Baying mobs and other inventions

A work exploding the myths surrounding so-called race riots wins David Gadd's enthusiastic approval

November 6, 2008

Sociological studies that transform the way academics think are not easy to find. The authors of Riotous Citizens: Ethnic Conflict in Multicultural Britain make no such claim for their book, yet they would not be unjustified in doing so. Seven years after the turbulent summer of 2001, memories of the disturbances that blighted Bradford, Oldham and Burnley have become blurred. Although completely unrelated, the terrorist atrocities of September 11 refashioned political responses to urban disorder so much that it became impossible to speak of the latter without evoking governmental responses to the former. Too many academics presumed that the causes of the 2001 disturbances had been sufficiently understood even while they disagreed with the Government's proposed policy solutions. Paul Bagguley and Yasmin Hussain expose this presumption as erroneous.

As Bagguley and Hussain elaborate, the assumption that rioters adopt a collective mentality originates in Gustav LeBon's analysis of The Crowd (1896), a work revered by European fascists because of what it implied about French socialists. Historical research, however, reveals that crowds are rarely mobilised by a complete commonality of purpose, ideology or identity; research into riots is best begun, as the authors observe, with simple questions: "What happened? Why? What were the consequences? Who was involved and what were they doing?"

The authors take this lesson to heart in exploring the disturbances in Burnley (where an attack on a taxi driver sparked a series of retaliatory attacks perpetrated predominantly, but not exclusively, by white men), Oldham (where Stoke City football supporters rampaged through a predominantly Asian residential area) and Bradford (where anti-fascist demonstrators were aggrieved by the police's failure to deal with the racial harassment that banned National Front activists were inflicting). In Bradford, a city that had succeeded in bridging relationships between white and minority ethnic communities after riots in 1995, people expected racism to be taken more seriously.

The homogeneity of the crowds that clashed with the police in Bradford, it turns out, had much less to do with the collective consciousness of Asian youth and much more to with how conflict was policed.

Because the police were mindful of the need to protect the city centre, they pushed the protestors back into a neighbouring district that was populated primarily by British Pakistanis. Consequently, what "began as an ethnically mixed crowd of men and women at the Anti-Nazi League demonstration in the city centre became a crowd of largely British Pakistani men fighting the police on the boundary between the city centre and Manningham".

Social scientists came to explain the riot that ensued in terms of the marginalisation of Asian youth caught up in a "culture clash", but the interview, arrest and prosecution data Bagguley and Hussain present casts doubt on the empirical validity of this explanation. While 44.5 per cent of those arrested were aged under 20, 43.5 per cent were in their twenties and 12.1 per cent were aged between 21 and 49. University students, community workers who were acting as negotiators and go-betweens, and men with families were among those arrested.

Moreover, some of those who ended up serving the excessively punitive prison sentences that David Blunkett, the Home Secretary at the time, encouraged the courts to impose, were among those who, during the early stages of the riot, had done what they could to calm things down.

A student called Mudasar Khan had helped police officers protect a pregnant woman from a "baying mob", but was jailed for a year because he was filmed throwing a stone. The authors also note that "Mohammed Bashir served drinks to the police, but was jailed for four years for his later activities during the riot ... Mohammed Ali Zaman was jailed for two and a half years for throwing three stones, but had also tried to protect a garage and persuade others to stop the violence and leave the area".

Why some of those who had tried to calm things down later turned against the police is an important question that Bagguley and Hussain raise but do not answer. What their research does reveal, however, is that divisions among the people of Bradford arose out of the riots and were not necessarily the cause of them.

During the riots, participants disagreed with each other about how far to go, whether it was right to damage the property of local white and Asian-owned businesses, and at whom their aggression was directed: the police, the far Right, and/or a wider community of white racists. After the riots, some people felt let down by both self-styled community leaders who misrepresented the source of their disquiet and Asian businessmen who distanced themselves from those construed popularly and politically as lawless yobs.

The enduring costs of the damage done were both economic and social. Some families reported their sons to the police, ashamed to see their faces on "wanted" posters. Some families saw their primary breadwinners imprisoned for up to five years.

In turn, the white racism that had hitherto become more muted gained a new respectability, thanks in part to the Government's community cohesion agenda and the credibility it lent to the unfounded view that a self-segregating, non-English-speaking "Asian community" harbours a lawless element it cannot control. As Bagguley and Hussain conclude: "No quality of theoretical critique, no quantity of empirical evidence, no effective application of reason seems able to dislodge this collective myth the British have about British Muslims."

My own view, however, is less pessimistic. If enough social scientists and their students read this brilliant book, it is at least possible that some of us will be able to prevent the shameful history of racism repeating itself next time the media spectacle of so-called race riots confronts us.

Riotous Citizens: Ethnic Conflict in Multicultural Britain

By Paul Bagguley and Yasmin Hussain

Ashgate, 200pp, £55.00

ISBN 9780546463

Published 28 July 2008

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