Ten years on from the 2011 uprisings, marginalized young people are still fighting for justice. This week, we commemorated ten years since the police killing of Mark Duggan, which sparked the largest UK rebellions since 1981 Brixton uprisings. Duggan’s death at the hands of police was a catalyst for the 2011 uprisings. But unbeknown to the mainstream, Britain was already a tinderbox ready to be set aflame.
Reflecting on the urban unrest in 2011, anti-racist activist and broadcaster Darcus Howe told the BBC: “Our political leaders had no idea, the police had no idea. But if you looked at young Blacks and young Whites with a discerning eye and a careful hearing, they have been telling us, and we would not listen that what is happening in this country to them is wrong” [0:47]. The same could be said today. A decade of Tory austerity, an increasingly fascist state, and a global pandemic have given rise to a frustrated, politically conscious generation with very little to lose. If the state and its institutions continue to oppress and persecute marginalized young people, we could see a repeat of the urban unrest that shook the nation in 2011.
On 4 August 2011, Metropolitan police officers shot and killed 29-year-old Mark Duggan. Seeking answers, Duggan’s family and friends staged a peaceful protest outside Tottenham police station on 6 August 2011. However, police refused to send a senior officer to answer their questions. After Duggan’s family returned home, an officer allegedly struck a young woman attending the protest. Soon, people in Tottenham rose up into what would become the largest rebellion the UK has seen for a generation. For four days, uprisings spread through urban centers in England, predominantly in areas with a history of protests against police brutality and institutional racism, including Brixton, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, and Manchester.
“Our political leaders had no idea, the police had no idea. But if you looked at young Blacks and young Whites with a discerning eye and a careful hearing, they have been telling us, and we would not listen that what is happening in this country to them is wrong”Darcus Howe, BBC News Interview On Riots, 9 Aug 2011
The government and mainstream media were quick to condemn the rebellions. The government encouraging a racialized moral panic that scapegoated Black working-class young people, the press denounced those involved in the uprisings as “ thugs.” Then prime minister David Cameron framed the rebellions as “criminality, pure and simple.” He firmly denied that the uprisings were a response to institutional racism or government cuts and announced an “ all-out war on gangs and gang culture.” Current leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer – then director of public prosecutions – worked through the night to prosecute those involved in the uprisings.
Police made over 3,000 arrests. They increased the use of stop and search, carried out intrusive raids, and amped up surveillance. It’s no shock that the police and courts over-targeted young working-class People of Color. Although the state and its institutions attempted to deny the political motivations of the uprisings. Those involved in damaging property predominantly targeted institutions that represent the capitalist establishment. This reveals that this was a generation of disenfranchised Brits seeking to disrupt and dismantle the systems of oppression that had held them down for too long.
A series of Guardian investigations into the causes and consequences of the 2011 uprisings found that – much like the 1981 Brixton uprisings – excessive and disproportionate policing was a key factor in the unrest. For example, of those interviewed in the Reading the Riots study, 73% said they had been stopped and searched in the previous 12 months. Meanwhile, the memories of Smiley Culture, Kingsley Burrell, Demetre Fraser – Black people who died following contact with police in the months leading up to the 2011 rebellions – loomed large in the collective consciousness of those involved.
Today, young working-class People of Color continue to bear the brunt of the violent state response to the events of 2011. Young People of Color now make up more than half of the youth carceral state in England and Wales. This is the result of a series of laws, policies, and reforms used to criminalize and exclude them – many of which were rolled out in response to the events of 2011, including the Gangs Matrix. Racial disproportionality in convictions under the joint enterprise doctrine, “gang injunctions,” and the use of drill lyrics as evidence in court — reflect the extent to which Black youth culture continues to be criminalized.
Today, police in England and Wales are 19 times more likely to stop and search young Black men than the general population. Meanwhile, Black people are five times more likely to have force used on them by police. And officers have increased their use of tasers by more than 500% over the last decade. In the last decade, the government has cut youth services by 73%. Research by the Institute of Race Relations (the IRR’s How Black Working-Class Youth are Criminalised and Excluded in the English School System) suggests that the UK’s PRU-to-prison pipeline directly results from successive government responses to UK urban rebellions (p. 7). The state has developed a “two-tier” education system that systematically excludes and criminalizes Black working-class children and young people under the guise of “behavior management” (p. 26, p. 8). The increasing presence of police in schools coupled with the trial of Knife Crime Prevention Orders will likely further criminalize young working-class People of Color. People who are already overpoliced and under-protected.
As a result of the economic downturn and public sector cuts, youth unemployment in 2010 was at an all-time high. The government’s decision to scrap the future jobs fund and educational maintenance allowance, along with the rise in student fees, further damaged young people’s prospects. These factors all fed into the sentiment that the government had no interest in investing in young people’s futures. Following another decade of austerity, a million young people were not in employment or education at the beginning of 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the precariousness of marginalized young people’s lives. In the wake of the pandemic, 40% of Black young people of working age are unemployed. More broadly, youth unemployment figures are disproportionately high. Again, this suggests that the state has abdicated its responsibility to offer young people a secure future.
Like those involved in the 2011 rebellions, Black Lives Matter protesters were met with police on horseback wearing riot gear in 2020. The government condemned protesters’ calls for justice. It responded by proposing the draconian Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill. Among other oppressive reforms, this Bill seeks to criminalize “disruptive” protests, give the heavy-handed police even more powers and expand the youth carceral state. The breadth and severity of the bill’s potential impact are reflected in the diverse range of organizations that have united in opposing it. The 2011 rebellions came after a series of protests, strikes, and demonstrations against changes to public sector pensions, the financial crisis, public spending cuts, and changes to tuition fees. But, as Howe highlighted, the UK’s public and political institutions refused to listen to them. If the government continues to meet today’s widespread calls to end structural racism and state violence with further repression, we’ll likely see yet another outburst of violent discontent.
We have still not seen justice or reparations for historical injustices, including the police killing of Duggan, which the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) deems “lawful” to this day. A decade on from the 2011 uprisings, marginalized young people are still fighting for the state and its institutions to listen to their voices and respect their rights. Rather than support and solutions, they have been met with further violence and social exclusion. We need urgent action to redress the deeply entrenched structural inequalities that persist today. This means investment in communities rather than more cuts, policing, and criminalization. It means reparations, social justice, and dismantling the racist carceral state. It would be a grave mistake for the government to continue pursuing its oppressive, draconian political agenda. As the events of 2011 demonstrated, there is only so long you can hold a generation down until they rise up.