Broken windows and looted stores across London after a police killing became a tipping point for disenfranchised youth.
|The Toxteth monument to Mohamed Bouazizi disappeared the day after Mark Duggan was shot [Courtesy of the artist]|
In the heart of Toxteth, Liverpool, a mysterious statue appeared in the early hours of July 30.
It was a monument to Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian man who, after being humiliated by police, had set himself alight in an act of protest that was to inflame the simmering rage of hundreds of thousands of people.
Last Thursday, in the London borough of Tottenham, the British police shot and killed a 29-year-old black man named Mark Duggan. The following day, the monument in Toxteth – a district that had been the site of racially-fuelled social unrest in the 1980s – disappeared, the monument’s artist told Al Jazeera.
The Liverpool city council was unable to comment on whether it was responsible for having the monument removed, as they were swamped trying to deal with the riots, which spread to Liverpool over the weekend.
Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, and the uprising that followed, happened in a very different context to the British riots.
When Tunisia’s peaceful protesters in the underprivileged centre of the country were slain by the police’s use of lethal force, the country’s middle class poured into the streets to show their outrage, and solidarity.
In Britain, by contrast, people across socio-economic groups are calling on the police to protect them from the seemingly uncontrollable mobs of youths, who, according to the dominate media narrative, seem intent on wreaking havoc for the simple reason that they can.
Yet the artist who created the monument to the young Tunisian street vendor, who wishes to remain anonymous in the commodity-free spirit of his work, told Al Jazeera that his work celebrated universal aspirations of emancipation and social justice.
His unsanctioned “people’s monument” referenced other recent uprisings in the Arab world, including Egypt and Libya.
Commonalities with Arab Spring?
Closer to home, it also referred to the Toxteth riots of 1981. The statue was mounted on a plinth where a statue of William Huskisson had stood until it was mistaken for a tribute to a slave-trader and torn down in the protests against racism and police brutality of 1981 (the unfortunate Huskisson had, in fact, been the world’s first railway victim in 1830).
The myth that has arisen around Bouazizi is relevant to the UK, the artist explained, where the conservative government’s cutbacks have taken their toll on people’s daily life.
“[Bouazizi] represented everyday struggle, his gesture was not politically motivated but about the right to exist, to provide for one’s family,” he said. “I like that fruit and vegetables were the cornerstone of the revolution – not political ideology or other beliefs.”
In any event, such overt political messages or symbols have been largely absent during the riots in the UK, which have been left many commentators stunned by the apparent lack of any political agenda.
Will Davies, a spokesperson for Avaaz, an international organisation that works for social justice and has rallied in support of the Arab Spring, told Al Jazeera that those rioting in the UK were, in stark contrast, not politically minded and were causing “anarchy for anarchy’s sake”.
“Juxtapose that with the situation in Syria, where they’ve finally got the courage to stand up to a brutal regime and they’ve done that entirely peacefully.”
“They should take a long hard look at what is going on in places like Yemen and Syria,” Davies said, noting the state violence and forced disappearances endured by protesters elsewhere in the world simply for exercising the right to peaceful protest or for speaking to the media.
There have, nonetheless, been some attempts to link the UK riots with the string of uprisings in North Africa and Middle East.
For some, emphasising such a link is a way of eliminating any need to discuss the local and national roots to the violence.
|The neighbourhood of Toxteth in Liverpool saw some of worst riots over police brutality in 1980s [REUTERS]|
Stuart Bell, a British Labour Party MP, told Europe 1, a radio station, that “these riots have nothing to do with unemployment, or with government cutbacks. It has its origins in Tunisia”.
Others, meanwhile, have taken a more nuanced approached.
Expressing his frustration with the way the media were covering the unrest, Darcus Howe, a 68-year-old West Indian writer, broadcaster and resident of South London, told the BBC that turmoil was very much a consequence of the British police’s shooting of Mark Duggan, and of routine police bullying.
Parallel to this very local root cause, the writer argued that the social dissent should also be viewed as part of a global movement.
“I don’t call it rioting – I call it an insurrection of the masses of the people. It is happening in Syria, it is happening in Clapham, it’s happening in Liverpool, it’s happening in Port-au-Spain, Trinidad, and that is the nature of the historical moment,” he told the BBC host.
‘Only then do the media listen to you’
While most other commentators agree it would be a stretch to argue that the Arab Spring in helped to ferment social unrest in the UK, North African activists who had participated in protests against their own governments told Al Jazeera that they felt solidarity with the British youths who have taken to the streets.
“These are children who have no purpose. Society does not seem to see them as a significant enough group to invest in.”“
Malik Al-Nasir, a poet and social commentator from Liverpool
Skander, a 17-year-old Tunisian internet dissident who describes himself as an anarchist, argued that there were some similarities with the British riots and the Tunisian Uprising. Both were a response to police violence and injustice, he noted.
The balance of force between the mostly peaceful Tunisian protesters and the police, who quickly resorted to lethal means to try to stifle the wave of dissent, was very different to the situation in the UK, where the youths appear to have the upper hand. But Skander notes that even in Tunisia, protesters across the country did burn down police buildings and other symbols of the former regime’s power.
“Maybe they don’t have a clear political goal, or maybe no political goal at all, but these young people have gone out to express their frustration,” said Skander, who was one of the cyberactivists arrested during the uprising in January.
“When you shout, shout and shout some more and no one hears you, you turn to violence and barbarism to get people’s attention. Only then do the media listen to you.”
Mahinour El-Massry, a 25-year-old Egyptian lawyer, said that she thought young people in the UK were like Egyptians in that they wanted social justice.
El-Massry was one of the activists who helped organise the protests in Alexandria calling for justice in the case of Khalid Said, a young man who beaten to death in the street by police in June 2010. The protests under the slogan “We are all Khaled Said” are widely considered to have been at the root of what eventually became the Egyptian Revolution.
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s government, she noted, had tried to dismiss the Egyptian protesters as rioters and looters, with many Egyptians agreeing with him up until the last hour.
She said that the main difference between the unrest in the two countries was that the absence of political freedoms in Egypt led people to aspire for democracy, the UK was already a liberal democracy.
“Here in Egypt, or in Syria, we don’t have any kind of democracy so people still have hope,” she explained.
In the UK, however, people have little faith in their ability to bring change through peaceful protest, she said, and so they were resorting to more extreme measures against social problems that have been simmering for years.
“They couldn’t find a means besides violence. They feel that they have no future,” she said.
Dr. Clifford Stott, who specialises in crowd psychology at the University of Liverpool, said that while people involved in the riots in the UK were no doubt aware of the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, “it would be rather foolish to equate uprisings in Syria or Libya with what we’re seeing in the UK right now’.
While there is no real causal relationship, however, he noted that in societies that see outbreaks of riotous behaviour, the existence of large disenfranchised population is a common factor.
“One of the things that we know about riots is that they are underpinned by perceptions of illegitimacy of authority,” he said.
The tendency to cast crowd action as either explosions of mob irrationality or criminality – something common to both authoritarian and democratic governments, Stott said – undermines attempts to understand the root causes behind the violence.
“It is the dominant discourse around riots, it always has been,” he said. “Society tends to pathologise collective action.”
Indeed, many members of Britain’s ruling class have been quick to describe the rioters as criminals, and more than 1,000 people have been arrested so far.
“I think that we have to recognise that within the context of these riots, there are criminals who are exploiting the situation. But we also have to recognise that that situation has emerged from a series of events in the past.”
Questions about what has led to such a large number of youths feeling so angry and alienated from society are crucial to efforts to prevent such outbreaks in the future, he said.
For Malik Al-Nasir, a poet and social commentator from Liverpool whose own story is closely tied to the 1981 Toxteth riots, said that the riots taking place three decades later are “mindless and senseless”.
|Malik Al Nasir says the riots are a result of a lack of investment in youth [Mauricio Vasquez]|
“In 1981 when we had the riots in Liverpool, there was a real reason. There were racial tensions between the police and the black community,” Al Nasir, who published a book of poety, “Ordinary Guy” under his previous name, Mark T Watson, said.
As a consequence of issues highlighted by those riots, there was social change which benefited the Liverpool community as a whole, he said.
“The dynamic of this riot is very difficult. This riot is not being led by black people, it is being led by youth,” he said. “There’s no colour bar, no gender bar.”
While the rioters have no clear agenda and their behaviour should not be excused, the poet said, the existence of so many restless young people was directly linked to David Cameron’s conservative government cutbacks to community and social services.
“It should be said that the last civil unrest we’ve had in this country was under [former prime minister] Margaret Thatcher, during a similar time of austerity,” he said.
There had been “disproportionate investment” in the upper and middle classes, notably in the war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in the bank bailouts, while millions of children have received little from their government.
“These are children who now appear to have no purpose. Society does not seem to see them as a significant enough group to invest in.”
The story of Bouazizi captured so much attention because of the sheer desperation embodied by the act of self-immolation. Britain’s youth may be speaking a different language and their violence turned outwards, rather than inwards, but they have no less legitimacy than their counterparts in the Arab world.
Follow Yasmine Ryan on twitter: @YasmineRyan