Review: Riot City: Protest and Rebellion in the Capital
| Nina Power |
The greatest offence against property was to have none’ –E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class
The verb form of “riot” indicates both the taking part in one (or many) and a sense of dissolution — ‘he has rioted away his life’, as one 1920s posh person might say to another in an ITV episode of Poirot. In its noun form, the sense of merriment is preserved, but the sense of public disturbance is also fixed, historically, through media commentary andƒ most brutally, legally (‘a riot’ took place here, ‘the riots’ of August 2011). Riot is described in law in the 1986 Public Order Act in the following way:
(1)Where 12 or more persons who are present together use or threaten unlawful violence for a common purpose and the conduct of them (taken together) is such as would cause a person of reasonable firmness present at the scene to fear for his personal safety, each of the persons using unlawful violence for the common purpose is guilty of riot.
(2)It is immaterial whether or not the 12 or more use or threaten unlawful violence simultaneously.
(3)The common purpose may be inferred from conduct.
(4)No person of reasonable firmness need actually be, or be likely to be, present at the scene.
(5)Riot may be committed in private as well as in public places.
(6)A person guilty of riot is liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years or a fine or both.
Riot as a legal charge is in fact used less often in recent months than people might suppose, given the widespread media use of the term to describe everything from an out-of-hand party, to a football match, from protests, to a street festival. Most of the people initially charged as a result of last August’s events were accused of burglary and if they were charged with a public order offence as well (or instead) it was usually violent disorder, which requires three or more people using or threatening unlawful violence and carries a maximum sentence of five years, rather than ten. This was the same charge overwhelmingly used against the students and other protesters following the ‘Demo-lition’ march of 11th November 2010 that ended up near Tory HQ at Millbank and the subsequent protests in the months that followed (amongst which, three more education and cuts protest and the large TUC demo on March 26th 2011). The fact that the first teenager to be charged specifically with riot as such is newsworthy is worth noting. From the standpoint of the law, to charge someone with riot may not be worth it — it’s clearly harder to prove the participation of 12 people than 3, even if the violence is only threatened and no one ‘of reasonable firmness’ is actually present.
There are further implications if riot (and/or injury, stealing, or destruction) has occurred, particularly in light of the Riot (Damages) Act (1886), where if ‘a house, shop, or building in a police area has been injured or destroyed, or the property therein has been injured, stolen, or destroyed, by any persons riotously and tumultuously assembled together, such compensation as hereinafter mentioned shall be paid out of the police fund of the area to any person who has sustained loss by such injury, stealing, or destruction’. It is interesting to note the recent frustration shown on the part of the Association of British Insurers calling for urgent reform of the old act and pointing out that, while the insurers have paid out over 95% of all riot claims, the police fund has not been so forthcoming: “While insurers have settled or paid against the vast majority of claims, over half of claims submitted by insurers to police authorities under the Riot Damages Act have been declined. This shows insurers are doing all they can to look after their customers, despite not getting their claims settled by the police authorities.” Although the law is blurry on the strictness of needing to call something a “riot” before the compensation fund kicks in (is it the events of the area as a whole? The events of a few days in a city or the country as a whole? The specific prosecutions used against individuals? Whether the media says that it happened?) for the compensation scheme to kick in, all this is a costly business for the authorities — it remains an open question what would happen if and when police privatisation really kicks in — would G4S be happy to pay out if businesses and properties were damaged in a “public order” situation? Private security and private property, as well as the currently existing authorities, don’t always mesh easily together, especially if the property in question belongs not to government bodies but to relatively poorer, and thus insignificant, individuals.
Why preface a discussion of Bloom’s book with all this stuff about law, insurers and which bit of the public order act has been used lately? Why would we listen to what the authorities have to say about what did or did not happen in the past couple of years? In the light of the large number of exemplary (although all sentences are surely exemplary) and extreme prison sentences handed down over the past year and a half (the phrase ‘six months for stealing water worth £3.50’ comes to mind), not to mention the 24-hour courts and the Met police’s new ‘Total Policing’ strategy, it seems important to be clear about what we mean when particular words (riot, violence, peace, justice, the public, in particular) are used, who says them, and to what end. Bloom in Riot City, despite discussing the ‘student riots of 2010’, the ‘inner-city riots of 2011’ and, at various points and particularly in an Appendix, the Gordon House riots of 1780, the Bawdy House riots before then, does not ever really clarify what he means by ‘riot’, which is a shame, as all too often the state and the media have the monopoly of usage over the term, and it is, as we know, relentlessly negative: attempting to explain or justify anger is deemed to be irresponsible, even when that anger is real, justified and staring everyone in the face — the anger of friends and family over the police execution of Mark Duggan, the anger over daily police harassment, the anger over the criminality and hypocrisy of the rich and powerful. If Bloom is trying to defend and expand the usage of the term, for example, by suggesting that the events of late 2010 over university fees and cuts and the events of August 2011 are all ‘riots’, then it would be useful to have a clearer description of the term:
Bloom asks, parodying Richard Hamilton parodying a 1950s Ladies Home Journal advert, ‘Just what is it that makes today’s riots so different, so appealing?’ And yet he concludes the book by asking ‘what are we now to do to stop rioting of this type?’ What he means by ‘this type’ is revealed in the preceding sentence ‘[t]he students rioted to restore equilibrium; the summer rioters to permanently disturb it’. So, there we have it: there are good riots and there are bad — in order to prevent the latter from returning Bloom ponders, ‘[w]e do not know if a prison regime would restore the dignity that the offenders have forfeited. We might prefer to see large-scale community work for most, but observing this in practice is disheartening and the results are poor.’ But which ‘we’ is Bloom referring to exactly? There are many who supported the riots, and many who wonder why there aren’t riots more often, given everything.
Despite the by-now sizeable amount of the Guardian LSE ‘Reading the Riots’ study, the temporarily banned ‘Riots: In Their Own Words’ documentary, and the recent ‘Riot from Wrong’ film, Bloom asks ‘are we ready to ask criminals their opinion on anything?’ One might ask Bloom whether “we” should be more ready to ask the current government and its agents, or indeed the one before that, given the manifest obviousness of their criminality: the police who killed Mark Duggan and many, many others with impunity, the bankers who demanded bail-outs from public funds, the government ministers who stole flat-screen TVs and much more in the expenses scandal, and before them Blair, whose prosecution for war crimes would surely have come to pass if he had been anything other than the UK Prime Minister.
Throughout Riot City Bloom oscillates between defending what he calls the ‘dirty politics of the street’ and denying that those on these ‘dirty’ streets understand why they are there at all: students protested because they were ‘annoyed and frustrated with their own stupidity’ for having voted for Nick Clegg — although one cannot really be called ‘stupid’ if someone else has lied to you repeatedly and you had no reason to not believe them — and those rioters questioned after August ‘spouted a retrospective rhetoric of economic woe and the corruption in high places.’ However, states Bloom, with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, ‘this had been a learned script’.
Bloom’s methodological frame is all over the place, but this is openly admitted: ‘My approach is perhaps, holistic, an attempt to combine the latest official documentation, police reports, security briefings, reportage and parliamentary reports with information from the rioters, revolutionary groups and historical evidence’. Anyone paying attention over the past year and a half is unlikely to learn much that is new from Bloom’s holistic approach, and framing Mark Duggan’s death in relation to chaos theory might strike the reader as bizarre, if not something a lot worse. Bloom also seems to suggest that we are living through some kind of post-political era: ‘since 2000,’ he claims, ‘the old ideological divisions of left and right have almost entirely broken down’ (really? Why since 2000? What happened then?). It is Bloom’s lack of a coherent methodological approach, combined with outbursts of unquestioned received wisdom (‘the government had no choice but to overhaul the [university] system’) and vague generalisations (‘no two riots are ever the same’) that make Riot City appear less the ‘historical account’ it promises in the preface and more a hasty retelling of recent events that adds little new to existing accounts, other than its length (169 pages plus two appendices on 1968 and the avant-garde and an essay on protest flags, the latter of which has the odd bit of interesting data, but which are likely simply tacked on and bear little relation to the main text).
For whatever reason, Bloom’s main strength lies in his analysis of CCTV, and in the role this plays in prosecuting people after events, as well as negatively shaping “public” space. At a recent talk given by the current Met Police Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, his underlying theme was all about technology: ‘total policing requires’, he said, ‘total technology’. A more focused account of the role of CCTV, social media, infiltration, information-gathering and surveillance and the criminalising of the image as such is, however, yet to be fully told. Perhaps someone can pick up where Bloom leaves off, and tell the story of not only who gets to describe something as a ‘riot’ and why they might be interested in doing so, but also who gets to control the images of ‘violence’. Riots have a spectacular, addictive quality of course, but what lies behind them – the violence of the everyday: of exploitation, inequality, and police harassment – can no longer be ignored. Riots make visible the truth of injustice, and far from working out ways to make them stop, we should be actively seeking to overturn and destroy the political system that makes them necessary in the first place.
Nina Power is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Roehampton University. She is the co-editor of Alain Badiou’s On Beckett and his Political Writings. Nina has published widely on topics including Iran, humanism, vintage pornography and Marxism. Her book One Dimensional Woman is published by O-Books.
Riot City: Protest and Rebellion in the Capital by Clive Bloom has just been published by Palgrave MacMillan.