Ten Years After the London Riots, Not Enough Has Changed

The riots of August 2011 occurred against a backdrop of deprivation, alienation and police violence. A decade on, little has changed in the communities set ablaze.

A rioter throws a rock at riot police in Clarence Road, Hackney, 8 August 2011. Credit: Dan Istitene / Getty Images

I still remember sitting on the edge of my sofa, watching the rioting that followed the police killing of a 29-year-old black man, Mark Duggan, on 4 August 2011. The initial protest—a march to Tottenham police station two days after his death—quickly developed into a London-wide spate of civil unrest. 48 hours later, the wave reached cities across the nation, spreading to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, and beyond. What started as a community in mourning turned into an expression of collective rage, particularly among younger members of working-class communities and communities of colour.

Although fresh in our national memory, these events weren’t an anomaly. Similar riots had taken place before in response to mistreatment and harassment at the hands of the police, including in Brixton in 1981 and 1995; Liverpool’s Toxteth was the site unrest in 1981, and in 1985 Tottenham’s Broadwater Farm estate had seen rioting in response to the death of a black woman, Cynthia Jarrett. The 2011 riots were, in part, proof of history repeating itself – and evidence of the persistence of neglect and aggression on the part of the British state.

But there were circumstances that made 2011 unique, too. While the unrest in Brixton and Toxteth and on Broadwater Farm had mostly taken place during the Thatcher years, 2011’s riots occurred just over a year into the new coalition administration of David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Their victory had been quickly followed by the ushering-in of major austerity measures, many of the worst effects of which we are only just starting to understand. Between 2010 and 2012, the country saw a 40 percent real-terms cut in public investment. Widespread disillusionment with the political system and its representatives—including with New Labour—had been growing for decades. So as we remember the rebellion that took place ten years ago, we should also ask questions of the society we live in now. How has policing changed – if at all? And do the conditions that steered the 2011 riots still survive?

Part of this question can be answered by looking at one specific measure of British policing: stop and search. During the period 2010-11, police stopped and searched 115 out of every 1,000 black people in England and Wales, compared to just 17 of their white counterparts. Ten years on, stop and search rates have fallen, but black people continue to be most affected: we are, in fact, 8.9 times more likely to be targeted and searched than white people. And recent government proposals threaten to intensify the use of stop and search by relaxing limits on Section 60s – a tactic used to allow stops by the police without any form of reasonable suspicion.

In the years since 2011, police brutality and police racism have been left to proliferate, and the legislative agenda of the current administration is offering up scope for it to substantially increase, utilising an authoritarianism emergent in the political response to 2011 itself. Cases of death during or following police contact, like that of Mark Duggan, aren’t in the past. In 2017, Edir Frederico Da Costa was brutally beaten after the Metropolitan Police pulled his car over; he was taken to hospital in critical condition and died six days later. Between 2019 and 2020 the Met reported using force 159,000 times, and restraint techniques—which incorporate brutal strikes, ground-pinning takedowns, and wrist locks—are three times more likely to be used on a black person than a white person.

The riots were also informed in part by their context of widespread social exclusion and alienation: put simply, you’re probably less likely to loot or burn a community in which you feel you have a stake. This has been compounded since, with young people of colour significantly impacted by the slashing of state-funded services. The national budget for youth services alone has been reduced by £372 million; in the London borough of Haringey, where the revolts started, the council has to make do with a budget of just £970,000 across youth services – a cut of 85 percent when adjusted for inflation, compared to a previous level of £5.6 million.

The areas that experienced rioting in 2011 today remain some of the country’s poorest, including significant parts of Manchester which are among the 20 percent most underprivileged and deprived nationwide. These communities have suffered intensely from well over a decade of state neglect, and the ethnic minorities within them are usually the most at risk of the consequences: that fact has been thrown into particular relief by the impact of Covid in the last eighteen months, which saw black and brown people suffer disproportionate rates of infection, hospitalisation, and death. In the wake of that fresh crisis, the threat of billions of pounds in public service cuts once again looms.

The point to make of all of this is that the circumstances in which the 2011 riots took place have barely improved. One positive difference we might note is that grassroots organisations are more equipped to deal with the fallout: campaign groups like Black Lives Matter and Sisters Uncut have taken to the streets to demand the police are held accountable for their acts, and a growing network of community bodies help young people, poor people, and people of colour fight disillusionment and destitution. But the recent aggressive policing of the Kill the Bill protests and the ongoing political antagonism towards anyone demanding change—like, for example, Marcus Rashford—show that those with power see these networks as little more than inconveniences to be neutralised.

There has been a widespread effort to dismiss summer 2011 as simple gang violence or ‘mindless thuggery’, but its events did not take place within a political vacuum. Any security dependent on exclusion will always be fragile; hardship and harassment by state actors should not be the norm for any young person growing up in Britain. Until communities are invested with both financial support and political decision-making power, the risk of riots may well remain.