An article in the Grio by Lola Adesioye, a Black British writer, is titled “Riots were a long time coming for black Britons,” and helps to explain some of what is going on in the London and other urban rioting. She notes that
The riots have been ferocious. Buildings have been burned down, shopping centers looted, police and firemen attacked. People are afraid for their lives and their livelihoods.
And that many people there are calling even for the British army to come in and put down the rioting. We might note that the U.S. used military units to put down black revolts in the 1960s in several major cities, so this public and political orientation is not new.
Adesioye points out that the rioting started in the Tottenham area of North London, where conflict between the mostly white police and young black men has been at a high level for decades. Indeed there was another major riot in that area some 26 years back, involving earlier generations of white police and black Britons. The riot in 1985, as with these riots, started because of an apparent police malpractice incident. The Tottenham rioting reportedly started when a mostly white police unit called Trident shot and killed a black man, father of two, and nonviolent protests over that killing turned violent. The Trident unit had been started as a community-generated attempt to deal with black-on-black killings in the area, but she notes that many in that community now see it as “just another way in which the police can oppress young black men,” much like they do in the United States.
Adesioye summarizes her view of the causes of the riots by black Britons this way:
This violence is as a result of . . . unexamined racial issues, a crumbling sense of community among black people with no real leadership, unresolved class issues, social exclusion coupled with a lack of opportunities, a deep recession in addition to an extremely high cost of living, a new government who has been cutting back on services for youth, disenfranchised young people, and a dependency culture. . . . Black people are underrepresented in all areas of public British life from politics, to economics. . . . and we are overrepresented in crime and incarceration.
She further notes that the rioting has spread to other areas and involved nonblack young people, especially working class white youth, who also face major economic and social class barriers, especially under the new austerity policies of the new conservative British government.
What is entirely missing in Adesioye’s article, however, as in almost all research on U.S. rioting in the 1960s-1970s (and most research on racism and racial inequalities today), is a clear focus on the white, mostly male elite decisionmakers who are immediately or ultimately responsible for most of the underlying conditions of these British riots. These “racial issues” seems a very tame and deflecting way of saying “white racial oppression.” The white elite’s drive to keep British (and U.S.) society highly unequal lies behind most items in her list, yet even she does not call out these powerful whites. The beginning of wisdom on these matters is the what Michael Parenti calls the “reality principle,” that is the necessity of calling out and making transparent the underlying oppressive reality and the main agents in that reality. Race riots are always about oppressive underlying conditions, and often triggered by precipitating incidents caused by the police.
And do look at the individual comments made by people after the end of her article. Numerous whites make extraordinarily racist comments. And there are several comments about the possibility of racial riots in the United States. Of course, we as a country hold the record for the number of race riots over a few years in the 1960s and early 1970s—more than 500, with many lives lost and many people injured.
Given the extreme and growing economic inequality in this country between white and black Americans, and indeed between rich and working class whites, how long will it be before we see similar urban rioting in the United States?
Before I heard about these riots I was referred to an article about a black Philadelpha mayor complaining about “flash mobs” (which he claimed, without offering any statistical evidence whatsoever, were mostly black) terrorizing his city:
I wonder if there is a connection between these incidents and the shit happening in London?
Joe, I agree with you that
“Race riots are always about oppressive underlying conditions, and often triggered by precipitating incidents caused by the police.”
But I disagree that nobody talks about this. In some research I’ve done comparing ethnically-inflected riots in Western Europe (drawing on 2 British and 2 French in-depth case studies), I found that there was always a tension surrounding the framing of the riots–were they mostly about lawless individuals, or were they primarily about underlying social inequalities?
My co-authors and I were looking not at causes, but at the effects of these kinds of riots. We found that in all instances, governments used a mix of “repressive” and “accommodating” responses, but that the relative balance was influenced by the party in power. Even the more conservative Thatcher government of the very early 1980s was forced–after months of denying it–to admit that social conditions played a role in the disturbances, and coughed up some money for inner cities in an era of extreme budget retrenchment.