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From Metropolitan to Megalopolitan Riots

The recent riots in London show that the politics of changing the structure that exploded into violent confrontations between the state and the people in the past is giving way to the predominance of inter-ethnic and inter-religious tensions on the one hand, and acquisitive individualism on the other. The riots have to be located against the backdrop of the socio-economic changes that London has undergone during the last few decades. The metropolis has turned into a megalopolis - a globalised urban system that has expanded through the territorial appropriation of suburbs into the megastructure, based on flows of multinational goods and services, investments and information technology, and immigration of human resources.


From Metropolitan to Megalopolitan Riots rioting. Most of them were residents of government-subsidised public housing complexes in London and the nearby areas (although living in abject social conditions) – from which the Cameron govern
ment now wants to evict the rioters and
Sumanta Banerjee their families, as a punitive measure.

The recent riots in London show that the politics of changing the structure that exploded into violent confrontations between the state and the people in the past is giving way to the predominance of inter-ethnic and inter-religious tensions on the one hand, and acquisitive individualism on the other. The riots have to be located against the backdrop of the socio-economic changes that London has undergone during the last few decades. The metropolis has turned into a megalopolis – a globalised urban system that has expanded through the territorial appropriation of suburbs into the megastructure, based on flows of multinational goods and services, investments and information technology, and immigration of human resources.

Sumanta Banerjee ( is a political commentator who is best known for his book In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement in India.

Economic & Political Weekly

september 24, 2011

he recent riots in London, Birmingham, Liverpool and other parts of England have precipitated a rush of judgments from a wide spectrum – both in England and India. They range from the liberal Right, wringing their hands in despair at the inability of their much adored London Bobby to control what they consider “pure criminality”, to the liberal Left at the other end who try to explain the riots as a popular brutal response to the cuts and austerity measures by the Cameron administration. The truth, as quite often, may lie somewhere in between these two poles. But more importantly, the London riots should carry lessons for metropolises in India which are expanding into megalopolises.

Two facts emerge from the findings till now. First, not all the rioters were habitual criminals. They came from a variegated demographic background – ranging from teenagers to professionals, like a 31-year old primary school worker and a 43-year old restaurant chef among the Afro-Caribbean community, along with even a few whites. Second, they were not demanding bread, houses or jobs. Contrary to the knee-jerk conventional leftist explanation of such riots as poverty-induced mass outbursts, these rioters in London, Birmingham and other places moved around in BMWs, using the state-of-the art BlackBerry phones to coordinate with their compatriots in other parts of the country – with the primary objective of raiding department stores and looting commodities that had hitherto been in the exclusive possession of the rich who stamped their brand names on them to exclude them from accessibility by the hoi polloi. It is significant that the rioters chose as their spoils luxury items like Debenhams bags, sportswear trainers among other goods labelled with expensive price tags. Besides, let us note that they did not belong to the homeless crowd with which we usually associate urban

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Their looting spree, therefore, can be seen as the violent manifestation of the same values which are rooted in a competitive and ostentatious consumerist lifestyle, sans any moral or social responsibility, that had percolated down from the corporate elite and politicians to these common citizens. While the former (both the indigenous British and the south Asian millionaires in London) can afford to follow that lifestyle by non-violent and semi-legal means of appropriation and fiddling expenses, the latter, bereft of such a privileged position, have to resort to violent means to acquire riches in their ruthless race for upward mobility.

Their riotous responses have to be located against the backdrop of the socio-economic changes that London has undergone during the last few decades. The metropolis has turned into a megalopolis – a globalised urban system that has expanded through the territorial appropriation of suburbs into the megastructure, based on flows of multinational goods and services, investments and information technology, and immigration of human resources. The megalopolitan culture has begun to produce its anomalies. An amoral neo-liberal economic system had allowed unscrupulous media tycoons like Murdoch to manipulate public opinion all these years in favour of an acquisitive lifestyle that spurred popular craving for corporate-manufactured luxury goods. In a nemesis of sorts, the corporate campaign is now being hoisted by its own petard, with its shopping outlets becoming targets of the aggressive instincts of the consumerist masses.

History of Riots in London

But before getting into the essentials of the debate over the dimensions of the riots in London and neighbouring areas, we need to demolish a few myths that are being reinforced in the course of the debate.

First, the impression is gaining ground among certain sections that London had always been a peaceful cosmopolitan


metropolis till the arrival of the “dirty” south Asian and “violent” Afro-Caribbean immigrants, who are held responsible for the riots that are ruining the city’s hygiene and social fabric! But, historically London had never been peaceful. Like many other metropolises that grew up during industrialisation (whether Paris and New York in the west, or Shanghai and Calcutta in the east), London has had an old history of propensity towards mob violence in the streets – long before its East End and northern peripheries came to be occupied by non-white immigrants. The well-known Gordon riots of 1780 (which spilled over from an initial anti-Catholic campaign into a mass upsurge against corrupt ruling politicians, attacks on troops, and breaking down of prisons – to end up as usual with its brutal suppression) seemed to provide the model for future street violence in London. Throughout the 19th century, protests by the English working class and pro-Fenian Irish radicals erupted into rioting – directed mainly against the symbols of state power, the police and the propertied classes – in places like Trafalgar Square and Clerkenwell Green (where now stands the Marx Memorial Library).

The latter half of the 20th century, however, saw a shifting of the focus of rioting from issues like class conflicts and anticolonial protests to racist confrontations between the white establishment and the non-white immigrants. Among the race riots during this period, the worst were those in Notting Hill in 1958 and Brixton in 1981 – both provoked by harassment of black men by gangs of white youths and persecution by a racist police force. Summing up the pathology of the London mob throughout the ages, a modern British historian of the metropolis, Peter Ackroyd detects a “prevalent instinct towards riot which has never been suppressed”, and draws our attention to “its irritability and sudden changes of mood, so that when a spark was struck in its depths it flared up very quickly” (Ackroyd 2001).

The second myth is about the London Bobby. While rebuking the metropolitan police for treating the looters and vandals with kid gloves in the recent riots, most commentators have attributed their failure to the traditionally soft nature of their training – “paternal and protective, not sadistic and authoritarian” (Caldwell 2011). Echoing similar sentiments, an Indian ex-CBI director bemoans the “halcyon days when an unarmed Bobby could hold his own against the largest of mobs”, and advises the British police to be proactive by adopting a new strategy of aggressive policing (Raghavan 2011). Despite this statesponsored friendly image of the London police that wins over the hearts of liberals, the Bobby (the term associated with Robert Peel who in 1829 established the Metropolitan Police, known as the Met) acquired the reputation of an oppressive cop among the city’s white underprivileged poor in the past, and is today hated as a racist “pig” (the derisive term used for him by his victims) by the immigrants from Asia, Africa and the West Indies. To start with, the Bobby, even when officially unarmed, often indulges in physical violence when raiding homes of the blacks. For instance, one of the worst riots (marked by looting of shops, burning of cars and the lynching of a policeman) that took place in October 1985, was provoked by the death of a woman during a police raid in the predominantly black Broadwater Farm Estate in north London. In fact, the latest riots – again in north London – were triggered by the shooting of an Afro-Caribbean youth by a Bobby (not “unarmed” as imagined by many outsiders). The Metropolitan police’s policy of “stop and search” to tackle gun crime has been used in a vicious manner particularly against the black youth.

Street Gangs

As in many other metropolitan cities of the modern world, criminal gangs (like the mafia in New York or dons in Mumbai) have always been a part of London’s street life. This time also they played an important role in the riots there. As in the 1985 Broadwater Farm riots, when many of the rioters wore masks or scarves to hide their faces, in the latest riots the youngsters put on hoods to escape identification. But the composition and objectives of the gangs have changed over the years in sync with the megalopolitan transformation of the city. Till the 1960s, the gangs were primarily white with names like “Elephant Gang” or “Titanic Gang”, which carved out certain areas of east London and southern suburbs into their respective

september 24, 2011

territories, where they monopolised underworld dealings in drugs, prostitution and protection rackets extorting money from shopkeepers. The East End, for instance, was ruled by the “Kray brothers” – a gang that shot into prominence in the 1950s, recalling the gangsters of Chicago of the 1930s. Led by the twins Reggie and Ronnie Kray, the gang in the tradition of the Robin Hood legend, managed to command both fear and admiration from the residents. When Reggie, the last of the family, died on 12 October 2000, thousands lined the streets of East End to witness his funeral procession – some applauding from a sense of relief from his threats, but others weeping at the loss of a patron who protected them from police harassment and prevented social crimes like child abuse and rape. It is this peculiar combination of fear and protection that had enabled gangs to survive in the backwater of our modern metropolises, the winding streets and lanes of London and New York, Mumbai and Kolkata, where the state had made its presence felt only by the hated and oppressive beat constables, and the destitute had sought protection from them by approaching the local gang leaders (like Reggie Kray in London or Haji Mastan in Mumbai).

The megalopolitan turn that London took during the closing decades of the last century dramatically altered the composition and priorities of the street gangs. Ethnic bands like the Jamaican “Yardie” and Chinese “Triad” appeared on the scene, challenging the hitherto dominating white gangs. They represented partly the black immigrants’ self-assertion against years of racist attacks by the white gangs, and partly the self-interested motivations among the immigrants to make use of any new opportunity. In the case of the ethnic gangs, it was the lucrative trade in heroin, crack and similar drugs.

The last decades of the 20th century in UK were also marked by a noticeable fissure among the immigrants – primarily bet ween the south Asians and the Afro-Caribbeans. The former, both Indians and Pakistanis, besides remaining engaged in traditional occupations like running groceries, and in professional roles as lawyers or teachers, ventured into business and industries. They threw up business

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Economic & Political Weekly


magnates (like Swaraj Paul from India) who found their way into the decisionmaking political system. Their prosperity stood out in sharp contrast with the degrading plight of the African and west Indian immigrants. The latter’s sense of degradation and deprivation was further accentuated by the south Asian immigrants’ flaunting of wealth and colourbased racist prejudice against them. I remember the expression used by an Indian grocery store owner in London some years ago “We’re brown, they’re black !”

It is this divisiveness among the immigrants that has added a new dimension to the recent London riots. The street gangs

  • mainly of Afro-Caribbean origins, with a sprinkling of white desperados – targeted, along with the (white-owned) multinational outlets of luxury goods, Indian and Pakistani-run groceries and jewellery shops too. Their jealousy and anger against their prosperous south Asian neighbours exploded into the shocking act of mowing down of three Pakistani youth in Birmingham. As pointed out earlier, the rioters came from a semi-privileged background
  • beneficiaries of subsidised housing with access to cars and modern technology that allowed them to coordinate across the megalopolis stretching from London to Birmingham. Recent withdrawal of privileges by the government, like the cut in educational maintenance allowance (EMS) and other social benefits, along with joblessness, filled these youth with a sense of insecurity and frustration. Their requirements were not food or housing – needs that had provoked riots earlier. Their plunder of luxury goods indicates a popular urban psyche shaped by the message of rapacious accumulation and conspicuous consumption as advertised by the commercial corporate sector.
  • ‘The Fire Next Time’

    As Indian metropolises are fast morphing into megalopolises, the old joke about rains in London causing sneezes in India is the most appropriate metaphor to be used for the changing scenario in the Indian urban backwater in the present era of globalisation. Historically, the pattern of riots in urban India had followed almost the same socio-economic trajectory as in London – transmuting from anti-police outbursts and

    Economic & Political Weekly

    september 24, 2011

    “bread riots” in the earlier period through and whatever they could lay their hands
    inter-ethnic and religious conflagrations to on. After pillaging their movable proper
    the later days, to the new phenomenon of ties, and forcing the Sikhs to move out,
    “consumerist riots” in the present phase. many among the looters occupied their
    Curiously enough, although there was no houses and land, thus notching up their
    direct connection, soon after the Trafalgar status in the socio-economic hierarchy. It
    Square riots in 1887 (by the city’s poor was the members of these same classes
    against police repression), a riot broke out who reappeared in Mumbai in 1992, and
    in 1891 in Ultadanga, followed by another Ahmedabad in 2002, moving around in
    in Tallah six years later, both in north Cal cars carrying cell phones, targeting, this
    cutta, and both marked by pitched battles time, the Muslims. They were joined by
    between the local poor slum-dwellers and women from respectable Hindu middle
    the British colonial police. By the turn of class homes, who had no qualms in picking
    the 20th century, the contours of urban up sewing machines, cutlery, saris from
    riots were being reconfigured. In Indian the loot. There is however a difference
    cities they were taking on the political col between the London rioters and the Indian
    our of anti-imperialism – almost in tandem urban mob. While the former do not enjoy
    with the Irish Fenian anti-British riots. But patronage from any political party (al
    urban India also saw communal riots dur though certain Right-wing British politi
    ing this period – culminating in the worst cians are known to support neo-Nazi
    Hindu-Muslim conflagration in 1946-47, white mobsters), leading Indian political
    while within a couple of decades British parties openly back criminal gangs (e g,
    cities were to be engulfed by inter-racial the Congress engaged local “dadas” or
    riots of a similar violent nature. As we bullies and thugs to kill Sikhs in 1984; the
    reach the beginning of the 21st century, the Bharatiya Janata Party employed its para
    parameters of urban conflagration are military wing Bajrang Dal to kill Muslims
    again undergoing a transformation. The in the 1992 and 2002 riots).
    politics of changing the structure – anti- Mob violence over class conflicts in the
    imperialism and socialism – that exploded past had a moral basis – demand for equality
    into violent confrontations between the and social justice. But mob violence
    state and the people in the past, is giving prompted by ethnic and religious hostili
    way to the predominance of inter-ethnic ties – and of late, fostered by consumerist
    and inter-religious tensions on the one greed nurtured through a well-orchestrat
    hand, and acquisitive individualism on the ed publicity campaign of worshipping
    other, both converging in assaults on prop mammon and the message of “devil take
    erty, marked by looting. The conflicts are the hindmost” in a ruthless rat race – will
    no longer aimed at overthrowing the sys bring its own nemesis. Warning the ruling
    tem, but at fighting amongst themselves to powers in the context of the race riots in
    accumulate pro perty and gain a privileged American cities in 1963, the black writer
    position within the system. James Baldwin quoted an old song by a
    The mobs that went on rampage in slave – “God gave Noah, the rainbow sign,
    London in August have their counterparts No more water, the fire next time” (The
    in urban India. The concept of disposses- Fire Next Time).
    sion is being reformulated in the minds of
    these urban citizens. It is not poverty and References
    hunger, lack of shelter and clothing that Ackroyd, Peter (2001): London: The Biography (Lon
    define dispossession. For them disposses don: Vintage). Caldwell Christopher (2011): “The Death Knell for the
    sion means deprivation of commodities, Era of the British Bobby”, The Financial Times,
    the possession of which would help them 12 August.
    to flaunt their status in society. They cut Raghavan, R K (2011): “Lessons from the London Riots”, The Hindu, 12 August.
    across class and gender lines. During the
    anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984, we saw Subscription Numbers
    middle class youth as well as the dalit Subscribers are requested to note their S ubscription
    poor looting the shops and homes of their Numbers mentioned on the wrappers and quote
    Sikh neighbours and gleefully carrying these numbers when corresponding with the
    away television sets, refrigerators, ovens circulation d epartment.
    vol xlvi no 39 29

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