Recent soaring numbers of youths killed in London, United Kingdom, have many scratching their heads in disbelief. People in the United States and elsewhere have been fed an idyllic picture of “Great” Britain, where everyone (apparently) speaks the Queen’s English and lives in a house by the woods where they sip tea from blue and white porcelain all day.
London is one of the wealthiest cities in the world largely thanks to The City of London Square Mile which is one of the oldest and continuously-running imperialist financial centers. The city has also been home to immigrants and poor working class families since its foundation. In a bitter twist of irony many, who have been robbed of their land, resources and labor by British imperialism, must come here to live in deplorable conditions off of the crumbs of what was theirs to begin with.
Nearly a year ago, for example, a 24-story-high public housing building in West London’s Royal Borough of Chelsea and Kensington went up in flames due to “inappropriate” cladding. That was the term investigators used demonstrating the knack British media have for distorting reality through the deceitful use of language. A more accurate description of the fire would be mass murder because the cladding was not just inappropriate but flammable. This was a risk taken to save money for the wealthy.
As if poverty isn’t already a punishment in itself being poor is punishable by death if you live in London, especially if you’re a young Black male.
In the mid-20th Century, Jamaican families were encouraged by the Labour Party government to come to the United Kingdom, especially to certain pockets of London, for the post-war reconstruction project. A significant number of immigrant families from Jamaica and elsewhere were placed in substandard housing in South London’s Brixton neighborhood where unemployment has been through the roof ever since. Over the years, Brixton has been known as a hotbed of gang violence, drug dealing, prostitution and so on.
In 1981, Black youths, enraged by police brutality and a lack of job opportunities fought the police in what was the dubbed biggest case of “public disorder” in the country that century. This was surpassed during a 2011 London-wide uprising that sparked after police killed Mark Duggan, a young Black man.
The looting of shops, the torching of buildings and violent confrontations with police show that these events cannot be separated from their socioeconomic context, no matter how “senseless” they may appear to be. Martin Luther King Jr. succinctly expressed that “riots are the language of the unheard.”
In the case of young Black and immigrant youth in London, violence and flames are used not just because they are unheard but because they are actively shunned by a historically racist and classist society.
With this context, the recent soar in knife crimes and killings across London can’t be seen simply as “senseless,” as horrendous as it is, but as a consequence of impoverishment and state crimes. The more than 50 killings so far this year is hardly surprising when one looks at the unemployment rate and poverty levels. A report released last year noted that unemployment among young Black men in London is double that of their white counterparts.
Similarly, studies have linked austerity cuts by the U.K. government to a rise in crime in working-class communities, especially in Black communities. Crime is the result of a lack of education, healthcare and employment opportunities. To add insult to injury police stop and search powers, a cover phrase for harassment, is disproportionately used against Black people despite the fact that they make up only 13 percent of the country’s population.
Duggan’s killing in 2011 serves as a poignant example of state-sponsored violence and media collusion with these crimes. British media, especially the BBC, pride themselves in being “objective” in their news reporting. Yet in Duggan’s killing, they could not help but back the gang of police officers who acted unlawfully, even helping to cover for them by uncritically accepting their side of the story before establishing the details of the case. The lack of transparency by both the state and its media apparatus undoubtedly helped to spark the apparent “senseless riots” that took place across London after Duggan’s killing.
From a broader perspective, the decontextualized portrayal of the violence by young Londoners in mainstream media also gives rise to patronizing charities and NGOs that start social campaigns to “stop knife crimes” through education and culture. This approach ignores the socioeconomic roots of the problem because acknowledging it would mean empty pockets for these opportunists.
The most recent example of this was the #BikesUpKnivesDown protest which was supported by London’s Metropolitan Police, bringing out thousands of youth who were misled into outrage against knives rather than poverty and state violence.
It’s not at all surprising that waves of knife and gang crimes surge every few years. There are no long-term solutions on the negotiating table that require a serious restructuring of society.
The portrayal of violence among London’s youth as “irrational” is part of a broader narrative used by the state to deflect its culpability. It makes use of media outlets to misinform and ultimately justify the conditions in which immigrants in impoverished communities are made to live in.
Violence, it seems, is only acceptable when police and state forces use it.