After the UK Riots: No Voice for Blacks

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Three weeks have passed since England witnessed mayhem, looting and rioting on its streets. Images of rioters burning down their own communities, trashing their local amenities and clashing head-to-head were transmitted worldwide. Video footage of hooded males smashing shops and loading up cars with plasma televisions, designer clothes and sneakers stunned the British public. It was hard for us to digest that such a level of disorder could be allowed to escalate from London to Birmingham and Manchester and other pockets of England.


The British are conflicted as to how to describe the events that happened. Were they riots, public disturbances or insurrections? The debate within the major cities rages on about why a ballerina, a real estate broker and a teaching assistant joined the mob to destroy their local high streets and town centers.

What drove the events: criminality or poverty? Did a generation with a love for luxury goods and unhappy with austere times ahead perhaps choose to take back what had been taken from their pockets by the bankers and the politicians?

Community meetings are springing up all over England as it emerges that black audiences, in particular, are more than disgruntled with the wall-to-wall news coverage on British television networks.

Earlier this year I was working on a series of projects for which I had been interviewing academics, former police officers, filmmakers, youth workers and politicians about the possibility of riots occurring on England's streets this summer. Why? The 30th anniversary of the riots in Manchester, Liverpool, London and Bristol was looming.

In 1981 England was hit by the worst riots since World War II. It was an iconic time in British history; unemployment among young blacks was alarmingly high, and the relationship between police and young black men was one of contempt on both sides. Many of those I interviewed who reflected on the events during that tumultuous summer had been on both sides of the violent uprisings in 1981. They shared with me that they were feeling anxious that the signs that were present then were emerging once again.

John was adamant that he was not scaremongering; he was simply expressing a real concern that the mood of the country was in rapid decline. The majority of those I interviewed were clear that some kind of uprising was imminent and that it wouldn't be young people spilling onto the streets protesting. The reality could be that of older generations acting out against the recession. 


Rewind back to April 2010, when it went largely unnoticed that Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the man appointed deputy prime minister, warned that England was at serious risk for riots if there were heavy cuts to public services.

In London, the death of Mark Duggan was the incident that served as the trigger for this year's riots. It is argued by most of Britain's media — particularly the white middle-class media — that the violence outside of London was pure and simple shoplifting on a major scale.


If we review the footage of looting and burning in the major cities, the majority of those who were trying on sneakers, stealing TVs and burning down buildings were white and over 25. Yet the British media are intent on broadcasting image after image of young black boys in the latest tracksuit recounting their tales of why they felt the need to steal that mobile phone or keyboard.

This has galled a large segment of blacks in England. The majority of the looters were white and were not juveniles. They were not young black men. Professor David Starkey's outburst that "whites have become black" confirmed for many of us that there is a determination to make the young black male the scapegoat. It's official: The Young Black Male is the root of Britain's ills!


But why, we ask, was an aged Tudor historian given a voice to inform the British public about 21st-century riots? Not a day goes by without someone asking me if I have seen the Starkey interview — such is the level of disbelief about his appearance on national TV. Why was he allowed to vent his vile rhetoric?

At a recent community meeting in Manchester, black teenagers expressed their despair at the news networks' failure to recognize their achievements in enterprise and education. 


The British media are aware that there are deep reasons behind the crimes that took place this August. A lack of education, a lack of aspiration and deep feelings of hopelessness all need to be confronted, and discussed with balance within our media outlets.

Informed and intelligent black voices on the left, center and right all have a place on the endless panels that are convened and reconvened on our rolling news channels. Failing to respect the backgrounds of political commentators and educators such as Darcus Howe and Gus John is viewed by many as a lack of respect for the black voice.


Last night I hosted a community panel that included local black business owners, young black teenagers, a member of Parliament and youth charity workers. All were in agreement that the mass media have been intent on ignoring black voices and anyone who expresses a centrist or left argument. Black youngsters were angry that they were being portrayed by some sections of the media and the government as sick, scum and feral creatures.

Interestingly, the U.K. riots appear to have united journalists and communities of color in England's major cities. There is now a strong desire to discuss the root causes of the riots, regardless of the media's willingness to report on our experience.


This week, John wrote an open letter to the prime minister calling for an end to political rhetoric and poor reporting from some sections of the media because it leads to a " 'Big Society' of bullies, self-righteous and otherwise, and a spurious moral crusade that can only breed cynicism and discontent and fuel social exclusion." 

Yesterday, the deputy prime minister announced the members of the Riot Communities and Victims panel. The panel lacks color and youth — once again it seems that there is no place at the table for the voice of black Britain. And they wonder why we feel disconnected from society. Or do they?

Karen Gabay is a freelance radio journalist and TV-film producer based in Manchester, England.