The urban disturbances of the 1980s and 2001 have largely been described as ‘race riots’, however in order to review this claim accurately, one must gain an insight into the broader picture. A large percentage of the so-called ‘race riot’ reporting has been portrayed through the media, thus giving way to a degree of marjinalization in some areas. Underlying issues, historical events and recognised non-media reporting are also crucial factors. Although the disturbances in Brixton in 1981 continued for several days, it was in fact the urban unrest in the St.
Paul’s district of Bristol in April 1980 that set the precedent for a series of disorders during the 1980’s (Rowe, M. 1995). Many have labelled these disturbances as ‘riots’, however whether they can actually be described as ‘riots’ remains an unanswered question (Kettle, M. 1982). English law defines a ‘riot’ in a very specific way and although the term is widely used, some argue that these disturbances do not have all the fundamental characteristics to define them as a ‘true riot’. There is certainly strong evidence to suggest that these ‘riots’ were race related and were particularly focused on the police.
Some argue that the disturbances were a direct result of the police’s neglect of the well being of its black communities. Furthermore, the riots that erupted in Bristol in 1980, began after a raid on a cafi?? escalated into street disorder and only ended after police had withdrawn from the area, thus leading to allegations that the district had become a ‘no-go’ area (Rowe, M. 1995). The rioting against police has been put down to the fact that the black communities had no faith or trust in the police force after years of being ignored, therefore they had no relationship and ‘no mercy’.
Fryer suggests that the disorders in Bristol became ‘a symbol of resistance’, however others argue that the disorders became symbolic in the sense that they represented an early stage in the racialisation of public disorder that continued throughout the decade (Rowe, M. 1995). The trend continued particularly throughout the summer of 1981 and rioting engulfed the country, spreading to places such as Southall, Liverpool, Moss Side and to the aforementioned Brixton.
A significant piece of evidence to suggest that all of these displays of public disorder were ‘race riots’ was that all of the cities involved in the riots were all cities that were densely populated with black and ethnic culture. Southall in west London boasted 30,000 Asians, while Toxteth in Liverpool 8, housed most of the cities 30,000 blacks (Kettle, M. 1982). Similarly, Moss Side in Manchester was well documented for being densely populated with ‘blacks’. Baron Scarman carried out the inquiry into the Brixton riots.
Scarman expressed empathy for the black community, paying particular attention to Rastafarians; this it has been argued, made him an overnight hero in Brixton, however it was all shattered over the weekend of 3-5 July, when rioters took to the streets again. Although the rioting happened in the space of a few weeks and seemed to involve most part of the country, there were important differences in the circumstances, which sparked off the violence in the different areas as well as in the people who took part (Kettle, M. 1982).
It has been suggested that the disturbances in Southall were clearly racial, as they began as a fight between Asians and white skinheads; in Toxteth where, like Brixton, police-community relations were in a state of crisis, whites as well as blacks appeared to participate, and a small incident set off a great riot (Kettle, M. 1982). It has also been said that although the disturbances of the 1980s did materialise as a result of racial tension, they became just as much of a battle against the police, thus echoing the idea that the police are largely to blame for the display of public disorder in the 1980s.
An argument has also been put forward in juxtaposition to the prior. This suggests that these riots do reflect ethnic grievances, however claims that they merely provided a forum for youths and older people from many ethnic groups to vent their frustrations (Macionis, J ; Plummer, K. 2002. ) Many argue that the riots of 2001 were more racially motivated than that of the 1980s. In the summer of 2001, Asian youths took to the streets of Oldham, Leeds, Burnley, Bradford and Stoke, to defend their communities from racist violence.
Tension in Oldham began to build in the 1980s when unemployment swept through the town. Most Asians took to work in restaurants, takeaways, and corner shops or in mini cabbing, while the majority of the public sector jobs went to whites. In 1993, the local authority was prosecuted for operating a segregated housing policy, giving better areas to whites and run down estates to Asians. Similarly there was segregation in education. It has been implied that Oldham police had long been indifferent to racially motivated street violence against Asians.
The riots that took place in May 2001 erupted after years of racially motivated attacks were swept under the carpet by police, and Asian communities decided to make a stand. In 1989 an air rifle pellet, fired by a gang of whites, killed a 14-year-old Pakistani schoolboy on his way home. Police claimed the attack was not racial and a planned protest march organised by Asians was called off. In 2001, Asians in the Glodwick and Westwood areas fought with riot police after white racist gangs attacked residents.
In June, an angry crowd of 100 Asians assembled outside Chapletown police station Leeds, in response to police spraying Hussein Miah with CS gas. Six hours of rioting ensued, as whites and African-Caribbean’s joined Asians in battling the police through the streets of the well documented multi racial Harehills area (Unknown author, Goa. net. 2001). Later on that month, Burnley was in trouble. This was due to assorted racists gathering in local pubs on a Saturday, where in the afternoon an Asian taxi driver was attacked, fracturing his cheekbone.
Asians assembled in Stoneholme to defend the area as a National Front group approached, then moving on to attack two pubs, which harboured racists. Taxi drivers followed with a 10-day strike in protest at racist attacks against Asians. After a number of NF members appeared in Bradford and racists attacked an Asian man while police stood by, riots broke out between racists, police and Asians. Likewise in Stoke, 100 Asian youths battled with police as rumours spread that NF supporters and racist gangs were going to attack the Cobridge area.
Prior to this incident, white youths had attacked at Asian owned car in the Shelton area, while others chanted racist slogans, again proving highly racially motivated. Thus we can conclude that the so-called ‘race riots’ of the 1980s and 2001, were initially racially motivated, although they did erupt for different reasons. The disturbances of the 1980s, appear to be due to the lack of police community relations in densely populated black areas, whereas the riots of 2001 seem to have a occurred as a direct result of racial attacks against various ethnic communities.
It is apparent however that the pattern in both of these periods of riots, is that disturbances which started off as relatively small acts of violence and vandalism, or organised protests, were adopted by a variety of people from different walks of life, thus throwing this trend of blame culture into disrepute while reinforcing the idea that the scale of these disturbances was due to people jumping on the ‘band wagon’, as a way of venting their frustrations.