by Andy Davies, University of Liverpool
On the 4th of July 2011, I was attending a book launch in News from Nowhere, Liverpool’s radical bookshop. The book was Richard Phillips and Diane Frost’s Liverpool ’81: Remembering the riots, a collection that examines the various causes and effects of the 1981 Toxteth or ‘Liverpool 8’ Riots on their 30th anniversary. (The naming of the riots has always proved controversial: to many residents of the area affected by the riots, the name Toxteth carried less meaning than the term L8, referring to the area’s postal code.) At the time, I never imagined that a few weeks later, I would be sat late at night, listening to local radio whilst police helicopters flew overhead and tried to keep up with events on Twitter and Facebook as riots again occurred in the city.
In the aftermath of these riots, the current coalition government of the UK has largely failed to take into account their multifaceted nature, instead portraying them as a result of what has become known as ‘Broken Britain’ – a condition where a lawless and criminal underclass can take advantage of the typical British ‘Hard-Working Family’. For example, responding to a study by the LSE and the Guardian newspaper, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, recently claimed that the vast majority of rioters “were not protesting, they were thieving” (quoted in The Guardian 2011). In general, the current government response has been to criminalise those who took part in the riots, and to respond with often draconian forms of sentencing.
Whilst there have been more progressive responses (including the LSE/Guardian report), what has been striking, for the most part, is the need to develop a more coherent progressive and/or radical response to the issues raised by the riots. In August, I listened as one person called in to BBC Radio Merseyside, said he was ardently on ‘the Left’, and then said the rioters/looters should be treated as criminals, and was particularly afraid that they would loot or damage Liverpool One, a recent multi-million pound shopping/retail area owned by the Grosvenor Group which has ‘redeveloped’ the city centre to suit modern retail habits (and in so doing, removing a large chunk of small independent traders from the city centre). Many other callers were adamant that these riots were not ‘political’, specifically unlike the 1981 riots, which were recast as wholly valid as they were now recognised as resisting racial discrimination.
I think one way to get past this contradiction is to think more geographically about the riots, their causes, and their consequences. Geographical political economy will tell us that the neoliberal system that has dominated much economic thinking for the past 20 years has increased the divide between rich and poor in many areas. The current government’s response is to criminalise those who have been disenfranchised by the culture of individualism at the heart of this system. Yet this occludes the complex histories of urban decline, regeneration, racial, class and gender politics that are forged through particular spaces. In some ways, it is heartening that the Occupy movement has emerged as it represents a space of hope that an alternative future can be forged out of the summer of 2011.
But it is also important to think about why the riots happened in certain areas, and what the effects on the people living in those areas has been in the past and will be in the future. One article written at the time on a Liverpool community webpage in August seemed to sum up many of the conflicting emotions within the city, complaining about being subjected to decisions by “gobs for hire” and utilised by politicians to make claims for their own benefit. Indeed, Liverpool has a long history of fractious engagement with ‘redevelopment/regeneration’, or, as more recently reported, “managed decline” that stretches over the past 100 years. Liverpool’s particular geographies were important to the occurrences in the summer of 2011, just as Manchester’s, London’s and Birmingham’s geographies were to the riots that occurred there. It seems that current responses that seek to develop a cover-all response to the riots (whether by criminalising ‘feral youths’ or blaming the economic system) are missing out on some of the key nuances of why and how rioting occurs.
This opening post’s partial focus on one recent issue and its outcomes in Liverpool will be something that I will occasionally return to in future interventions. My research interests are not primarily based in the city, yet, having lived here for the past seven and a half years, it is now ‘home’ to me. These occasional forays into Liverpool will, I hope, provide some insight into the ways in which radical, critical geographies are important to understanding how complex issues unfold within a particular place (as well as allowing me the occasional opportunity to vent some anger/disillusionment/frustration!).
The Guardian (2011) Reading the Riots conference – Wednesday 14 December 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/blog/2011/dec/14/reading-the-riots-conference-live-blog (last accessed 5 January 2012)