10 years ago this week, over 15,000 people took to the streets in the most widespread civil unrest the country had seen in a generation.
The police killing of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, north London sparked four days of rioting in August 2011. The rebellions began in London, spreading across 22 of the city’s 32 boroughs. It soon breached the city’s boundaries: 66 locations across England reported disturbances between 6 and 9 of August.
Despite journalists’ and MPs’ best efforts to depoliticise the uprising – claiming that those involved were mindlessly attacking their own, that their acts were (in David Cameron’s words) “criminality, pure and simple” – it is clear that it was about much more than Duggan’s killing.
Increased Section 60 police searches, education cuts and looming austerity had sown widespread discontent among the multiracial working-class communities where the rebellions took place. Around 90% of the damage done by rioters was directed at state institutions and big corporations.
The right was clear in its response, sending the police and public after the “gangs” allegedly responsible for the “riots”. The left, less so.
Marxist academic David Harvey saw “mindless rioters” participating in “feral capitalism”. British-Sri Lankan scholar-activist Ambalavaner Sivandandan claimed that they were “neither community-based nor politically oriented […] riots mobilised on a Blackberry”. For the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, they were shoplifters engaged in “impotent rage and despair masked as a display of force”. Even the celebrated cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall dismissed the rioters as harbouring “a kind of anger, coupled with no political expression … going into a store and stealing trainers”.
Many of us on the left struggled to comprehend the 2011 rebellions: the reasons why people participated in them, how grassroots organisations should respond. Still dominated by the liberal thinking of the Macpherson Report, published in 1999 after the killing of Stephen Lawrence, many anti-racists were unable to think beyond technocratic solutions.
This was in part because, across much of the left, the rebellions were seen to represent a decline in working-class or anti-racist politics and – unlike the rebellions of the 1980s – disconnected from more organised forms of resistance to state racism and social inequality. This was far from the case.
2011 was a year of anti-racist protest well before the August unrest, and remained one long after it. There’d been marches in London following the death of reggae artist Smiley Culture during a raid on his home, as well as in Birmingham following the death of Kingsley Burrell at the hands of West Midlands Police. After the riots, huge numbers of people turned out to the Annual March Against Deaths in Custody. From Tottenham to Toxteth, community-led defence campaigns emerged to protect young people from a government that was instructing courts to “disregard normal sentencing” for riot-related offences. Political organising against policing surrounded the 2011 riots, provoking a highly politicised state response.
Over the course of the 2010s, it became clear to many Black and anti-racist activists that 2011 had been a turning point. Little had changed since the Macpherson report made its recommendations for diversity, training and accountability within the police. A younger generation of activists abandoned state-led campaigns for “fair” policing, instead developing a politics that challenged the very existence of police, prisons and borders. Throughout the early 2010s, new police monitoring initiatives were established in the UK, seeking to rebuild the community resistance that existed in the 70s and 80s. In the US, the minimal impact the first Black presidency had had on state racism motivated a Black Lives Matter movement that in turn inspired solidarity protests across the Atlantic. 2020 saw some of the largest anti-racist protests in British history, and a proliferation of groups committed to abolition.
10 years on from the riots, law and order remain central to the government’s policy agenda. While the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill contains echoes of 2011 – disregarding normal civil liberties for protesters just as Cameron told courts to disregard normal sentencing for rioters – its proposed reforms are unprecedented in scope. If 10 years ago the government was directing police and prison power towards working-class, disproportionately Black rioters, it is now casting its net considerably wider, threatening to criminalise what is traditionally considered legitimate protest. The PCSC bill, which has cross-party support, will virtually equate the “peaceful” protester and the rioter in the eyes of the law.
One upside of criminalising so many people at once is that it has become near-impossible for activists to ignore the expansion of state violence, as many did in 2011.
Coalitions like Kill the Bill (KTB) – incorporating feminist and Black activist groups, migrant solidarity organisers, radical youth projects, Gypsy Roma Traveller groups, unions and civil liberties advocates – are resisting the limitations of a single-issue campaign. Instead, radical elements within KTB are resisting all forms of coercive state power, demanding community-led alternatives for public safety and collective thriving.
This is a politics that rejects calls for “fair”, “accountable” or “non-racist” policing made on the left 10 years ago – that refuses, in other words, to distinguish between those deserving and undeserving of freedom. The carceral state is expanding. So is resistance to it.
Adam Elliott-Cooper is the author of Black Resistance to British Policing, published by Manchester University Press in May.