Monthly Archives: August 2011

Tough on rioters, tough on the causes of riots?

Bansky street cleaner - Chalk Farm

by Alan Harding, Director of the Institute for Political and Economic Governance.

Question. What do Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Lambeth, Nottingham, Islington, Haringey, Salford, Sandwell, Leicester, Greenwich, Lewisham and Camden have in common? Two correct answers that I’m not looking for are, firstly, that they all recently suffered the worst rioting seen on British streets since the early 1980s and, secondly, that a depressingly large number of them had witnessed similar scenes thirty years previously. These observations should nonetheless give us pause for thought, especially when politicians and opinion formers have been so keen to emphasise that ‘this is not a repeat of the 1980s’.

At one level the talking heads are right, of course. Poor relations between ethnic minority youths and police, exacerbated by the indiscriminate use of stop and search powers, was much less of an issue this time around, even though the flashpoint in Tottenham rekindled tragic memories of deeply troubled police-community relations. And there’s little doubt that the desire to loot, whipped up via social messaging, drove many a discriminating contemporary rioter rather than became an additional temptation once more spontaneous acts of destruction had begun and the police had become distracted. Just as it would be foolish to argue that the rioters of 1981 were a more noble, politicised breed, though, so it would be churlish not to ask what parallels exist between now and the early 1980s.

Had Harriet Harman asked Michael Gove, during their celebrated stand-off on Newsnight, why he thought this scale of urban conflagration isn’t commonplace, he might have argued that mass outbreaks of ‘pure criminality’ are inexplicably cyclical. He might, however, have acknowledged that there seems to be something about the combination of a national economy in or near recession, high unemployment, eye-watering levels of youth unemployment and a further fading of the already-poor prospects for the young in our poorest communities that seems to require relatively little – a few days of good weather, a distant tragedy, a local incident, a Blackberry – to trigger mayhem.

There may also be a further factor. What if there’s a perception, amongst the recent perpetrators of violent destruction and theft, that nobody cares about their lives? Time to answer that original question with an unfortunate fact. The local authorities that cover the seventeen named areas each appear in the list of the top thirty authorities that are having to implement the largest net cuts in local spending.

Within months of Margaret Thatcher promising, in 1981, that her government would never reward rioters, we had the Scarman report, which ushered in a sea-change in community policing, and Michael Heseltine introduced his famous ‘it took a riot’ Cabinet paper to kick-start a new phase in urban policy. This time around, the recently-appointed Minister for Cities, Greg Clark, is said to have until Christmas to dream up a new cities strategy. Unless he’s confident that he can conquer global warming and produce cooler summers, he’s going to need all the help he can get.

Are Riots Normal? Or, ‘Don’t panic, Captain Mainwaring!’

London Riots

by Leif Jerram.

As we watch riots tear through the centres of British cities, many people have (instinctively and understandably) tried to see something of profound importance in them. For Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, they show why the budget for his police force should not be cut. For those on the left, the riots have been an essay in the perils of vacuous consumerism on the one hand, and shameless abandonment of the poor by the state on the other. And for our Conservative prime minister, it is confirmation that parts of our society are sick and evil. For David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham (the epicentre of the riots), we must tackle the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ culture of gang pride and instant gratification.

But as a historian there is a parallel issue we need to consider. Consider this take from the Manchester City News:

Brutality is still in the ascendant. Day after day the shameful and sickening catalogue runs on. No morning comes now without its black calendar of disgusting crime. Neither the sentences of justice, such as they are, nor the protests of the press, seem to be of the slightest avail… [W]e are only expressing the feeling which is shared by all decent persons, whether rich or poor, when we say that this is condition of things altogether unendurable by a civilised people. (1)

The next month, the new Conservative government set up an inquiry into the law on assault. Disraeli was the Tory PM, 1874 the year.

People have been vociferously complaining about an alienated or feral or disconnected or criminal or impoverished or hopeless urban underclass (especially youth) since they became an object of study and classification in the late 18th/early19th centuries – with the emergence of modern cities themselves. And periodically, ‘stuff’ happens involving this ‘class’ of people. As we rush to explain this wave of violence, who remembers now the all-absorbing press coverage and social concern about gang cultures in Manchester and Glasgow between the wars? Or the anti-Semitic riots of post-World War Two Liverpool? The flick-knife violence around mods and rockers in British seaside towns in 1964? The football violence of the 1900s (it was far worse then than ever since), or the 60s, 70s and 80s? The swiftly rising crime and drug addiction of the pre-Thatcherite ‘golden age’? By forgetting our history, we have paralysed ourselves in expensive (emotionally and financially) frustration, on both right and left.

There is a terrifying alternative – terrifying to academics, journalists, and politicians alike. Maybe history shows us that these riots, horrible as they are (and particularly in light of the deaths of three young men in Birmingham) mean nothing at all? Maybe they’re just one of those random things that happens in all sorts of societies from time to time? Maybe there is no story of decline here? Maybe these sorts of things have happened episodically in all sorts of British cities for all sorts of reasons? Sometimes rich bankers go bonkers and wreck loads of stuff for reasons they themselves don’t understand; sometimes 30 year old classroom assistants do it too. Of course it’s bad that fathers abandon their kids – but it’s bad because it’s bad, not because it leads to riots. It’s always been bad, riots or not. People sometimes just do weird stuff they can’t really explain – sometimes, there isn’t an over-arching narrative. Society, like Celine Dion’s heart, goes on.

The deaths of three young men is a terrible, terrible thing. So is the destruction of homes, the muggings, the fear, the arson. I would have been terrified to have been a police officer or a shopkeeper in Wolverhampton or Woolwich. But some of what we need to think about is this: which parts of relatively persistent features of urban societies (like disorder, and anxiety about disorder) are random in their occurrence but persistent in their nature, and so probably don’t need explaining, because in fact they can’t be explained? (Except with a grand theory of everything) Which parts of the persistent features do have a common cause, but one which we don’t really know how to start explaining because haven’t got really convincing tools? And which parts have a common cause, and one which we can explain reasonably clearly? Before we rush to blame absent fathers or computer games, we have to be sure that these riots aren’t just random, otherwise we’ll spend a lot of money on not very much, and expend a lot of emotion getting not very far. A proper survey of urban disorder over the last 100 years could show us this.

Because by crisis-ifying this, we may in fact be playing right into the hands of those who seek to dismiss whole chunks of our society as being sick or evil or criminal, and thereby avoid having to include them in our vision of the future. Equally, by crisis-ifying it, we might be playing into the hands of those who advocate huge government programmes of interference and intervention where it is unwarranted, ineffective or unwelcome. After all, the economic harm caused by these rioters pales into insignificance compared to the economic harm caused by bankers – but we don’t spend much time trying to understand their moral alienation (for those on the left), or identifying them on the front pages of newspapers and locking them up (for those on the right). And which has rendered more people homeless and destroyed more small businesses: the banking crisis, or the riots? Sometimes in history weird stuff happens – universes are created, planking takes off as a craze, banks collapse, Steve Jobs invents the Mac. At each point, we should be ready to ask ourselves whether we’re handling a wacky anomaly or not. Is Britain Broken? I don’t think so. If we go looking for friendliness and good behaviour, we’ll relatively easily find it, but we give it almost no thought. ‘Years of Calm on Poor Estate’ has yet to appear on the front page of any newspaper, though it would describe most poor parts of Britain.

The nature of the problem is infinitely complicated – not just in this disorder, but in all of the moments of our collective urban lives – by the utter randomness of city spaces. Real encounters with real people make a mockery of journalistic scene setting or blame-making, academic investigation, or governmental strategies. Louise of Louise’s Hair by the bus depot in Wolverhampton came out of her shop and shouted at the 200 or so rioters to leave her alone – and they did. Louise is black; a woman; speaks with a mixture of a West Indian and Wolverhampton accent. According to most of the hackneyed theories we have, she shouldn’t be powerful, in control, confrontational, dynamic, or even a businesswoman at all. Yet she drew a line in the sand and confronted 200 young men with sticks and rocks, and they just left her, and her shop, alone. She was asked by the BBC why she did what she did. She said,

‘[My life] is a long story. But I’m here. And I don’t think some low life who dow’ want to work, who want everything given to them should just come along and destroy my shop. In five minutes? No way in hell. … I bloody well stan’ my ground. I told them, “Just leave my shop”, in no uncertain words. I give’em the language they are used to. They are used to nothing better. We all suffer. We all grown up with nothing. We all come from the same place. We all struggle for what we have and work hard. Nothing is easy, but get a job. If you want trainers you can damn’ well buy them and you’ll appreciate it more… It was just for fun – there was no protest.’ (2)

I say this not to heroise Louise, but to randomise her. The randomness of Louise is clear – we couldn’t set up a programme to produce Louises; we couldn’t train them; we couldn’t station them around a town if we could. We’ve got no idea whether Louise is a good or bad person in other areas of her life. We can’t define why Louise was successful in getting the rioters to move on, when the police could not. It was a random person in a random moment exercising random effects. So why, then, should we expect to be able to understand the rioters, whether through metaphors of evil, decline, or alienation? Let’s fix what we’re sure we understand. Let’s allow a bit of randomness into the world to though, and stop pretending we can understand everything. History shows us we can’t do that even in retrospect. Sometimes, bad things happen. And sometimes good things too.

1. Cited in Andrew Davies, The Gangs of Manchester (Preston, 2008), 74-5.
2. Interview on BBC Radio 4, PM, 10.8.11.

Migration and city making: An Integrated process

by Nina Glick Schiller, Director of the Research Institute for Cosmopolitan Cultures.

Truthfully, I find the debates around migration unbearable. They all seem so far away from the realities of migration and settlement. Literally nothing I hear and almost nothing I read seems to connect with what I have learned from my migrant grandparents and my family’s subsequent experience in settling in the United States, what I know about the children of migrant background with whom I grew up, the migrants from all over the world among whom I have lived and worked for decades, and my own experience of migration. When trying to understand what happens when people migrate to a new place -whether to seek a new job, a new life, flee from intolerable violence, or some combination of circumstances – neither the common sense of ordinary speech nor the seeming precise terms of academic debate even begin to describe the contingencies within which migrants live their lives. Nor does simply turning to migrants’ ‘voices’ suffice since migrants learn to describe their experiences within the key words that dominate contemporary political rhetoric.

I first learned about the confusion wrought by the key words in migration debates several decades ago when studying Haitian migration to New York City. My co-researchers of Haitian origin stated categorically that that Haitian immigrants settling in New York City followed one of two opposing pathways. Either these newcomers assimilated and ‘forgot about Haiti’ or they did not integrate into a new life because they only focused on return. Yet the lives of my co-researchers as well as our data challenged this dichotomy between integration and maintaining an affinity with one’s homeland and its culture. Instead what actually happened was that most people, including my co-researchers, simultaneously settled into their new life and maintained some of their cultural practices, and home ties and identity. All of my four co-researchers were settling into New York City, where they were busy with their jobs, homes, family networks, and multi-ethnic networks of friends. Yet they also maintained multiple ties to Haiti and to Haitians settled in other countries and continued to identify as Haitian.

The data from that study and numerous research projects in which I have engaged since then also challenges the notion prevalent that migrants adopt or fail to adopt a new national culture. For example, the ways in which my Haitian co-researchers lived this simultaneous settlement and transnational connections was locally specific. That is to say, their way of life was not generically Haitian or American but was shaped by the changing identity politics, types of racism, housing possibilities, urban renewal and employment and educational opportunities they found in New York City in the 1960-80s. Forms of migrant settlement and transnational connection are shaped by the specificities of time and place. These specificities do of course reflect national immigration laws and policies but within economic, political, and social contingencies that are also local and global. Yet these basic contingencies, which affect whether, how, and why migrants are able to settle and transnationally connect, are often ignored in the migration debates. Often politicians and scholars talk as if there is a national if not global understanding of the key words of migration.

My research indicates that there distinct and varying local understandings and policies in relationship to migrants in cities within the same nation-state. Terms such as refugee, immigrant, ethnicity, diversity, multicultural, religious community, melting pot, integration, social cohesion, and race are deployed in various ways in different cities in the same country and by different types of functionaries within the same city. Local understandings may differ dramatically from national debates reflecting differences in local politics, regeneration strategies, opportunity structures and history, as well as the class background, position, neighborhood of residence, gender, and generation of the speaker. Moreover, in each city there may be differences between the ways in which local officials, social service providers, and citizens interact with migrants and people of migrant background. Exploring these variations allows us to understand why migrants experience such mixed messages about inclusion and exclusion as they settle in a place. Using a city as an entry point allows us to begin to move away from the sweeping generalities that politicians bandy when they speak of the ‘failure of multiculturalism’ and the ‘refusal of migrant to integrate’.

Cities and within cities different urban neighbourhoods around the world vary in the degree to which they are ‘migrant friendly’- that is providing possibilities of people to move to them from other places from within a country and internationally and find opportunities to work, begin businesses, acquire an education including the dominant language of the country, and live in safety and without significant discrimination or racialisation. Cities that are open to newcomers and people of migrant background and welcome them as part of the city, rather than casting them as an indigestible lump within the body politic, benefit from migration. These cities are in fact built by the creativity, energy, and transnational connections of migrants in a process that extends across generations. Migrant friendly cites attract flows of capital, businesses, tourists, creative industries and talented individuals.

If those interested in the outcomes of migrant settlement were to set aside their preconceived notions that all migrants of a certain national or religious background stick together and form tightly organized communities, then they would be able to see that migrants develop an array of different settlement strategies. In many of these pathways of settlement, migrants form networks of interaction between themselves and more established residents, including people who identify themselves as ‘natives’ of the city and the nation-state. That is to say research on migrant settlement and personal narratives tell a different story than the national imaginary of migrants huddled everywhere in segregated or self-segregated ‘communities’.

In a situation where a city needs newcomers to contribute to its economy and cultural energy, public discourses and policies tend to differ from the national anti-immigrant polemics by being more open to immigrants. Cities of global renown such as London and New York are such places. Educated young people from all over the globe including Europe have flocked to London, for example, even in cases in which they have to live or work without proper documentation. They go to these ‘global cities’ because they find a sense of freedom and cultural energy there that they don’t think they can find elsewhere.

Cities that aspire to a cosmopolitan reputation on the global stage such as Manchester (UK) may also prove welcoming because they need migrants’ talents, education, and energies to fuel their efforts to rebrand themselves as up and coming and to compete for investors and new industries as well as tourism. Other cities, which are less competitive in terms of economic, political, or cultural power may provide a different array of advantages to some migrants and may in turn welcome migrants that provide hi tech talent, businesses for regenerated urban areas, or transnational connections that assist in regeneration efforts. In these globally less desirable cities, it may be the migrants who connect local residents to opportunities for education, travel, or economic opportunity located elsewhere.

While these processes are readily apparent to those who look and can be found in British, European, and North American cities as well globally from Dubai to Sao Paulo, this fundamental aspect of urbanism is being ignored most politicians and policy makers. My own research in cities in Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom as well interviews with city leadership conducted as part of a comparative city research project in diverse European cities reveal that those engaged in urban regeneration may see past generations of migrants as city builders. However, urban policy makers tend to see contemporary migrants as poor and at most lending a bit of exotic culture to efforts to rebrand their city.

Misguided policies emerge when contemporary migrants are seen as organized self-segregated communities that represent a challenge to social cohesion rather than as part of the talent and energy necessary for urban regeneration. Through their calls for social cohesion and integration directed at immigrants and people of migrant background, urban administrators and planners may reinforce false images of migrants as outsiders to urban life rather than part and parcel of the every day vitality of successful cities. Even more disastrously, in the name of integration, rather than addressing general conditions of impoverishment for local populations they may by provide services only in neighbourhoods identified as migrant, bypassing majority poor neighbourhoods. Such policies foster anti-immigrant rhetoric and movements.

To try to lend both specificity and comparability to research on migration and debates about it, I suggest that we need to see the cities, towns, and villages in which we live as places that are constantly being built and rebuilt overtime by all people who live there. If we think of the places and our society as always in process and always constructed by people who live in a place, we have a different and I believe better vantage point into the relationship between the movement of migration and the cohesion of established places and their social life.

Arriving from the United States four years ago, I settled in Manchester, became engaged in life local life and maintained transnational ties to family and friends elsewhere. My way of settling is not generically American but is shaped by what I find in both my city and country of settlement. I become part of my new city as the city becomes part of me. However, these days migrants, including myself, face a strange irony. Whilst our new city may be welcoming, nation-states including the UK have changed immigration laws so as to impose drastic limitations and costs on permanent settlement and family reunion. We find that we are increasingly criticized for not trying to belong to our new home and only concerned about our old, despite the fact that it has become increasingly difficult if not impossible for us to permanently settle.

Friends, colleagues, and acquaintances in Manchester, after noting I am not from the UK, frequently ask me if I am planning to stay. Although British citizens, they know nothing of their own country’s immigration laws nor do they acknowledge the impact of constant anti-immigrant hostility on immigrants’ identities, incorporation, or dreams for the future. Influenced by the immigration debate and its key words, the people I meet who don’t have immigrant backgrounds continue to see immigrants as having a choice to settle permanently and abandon their transnational ties or to return ‘home’. They continue to define immigrants’ retention of home ties, language, culture and beliefs as self-segregation, neither acknowledging the possibility of transnational lives or the fact that both legally and socially the UK increasingly makes it difficult for immigrants to permanently settle. As I said, I find the immigration debates unbearable.