was the last in a sequence of events that started in Handsworth and also took in Brixton. In ’91 disorder occurred in Oxford,Cardiff, Handsworth andNewcastle. Oldham led to Burnley led to Bradford in 2001. People will use disorder as an excuse to air local grievances whether they hear about it through their mobile, the TV or the newspaper. And please, less moaning from TV news – in 1991 they staged events in Oxford in order to get better pictures. Wonder what that led to?
Tricky one, this. Is there racial tension out there? There has definitely been a racial undertone to the reporting of the recent events. Some people (like David Starkey) can find a racial subtext to the riots. I would venture that the situation for ethnic minorities in this country is probably better than it ever has been. But if people feel discriminated against because of their colour then at some point they will lash out.
As already discussed, young black men in Brixton in ’81 got a lot of shit, most of it undeserved. It was not long previously that the NF was becoming thought of as a serious political party, and the police were seen as more sympathetic to them than to the black community. The Prime Minister had made comments when in opposition about Britain being ‘swamped’ by alien cultures. In 1985 the black and asian communities clashed in Handsworth; in 1991 the white and asian communities clashed in Cardiff; in 2001 the delicate racial balance of a bunch of northern towns was torn up as rumours led to violence. If there is a racial dimension to the current situation, again, it is not the first time.
So while the nature of the recent disorder was in some ways different to the past, it was not unprecedented at all. And one more similarity occurred afterward – the political handwringing. Calls for the army, water cannon, plastic bullets, tear gas were all made in 1985. The press and politicians blamed ‘young people who felt they could get away with mayhem’ and ‘police indecision’ in ’81.
So will anything change in the response to the riots? I’m pretty sure we can expect the same once again – harsh sentences, trial by media, miscarriages of justice; half hearted promises to ‘tackle the problems of our society’; finally utter indifference to the fundamental inequalities of our system. See you in 2021.