09 August 2011

Riots in the UK and convenient scapegoats

This morning my mind has drifted towards the popular third wave feminist slogan 'Riots Not Diets'. Whenever I think of this slogan I imagine a cheerful group of determined people going something like "Rah! Rah!" in the street, a kind of carnival atmosphere of resistance. It's always peaceful when I imagine it, destruction is cartoonish and unreal, like "Poof! There goes Weight Watchers", or the bomb and the "ka-boom!" at the top of this page. I think the use of riot metaphors and the archetypal anarchist bomb image are valid, though they bear little relation to riots and bombs in real life.

Over the past couple of days there have been riots in parts of London, where I live, and in other cities in the UK. I'm going to write about this here, even though it's not typical fat blog fare, because it's a big thing that's affecting me and the people I know right now. As with all these blog posts, this is about my opinion rather than an assertion of fact.

I think these riots came about initially because the police shot a man and spread lies about him to cover themselves, and because this was not an isolated incident. They refused to give the man's family an explanation at a peaceful protest, pushed people to breaking point by making them wait for hours, and responded heavily at the first provocation, which escalated things.

This event was set against a backdrop of everyday police racism and arrogance, a long history of police abuse, systemic racism, and a lack of justice. It has also happened within a political context where working class people of colour are suffering the removal of social safety nets and the possibility of escape through education by a probably corrupt government, where young working class black men are widely demonised, and where the rich are doing very nicely. I should add that the riots are not just about race, however, it would be wrong to paint it as white versus black.

After the initial explosion of rage in Tottenham, violence spread to other parts of the city: generally to areas where the police had been responsible for previous injustice, places where there have been recent influxes of affluent white people and where gentrification is underway, places where there is a high street and shops where working class people go. The wealthy areas of the city, and middle class residential areas, have been untouched so far. As I see it, the rioters are small-ish groups of young men.

At this stage there is little that is romantic about the riots. Bystanders have been mugged, people have been burned out of their homes, many people feel frightened, vulnerable people are made more so. No one is burning down Harrods or Buckingham Palace, or other symbols of capitalism and hegemony, the violence is opportunistic and, to me, astonishing in its lack of ambition. The media is typically contradictory though narratives of 'mindless thugs' are emerging, obscuring the context for the riots, and further demonising the rioters. People within communities where there have been attacks are divided, some see them as inevitable and others are fed-up, sympathy is wearing thin, and I've heard a lot of dismay about how the riots don't address systemic inequality. There's a backlash in progress and it's depressing to see who is capitalising, like the far-right racist and Islamophobic British National Party. It's likely that the riots will result in greater surveillance and repression of people of colour, working class people, young black men.

Apart from statistical correlations between fat and race and class, the relationship between fat and marginalised experience, fat pops up in a minor, tangential and unexpected way in this story. I was reading about Cynthia Jarrett, who died when police raided her home in Tottenham in 1985 in search of her son Floyd. The police used unreasonable force against her but lied about this and circulated a story that she had a heart attack because she was fat. Fat – always the convenient scapegoat! None of the officers involved were ever brought to justice, although three men were wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of a policeman in the ensuing riot, events which form part of the context for the current Tottenham riots and their spread elsewhere.

Edited to add:

I was thinking again about Cynthia Jarrett and about how incredible it was that people in Tottenham demanded an explanation for her death in 1985. I wonder if that would happen now in the context of Obesity EpidemicTM and fat panic rhetoric. I'm inclined to think that the scapegoating of her fatness would be more acceptable these days and that people would buy into the idea of her sudden death caused by being fat.


Anonymous said...

thanks for this. i KNEW there was something more to the riots than the media was portraying. Here in the states, the only press i am getting about the incident are not even mentioning the fact that it was about the poor and possibly people of color. they are just being called "disenfranchised youth" im glad to hear the real scoop about whats actually goin on.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Beware, it's not 'the real scoop,' it's my opinion.

Disenfranchised youth sounds about right, over here the rhetoric is of mindless thugs, criminals, etc.

MT said...

This has all been very tricky and I find myself disagreeing with both extremes of opinion. I have seen this "mindless thug" rhetoric everywhere, and that is obviously neither helpful nor truthful. But at the same time I have seen people romanticising this shit as some sort of justifiable "revolution" because of the race/class factor, and that doesn't quite cover it either. I just hate that so many commentators seem to be drifting towards either end of this spectrum. This is OBVIOUSLY a form of expression of the "disenfranchised youth" (that came from the closures that came from the cuts that came from the house that David built!) and at the same time it is obvious that this is not the conscience intention behind most of this violence, which, as you say, is ending up damaging small businesses and impoverished communities themselves more than it'll ever even graze the government. I don't know why I keep ranting about this. I just wish people could keep in mind that we need a solution to both symptom and cause, here, instead of one or the other.

JeninCanada said...

Thanks for your analysis on the situation and glad you're safe.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for that.

You (and other readers here) might also like this post by rho. Quote, "The people who are rioting are not a monolithic group and not everyone is rioting for the same reason." Very true I think.

Нина said...

Thank you for this post Charlotte. I find it comforting that someone is able to vocalise my thoughts on this matter.

Even my close friends are jumping on the "all over the world people are rioting over their human rights, not a pair of trainers" bandwagon. seeming to miss that wanting expensive clothing/goods is the symptom not the cause.

I find reading your blog so refreshing.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Oh boo - did you get my previous comment cos I didn't sign in?

I was saying that I was thinking about the RND slogan and whether this would be brought up.

I think there are other things involved, not just the racism/poor thang - including male mob excitement/power [whether Bullingdon Club or soccer hooliganism]; lack of police protection for ordinary people; the fact that burning CCTV cameras/ DNA is selfish and dangerous; the culture of brands/greed and lack of a credible alternative and disillusionment ..to name but a few!

Anyhoo thanks for bringing these subjects up and hope someone thinks of a new pro-HAES slogan soon ;)

Btw why isn't HAES getting anywhere in uk, do you think, compared to USA - or is that just my impression from the web?

Charlotte Cooper said...

No previous comment, Anonymous, sorry. Blogger is a hard taskmistress to those who do not sign in.

Yes, I agree that there are many ingredients that make a riot. I wrote the post in the midst of it all, and I've had more time to reflect now. I still think the gist of it is about right though.

Btw why isn't HAES getting anywhere in uk, do you think, compared to USA - or is that just my impression from the web?

This is an interesting question. I don't know about 'getting anywhere,' what that means. Also, comparisons between health in the Uk and health in the US are always going to be tricky because of the completely different ways that public health is structured. I do think that HAES in the UK does not have much visibility, but then neither do any other critical fat things, and I have some thoughts about this but can't share them here for various reasons. E-me and we can talk!

Anonymous said...

Charlotte thanks or your response to my comment on the 2nd Sept - i'd love to 'talk' more on the subject of getting HAES ideas more widely available in uk and hear your thoughts on this so will be emailing you on this soon on this - cheers!

Charlotte Cooper said...