The video opens on a scene of hazy, unspecified danger. A group of people are milling about on a street corner that could be anywhere, their identities obscured by hoods, caps and the graininess of the footage. It is almost midnight, and the road appears deserted. Suddenly the anonymous figures surge towards the railings on the edge of the pavement and hurl objects at a passing police vehicle, which races away off screen. Initially, there is no sound: just the remote gaze of the CCTV camera. Then as if from the other side of the glass, voices cut through.
“Middle England people – the older generation at the time – they didn’t care,” says one. “They took it as: ‘Oh yeah, all these people from all these areas are scumbags.’” The words are occasionally drowned out by the noise of helicopters whirring above or police horses clumping below, yet the speakers persist. “When you have an elastic band, when you stretch it out to its extreme, it snaps back,” explains another. “The more you try to break a person, the more they build up resistance.”
The question of who gets to narrate the events of August 2011 – that handful of hot and broken summer nights when something seemed to crack inside Britain’s biggest cities, and images of smashed shop fronts, raging fires and faceless youths filled the news – is one that runs through the heart of UP:RISE, a new work by the artist and film-maker Baff Akoto exploring the memory and legacy of what became known as the riots of 2011, a decade after they occurred. Involving an estimated 20,000 people in locations from Bristol to Birkenhead, and leading to half a billion pounds of damage and nearly 4,000 arrests, clashes between protesters and police – triggered initially by the latter’s killing of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, north London – eventually escalated into the biggest wave of urban unrest seen in the UK since the 1980s. The last time disturbances on this scale hit the capital on successive nights was during the anti-Catholic Gordon riots of 1780.
Given how profoundly the 2011 riots shook public consciousness at the time – generating five days of wall-to-wall television coverage and mounting establishment panic that prompted the government to consider sending military forces on to the streets of mainland Britain – it’s perhaps surprising how thoroughly absent they are from contemporary political discourse. Once the clips of burning buses and boarded-up high streets faded away, so too did a wider conversation about what lay behind the extensive disorder, and what it might reveal about the iniquities, exclusions and violence of “order” itself. “It is criminality, pure and simple,” declared prime minister David Cameron at the height of the turmoil. That framing, echoed by fellow politicians and large swathes of the media, was useful for anybody hoping to contain August 2011 within a safe and recognisable template: one in which a bad, mad, felonious underclass engages in a limited bout of feverish troublemaking before law is restored and life mercifully returns to normal.
But the riots could never really be sealed off and dismissed so easily: they were too entangled with complex dynamics stretching far back into Britain’s past, too bound up with fundamental questions of economic and social justice that continue to animate the country today. Those five days have cast a long shadow over the lives of many. Not just the recipients of custodial sentences – including the individuals quoted above, who were interviewed as part of Akoto’s UP:RISE project – but also the thousands of young people subsequently placed on the Metropolitan Police’s “Gangs Matrix”: a highly racialised database of suspected gang members drawn up in response to the riots that potentially blighted the prospect of anyone whose name was listed, and which has been condemned by Amnesty International as “unfit for purpose”.
For Akoto, though, the ramifications of the riots go much further – and implicate us all. “These events are too old to be news, and too new to be history,” he says. “At least until now. This 10-year anniversary feels like a good moment to start revisiting and recontextualising what happened, and when you do that, you realise so many of the things that define our world now have their roots in what happened then. When you think about it, August 2011 is really the formative moment of 21st-century Britain.”
All riots are alarm bells. This one sounded against the backdrop of a fresh-faced coalition government seeking to build a new political settlement out of the rubble of the 2008 financial crisis – one that rested on a vast inflation in wealth for those with existing assets such as homes and stock market investments, alongside a real-term cut in the value of wages and a decimation of the state’s social spending budget. The warning was never heeded. In the decade that followed, the fortunes of the UK’s richest 1,000 families more than doubled. Young people, meanwhile, are now on course to end up poorer than their predecessors at every single stage of their adult lives.
Akoto, who was abroad at the time, remembers the strange sensation of being stuck in front of a far-flung TV screen watching London, his hometown, burn. “The context was austerity, evictions, ‘I agree with Nick [Clegg]’, and the rise of zero-hours contracts and in-work poverty,” he says. “There was such a powerful sense of hopelessness. Young people were watching their futures disappear before their eyes.” In 2011, that despair and the desire to fight for something different was not confined to Britain: by the summer, revolutionary uprisings had erupted across the Middle East and anti-austerity protests were roiling southern Europe, while the Occupy movement – which would go on to become a fixture in nearly a thousand cities worldwide – was in its nascent stages. “If you looked around, law enforcement was being given the run-around all over the globe,” Akoto recalls. “To many, that felt hopeful. It was a moment of relief.”
Much of the kindling beneath the riots may have been international in nature, but in the UK the spark was a very local incident: Duggan, a 29-year-old father of six, was shot by police on Ferry Lane in Tottenham, a mile away from the Broadwater Farm estate on which he lived. He was under investigation by the Met’s Operation Trident unit, which focuses on gun crime in the black community, and had been trailed after picking up a weapon in nearby Leyton. After Duggan’s minicab was stopped, he emerged from the vehicle and was shot twice by officers, dying of his wounds soon afterwards. The police did not inform Duggan’s family of his killing for a day and a half, and the Independent Police Complaints Commission initially suggested that Duggan had opened fire first, before later clarifying that he had not fired any shots. The gun, which was recovered from a patch of grass several metres away from the minicab, wrapped in a sock, displayed no forensic evidence of Duggan having touched it, and the account of the officers involved – who claimed that Duggan was holding the weapon in his hand as he emerged on to the pavement – has been fiercely contested, not least in an extensive report produced last year by Forensic Architecture, a research group that specialises in investigating acts of state violence.
In much of the press, Duggan was caricatured as a vicious thug; in Tottenham, one of the poorest areas of London and a neighbourhood with a long history of aggressive policing, news of his killing landed differently. “It was hotting up all that summer,” recalls Hesketh Benoit, an educator and community worker who runs basketball programmes for local youths. “The cuts had started, stop-and-search was raising temperatures, and you could feel the tension was going to break.” One of Benoit’s former students, Roger Sylvester, is among several black residents of Haringey – the borough in which Tottenham is situated – to have met their death during recent decades while in contact with the police. Another, Cynthia Jarrett, died during a police raid on her home on Broadwater Farm back in 1985; then, as on 6 August 2011, protesters marched from the estate to the police station on Tottenham High Road to demand answers, leading to a standoff and eventual confrontation on the streets. “I’m not tarring every officer with the same brush, but at a certain level the police are a law unto themselves,” Benoit says. “Their mindset is: ‘You can’t touch us, we control things.’ And the community in Tottenham sees that, it feels the heaviness.”
Many other communities felt some measure of that heaviness too, and as disturbances spread – first from Tottenham to neighbouring Wood Green and Enfield, then to other parts of the capital as well as Manchester, Liverpool and other major cities – it became commonplace among media pundits to talk of “contagion”, as if a disease were circulating among the lowest ranks of society, infecting people with a capacity for mindless carnage. The historian David Starkey’s infamous comments on the BBC’s Newsnight, in which he claimed the “problem” was that “the whites have become black” and that “a particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion” were widely condemned. But dominant narratives surrounding the riots, even when they acknowledged the existence of underlying structural grievances, still flattened an extraordinarily complex process – inflected by different local contexts and circumstances – into something sweeping and simplistic that made little room for the agency of rioters themselves.
“Asking people to talk to us on their own terms about August 2011 was something that hadn’t necessarily been done before, at least not in the art-historical context,” says Akoto, who made his name with Football Fables, a 2010 documentary feature about the struggle of a young Ghanaian footballer to achieve European stardom. Much of his work since then has involved the exploration of new technologies and their potential role in artistic film-making, and UP:RISE is no exception: you won’t find the exhibition in any gallery, but rather on your mobile phone in the form of augmented reality sculptures, accessed via QR codes installed at a number of sites across Britain that became focal points for the riots. “The artist’s studio is somewhere you shouldn’t always be on solid ground,” he explains. “This project was very much about reimagining what an art exhibition could be; the whole country becomes the gallery.” Accompanying UP:RISE is a programme of public events responding to the project’s themes, ranging from workshops to podcast takeovers.
On the screen, Akoto’s sculptures take the form of menacing apparitions floating in mid-air: an eerie fusion of digital artifice and the built environment, each one comprising a mixture of archive footage from the unrest and first-person testimony from participants. Mobile communication, of course, was central to the riots themselves: there were widespread calls at the time to shut down the BlackBerry Messenger service, and posts on social media – still in its relative infancy back then – were later used as evidence during a blizzard of prosecutions (one 22-year-old was sentenced to four years in jail for using Facebook to “incite” riots in his hometown of Warrington – despite no rioting breaking out there as a result). “Digital technologies are enveloping our entire lives, binding us all together as well as polarising us, and the seeds for that were all there in 2011,” Akoto says. “It’s the first uprising of the digital era.”
Among those Akoto interviewed for UP:RISE was Aston Walker, a Birmingham-based film-maker turned software engineer who served a four-month jail sentence for looting clothes from H&M during the riots; he was 40 years old at the time, with no previous convictions. “When I came out of prison and the media got in touch looking for interviews, no one thought to ask, ‘Who are you, Aston?’” he told me. “No one was interested. Representation, and public perception, are very interesting; Baff and his team have put their shoulders to that wheel and gone right in there.” Walker describes the shock he experienced on learning of what he calls “the extrajudicial execution of Mark Duggan by Her Majesty’s Constabulary”, but also identifies an “all-pervading atmosphere” of anger and frustration at the time regarding the way working-class communities – particularly non-white ones – were being demonised by the country’s elites, themselves responsible for financial chicanery in the City of London, or mass death and destruction in foreign wars. “The rot starts at the top,” he says. “Burglary from a commercial premises is opportunistic, and part of that opportunity – in a delusional way, maybe – was to get one up on them. It was a wakeup call.”
Unlike London, where rioting tended to take place in local neighbourhoods, clashes in Birmingham largely converged on the city centre, where a colossal regeneration project dominated by chain retail outlets has reshaped the urban landscape – even as dozens of youth centres have been shuttered, and millions of pounds stripped out of the council’s youth services budget. As the academics Basia Spalek, Arshad Isakjee and Thom Davies noted a year later, a significant dimension of the disturbances there involved a struggle over place and belonging, in which spaces designed primarily for those with high economic or cultural capital were fleetingly seized by those without it, creating a mood of celebration and abandon. “Above the bark of police dogs, and behind the masked and hooded faces of the throng, were smiles, laughter and shrieks of joy,” they wrote. “To put it plainly, people were doing things in a public space which were not planned.”
In other affected areas around the country, including the Birmingham suburb of Winson Green, where three young men died after being hit by a car while trying to protect local businesses, longstanding tensions between different sections of the community helped to shape the riots’ trajectory. A common thread across all the sites where rioting took place was a sense of collective, if ephemeral, empowerment – as if for once the poles of authority and fear had been reversed. “They really don’t love us, do they,” says one young woman whose voice appears in UP:RISE. “And I think that’s why I went. I think I went because I know they don’t love us. So why do I care?”
The very language of “riots” is contested; many of those whom I spoke to for this story consider it a term of pride that taps into Britain’s rich history of civil unrest, synonymous in the postwar era with famous rebellions in places such as Toxteth and Brixton. Akoto believes that its appropriateness depends on the context. “In the mainstream it’s a word that is often used lazily, and therefore becomes a reductive shorthand,” he argues. “What it’s shorthand for – that’s the interesting thing, and that’s part of what UP:RISE is trying to address.” At a time when debate over how we commemorate and celebrate history in public spaces is particularly fierce – driven in part by a government keen to distract from many of the same economic faultlines that divided the country back in 2011 – Akoto’s work could be interpreted as a provocative intervention in the so-called “culture wars”, but he’s keen to resist that framing. “You hope there’s something timeless about a piece of art,” he says. “The great challenge is to make something that can withstand the incessant waves of topicality, and when all is said and done still matter in some way.”
Part of the timelessness in this case may lie in the fact that, far from disappearing, in many parts of the UK the conditions that helped produce the events of August 2011 – from tensions over policing, to economic exclusion – have intensified. “The grassroots black community of Tottenham is even more marginalised, isolated and lacking in representation today than it was 10 years ago,” says Stafford Scott, co-founder of the campaigning organisation Tottenham Rights, and one of the curators behind War Inna Babylon, an exhibition currently open at London’s ICA that shines a light on several decades of collective action among Britain’s black communities. Hesketh Benoit, the Haringey-based basketball coach who works in partnership with the local authority, told me that only recently one of his younger colleagues was swooped on by police as he left the courts and walked to his car; he was subsequently released without charge. “I thought we weren’t going to get him back,” Benoit said. “I can feel the pressure building yet again.” As Zak Philips, a 21-year-old from Birmingham’s Asian community who recently graduated from university, puts it: “In 2011 there was inequality, lack of jobs and unaffordable housing. We’ve got all that to deal with, plus a global pandemic.”
But today’s young people have something else as well: an increasingly bold, assertive and networked protest culture, visible in the Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion mobilisations that have proliferated across Britain in recent years. In UP:RISE, Akoto traces a line from these actions directly back to August 2011, contending that it was in the heat of the riots that contemporary patterns of revolt were forged. Whether one accepts that claim or not, it’s vital that communal memories of those all too fragile moments – ones in which existing patterns of privilege and control get disrupted – are preserved and renewed for each generation, because the state has every interest in tidying them away into obscurity. Less than a year after the riots, Cameron declared that the London Olympics had “brought the whole nation together”. In the aftermath of Duggan’s shooting, the IPCC concluded that there was “no evidence to indicate criminality” on the part of the police and an inquest recorded a verdict of lawful killing; in the past half century, only two officers have ever been convicted in the UK in relation to deaths after contact with police. Meanwhile Boris Johnson has promised an expansion of stop-and-search powers and the government’s new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill threatens to effectively outlaw any future protests that cause “serious annoyance” to others, exposing organisers to jail sentences of up to 10 years. “There ain’t no justice,” Scott says. “There’s just us.”
In 1985, widespread unrest in the Birmingham neighbourhood of Handsworth helped lay the groundwork for Tottenham’s own disturbances a few weeks later; in 2011, inspiration flowed the other way. “There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories,” declares an unseen narrator in Handsworth Songs, John Akomfrah’s award-winning film about those earlier events. When I ask Akoto, who counts Akomfrah among his mentors, whether we are likely to see more riots on the streets of Britain, he puts it another way. “I think you know the answer to that question,” he smiles. “The antagonistic state and social dynamics that produce these kinds of uprisings don’t go away, they only morph into something new. It’s all different volumes from the same epic.”