Was There Any Liberation in the London Riots?

September 30, 2011

Words by Eavan Mckay

One dictionary definition of Liberation is: ‘to be free of rigid social conventions.’ Femi- nists concern this as freedom from accepted social roles, but it can be applied to anything. Another definition describes ‘release from limits on freedom of thought or behavior’ and another is ‘to be set free from a situation in which a person’s liberty is severely restricted.’ Is it useful–in any way–to view the recent riots as a struggle for liberation? I say yes.

This summer Britain was struck by what the press labeled as some of the worst rioting in current memory. People were angry, hurt and scared. Those interviewed were generally the unfortunate people who had lost their homes and businesses at the hands of people who they could not understand; people who were seemingly cruel and selfish. ‘Mindless’ was the word adopted in the press.

The BBC, amongst other news channels, asked ridiculous questions to provoke kneejerk and emotional reactions like: how do you feel when you look at your demolished livelihood? What do you think of the rioters? A boutique baby clothes shop owner in Ealing says the youths are ‘feral’ and David Cameron says ‘let’s be clear’ it is ‘plain and simple’ criminality and vandalism.

As days and weeks passed the rhetoric about the riots being ‘mindless’ is challenged, reinterpreted and reinstated. Those who speak out and say it is not that simple are accused of making excuses for the horrendous acts. Those who say the riots are purely a case of ‘mindless violence’ emphasise this by saying they were not political. The concept of liberation is intrinsically linked to politics and so if they were not political then they cannot have been about liberation. Right? Two issues arise here for me. The first is how do we judge some- thing to be mindless, and the second how do we judge something to be political?

So to deal with the first issue, I don’t think the BBC was trying to suggest those who rioted did not possess minds, but rather their use of the word ‘mindless’ implies the rioters stopped using their minds. This is bizarre. Yes people can get caught up in the moment, in crowds, with the blood pumping and the heart racing, they can act in ways that seem mad, but it is not as if their bodies walk off and leave minds behind. Those men women and children still have a consciousness. For many it is a case of isolation, of alienation, joblessness and hope- lessness. Now I am not saying the rioters form a homogenous group but the fact remains that in the worst affected areas there are huge divides in communities. Some people feel a part of this melting pot that we call society and others feel outside it, secluded and worst of all, forgotten.

My brother lives next to the Pembury Estate in Hackney, an estate that suffered severe rioting. It is one of the most deprived and dangerous estates in the borough and worlds away from my brother’s life in a terraced house that he shares with other young professionals. Just down the road is trendy London Fields and Broadway market where there are heaps of places to find a flat white coffee and you can scarcely find a man who doesn’t possess a moustache and a fixie bike. For many people who live in Pembury and estates like it, opportunities for finding afford- able housing are slim. It’s a struggle for young people to stay in education because of EMA being cut, but they struggle to find work because they don’t have the qualifications.

The second issue relates to how we can judge what is political. Rioters in August were not organised through political parties or one united revolutionary movement. However this doesn’t mean they were non-political. In areas such as Hackney and Tottenham many of the ‘youths’ were young, black, jobless men. Lots will have been stopped and searched countless times by white policemen who had the power to choose them based on their appearance. Rioters explicitly say that the feeling of looting while the police stood by and did nothing was one of overwhelming power. Power is always political. I object to the idea that it is only a united ideology that can politically unite people. Research shows ideology is one of the last incentives to drive soldiers fighting in wars; rather people are pulled together in a fight through ideas of mutual obligation and peer pressure as well as the sense of being part of a team and a bigger purpose.

Reports that stated the rioters were ‘opportunists’ are interesting. Many rioters were, but this fact should not mean we just lock as many up as possible, throw away the keys and not bother to rub two brain cells together to try and understand why this happened. The riots showed us we live in a society that tells us the measure of success is one of possessions and for a great number of people the best ‘opportunity’ on offer is one of rioting.

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