Blog post

“So many/too few”: Reflections on the 2011 riots and Riot. Strike. Riot

James Butler25 May 2016

Image for blog post entitled “So many/too few”: Reflections on the 2011 riots and <i>Riot. Strike. Riot</i>

I have two telling memories from the 2011 riots.

One: it is the third night of the rioting, and it seems to have spread across London and beyond. Reports from outside the capital are sketchy: for every real incident, another seems to rise out of the froth of internet hoax and media paranoia. They see rioters in every shadow. I am watching Sky News, and trying to get a handle on what’s going on. Throughout the day, the streets seemed thick and tense – full of a special kind of waiting which punctuates riots – now they seem to have exploded. The camera crew are skulking through Battersea, near Clapham Junction station, in the wake of some rioters, lingering over broken windows and trashed commodities. They find an aggrieved-looking white man, professional, a local resident, and put him next to a broken window. He is emblematic of the new London, returned to the Victorian housing stock of its inner suburbs after a generation of flight to its homogenised outer reaches. He looks dazed, and shakes his head. “There were just so many of them,” he says, “I don’t know where they all came from. So many of them.”  

This is one of the refrains repeated through the coverage: the hope that rioters are from elsewhere, that they can be put back there, and that they are monstrous in number. They are incomprehensible. A certain riot inflation grips even the police estimates, which are otherwise notorious for halving the size of political assemblies. One wonders how far Clapham Man’s professed confusion is a put-on. Just north of where he’s being filmed, maybe two or three streets’ walk away, are large and well-known housing estates: Winstanley and York Road. Many of the rioters come from there, conforming to a pattern visible in all the London flashpoints – few travelled very far to reach the riot. It’s possible he didn’t know they were there – life in London is built on thousands of tacit segregations – or at least that he tried to forget they were. Sometimes it takes a rupture to see the very obvious. Five years on, and those estates are in the crosshairs of regeneration, with much of them marked for demolition. The new American embassy, a preposterous fortress, is being built just to the west; innumerable towers filled with catalogue-luxury flats spring up around it like plate glass sentinels. The property market, a greater destructive force than anything the August rioters managed, may well move Clapham Man’s bad dream rioters permanently out of his sight.

Two: some days later, I am sitting outside a magistrates’ court with a friend who works in a group providing legal support to victims of police violence. The media, with hanging no longer an option, call for draconian sentences and the courts seem happy to oblige; celebrities speculate on Twitter about calling in the army. The police, having generally acted to contain rather than confront and directly repress rioters, launched Operation Withern, a vast trawl of surveillance cameras, social media images and news footage, to identify, publish and arrest suspected rioters. One magistrate, Novello Noades, spoke of a ‘directive’ to tear up the sentencing guidelines and hand out custodial sentences for those involved in riot: “the very fabric of society was at risk”. My friend tells me that there is overcrowding in the cells, with defence lawyers overwhelmed and chaotic. It seems like virtually no application made by prosecutors will be refused; some courts are sitting 24 hours, all night and on Sundays. No-one seems to worry that such stunts might debase and corrupt the court’s justice – they are effectively rubber-stamping verdicts already arrived at by press and government – and the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer (now a Labour MP), even visits a court at 4am to praise their work. The Home Secretary insists the CPS should name and shame convicted juveniles, junking the anonymity supposed to prevent lives blighted. A revanchist sadism obtains: these legal derelictions will go unprotested and largely forgotten. Rioters do not matter. My friend says “there aren’t enough of us” – she means here, around the court to intervene or help – she means more generally, too, too few of a meaningful Left in a position to counter the proclamations of feckless irrationality, sheer criminality or racial degeneracy as ‘explanations’ for the riots.

So many, too few. Those two assessments, and the sense of impasse that sits between them, jostled in my head while reading Joshua Clover’s Riot. Strike. Riot. The book melds together a history of the forms of social struggle, shifting from riot to strike and now to a new mode of riot, with a reading of macroeconomic history which understands changes to capitalism since the 1970s as forcing a decomposition of the traditional workers’ movement, the decline of its methods of struggle and the production of ever-greater surplus populations. These populations, heavily racialised and subject to quotidian police violence, express social grievance through ‘riot prime’, Clover’s term for a returning array of riot tactics decoupled from their historical role in price-setting. So many: an ever-increasing population just able to subsist in the low-wage, sporadic or informal economy, but devoid of political representation, indebted and to whom society no longer pretends to offer even basic guarantees of stability or even very much hope of change. Perhaps Clapham Man’s astonishment at their number conceals a long-harboured but repressed awareness that this is how the city is structured. Too few: too few willing to look these changes in the face rather than indulge in nostalgia for times past, too few willing to ask what an adequate political articulation might be for grievance after the factory floor.

The axis of Clover’s book is the sequence of struggles in the US which comprehend the Occupy movement, college occupations, and the recent uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, set in a wider context stretching back to the Watts riots; we might want to include the strikes in Chicago, wage struggles in Seattle and the 2011 capitol occupation in Wisconsin as other features of this sequence. That none of these latter sit easily within the category of riot isn’t a blow to Clover’s thesis – he insists his periodisations are heuristic, not absolute, and the forms interpenetrate – but what might be most interesting about them is the involvement of the general public beyond the specific sectors in dispute, with these more traditional struggles taking on the characteristics of wider political contention in a way relatively rare today, however much the Left may wish it otherwise. An equivalent sequence in the UK might, as Endnotes suggest, include the Visteon struggles in 2009, the G20 protests, as well as the more familiar cycle of student and anti-austerity protests preceding the 2011 riots. There’s much that can be seen in parallel: an antagonistic bloc stretching across middle-class youth as well as more conventional working-class actors, signal moments of police violence, highly racialised political dynamics and surveillance-based repressive responses. There are local differences, of course, but the scope and repertoire are similar enough to be striking. Yet as a participant in many of those events in the UK, I felt the absence of a central and awkward category: the demonstration.

The demonstration is neither riot nor strike, though it can be linked with either, or carry them latently. If a riot is hard to read, then a demonstration intends to be read and understood: it makes demands on power, and seeks to signify their importance through numbers. At times, those numbers might well pose a threat in themselves, directly or electorally, to those in power; more often, they are intended to add symbolic weight to their demand, in order to see them met. And many of the events of the UK cycle conceived of themselves as demonstrations, not riots. If, as the LSE’s research suggests, the August riots spread through a deep and shared anti-police feeling, then it is important to remember that they erupted out of a demonstration demanding police meet the family of a man they had just killed, and give answers about his death. Those demands were political claims: they were both specific, about how the police had acted in this case, and general, in that they articulated a wider grievance about how the police treat black people in Tottenham and across the city. The police’s refusal even to recognise Mark Duggan’s family as interlocutors, to treat them with even minimal respect, to send any representative to meet them is significant here: that contempt fuelled the subsequent riot. It was a riot therefore born out of the refusal to hear or recognise a political demand – a dimension that is sometimes foreclosed either in contempt of the mediation typical of a political demonstration, or minimised in a preference for spontaneity or ‘demandless’ riots. 

Clover is faithful to something he perceives as an excess or a residue beyond the political solutions offered by interpreters of riots, and he is right to say that in the US especially, movements that begin in riots can end up neutralised and toothless in the stifling bosom of electoralism. Out of the practical activities of riot – seizure of space, refusal, distribution of goods according to need – he sees emergent the political form of the commune, however embattled. Yet the successes of those who guide riotous movements into more conventional politics are partly because they can plausibly claim to meet the demands that precede and spark them. If the era of that kind of concession-making is over, if the macroeconomic picture of jobless or stagnant recovery simply doesn’t allow for those compromises to be made, then that solution looks less plausible. But nor is it easy to find much hope in the riots themselves, which, when their participants talk about them, sound more obviously like the rage of those continually excluded from political recognition, abused by police and deprived of much hope in the world – more obviously like a desire for political change, sometimes deflected into a fuck-it-all nihilism – than an emergent fledgling commune. It is testament to how far away any change feels that 81% of the London rioters said they expected more to come.

Most of those imprisoned in the riots have come to the end of their sentences, and emerged into a world little changed, save they now bear the stigma of prison. So many/too few are still the terms that seem to govern the city. Any promise that seemed to come out of that sequence in the UK now seems to have been abortive. When coming to the end of Riot. Strike. Riot. I realised that most of my reservations are about scale – how riot or commune translates into systemic change. It is the same dilemma that confronts activists involved in resisting the broad onslaught against social provision in housing, health or education: how individual defence or victory can reverse the general trend of defeat and disintegration. It is a question which invites novel political thinking. Clover is right, I think, to recognise that some struggles which might once have operated around the wage now take place in less conventional settings – is this a different phenomenon to the strike, or is it the strike transformed and extended as new spheres of life are subsumed? It seems to me this book is part of a wave of attempts to rethink the scope of political action in the wake of the resilience but utter dysfunction of capitalism’s current form, especially in its heartlands, the sense of an oncoming new wave of crisis, and the failure of the movements of the past eight years to cohere into anything lasting.

This impasse is what leads some of the movement to pack their black bandanas in a bag and try their hand at bridging traditional politics and the movements; it leads others to renew their grassroots work, trying to hold back the worst excesses of dispossession and hoping thereby to build a counterpower; it leads still others to despair or abandon hopes for political change, or gamble that the objective economic conditions will force a final transformative confrontation. But it seems rather than bypassing the political, demands superseded by pure negation, all of these lead us back to that question of scale and system, of how such a transformation of society might extend beyond its fledgling moments. It will not be born in riot alone. 

To celebrate the publication of Riot.Strike.Riot: The New Era of Uprisings by Joshua Clover and Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter edited by Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton, both books are 40% off until Wednesday, June 1.  

- Read more: “We Are Those Lions”: 5 Strikes and Riots that Shook Modern Britain

- Read more: Baltimore Riot. Baltimore Commune?

Filed under: policing, riots