After the riots of 1981 and 1985, the immediate response, from all parts of the political spectrum, revolved around race. For the right, an unassimilated black minority was simply displaying its inability to act in an orderly British fashion. For the left, the problem was racism: a minority barred from jobs because of prejudice and treated unfairly by police, had been driven beyond their tether. Both interpretations conveniently forgot that many of the rioters, in Brixton and elsewhere, were white.
We can now see the secondary nature of the race factor. In the 1980s it would have been possible to pinpoint the sites of rioting by marking on the map where there were concentrations of blacks or Asians. Brixton, Tottenham, Handsworth and Toxteth all fit this pattern. Now the dots on the map are more widespread: in cities or districts with no black concentrations: Meadow Well on Tyneside, Coventry, Oxford and Ordsall in Salford. As the recession has spread, the white population of depressed areas has joined the ranks of the violently disaffected.
Riots are the politics of despair: the collective bargaining of the dispossessed. Whether in Brixton or Los Angeles, whenever a part of the community is economically marginalised and feels politically impotent, riots occur.
But history never repeats itself, and the causes of riots today are specific to the modern recessions. First, there is a notion of consumer citizenship. With political and social rights, the affluent societies of the West have fostered new expectations. Advertising and the rules of an economy based on mass consumption teach us that if we are truly to belong to our society we must possess its glittering prizes. Hunger no longer propels the riot: in its place is the video-recorder, the BMW and the mountain bike. Kids may be robbed, not for their pocket money, but for their trainer shoes or designer clothes.
Second, although black youths were certainly to the forefront of the riots in Britain of the early 1980s, this was simply because they were the first to face the cutting edge of the recession. It is class, not race, which unites rioters today. The distinction was clear in Los Angeles, where the targets were not only whites and Asian business people, but also better-off blacks.
Much play has been made of the word 'underclass', which, in the work of the neo-conservative Charles Murray, has the resonance of a group which has lost all motivation and, shored up by welfare, is unwilling to help itself. But there is another definition of underclass, which does not contrive to blame the poor for their own misfortunes: those young people who face a lifetime on the dole, whose welfare benefits are being cut, who regard the local police as persecutors, who are impotent to make any change in their lives and who, perhaps most pressingly, are chronically and endlessly bored.
The police recognise that their task is made more difficult by the recession. As the Avon and Somerset constabulary put it in the Operational Police Review: 'Is it a coincidence that, at the depths of the 1980-81 recession, when unemployment began to rise sharply from its 1970 base, the first urban riots of the modern era occurred in St Paul's, Bristol, and Brixton? Is it again a coincidence that, as unemployment approached its peak, a series of disorders occurred in 1985 in Brixton, Tottenham and Hansworth?'
However correct their diagnosis, much is lacking in police practice. Survey after survey on poor housing estates reveals widespread experience of gratuitous police violence, assault and the improvisation of evidence. It is not just in the headline cases that such lapses occur; there is a vast undertow of malpractice. And the antagonism between police and youths becomes a game. A status-symbol motorbike is stolen; the police chase which ensues is an entertainment feature on the estate; two young men die. The riot which occurs in protest is irrational in its targets. The library, the community centre and the local shops: the infrastructure of the community - their community - is attacked.
Riots and disturbances will not go away, and the people affected are not just an underclass on some far-distant estate. Beneath the overt riot is the vast slow riot of crime which affects us all. Last year more than five million offences were known to the police; in 1980 it was 2.5 million; in 1950 half a million. Crime is no longer a chance misfortune but an ever-present threat, yet ministers still blithely blame lack of parental discipline and the decline of religion: anything to avoid the economic explanation.
It is riots and crime which confront the 'haves' with the despair and hopelessness of the 'have nots'. No society can permanently exclude so many people from the rewards and prospects which the majority takes for granted, without bearing these consequences.
Professor Jock Young, of the Centre for Criminology, Middlesex University, is co- author of 'What's to be Done about Law and Order?'
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