England: riots or uprisings?

As you’ve probably seen, there has been massive rioting in London and, now, many other major cities in England such as Manchester and Liverpool. This has taken everybody by surprise (I personally don’t trust anyone who says they saw this coming). Amidst all the hullabaloo, two questions pop into mind: are these riots or “uprisings”? And, why wasn’t the army called out?

Just like the riots/uprisings today, the urban uprisings of the long Civil Rights Movement in the United States “flummoxed liberals, outraged conservatives, and thrilled radicals.” Tom Sugrue continues on and explains the difference in terminology: “‘Riot’ was the most commonly used, an ancient word describing a seemingly senseless, inarticulate expression of violence or rage,” one associated with “mobs and irrationality. ‘Uprising’ was the least used but perhaps the most accurate term: It suggested a spontaneous upsurge of protest or violent expression of discontent, something with political content, but short of full-fledged revolutionary act.” Despite calling it the most accurate term, Sugrue goes on to use “riot.” He’s wrong in that choice; his own evidence proves this. For instance, the uprisings had specific targets and were part of larger, long-term movements. I’m unsure the crucial characteristics of the American uprisings—organization, intention, and part of a social movement—apply to the actions in England. Looting is applicable to either term.

I’ve read from some blogs that these riots/uprisings have occurred amongst the poorest residents of urban England. There also seems to be some confusion about the racial component of the actions and reactions (i.e. the Duggan shooting and the make-up of the actors). Laurie Penny, in a great piece of writing, argues that the government “thought that after thirty years of soaring inequality, in the middle of a recession, they could take away the last little things that gave people hope, the benefits, the jobs, the possibility of higher education, the support structures, and nothing would happen.” That’s certainly pretty hard to argue with. (The comment by SJS is particularly interesting showing the stark contrast in opinion that these riots/uprisings will and have elicited.)

If that’s the case, though, why are they simply “riots” and not uprisings? On the one hand, they have been organized we’re informed, via blackberry phones and Twitter. On the other, much of the “organization” seems spur of the moment. Who’s doing the organizing seems important here, too. Second, if we carry arguments like Penny’s to a logical conclusion, then the riots/uprisings have a unifying theme, a general grievance that those involved share. This gives them purpose, meaning, and intention. Third, some of the protesters seems to believe they are part of a larger social movement. One interaction with a rioter/upriser and an NBC journalist is highlighted by Penny. This young black man smartly told the camera crew, “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you? 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. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.” Can’t say fairer than that.

For me, it’s too early to tell, and I simply don’t know enough the situation, to label them one way or the other. I’m lucky that in most of the stuff I get to study, there’s generally plenty of hindsight. From some of the reports I’ve read, many of the people involved seem like they’re creating chaos because they can. This, for me, removes a level of political sophistication. But, if that sort of drive came primarily from an apathy that was instilled in them by a system which failed them, then it will be more accurate to label the actions uprisings (which, like the American, will surely rile conservatives).

Heck, the US government likes to call out the guard on peaceful protesters as seen in this 1960s shot of striking African-America sanitation workers in Tennessee.

Lastly, and this is just a wondering really that I haven’t given much thought to, why didn’t/hasn’t the government called out the army (it doesn’t seem likely since they haven’t already)? After one night in the US, the National Guard would be out in force—rifles, riot gear, helmets, and all. There seems some reluctance to do this in England, even after three nights. I’m not sure why. I think it has something to do with the racial histories and contexts of each country. Any thoughts?

2 thoughts on “England: riots or uprisings?

  1. So, first off, crowds scare me in general – whether I’m “with them” or “against them” because I always feel (rationally? irrationally?) like at any moment they could all turn against me Shirley Jackson-style. Having said that, I agree with most of this post, but I wonder about this: “From some of the reports I’ve read, many of the people involved seem like they’re creating chaos because they can. This, for me, removes a level of political sophistication.” I know it’s an undeveloped strand, but I wonder what would prove “political sophistication” and I wonder in part because I feel like often grass-roots movements or protests are written off by mainstream media or organizations because they fail to appear “sophisticated” or “organized” – so are we saying there’s a dividing line? I dislike the idea of wanton violence for violence-sake but I wonder how much intent must be known/felt/expressed for it to be a worthwhile political movement. Again, I don’t like violence at all – and never really see it as worthwhile (although the quote from the one participant make a disturbing and compelling point about the responses to violence and peaceful protest) I am uncomfortable with the phrase “political sophistication.” Perhaps mine is a semantic quibble?

  2. I did pause for a second when I wrote “politically sophisticated.” What does that mean exactly? I wasn’t sure then, but was intrigued by the idea, thought it fit good enough and so went for it.

    I suppose I wrote it in the comparative context of the US uprisings (riots) as part of the Civil Rights Movement and these recent riots in London. The CRM had a set of goals that many shared and were willing to fight for. The uprisings were one manifestation of that. I am unsure that the rioters in England have a similar set of connecting threads.

    This clearly assumes a theory of violence that is not always negative. There are times, this theory would argue, that violence is, at times, justified (I am choosing words very carefully here). This is where that man’s quote would enter. He made a lot of sense to me, too, however disturbing or not that is. Some of the happenings in Tottenham and Liverpool seemed to be violence (looting, anarchy, etc.) for violence’s sake. That would not be justified and remains, for me, politically unsophisticated. Now, as you mention, that is how it “appears” to me. I may be proven (and am hopeful) to be wrong by people investigating the events closer. The government certainly won’t get to the bottom of it any time soon.

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