Race, Civility & A Good Cup of Tea: Tottenham

This is an ex­erpt; Full text avail­able at Canadian Dimension

… In re­sponse [to the summer’s riots], many ob­servers tried to com­ment on the situ­ation, drawing out grand the­ories of the polit­ical, so­cial, and eco­nomic con­text be­hind the events. Some blamed so­cial spending cuts brought on by the new Tory budget. Others drew at­ten­tion to the cent­rality of con­sumerism in people’s lives. Still others de­cided to call the ri­oting pure and simple hoo­liganism, de­noun­cing those in­volved as crim­inal thugs. It is to the third set of ob­servers, those who de­scribe the events as the result of a ram­pa­ging bunch of hea­thens, that I focus my at­ten­tion on here. However, in­stead of at­tempting to for­ward an­other grand theory of the riots and ri­oters, this ana­lysis will turn at­ten­tion to the ob­servers of said riots, or rather, the no­tion of the “polit­ical” in these responses.

Locating the Political

The failure to see the riots as polit­ical comes as a result of a nor­mal­ized con­cep­tion of the polit­ical that as­sumes it is syn­onymous with lib­eral par­lia­mentary demo­cracy. As one Canadian journ­alist as­serted to me in a re­cent radio in­ter­view – “these ri­oters weren’t tar­geting gov­ern­ment build­ings”. For this journ­alist, the im­ages of the events in cir­cu­la­tion did not cor­res­pond to what she ima­gined to be a polit­ical demon­stra­tion; they did not cor­res­pond to a frame­work of lib­eral demo­cracy that sought gov­ern­ment as its aim, nor that had a polit­ical pro­gram, mani­festo, or legible pur­pose as its mo­bil­izing force.

Moreover, this as­sump­tion is ra­cially coded as the dis­course of law and proper polit­ical ac­tion are deeply en­meshed in con­cep­tions of ci­vility that un­der­gird the very no­tion of the so­cial con­tract and it’s up­holding. As such, I argue against those who claim that race and ra­cism have faded away from this story. Amidst David Cameron’s threats to call in the army, Boris Johnson’s de­cries of the vi­ol­ence as “mind­less vi­gil­antism,” and self-​aggrandizing vo­lun­teer clean-​up squads, this story has im­portant things to tell us about race, ci­vility, and the idea of the polit­ical in western lib­eral democracy.

The Persistence of Race

The first way in which race per­sisted in this story comes from my own ob­ser­va­tional ex­per­i­ence of the riots. On the day fol­lowing the first erup­tion in Tottenham, the neigh­bor­hood was strewn with anti-​police graf­fiti. Spray-​painted signs on the road, walls, street signs, bus shel­ters, and store-​fronts force­fully con­veyed to any on­looker what the take home mes­sage of the vi­ol­ence was – fuck the po­lice. These mes­sages were ig­nored by main­stream media out­lets. After five days of fol­lowing the ri­oting on all so­cial net­working and main­stream media web­sites, I had yet to see a single photo of this graffiti.

Nor was this merely a visual mes­sage — shouts of “fuck the po­lice” and “you know you’re ra­cist” re­sounded in con­front­a­tions on Mare Street and Clarence Road in Hackney. On Monday 8 August, one of the largest street con­front­a­tions between ri­oters and po­lice happened just north of Pembury Estate, an event now dubbed “The Battle for Pembury.” At ap­prox­im­ately 8:30pm, a mass of 300 largely black youth fought the po­lice with vi­cious in­tensity, split­ting the po­lice lines and ren­dering the riot suited de­fense force im­potent. No shops were looted, no in­no­cent bystanders at­tacked – this was a well-​mounted and vir­u­lent at­tack on the po­lice. Outside of London the fol­lowing night, a po­lice sta­tion was fire bombed by ri­oters in Nottingham, petrol-​bombs were hurled at po­lice in Coventry, and po­lice were at­tacked on the streets in Gloucester and Liverpool.

While op­por­tun­istic looting also took place in and around these events, the por­trayal of ri­oters as mind­less and without cause act­ively ig­nores the per­sistent anti-​police sen­ti­ment that un­der­girded many of the events, es­pe­cially in north London. This at­ti­tude stems from a long his­tory of ra­cial­ised com­munities fighting sys­temic ra­cism in the London Metropolitan Police Service and cannot be dis­as­so­ci­ated from legacies of po­lice vi­ol­ence that were also the sub­ject of riots in Brixton in 1981 and Broadwater Farm in 1985. People who try to play down these real­ities fail to see the on­going po­lice vi­ol­ence and state-​endorsed crim­in­al­iz­a­tion of ra­cial­ised com­munities that groups such as the Newham Monitoring Project, Cageprisoners, the English Collective of Prostitutes, and Medical Justice con­tinue to fight against.

The second way in which this story con­tinues to be about race can be wit­nessed in many of the main­stream re­sponses to the riots that ap­peal to “ci­vility.” This re­sponse comes from both ex­pected and un­ex­pected places – from the mouth of the Conservative Prime Minister to those in­volved with the self-​appointed “London Cleanup” en­tourage. The latter, a com­bin­a­tion of vol­un­tarist hip­sters and do-​gooding cit­izens with a few hours to spare in the middle of the day, took to the streets with brooms and garbage bags to both phys­ic­ally and sym­bol­ic­ally “clean up” the streets. This make­shift group of cit­izens, ex­alted by widely cir­cu­lating pho­to­graphs show­casing their ar­senal of ster­il­izing weaponry, epi­tomize the civil­iz­a­tional dis­course that was at play in the varied con­ver­sa­tions about the riots. These cit­izens were cleaning up the “mess” that looters left be­hind. However, this mess was not merely a phys­ical one con­sisting of broken glass and garbage, but it is also a mess that ri­oters had made of the sup­posed so­cial fabric of British so­ciety. In this light, the riots were por­trayed as mind­less and without in­ten­tion, while the law – the so­cial con­tract that le­git­im­izes in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized politics con­fined to par­lia­mentary demo­cracy – is the bas­tion of reason and civil­iz­a­tion. These vol­un­tarist street cleaners af­firm that the law that they up­hold with the force of their brooms is not only the sin­gu­larly le­git­imate route to vo­calize dis­sent, but is proper and good. In an­other ex­ample, a Facebook page called “Operation Cup of Tea,” that in­vited Brits to show their dis­dain by staying at home and “having a cup of tea,” was a top Twitter trend and had over 330,000 mem­bers by day four of the riots.

This de­mand for proper polit­ical ex­pres­sion is in­tim­ately tied to the dis­course of ci­vility. Indeed, law is a civil­izing force. This is most markedly ob­vious in its con­stant char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion as the op­posite of sav­agery – a nar­rative well known by in­di­genous pop­u­la­tions the world over who ex­per­i­enced the force of legally-​sanctioned co­lo­ni­alism by the world’s various em­pires. These com­munities and its en­croaching set­tler pop­u­la­tions were and con­tinue to be told that the legal vi­ol­ence – often termed ne­go­ti­ations or set­tle­ments by the oc­cu­piers – were a ne­ces­sary ele­ment of cre­ating order and founding a le­git­imate na­tion. Of course, these nar­rat­ives have a deep res­on­ance with the con­tem­porary con­sti­tu­tional and polit­ical theory that un­der­girds the polit­ical ima­gin­a­tions of most of the glob­al­ized world today. These origin stories, proffered by the likes of Rousseau, Hobbes, and Locke, con­tinue to as­sert the ne­ces­sity of a so­cial con­tract to es­tab­lish au­thor­ized gov­ern­mental re­la­tions that can then ap­prove or con­demn par­tic­ular polit­ical action(s). This con­trac­tual re­la­tion and its en­suing es­tab­lish­ment has been widely nor­mal­ized as the pin­nacle form of polit­ical as­so­ci­ation. According to these lib­eral nar­rat­ives, law is what civ­il­izes the state of nature, it is what safe­guards the people, it is what as­suages the prob­lems of living in an­archy. What these nar­rat­ives act­ively re­move from the story, of course, is the way that law does not pro­tect but in fact is an active per­pet­rator of violence.

While I do not have the space or local know­ledge to list a great number of ex­amples of the way in which the law per­pet­rates vi­ol­ence in Tottenham, the ex­ist­ence of pop­ularly doc­u­mented in­sti­tu­tion­al­ised ra­cism in the London Metropolitan Police, not to men­tion the dev­ast­ating con­junc­tion between ra­cial­ised neigh­bor­hoods and poverty, un­em­ploy­ment, and poor public ser­vices, works to fur­ther state-​violence in these com­munities. Here the myth of law as a saving force is well known. In Tottenham, Clapton, and Hackney, the bour­geois lib­eral trust of the state – and es­pe­cially the po­lice – was re­vealed for the ideo­logy that it is.

Significantly, the erasure of this nar­rative of race and ci­vility leads us to dif­fi­culty in ex­plaining the con­nec­tion between the riots and the re­sponse by the English Defense League and other ra­cist ideo­logues who are using the events as a vehicle to pro­mote civil­iz­a­tional nar­rat­ives about the en­croaching threat of so-​called im­mig­rants and the need to re­turn to an ima­gined vision of an ori­ginal “great” Britain. Of course, the riots were not en­tirely about race either. As ex­cel­lent re­ports from The Guardian’s Paul Lewis, among others, clearly demon­strate, ri­oters were people of many dif­ferent col­ours, ages, and mo­tiv­a­tions. However, when legacies of ra­cism are act­ively re­moved from both the events as they un­folded as well as the sub­sequent ana­lysis, we miss the chance to not only un­der­stand how the riots were ra­cial­ised but, how western lib­eral demo­cracy is too.

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