Abby Hardgrove on ‘Collisions, Coalitions and Riotous Subjects: The Riots One Year On’

A Conference Report for GEA

I work as a post-graduate research associate on a research initiative focused on young men’s experiences of unemployment in the UK during a time of austerity: ‘Diaspora geographies and generations: spaces of civil engagement’. This is a collaborative research endeavour directed by Professor Linda McDowell and in collaboration with Dr. Esther Rootham. This research has particular relevance to gender and education as we look at gendered experiences of unemployed young men in the UK with specific interest in how their formal education and skills training map onto their structured experiences of precarious work and unemployment.

In listening to the work presented at the conference, I came away with two observations that are important for my work with young men, and (I think) for the work concerned with young people’s involvement in the riots. One observation is empirical, the other theoretical. It struck me that much of what I heard in the sessions I attended represented a diverse and interesting mosaic of empirical inquiry into experience of the riots—the experience of those who participated and of those who watched and responded during and afterwards. Assembled together on the panel we get a sense of social dissonance, disconnection and socio-economic inequality that informed the experience of Turkish shopkeepers or probation officers, for instance. Their disparate interpretations of the 2011 riots – both what caused them and how they unfolded as they did – give us some idea about the variety of perceptions people have regarding the young, the police, the ‘other.’

The empirical material I had a chance to hear provided a glance at the complexity of human experience wrapped up in the events of the riots last summer. These need to be taken beyond observation of social divisions, however. There were a number of repetitive themes that arose over the course of the day, and that mirrored results from the literature: the profiling of young men of colour sporting hoodies, for example, or the debunking (again) of misperceptions about groups of young people as ‘gangs.’ While such observations remain empirically accurate, there was little theoretical analysis that could describe or explain what was happening underneath experiences of bullying by police, for instance. I came away with some of the same questions Yvette Taylor outlined in the original call for papers. What is happening structurally or behaviourally to result in the kind of repeated stop and searches made on young people? How can we understand the difference between violence against the police and theft in community shops and businesses? However, this for example was discussed in the second panel discussion in relation to the neighbourhood and community context and their relationship with police, and particularly their past histories of police violence. These community histories helped to explain in part why, in some cases the riots were anti-police, whereas elsewhere, where the history of police violence was not at the forefront, the disorders tended more towards looting. Additional contributions from local organisers, elders and youth themselves may have added even more viewpoints. How can we think more critically and precisely about minority youth, their class relations, or their engagement or disengagement with the state?

As senseless as the looting and violence may have appeared on the nightly news, what was evident at this conferences was the volume of empirical material that has been gathered in the weeks and months following the riots of 2011. Taking into consideration both sets of panels, this conference contributed to the important task of taking forward these early observations and to draw from them a more critical and reflective interpretation of the causes, of the unfolding processes, experiences, and expression of the riots, and of the aftermath.

Abby Hardgrove, DPhil Student, University of Oxford

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