An American in Birmingham: My Perspective on the London Riots

by Guest Contributor Kadian Pow

Riots

I don’t live in London, so I will not pretend to write the story of what Londoners are feeling. I live in the nation’s second city, Birmingham—a less than two hour drive northwest of London. This is my perspective on London, Birmingham and other parts of the country.

On Thursday, Tottenham (borough of London) resident Mark Duggan was shot and killed by police. He was being investigated by police for some time. Though armed, reports claimed Duggan had surrendered his gun before shots were fired. On Saturday, his family—tired of waiting for answers about the circumstances of his death—marched to a local police station to speak to senior officers. On the way there, other people joined them. Police were slow to respond to the family’s request for information. The crowd became restless and a young girl was reportedly pushed back by police. It was speculation and rumour around this confrontation that sparked the initial rioting in Tottenham. The looting and arson that followed on ensuing nights had nothing to do with getting justice for Mark. His family is outraged at the behaviour and violence that has spread across London and the country.

We’ve been glued to the TV since Sunday morning when we woke up to news of the rioting in Tottenham on Saturday night. We were gobsmacked at the devastation, questioning why this was happening. On Sunday night when we learned that the violence had spread to other areas of London, I had a sinking feeling that the trouble would reach beyond the capital, and we would see it in Birmingham. In fact, I said as much in an email on Monday morning to my best friend in DC.

On Monday evening, we went to a free cinema preview on the edge of Birmingham city centre. In an unusual move, we decided to take the car and go to the nearby Tesco grocery store afterwards. The supermarket’s parking lot was unusually empty. It was 8:30 PM. As we approached the entrance another shopper arriving at his car told us the shop had closed early due to “trouble in town”. I pressed him about the exact location of the trouble, but he did not know. We decided to go to the Tesco Express at the end of our street in the Jewellery Quarter (a desirable residential area near the heart of the city). My sense of unease continued. I stayed outside in the small parking lot of the store to keep watch while my partner went inside to shop. I noticed a youth in dark clothing with his hood up, surreptitiously talking on his phone. I looked to my right and in the distance spotted about 10 other youths in similar dress approaching. I loudly admonished G to “Get the fuck out NOW!” I could feel myself welling up with anger because they dared to bring their violence and bravado to my neighbourhood. I think I had residual anger from having had all three of our bikes nicked by young kids just two weeks before. G did not heed my words, so I had to yell like a mad woman for her to get out. As I turned my back, the youth were just feet away from me. I saw one quickly take off his balaclava (ski mask) and dump it behind the bin near the entrance of the store. To my left two police vans had just arrived. I begged the youths not to bring trouble to my ‘hood then jumped in the car to quickly get away. Later that night from my side window, I could see police in riot gear parading up and down my street. Ours is the only residential building on a street otherwise littered with jewellery shops. It’s important to note that these youth were not rioters. The term “riot” usually implies political purpose. These youth had gathered with the intention to cause damage and steal.

BBM messages like these have been sent out to organize people:

“Everyone from all sides of London meet up at the heart of London (central) OXFORD CIRCUS!!, Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some (free stuff!!!) fuck the feds we will send them back with OUR riot! >:O Dead the ends and colour war for now so if you see a brother… SALUT! if you see a fed… SHOOT!”

Interestingly, the message above is also temporarily advocating squashing gang turf wars and racial tensions (“dead the ends and colour wars”) in the name of free stuff. These give you some indication of the motivations of those who organized the violent gangs. Their intentions: rain havoc through any violence possible and get free shit while doing so. This was supposedly their way of showing authorities that they could do whatever they want. And they did. Four nights on, they’re still at it. I must stress that any justification the rioters in Tottenham may have felt they had to rail against authority on Saturday night, cannot be claimed by offenders who spread this to other parts of the country. How shameful that social media has been used for this purpose. Recently, we’ve seen how mediums like Twitter were used to mobilize the people of Egypt (and other countries) in their quest for democracy.

There was an appalling lack of coverage of trouble in Birmingham on the BBC and Sky News on Monday. I relied on this industrious young man’s tumblr: http://birminghamriots2011.tumblr.com/ to coalesce all the Birmingham area news. I’ve never been so frightened in my life. In all my years living in DC, I’ve never seen a group of people who don’t give even a hint of a fuck because they feel they have nothing to lose. Those that conducted violence and arson in London boroughs may have started out angry, but the violence that has spread across the country in the last two nights is mostly opportunistic copycat criminality by gangs. Highly organised to be sure. Take a look at the flyer instructing would-be criminals on how to keep their identity protected after looting.

Riot Guide

Most of the violators are born and bred in England. While the initial trouble was mostly led by Black youths, the subsequent spread has seen increasing numbers of white youths and adults of both genders. Kids as young as 10 have been seen wearing make shift balaclavas (ski masks) and hurling debris at police. What has to be questioned is the mentality of the opportunistic looters. I saw news footage of a middle-aged man brazenly entering a T-Mobile store after the looters left, copping a netbook and slipping it under his shirt. Watching the images from the violence in Manchester, I could not help but notice the predominately white faces railing against police and kicking their way into stores.
These riots are largely not being committed by immigrants. South Asian groups are mostly absent from the violence (it’s also Ramadan!). In Birmingham, the last night has brought about a surge of “vigilantes” from Sikh, Hindu, Muslim and other communities protecting their properties and religious institutions. Tuesday night, three young South Asian men died in a deliberate hit-and-run collision just outside Birmingham while trying to protect their community.

People are angry. Very angry. I share that anger. In Birmingham, eyewitness accounts indicate that mobs are largely after cash. They have straight up robbed people, casinos, bars and even yanked ATMs out of the walls of banks. I just feel like I want to shake them and say: Is this what you want your life to be? And for what? £25 from a slot machine and a few pairs of jeans? But through all of this, the spirit of community is emerging. It started late Monday night on Twitter and Facebook with people forming #riotcleanup crews. They came out in force in affected communities with their brooms and gloves. This is the spirit of a country that has lived through violence in past decades and the Blitz of World War II. It’s not quite the “Keep Calm and Carry On” motto from the war, but there is a sense of getting on with things even as we grapple with deep questions.

England’s benefits system (welfare) is infamous for how easy it is to exploit. There are generations of people who have known nothing but this benefits system and frankly aren’t motivated to get off it. But much of the criminal behaviour is not coming from mostly poor, disenfranchised youth. In fact, I consider it an insult to blame the poor for this behaviour. It’s also wrong. Violence like this has noticeably not kicked off in poor areas in Wales, Scotland or the very north of England. Young people from poor, rural areas with naff all to do have not joined the fray. So it’s also a question of values and a lack of individual responsibility among those who have made the decision to deliberately ruin cities and lives. Some people have been left with only the clothes on their back. Small business owners have seen years of hard work disappear in hours. Reeling from austerity measures, the last thing this country needs is civil unrest and billions of dollars in property damage. The aftershocks will go on for quite some time.

It’s clear that stemming the violence is only the beginning. Coming from the US where guns are largely prevalent, I am thankful that guns have been absent from the hands of criminals and the riot police. There are two conversations going on as the violence starts to temper in London (but growing in the rest of the country). One is obviously tough talk about catching and punishing criminals, thereby sending a message that behaviour like this is not acceptable. As importantly, the other conversation is about how to prevent this in the future, but not just with police tactics and intelligence. People are beginning to search for the root causes that need to be addressed. The prevalence of gang culture and allegiance to gangs as a replacement for family bonds needs to be further examined and address. Certainly when Parliament is recalled on Thursday morning, some of their debates will focus on this and the consequences of deep cuts and lack of revenue growth. Sound familiar?

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  • Anonymous

    Am pretty disappointed by this piece, too. The causes are so complex that we’re still unpicking them- hence the long post.  There’s so much to unpick: poverty, class, racism, hatred of the police, austerity measures, some good old fashioned opportunism, criminal behaviour, a belief that the monied classes- the bankers, the politicians and to a certain extent, the police-  have been looting so “why not us?” Also, the police’s role  is significant because they are facing cuts by the government:Did they stand by in order to force the government to reconsider those cuts?

      There’s been plenty of  overt/ covert racism about the rioters: “feral, scum,  animals” to ” “send them back to where they come from”( which is beyond ignorant because we are talking about youth who are largely 3rd or even 4th generation) that’s the article’s  author didn’t really discuss. Fascist groups have been rumoured to  about marching through particular areas to “take back our country”.

     To my mind, the flashpoint was   distrust about the police’s version of what happened last Thursday to Mark Duggan (he was characterised in the tabloids as a drug dealer and father of 4 or 5), and a refusal of the Independent Police  Complaints Commision (IPCC)   to answer any questions.Fast forward to Saturday  night  things blew up in Tottenham and surrounding areas, then Sunday and Monday  it spread south  and to  various parts of London  which were smashed up, looted and in some cases shops  and homes were set alight. (I live in one of those neighbourhoods-Brixton- and I was scared and really upset by what happened).

    In my area ( which is  about 60% Black), I saw largely Black youth looting. There’s a section of  youth involved in drug -dealing gangs  who really  have NO future and they know  it: unemployment in innercity areas for Black youth can be as high as 50%, police stop and search, austerity measures have cut youth services, reduced financial support for attending college, raised tuition fees to an average of  about £9,000 a year . They are bitter and despised and they despise society. So when people ask why did they smash up their “own” communities-it’s the wrong question. They don’t feel that they have a community. Their community is their “gang” .

    But it’s not so straightforward, there was a  greater multi-ethnic mix as the looting spread, particularly as it went north: to the Midlands and Manchester,Liverpool and other towns and cities. White working class, Asian,Turkish,  youth and not so youthful , poor and not so poor  have all been involved. So I think there wasn’t an overt explicit  political objective: more a  confused mishmash of frustration, hatred for authority/the police, opportunism, poverty,  ”let me get what I can get” mentality. (To my mind, this is different to the Brixton, Tottenham, Toxteth riots of the 80s).

    Hence, the narrative has  changed somewhat to “they’re all scum” but the refusal to analyse persists.

    Btw IPCC has now  suggested doubts that Mark Duggan shot at the police at all.

  • Scott Eustis

    This article claims that the riots are not political, and in fact are not riots.  Surreal.  Then the author posts a call to suspend Gang wars and racial boundaries in furtherance of the riot.  political yet?    Then the author posts a flyer distributed by rioters on how to avoid possible prosecution by authorities.  I’m pretty sure that’s political.  Organzing, even.  

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  • Jenn

    I’m disappointed in you, Racialicious. I’ve been away but when I finally got back home I started reading up about the riots, and turned to Racialicious in hopes to find some critical analysis. This is anything but.

  • raikage

    Just FYI the ‘colo(u)r wars’ are not inter racial tension but sort of gangs who show thier affiliaion by wearing different colours.
     also I understand you are frightened and angry and frustrated but the analysis is less than stellar.
     first, that bit about ‘the benefits system’ being easy to exploit is rubbish and is a common but unfounded stereotype
    look here for anyone who’s interested
     I can’t see how anyone with even a rudimentary  to the bit about how somehow the trouble doesn’t stem from the conditions of poverty and deprivation in some of the most neglected housing estates and the humiliation meted out by the police and other social and political causes, this is not that much different from other episodes of social violence in the US and elsewhere.
     I think the lack of ‘values’ is at best a symptom.
      perhaps you should ask youself why the violence in london mapped closely some of the most deprived estates.
     For people who want to know about the riots perhaps you could look
    at this  or  this  or this for a better picture.

  • http://www.facebook.com/shaktinah Kat Hussein Liu

    Thanks for sharing your experiences.  I found it very helpful in – if not exactly understanding the situation – at least getting a better sense of what it is NOT.  

  • http://profiles.google.com/kaila.heard Kaila Heard

    when i first heard about the riots, I jumped to attention. With just the bare facts, I just KNEW that this was an uprising by trampled upon oppressed in response to lack of opportunity, mistreatment by government, etc. 
    All Rioters=people who are mad as hell who aren’t going to take it anymore. 
    But learning more, I’m seeing how this isn’t as clear cut. Specifically, the people in the streets are rioting for various reasons, some “noble,” some undoubtably less so. 
    I’m so ready to have an “educated diagnosis” of the riots, I have to force myself to calm down and wait. Forgotten that just because I’m getting ‘instant’ information, doesn’t mean I’m well informed. 

    Curiously, in many of the accounts that I’ve read (and the great majority have been BBC News) there seems to be a need to assure – who – others that the rioters are outsiders, outside the neighborhood, opportunistic gang members etc. No one that you would know or associate with. 

    Outsiders. 

    Not one of us. 

    Citizenship and belonging can so easily be revoked. 

  • Sophia

    Wow, did I just step into a BBC broadcast? 
    In case you’ve forgotten, Egypt was PLENTY violent after January 25th. Just because the West decided to change their “Mubarak is a good guy” narrative a week in to protect their oil interests doesn’t mean we should fall for the party line: “Twitter helped inspire a peaceful revolution…” “Look how peaceful Egyptian protesters are…”Nonsense. Egyptians – my family included – were violent to protect themselves, violent to protect others, and many were violent out of sheer rage. And they still are, because the revolution is still ongoing.Poor, brown, black, been told your whole lives you’re worth nothing, you “abuse the system,” you’re lazy, you’re ignorant, you’re you’re you’re…? Then you Destroy everything around you. Riots like these – and I’m using “riot” loosely here – stem from such powerlessness that people will do anything – ANYTHING – to temporarily attain power. And you know what? It’s nothing new. When you’re treated like trash long enough, you treat yourself and your communities like trash. Why is this on Racialicious, usually a source of thoughtful, critical responses? This guest contributor seems to have made of their mind – that yes, these “rioters” ARE trash and we should continue treating them as such. Maybe we should also give the police more resources, yeah? Maybe more guns and lighter rules so they can keep shooting up people of colour and arresting them for acting out. 

    Not all those on the streets are grieving, that’s for sure. But when peaceful protests were held, NO ONE payed attention. And now everyone is. How do you think that makes people feel? That no one cares if they live or die or end up arrested for stealing a television or money and end up quite likely getting beaten and shot at? 

    For those of you interested in more nuanced reflections on London (instead of this drivel) here are some sources:

    http://pennyred.blogspot.com/2011/08/panic-on-streets-of-london.html

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/09/uk-riots-psychology-of-looting

    http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/features/2011/08/2011891555226219.html

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/08/context-london-riots

  • http://freexploration.wordpress.com Free

    Back in 2009 a London police constable issued a warning. He said that rioting would break out just as happened in the 1980s if high unemployment continued. In Tottenham,  year 1985, 26 year old Cynthia Jarrett died of a stroke as police searched home.  A young man told NBC that 2 weeks ago 2,000 black people marched peacefully to Scotland Yard and the media did not report it. Why are there are so many kids in gangs? Why are so there many troubled and disaffected youth in the United States and the UK? 

    “Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us,
    all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word
    in the press. – a young man in Tottenham, 2011

    Recession in the 1980s, recession now and conservative policies – thirty years of neglect – no jobs – no education – no opportunity. The bootstrap theory is dead. The neoliberals have killed it.

     http://freexploration.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/london-is-burning-2011/

    • WestEndGirl

      Oh for goodness sake. Utter utter *utter* bunk.

      There are plenty of reasons to look at the causes of the rioting but the ‘there was nothing in the press about the Smiley Culture march’ cause is just empty. Talk about a lie quite literally flying round the world before the truth has a chance to put it’s boots on.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oiiURyI21lg

      Lots of coverage on the BBC online about his death, the family protest and the inquiry.
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-surrey-13104094  (just one of about 10 links I found after Googling)

      Loads in the Guardian and lots of profile of his work and his importance to the Black community. Loads in the local area and his previous local area papers.

      • http://freeexploration.wordpress.com Free

        Good -  there was a march.  It is not Utter utter *utter* bunk.  that:

        The unrest was predicted, by a police constable and that riots have happened  before – in Tottehnam, and sparked by the death of a young person when the police were present.

        Police in London have a long a history  harassment and brutality directed at black people.

        It is not bunk that riots in England, in the 1980s and now, have occurred during times of high unemployment, in other words: Recession.

        Too bad that people aren’t as upset about the neoliberal robber barons who have looted entire countries and  increased the number of people living in poverty. Their policy is scorched earth.

  • http://commentarybyval.blogspot.com/ Val

    I’m really trying to gain a little insight from this post but after reading it a few times I still don’t get any.

  • Bisick_L

    this is weird. I haven’t read racialicious in a while, but I came here freaked out by the London riots, hoping to find the solace of intelligent critical race analysis. But this is like helping myself to another fascist dose of the bbc. Seriously, if you don’t have any decent material please don’t post anything. I can’t bear for this rare beacon of intelligence to turn into just another media zombie.

    • Insanecatholic1

      That’s a fairly rude and dismissive reply.  Why don’t you actually respond to the post?  Britons of color and other hardworking people are watching their homes and businesses being burned to the ground.  This post was more about sympathy for them than condemnation for the rioters.

  • DuncangrImley@gmail.com

    Thanks for sharing and hope you stay safe. (from a concerned and embarrassed brummie)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cocojams-Jambalayah/100000590546331 Cocojams Jambalayah
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cocojams-Jambalayah/100000590546331 Cocojams Jambalayah

    This video of an extemporaneous interview of an older Black man from Tottenham http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJQHWwEpwAY Tottenham Riot-The Truth is getting a number of hits on YouTube. I transcribed the interview for the historical record, and for the sake of those who have difficulty hearing. Although I definitely don’t condone riots, I agree with the man that there are sociological reasons that contributed to these riots. And as an admirer of spoken word artists, I believe that this interview would make a great, thought provoking monologue. Here’s a portion of that interview:

    ” The police] still don’t seem to have learned their lesson thirty years ago approximately what happened in Broadwater Farm and [?] and them places, yeah?. And you cannot keep oppressing people, right? They talk about Tottenham being bad and things. There’s nothing wrong with Tottenham, right. We’ve got a mixture, right, of people in Tottenham. Everybody in general gets on, yeah? So why are they tryin to make out as if Tottenham, you understand, is, you understand, that it’s all hotspot, you understand, that it is that bad. I mean look today, you can see all different sorts of groups or whatever, cultures of people, yeah? There’s nothing that serious in Tottenham, yeah? But now I says they seems to pacifically target Tottenham and places like Brixton, the deprived area where they know that predominately most Black peoples, you understand, have been sort of reside, yeah?
    Well, I sincerely hope that this today, this event, will sort of make some changes some progress, yeah? Cause this is not just about Black people now cause if you can see the thing and the pictures there’s All sorts of people, yeah? Ah it’s not just Black people. So they can’t use that now as an excuse and say, you know, Black people retaliate in, you know what I mean, in different ways, and things like that, yeah? So… it’s a shame that it’s happened the way it’s happened. But unfortunately they say “You got to fight fire with fire, yeah”. So I hope that they will stand up and they will see and acknowledge and DO something about it. It’s as simple as that, yeah? “

  • VENUS X

    I THINK THIS POINT OF VIEW IS EXTREMELY CONSERVATIVE
    TRY READING SOME CRITICISM OF CONSUMERISM THAT HELPS PLACE THESE RIOTERS IN A CONTEXT THAT IS UNIVERSAL.

    http://www.social-europe.eu/2011/08/the-london-riots-on-consumerism-coming-home-to-roost/

    • Anonymous

      It is. There’s another post going up at 1PM with a different view point, and two more accounts tomorrow.

      • Johnson

        With all due respect I don’t feel like this article should have been published without some serious background context of the situation in any situation and by letting this article be the first published on racialicious with regards to the UK ‘riots’ I feel you have done a disservice to the usually brilliant analyses that so many get from this website. No one is saying that the author’s experience wasn’t harrowing. But that does not mean that the reactionary response that appeared to be offered here to a very complex situation should be oversimplified through a personal tale. It soon derails into a biased simplistic narrative (as other commenters have shown) instead of an attempt to understand the deep class inequalities that rule in Britain.

    • Anonymous

      True it is…but that doesn’t make it a any less “real” for those perceiving it. While I personally see much larger social forces at work here, I’d be remiss to say that their isn’t just some a-hole people out there doing things for personal gain only.  Like a poet once said “Not every brother and sister is down for the cause.”