Gus John spoke powerfully and with great insight when he gave the keynote address at the Media and the Riots Conference's Big Debate event on Saturday November 26, 2011, at the London College of Communication, Elephant and Castle, London. Here is the full text of his speech.
I thank Marc Wadsworth and his team for inviting me to share some thoughts with you at this most important debate.
I have to confess to a wearying sense of deja vu about all this, for reasons which will be apparent in the course of this presentation.
There has been much debate since the events of 6th August to 13th August 2011 as to whether what the nation had experienced was a riot, a race riot, an uprising, an attempt by organised gangs to subvert law and order and outwit the police on a massive scale, or an orchestrated and opportunistic outburst of criminal activity led by gangs and known criminals, with ‘feral’, ‘feckless’, ‘greedy’, thuggish and morally bankrupt ‘mobs’ joining them on a spree of burglary, looting, criminal damage and arson..., or all of those.
For me, the most disturbing thing about the way the nation responds to events such as the violent civil disorder last August is that politicians, the courts, the media and ‘disgusted of Wilmslow and Tunbridge Wells’ behave as if the civil unrest and those who engaged in it were suddenly visited upon an orderly, socially cohesive and consensual nation from nowhere and cannot, therefore, be treated as if they belong among us and should be guaranteed the same rights as us.
Let me say straight away that I believe the civil unrest in August 2011 had everything to do with ‘race’ and with more than just ‘race’. We focus upon ‘race’, meaning in this context Black people of African descent mainly, and not upon the human casualties the society, its economic, political and social arrangements and its institutions create. We focus upon Black people because the white working class has not demonstrated the same appetite for struggle and resistance against oppression and marginalisation as Black people have been forced to do, whether in relation to schooling and education, access to employment, the police and criminal justice system, or cultural creativity and artistic expression.
But, I shall return to that presently.
First, though, I want to take you back to 1969 and 1970:
I am sure most of you are aware that on 13th August I wrote an Open Letter to the Prime Minister to register a personal protest against his outrageous utterances about the so-called ‘riots’ upon his forced return from holiday. Among the things I said to David Cameron was the following:
"As early as 1969, the Birmingham Post and Evening Mail ran a series under the heading The Angry Suburbs. The focus of the series was Black young people, their unemployment, the quality of their schooling outcomes and, most of all, their response to the treatment they were receiving from the police. That led the Runnymede Trust to appoint me that summer as director of an action-research project to go and work in Handsworth, Lozells and Winson Green in Birmingham and document what was going on in those communities.
In that same year, the All-Party Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration published its very first report entitled The Problems of Coloured School Leavers. That report argued, among other things, that West Indian parents had unrealistic aspirations for their children and that those children could not be expected to attain the goals their parents had set for them. From then till now, the schooling system has consistently failed that section of the population and Black parents have had the experience of having their parental values and parenting practices undermined by the society.
As a consequence, each succeeding generation of Black school leavers have found themselves surplus to the requirements of the labour market and have been stigmatised as the section of the population causing the state and the police the most problems. Each succeeding generation, they are made the scapegoats during every economic downturn or when the government in power feels the need to gain favour with the electorate.
Such was the process by which young Black people came to have the profile that has defined them from one generation to the next:
- most underachieving in the schooling system
- most excluded from school
- most unemployed and for the longest periods upon leaving school
- most stopped and searched by the police
- over represented in young offender institutions and prisons
- victims of market-driven, planned obsolescence, always surplus to requirements and therefore dispensable
You see, Prime Minister, in the absence of such considerations and with your obsession with parental responsibilities and with absent fathers in particular, you rather leave the nation with the impression that the civil unrest and the pock marks on the landscape of London and other cities which it has caused have their origin in the assumed dysfunctional nature of the African-Caribbean community, pure and simple."
"Subliminally, at least, in your and Iain Duncan Smith’s preoccupation with ‘absent fathers’ and ‘role models’ for Black young men, there are undertones of endemic ‘moral collapse’ within that community itself which, by your logic, is somehow infesting the nation as a whole. There is therefore a short step from that to the conclusion that the malaise within the society and the ‘breakage’ which you think is evidenced by the civil unrest is attributable, principally, to African Caribbean families and their ‘out of control’ young people."
"You do not take care to emphasise, for example, that 95 per cent of Black young people have no involvement whatsoever in ‘gangs’, street culture, serious youth violence or anything that brings them to the attention of the police, albeit they are routinely stopped and searched as if they were so involved."
"I would respectfully suggest that the nation is steeped to its very core in moral turpitude, beginning at the very top, i.e., with those who make (and break) our laws and whose task it is to put systems in place to safeguard the weak and defenceless, children and minors for example, according to the international human rights standards to which this nation subscribes’.
My friend and academic colleague, the sociologist John Lambert, was doing research at the University of Birmingham when I worked in Handsworth. This is what he wrote in his seminal work on crime, police and race relations:
“In contrast with the typical British delinquent and his family, the few West Indian delinquents appear to come from families with high aspirations and ambitions."
"West Indians in general are aspiring and ambitious; many are acutely aware of the poor status that attaches to the kinds of areas and houses in which they live and are ambitious for a better way of life. They are not part of the failure that life in such areas means for many. They seek success within the general framework of values and generally rise above the delinquent and criminal standards prevalent in the areas in which they live."
"Clearly the danger is that if their legitimate aspirations for betterment in terms of employment and housing opportunity are not met, with time the crime and disorder which surround them will contaminate their life style and lead, in years to come, to a crime rate that matches that of their neighbourhoods."
"Such influences may particularly infect and misdirect their children’s achievement and undermine their chances for success and mobility."
(John Lambert: Crime, Police and Race Relations, pp.128-130. Oxford University Press and Institute of Race Relations, 1970.)
‘They seek success within the general framework of values and generally rise above the delinquent and criminal standards prevalent in the areas in which they live.’
This is something with which the first and maybe the second generation of Post-War African migrants was credited, especially by the police. Whilst acknowledging that, however, politicians, the police and other state institutions have sought throughout the decades to dichotomise the Black population. In their eyes, the adults are ok. They are law abiding and generally share ‘our values’, notwithstanding the troublesome absent fathers among them; their children, boys and young men especially, are the greatest challenge to the state and its citizens.
Each new wave of civil unrest, typically triggered by the practices of the police, appears to invoke this narrative in its wake. (Notting Hill Carnival 1976; St Paul’s Bristol 1980; Brixton, Moss Side, Toxteth, Birmingham, etc. 1981; Handsworth 1984/’85; Handsworth/Lozells/Aston 2005.)
This is what Mr (now Sir) Geoffrey Dear, former Chief Constable of the West Midlands Police, wrote to the then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd following the Handsworth disturbances in 1985: "The facts already cited in this report point very clearly to the conclusion that the majority of the rioters who took part in these unhappy events were young, Black and of Afro-Caribbean origin."
"Let there be no doubt, these young criminals are not in any way representative of the vast majority of the Afro-Caribbean community whose presence has contributed to the life and culture of the West Midlands over many years and whose hopes and aspirations are at one with those of every other law- abiding citizen. We share a common sorrow. It is the duty of all of us to ensure that an entire cultural group is not tainted by the actions of a criminal minority."
Geoffrey Dear continues: "I would never seek to minimise the problems of being young Black and unemployed in a decaying inner city environment. These and other ills cannot be ignored and deserve to be addressed by society as a whole. But they can never be taken singly or cumulatively as an excuse for criminal behaviour or as a retrospective justification for rioting, looting and murder."
That was 1985. William Whitelaw, then Home Secretary, said pretty much the same thing in 1981. This is 2011 and some people in the media, politicians and the courts have been singing that same tune and with predictable gusto.
I say all of the above, because I believe that whether or not you see the violent unrest that fanned out from Tottenham on 6 August 2011 and raged elsewhere for a further week as having nothing at all to do with Mark Duggan, as many have claimed, one cannot separate the "stop and search" event that ended in Duggan being shot and killed by the police from the experience of Black communities up and down the land over several decades, or from the experience of white working class communities at the hands of that same police and other institutions of state, their experience of cyclical unemployment across generations, their experience of poverty in the face of excessive wealth and opulence that gets thrown in their face by the media, by popular culture and by reality TV especially.
Much of the reporting of the so-called "riots" was simply disgraceful. The media appeared to have embarked on a moral crusade, setting down benchmarks by which the "rioters" should be judged in the court of public opinion and by which the judiciary should also set about the task of teaching them a lesson; a lesson that would serve not only as a deterrent to others but as a form of appeasement for an outraged nation that needed to see the state take its revenge on behalf of us for what they, the "feral", "feckless", "criminal" and "amoral", had dared to put us all through.
And so zealous were some in the media to reach for the stereotypes and the hasty conclusions once the shooting of Duggan had occurred that reckless and inflammatory accounts were reported of what had allegedly taken place when the police stopped the car in which Mark Duggan was travelling: Police stops car. Black gunman shoots at police. Police officer saved from certain death by his radio which thankfully caught the bullet the gunman had meant for him.
What is the nation expected to make of that?
Why should the Black community not be in a state of high alert in anticipation of high level, sustained police activity as a consequence of that reported "attempted murder" of a police officer by a young Black male?
Why should they not be concerned as to whether the police were telling the media that story simply to justify their shooting dead of a man who had not lifted a gun at them?
Whether or not it was a unit from her police station that had been involved in that fatal incident, why did the local commander of police go away without ensuring that Duggan’s family was told the truth about how he died?
Were the police banking on the fact that Mark Duggan had form and the expectation that the community in Tottenham would not mobilise themselves to demand answers about how somebody like him came to be killed by the police?
Did the police forget that it was only weeks before that Smiley Culture had met his death in bizarre circumstances, again in the course of a police search? Did they forget that a couple thousand people had been mobilised to protest that death and demand answers?
Is it that the police treat the Black community with such disdain that it is of little interest to them that the community establishes a connection between all these events; that it has a historical memory, a collective memory that encompasses Cynthia Jarrett, Christopher Alder, Roger Sylvester, Joy Gardner, Clinton McCurbin, Brian Douglas, Wayne Douglas and all the other three hundred of them, such that any new death while in the custody of the state must be seen to be handled with the utmost care and sensitivity?
In addition to those deaths, Black communities across the country have been burying their young, men and women, girls and boys, with numbing regularity as a result of gun and knife crime ever since the late 1990s. This distressing phenomenon has been described as ‘Black on Black’ killings, as if it is something that concerns the Black community only and is not a matter for the government and the nation to tackle with urgency as the British creation that is it.
As I said to David Cameron in my open letter to him: "Why this sudden eagerness to tackle the problem of ‘gangs’? When our children were being murdered week in and week out in London and elsewhere year after year, why did government not look at the causes of the implosion that was so fatally evident in parts of our society?"
"Why is it only after the nation saw how destructive of property and disregarding of people’s lives that section of the population could be that there is this determination to deal mercilessly with ‘gangs’?"
"In spite of all that and more, the media got into a frenzy about the civil unrest on the streets of London and elsewhere and liberally applied descriptions and labels to the ‘rioters’ which provided ample evidence of the extent to which they were considered to be not just socially excluded but intrinsically socially unacceptable."
"In fact, early last week, I was listening to Michael Buchanan presenting a report on the (BBC Radio) World at One from the Pembury Estate in Hackney. To my utter disbelief, Buchanan referred to ‘a pack of about 20 teenagers coming towards (him)’. He said nothing subsequently to indicate that he was talking about pit bulls, wild dogs or our latest four legged companions, urban foxes, rather than young people in Hackney."
"The language used by the media typifies a process of ‘othering’; a process which provides the nation and not least the police and the courts with a justification for treating that section of the community as the ‘them’ from whom ‘we’ must be protected, as the alien wedge against whom the state must act on behalf of ‘us’, the ‘them’ from whom every decent citizen in Cameron’s ‘big society’ must distance themselves, preferably armed with broom and pail."
"Armed with the excluding language that defines ‘them’ in their otherness, ‘we’ need not ask ourselves searching questions such as:
• What did ‘we’ do when for years ‘they’ complained about police brutality and abuse of power? About being stopped and searched umpteen times in a single week and being expected to be compliant and polite each and every time?
• What did ‘we’ do when there was ample evidence year on year of the courts endorsing and thereby encouraging police outrages against ‘them’ and doing so presumably in ‘our’ name?
• To what extent have ‘we’ colluded with the structured and systemic marginalisation of ‘them’ as African people and as white working class and poor in the society from one generation to the next?
• Did ‘we’ protest when successive pieces of immigration legislation cast ‘them’ more and more as outsiders, irrespective of ‘them’ knowing no other land but ‘ours’, and gave the green light to racists and fascists to maim and murder ‘them’ under the guise of keeping Britain white, supposedly on ‘our’ behalf?
• How many more generations of ‘them’ must be born here before ‘we’ stop identifying ‘them’ as ‘ethnic minority’?
• When has the state ever stipulated that, because of the views they defiantly say they hold which evidently do not accord with ‘our commonly shared values’, members of the English Defence League and the British National Party should successfully go through citizenship tests, with the usual citizenship ceremony to follow, or else be stripped of their British citizenship? If you could confer it upon some whom you have made to demonstrate that they are worthy of it, you can surely remove it from others who have proven themselves to be singularly unworthy of it? When last has any of them lost their freedom, let alone their housing, their benefit or their children’s travel pass for raining terror upon Black people?"
"Unemployment, alienation, disaffection, breakdown of family discipline, fatherless and single parent households and all the rest of it do not necessarily lead to violent protest on our streets and theirs. But when imposed leisure, wagelessness and your visibility on the streets, individually or collectively, lead the police to target you relentlessly, whether through ‘stop and search’, the use of ‘sus’ laws or the sheer indulgence in racist conduct, resistance can assume unpredictable forms."
"The Metropolitan Police who stood by in Tottenham, Clapham Junction and elsewhere and let the unrest escalate while their helicopters took thousands of images of those involved were quick to pronounce afterwards that they would ‘put fear into the hearts of the rioters’."
"They are, as ever, eager to invite the media to witness and report them busting down doors at ungodly hours of the morning and ‘putting fear into the hearts’ of young and old alike, innocent and still to be proven guilty alike."
"Ever since the skirmishes with the police during the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival, each new wave of urban protest, violent civil disorder, uprising or whatever term you might care to use has given rise to more militarised forms of policing, or at the very least demands for the same. The new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, robocop Bernard Hogan-Howe, is taking the opportunity in this post-August 2011environment when it is felt the nation has a stomach for these things to push the boat out as far as possible.
Terence Morris, writing in New Society in November 1985 commented:
‘Riot confers no license for generalised violence on the part of the agents of the state’."
"I would add, nor does it confer license upon housing authorities, the benefits agency, Transport for London, or any other non-judiciary body to mete out rough justice arbitrarily to those accused of or convicted for offences associated with the unrest. It is not the business of Transport for London to punish young people who were arrested and charged for their part in the disturbances by withdrawing their travel pass."
Let me end with something I wrote in the journal Race Today in January 1986 in response to Mr Geoffrey Dear: "While Commissions of Inquiry meet to analyse causes and cures, and police and community leaders scurry around demonstrating that theirs is a ‘common sorrow’ and that they have no fundamental disagreements, not even about what ‘returning the situation back to normality’ means, the injustice machine accelerates in the cause of law and order, and the safeguarding of people’s rights and civic entitlements is considered an almost obscene concern, given the circumstances."
"In one fell swoop, magistrates and judges, not to mention solicitors and barristers, manage to engender in defendants, their families and their communities the kind of resentment which remains deep seated and festering, ready and waiting to be given expression in full force on another day, whether or not by the same people."
"No one is deterred. Others see no one as ‘an example’. They do not learn to respect and abide by ‘the consensual values’ of the society any more than they did before. They don’t go running in droves to the nearest community policing facility. They and their communities are subjected instead to more of the vicious treatment which is visited upon the community by an occupying force on whom no checks and balances are imposed in the wake of the warfare on the streets, even as the consultation and the community liaison is stepped up in an effort to restore ‘normality’."
"And if the law and order gospel and the pilgrims within the police and the community and inside the courts fail to achieve what they want now, they would be no more successful with the baton rounds, CS gas, and water cannon at their disposal."
(Extract from Oh Dear! That criminal minority again – Gus John examines the police report on the Handsworth riots, Race Today, January 1986; in Taking a Stand – Gus John Speaks on education, race, social action and civil unrest 1980-2005, Gus John Partnership 2006, reprinted 2010, Gus John Books, London.)
That was 1986. This is 2011.
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. The more things change, the more they remain the same, producing new generations of casualties in their wake.
I rest my case!
* Professor Gus John is Honorary Fellow and Associate Professor at the Institute of Education.