I make no apology for supporting street protest and street resistance. I believe that a street-level existence is vital for any political or social movement, and for many different reasons. People who justifiably feel they are powerless need to know that they can fight and that they can win. The hollow concessions that are too often made in town halls and national government assemblies do little in giving a real sense of justice to people who have had their rights, their dignities and their lives stripped from them, often over many years. And how that leaves them totally excluded politically and socially from the mainstream is something that I know well and have often written about.
However, when such a street presence has not been legitimised by formal and institutional politics, and the people involved are themselves part of the excluded, their forms of protest, frustration, anger and rage are too often referred to as “unrest” and “rioting”. Reduced to “thuggish criminality”, their political action is seen only as illegitimate, rather than as a form of political expression that clearly says that they have had enough.
Mustafa Dikeç’s new book Urban Rage makes this point plain from the first page, where he explains that recent forms of street protest have been a consequence of the balance tipping throughout most of the world, as people are becoming increasingly urban and inequality is becoming so stark that, as he points out about Baltimore, in Maryland, you can move from “feast to famine in 4 blocks”.
The book is filled with sentences, phrases and analogies devoid of academic coldness but rich in sentiment that bring the rage and frustration that excluded people feel off the page. One of the most poignant is the notion of “the birdcage”: as Dikeç explains, each individual wire can do no harm, but when interwoven into specific and purposeful patterns the wires become the bird’s cage. He also cites the example of Ferguson, Missouri, when the courts responded to manifestations of urban rage by using motoring offences and the consequent fines as a cash machine. Such examples are part of a broader structure of racism, poverty and militarised police forces that led to the birdcage.
Rage, like love, is one of our strongest emotions and this book examines how unstructured and uncontrollable rage is opposing the organised power structures that produce inequality from London to Athens, through the US, in the banlieues of France and even in Stockholm (although Dikeç acknowledges that these are by no means the only places). The arguments are filled with a clear, personal anger that the author cannot hide, although the last sentence of the book – the words of Ferguson rapper Tef Poe – is my favourite: “I voted for Obama twice and still got tear gassed.”
Lisa Mckenzie is research fellow in the department of sociology, London School of Economics, and author of Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain (2015).
Urban Rage: The Revolt of the Excluded
By Mustafa Dikeç
Yale University Press, 264pp, £16.99
Published 7 November 2017