Déjà Vu All Over Again in Britain

Aftermath of the Brixton riots of 1981 (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty)
Aftermath of the Brixton riots of 1981 (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty)

The peaceful protest against the police killing of a black citizen that led to violence and looting in the United Kingdom seems like déjà vu all over again. Trouble has been brewing for decades between the police and black communities in North London. It is the scene of the most recent riots in Tottenham, and the site as well of previous unrest, including the Broadwater Farm riot in 1985, sparked by the stroke-related death of a black woman after conflict erupted between her family members and the police as they searched her home. And the Brixton riots of 1981, 1985 and 1995 — after protests over unwarranted lethal force by police — are an ugly reminder that South London also hasn't been spared its share of convulsive disputes between cops and citizens.


Like their American offspring, our British kin simply haven't come to grips with inflamed racial and economic tensions that are ready to ignite at the slightest social provocation. In 1981, Brixton was ravaged by high unemployment and poor housing during a national recession that fed a beastly crime rate. In 2011, during an even more crippling recession, the same factors hold sway, exacerbated by spiraling black unemployment, huge economic inequality and the lowest social mobility of developed countries.

Predictably, few of these factors color the pronouncements of most British politicians and pundits about the riots. Prime Minister David Cameron assailed "the culture of fear" promoted in the street by "thugs" and threatened to curtail social media in the propagation of "violence, disorder and criminality." Conservative journalist Damian Thompson blamed multiculturalism for the belief among educational elites that gang culture is an "authentic expression of Afro-Caribbean and Asian identity," saying that his fellow Brits are "seeing a lot of black faces on our screens tonight; it's a shame that the spotlight can't also fall on those white multiculturalists who made this outrage possible."  

But neither Thompson nor Cameron, who earlier this year blamed multiculturalism for the rise of Islamic extremism in the U.K., bother to account for why multiculturalism became such a demand of minorities to begin with: the oppressive exclusion of people of color from the economic and societal fruits of their labor in a European culture that drips with fear of "the other" in its teahouses, think tanks, parlors and Parliament. When black folk and other people of color aren't featured nightly on the "telly" looting local businesses, they don't routinely show up in more ennobling roles.

This time around, even though the police killed a black man, the response was decidedly multicultural. That makes sense, since Tottenham has a teeming multicultural population with nearly 300 languages spoken by its southern residents, making it, arguably, the most ethnically diverse spot in all of Europe. Besides its huge African-Caribbean population, Tottenham boasts an ethnic base of Eastern Europeans, Colombians, Turkish, Somalis, Turkish Cypriots, Kurds and Irish.

But Tottenham also has the highest unemployment rate in London and the eighth highest in the U.K. to complement its very high level of poverty. Add to that the racial profiling of black people — they are 26 times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched by police in England and Wales — and we get a powerful glimpse of just how volatile relations are between cops and minorities, all while the poor are made scapegoats for the very oppression that their aggressions aim to spotlight.

Instead of seeking to contain the riots by calling on American former police Chief William Bratton, who is credited with reducing crime when he took the helm in New York, Los Angeles and Boston, perhaps Cameron should have dropped a dime on scholars Barbara Ehrenreich, Michael Katz, William Julius Wilson, Elijah Anderson and Marian Wright Edelman to talk about the systemic causes of poverty and the social unrest to which it may lead.


Better yet, maybe he should contact them on Facebook or Twitter, or send them an SOS on a BlackBerry, once he gets over the fact that the revolution may not be televised, but as the Arab world has proved, it damn sure will be tweeted.

Michael Eric Dyson teaches sociology at Georgetown University and hosts The Michael Eric Dyson Show on public radio.