Fuelling the Mob: Differences Between the London Riots and Ferguson

Kelly Beestone

 

For many in the United Kingdom, watching the news of the riots unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, brought to mind images of the aftermath of Mark Duggan’s death in London in 2011. In both cases, police officers responsible for the death of an unarmed black man were investigated and found guilty of no wrongdoing. In both cases too, the aftermath entailed widespread destruction of property, violence and a deepened distrust of police.

Beneath the surface, however, there are significant differences between the rioting in England and the Ferguson unrest. Most significantly, the English working-class has maintained a greater ability to collectively confront police injustice due, at least in part, to the history of class-based political organization in England. This is in stark contrast to the American context where elites have attempted (with a great deal of success) to divide its working-class through racism.

On August 4th 2011, police gunned down Mark Duggan, a twenty-nine year-old resident of Tottenham, London. Newspapers reported that police had killed Duggan in self-defence after they discovered he was carrying a gun. The Independent Police Complaints Commission [IPCC] revealed that Duggan was under investigation by Operation Trident and that two shots were fired by a policeman, known only as V53, which resulted in his death. Ultimately, a lack of forensic evidence proving that Duggan had ever been holding a gun at all caused several newspapers, including The Guardian, to issue an apology for misinforming the public but not before widespread community outrage boiled over into violence.[1]

On August 6th more than one hundred people protested in Tottenham. Two police cars were attacked. Rioting quickly spread from London to Birmingham, to Leicester, to Nottingham, Liverpool, and Manchester and to Bristol. The inquest into Duggan’s death was adjourned on the 9th; the unrest lasted until the 11th (with some minor “aftershock” incidents even later in the week).

According to the BBC, at least 3,000 people were arrested for crimes relating to the riots during this period. [2] Many of these were in London where the riots initially broke out and manifested, as Ann and Aisha Phoenix note in their paper Radicalisation, Relationality and Riots: Intersections and Interpellations, as a “multi-ethnic” uprising. [3] That claim is, in fact, bolstered by Ministry of Justice statistics that listed 33% percent of those facing charges for riot-related incidents as “white,” 43% as “black” and 7% as “Asian.”[4]

Even more interesting is that while the above statistics reflect the riots overall, the arrest figures fluctuate wildly depending on the ethnic make-up of individual neighborhoods. For instance, white defendants in London made up 32% of those appearing in court, while in Merseyside, which also experienced significant rioting, the percentage of whites arrested in connection to the riots is closer to 79% of total arrests. [5] Of those convicted for riot-related crimes, 35% were claiming working benefits (the national average in the UK is 12%) and of those juveniles convicted, 42% were claiming free school meals (compared to an average of 16% nationally). [6] This uprising drew support across racial lines in the UK, but the overwhelming number of participants were still working-class people.

While the public reacted against the police, media coverage was quick to condemn the rioters. Several news outlets (including the BBC) attempted to place the blame for the unrest on the “black influence” on the (white) British working class. Historian David Starkey used his appearance on Newsnight to theorise that “the chavs have become black. The whites have become black” and to condemn the “nihilistic” attitudes of the rioters. [7] For all the problematic (and racist) implications of Starkey’s commentary, however, he is one of the few commentators who attempted to link the white working-class response to Duggan’s death to the black community’s response.

Many media outlets highlighted incidents of individuals attempting to incite others to riot in areas such as Newcastle via social media, fixating on a narrative of opportunistic rioters interested primarily with mindless “battle” with the police,[8] because they were, somehow, inherently “violent”[9] and prone to behaving like “thugs” because of poor parenting.[10] The Telegraph went so far at one point as to call the children involved “feral.” [11] At another point, conversely, the Telegraph’s editors suggest that this disorder “was an assault […] on the established order of benign democracy” itself, no small feat for a mob of feral chavs, it would seem. [12]

Perhaps most telling of all however, was the media’s exoneration of the police dealing with the Duggan case. An in-depth study by the BBC asserted that police were so stretched in London that volunteer police entered the fray without riot gear or training in order to defend against the rioters. This is intended to create a binary opposition between the ‘brave’ police who attempted to supress the violence and the ‘hooded teenagers’ [13] who perpetuated it. Meanwhile, the policeman who killed Duggan was found to be acting in self-defence by the investigation and cleared of the murder. Despite being pressured into resigning, no further action was taken against him and the final decision of a lawful killing due to an ‘honestly held’ fear for police safety was delivered on January 8th 2014. [14]

The situation in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 echoes that of Duggan in-so-much that Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, was shot on August 9th 2014 by white police officer Darren Wilson in dubious circumstances. Witnesses claimed Brown had his hands up in surrender when he was shot yet police claimed Brown was reaching for a gun, while simultaneously charging through a hail of gunfire, and that Darren Wilson acted in self-defence.

This state of affairs led to widespread public outrage that culminated in rioting in Ferguson. However, in this case, it is not the “multi-ethnic” reaction witnessed in the UK but an overwhelmingly African American protest that emerges. Scenes of unrest from the protests show US police in riot gear firing canisters of tear gas and pepper spraying protestors. Several photos also demonstrators in defensive positions, kneeling before advancing police who were using these particularly aggressive tactics in order to pacify the protestors.

In the UK, police were called in to monitor demonstrations and to arrest those involved in riot-related crimes. In areas where there were rumours of riots brewing, such as in Newcastle, police stood outside train stations in order to deter potential rioters. In Ferguson however, the streets were patrolled by armoured cars and officers who were armed with assault rifles and stun grenades who fired rubber bullets into crowds of unarmed demonstrators.

Media reactions to the violence in the US varied. The right-wing media organization, Fox, included headlines calling for rioters to pay for the damage caused[15] and several headlines focused on the moral failure of the “rioters.” Indeed, Fox’s coverage seemed to imply that the police were acting with justifiable force to prevent what it characterized as criminal, not political, violence. CNN took a more nuanced view of the “protestors” (rather than “rioters”), even as the focus of their coverage was the violence and destruction of property resulting from the protests.[16] CNN also made an attempt to focus on the larger issue of public outrage at the police response in Ferguson, focusing on peaceful ‘die-in’ protests made by students in high schools and universities across various states. The August 26 th edition of the New York Times, often described as a liberal journal, featured a prominent photo of Michael Brown’s family sitting behind Brown’s coffin with the headline “Amidst mourning, call for change.”[17] Largely absent from this coverage, however, were corresponding images of white rioters or of police reacting to white rioters with the sort of force that was marshalled against the people of Ferguson.

As far back as Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, we see racial legislation emerge to counteract the emerging solidarity between indentured white servants with indentured black servants which culminated in Jamestown burning to the ground with its colonial governor fleeing for his life before the crowd. In particular, the passing of the Virginia Slave Codes in 1705 severely limited interactions between white and black people and it was this type of legislation that would determine the parameters of interracial engagement amongst the working classes for decades to come in the English colonies in America. Historian Paul Finkleman notes in his book Slavery and the Law that this sort of legislation would ensure that white people, regardless of class, would occupy a privileged caste position in relation to black people. These legal limitations imposed on black people–including constraints on intermarriage, owning weapons and baptism–created a hard and fast caste order in which black people would always be considered inferior to white people, a state of affairs that inhibited class solidarity across (racialized) caste lines.[18]

Historian Eric Foner argues that the New York City Draft Riots of 1863 remains “the largest civil and racial insurrection in American history” outside of the Civil War.[19] The riots were caused, initially, by resentment that wealthy citizens could pay $300 to escape the draft. Yet, in the wake of white bosses’ decision to import African American scab labour to break (Irish) union organization on the docks in the weeks prior, the violence that consumed New York City between the 13th of July and 16th of July in 1863 took on a disturbingly racial quality. Black citizens, exempt from draft laws, were scapegoated and as (predominately Irish) white rage erupted over competition for jobs, more than a dozen were killed in race-related incidents.

Working class whites in New York did not perceive working class blacks as comrades.

Unions such as the Longshoreman’s Association believed the danger that James Gordon Bennett, editor of the (WHAT CITY?) Herald, evoked of a black population that would permanently undermine the interests of the white working class if Abraham Lincoln pursued universal emancipation. “Are you ready to divide your patrimony with the negro? Are you ready to work with him in competition to work more than you do now for less pay?” Bennett asked. [20] Rather than engaging them in solidarity, white working class rioters in 1863 New York chose instead to hang innocent, working class, African Americans from city lamp posts and burn an orphanage for coloured children to the ground.

Bennett’s anxieties were not unreasonable. Lorenzo J. Greene and Carter G. Woodson observed in 1930 that after the Civil War, the American working class was economically weakened across the board, regardless of the individual skill of the worker. This was in part due to the increased competition generated by immigrant workers, but also because of the wide availability of a large, perpetually under-employed African American population which was a result of the “unwillingness of employers to hire Negro mechanics, and the keen competition for jobs, in which the white workmen were usually given the preference.” [21] This arrangement often forced black workers to seek the most dangerous and distasteful of jobs, when they could find work at all. And when they could not find work, they remained as an ever-present (and perpetually resented) reminder to white workers to remain servile, replaceable as they were.

Economist Warren Whatley noted that throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, African-Americans were called upon for “almost every major confrontation between capital and labor.” For many American entrepreneurs and businessmen, the boogieman of black scab labour was wielded as the perfect deterrent against strikes. As a result of racially discriminatory union policies that rejected class solidarity between white and black workers, African Americans had no incentive to respect white picket lines. Even when unions did not exclude African-Americans by constitutional provision, often the racism of the rank-and-file members made it impossible for black workers to earn union membership.[22] In modern-day America, there are still lingering traces of this divide.

While the working class as a whole has lost stability and security since de-industrialization, African-Americans continue to disproportionately suffer the effects of economic disenfranchisement when compared to whites. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that unemployment rates amongst African Americans in the last decade is consistently higher than it is amongst whites.[23]

The increase in financial instability and insecurity among working class people in the wake of de-industrialization is not unique to the US; in fact, this pattern has is not so dissimilar to the socio-economic and political realities of post-industrial Britain. In both places, this increased financial instability and insecurity among working class people has grown in tandem with an increase in police repression of working class people. In one way, the slaying of Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri represents a manifestation of this dynamic that is mirrored by the slaying of Mark Duggan of Tottenham. However, and significantly, the UK has manifested a capacity for meaningful transracial solidarity based on class identity, which does not exist in the USA. Through organizations such as Class War, ANTIFA and NUS, the UK allows for a more multi-racial foundation for protesting grievances amongst the working class, while in the US, the systematic destruction of multi-ethnic relations across the class system makes this impossible. As a result, when the UK protestors felt they had nowhere to turn to, the nation became aware that this was a riot founded in these economic problems. While in Ferguson, where such political organization did not occur, the riots were portrayed exclusively as a product of black rage and despair, shored up by the fact that no other outlets existed to channel the anger in a less destructive way.

Both Ferguson and the London unrest should give us pause for thought. In both cases, people have felt driven to destruction by the ineptitude of the judicial system. Yet for all their surface similarities, the significant differences between the two riots proves that the insidious racism preserved amongst the working-class in America continues to drive a wedge between the very people who ought to be united in their grievances. Until the disproportionate suffering of black citizens is addressed, it is clear that incidents like Ferguson will continue to be the only way many Americans believe they can let their voices be heard.

Bibliography

Anti-Fascism Network “About Us” https://antifascistnetwork.org/about/ ANTIFA [date accessed 16/05/2016]

Basu, Moni and Faith Karami “Protestors Torch Police Car in Another Tense Night in Ferguson” CNN.com http://edition.cnn.com/2014/11/25/justice/ferguson-grand-jury-decision/ [date accessed 16/05/2016]

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Boisseron, Benedicte “Afro-Dog” in Transition 118 [2015] p.15

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Bush, Jonathan A. “The British Constitution and the Creation of American Slavery” in Slavery and the Law ed. Paul Finkleman [Maryland; Rowman and Littlefield, 2002] pp.379-410

Davey, Monica “Amid Mourning, Time For Change,” New York Times, August 26, 2014 p.1

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Foner, Eric Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 [New York; Harper and Row, 1988] pp.32-33

Gov.uk “Transcript of the Hearing 15 October 2013”http://dugganinquest.independent.gov.uk/transcripts/1207.htm [date accessed 14/05/2016]

Lorenzo J. Green and Carter G. Woodson, The Negro Wage Earner, [Chicago; The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1930] pp.3-5

Kaplin, Karen”Black Americans are Closing the Life Expectancy Gap with Whites, CDC Says” L.A. Times http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-black-white-life-expectancy-gap-20151105-story.html [date accessed 16/05/2016]

Kelley, Robin Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class [New York; Simon and Schuster, 1996] p.32

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Lund, Jeb “Watching Ferguson Burn: What Constitutes Appropriate Rebellion?” RollingStone.comhttp://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/watching-ferguson-burn-what-constitutes-appropriate-rebellion-20141125 [date accessed 16/05/2016]

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Moran, Lee and Allan Hall “British Youths are ‘the Most Unpleasant and Violent in the World’. Damning Verdict of Writer as Globe Reacts to Riots” Daily Mail Online http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2024486/UK-RIOTS-2011-British-youths-unpleasant-violent-world.html [date accessed 14/05/2016]

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Footnotes

[1] Vikram Dodd “New Questions Raised Over Duggan Shooting” The Guardian,http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/nov/18/mark-duggan-ipcc-investigation-riots [date accessed 14/05/2016]

[2] BBC News “England Rioters ‘Poorer, Younger, Less Educated'” http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-15426720 [date accessed 15/05/2016]

[3] Ann and Aisha Phoenix “Radicalisation, Relationality and Riots: Intersections and Interpellations” inFeminist Review, no.100 [2012] p.61

[4] BBC News “England Rioters ‘Poorer, Younger, Less Educated'” http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-15426720 [date accessed 15/05/2016]

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] TruthCauldron, “David Starkey-BBC Newsnight ‘The Whites Have Become Black'” Filmed 14/08/2011, Youtube Video, 10:36 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVq2bs8M9HM

[8] Vikram Dodd and Caroline Davis “London Riots Escalate as Police Battle for Control” The Guardian,http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/aug/08/london-riots-escalate-police-battle [date accessed 14/05/2016]

[9] Lee Moran and Allan Hall “British Youths are ‘the Most Unpleasant and Violent in the World’. Damning Verdict of Writer as Globe Reacts to Riots” Daily Mail Onlinehttp://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2024486/UK-RIOTS-2011-British-youths-unpleasant-violent-world.html [date accessed 14/05/2016]

[10] Ryan Parry “Young Thugs Got a Lift Home With Mum When They Finished Looting” The Mirrorhttp://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/london-riots-young-thugs-got-a-lift-146673 [date accessed 14/05/2016]

[11] Mary Riddell “London Riots: The Underclass Lash Out” The Telegraphhttp://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/8630533/Riots-the-underclass-lashes-out.html[date accessed 14/05/2016]

[12] Mary Riddell “London Riots: The Underclass Lash Out”

[13] Ibid

[14] Gov.uk “Transcript of the Hearing 15 October 2013”http://dugganinquest.independent.gov.uk/transcripts/1207.htm [date accessed 14/05/2016]

[15] Cal Thomas “Ferguson Unrest: Make Protestors Pay for Riot Damage” Fox News.comhttp://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2014/12/02/ferguson-unrest-make-protesters-pay-for-riot-damage.html[date accessed 16/05/2016]

[16] Moni Basu and Faith Karami “Protestors Torch Police Car in Another Tense Night in Ferguson” CNN.com http://edition.cnn.com/2014/11/25/justice/ferguson-grand-jury-decision/ [date accessed 16/05/2016]

[17] Monica Davey “Amid Mourning, Time For Change,” New York Times, August 26, 2014 p.1

[18] Jonathan A. Bush “The British Constitution and the Creation of American Slavery” in Slavery and the Law ed. Paul Finkleman [Maryland; Rowman and Littlefield, 2002] p.392

[19] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 [New York; Harper and Row, 1988] pp.32-33

[20] Albon P. Man Jr. “Labor Competition and the New York Draft Riots of 1863” in Journal of Negro History 36.4 [1951] p.379

[21] Lorenzo J. Green and Carter G. Woodson, The Negro Wage Earner, [Chicago; The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1930] p.4

[22] Warren C. Whatley “African-American Strikebreaking from the Civil War to the New Deal” in Social Science History 17.4 [Winter, 1993] p.529

[23] Bureau of Labor Statistics “Table A-2. Employment Status of the Civilian Population by Race, Sex, and Age” United States Department of Labor http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t02.htm [date accessed 16/05/2016]

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