By Nicholas Nicou
In August 2011, a wave of riots gripped London, spreading to the rest of England over four days which left the country at a standstill.
At the time, news agencies relayed footage of the unfolding events on live television, with the images they broadcast as frequent as they were striking: red buses, the iconic symbol of London, lying in flames; police vans, an emblem of order and authority, being attacked en masse; small businesses, a symbol of British enterprise, laid to waste.
Wherever you looked, the same explanation for this violent burst of outrage was found: this was “mindless violence and thuggery” on a national scale, as Prime Minister David Cameron later stated.
For Fahim Alam, director of the 2012 documentary Riots Reframed, this was far from an adequate explanation for the four-day unrest which gripped England in August 2011.
And he has a more intimate experience of the events of that summer than most.
Having been caught up in Hackney during the riots, Alam was arrested and remanded in custody for six weeks while his face was plastered across national newspaper sites with wrongful accusations that he threw bricks at police during the unrest.
On 25 March 2012, a jury took just 30 minutes to find him not guilty of involvement in the riots, but his time in prison – which he has described as a “profoundly dehumanising” experience – spurred him on to reassess the socioeconomic causes and consequences of England’s 2011 riots with Riots Reframed.
Aesthetically, his documentary offers an unconventional twist on the tried-and-tested elements of documentary films. Rapid, sometimes jarring cutting between footage of the riots and quotes from the media are juxtaposed by more languorous sequences which fuse dramatic monologues with academic interviews, offering the film a unique style which consistently maintains the viewer’s interest.
As for the structure of the documentary itself, Alam inverts the media-supported notion that the riots were little more than a mindless eruption of violence and destruction by focussing on three alternative explanations for the social unrest, centring on the roles of anti-police sentiment, consumerist society and state-sanctioned violence as key factors.
His documentary begins by considering the importance of police mistrust in the events leading up to the riots, positing the death of Mark Duggan in August 2011 at the hands of armed police as the main catalyst. With the cinematography inter-splicing academic interviews with thoughtful monologues from spoken word poets, the viewer is invited to consider anti-police sentiment – and not a mindless thirst for violence – as the prime cause for the unrest.
Academics Paul Gilroy and Lee Jasper argue that many people in the inner-cities the riots began in – especially youngsters pertaining to ethnic minorities – had long been fuelled by a hatred for a police force they saw as institutionally racist and, seeing the unjust death of a community member just like them at police hands, they seized the moment to fight back. With the police seen as an alien, exterior force rather than a part of the community it operates within, Duggan’s shooting is seen as the spark which turned underlying resentment against the police into outright acts of violence.
Of course, this interpretation only goes as far as to explain the initial outburst of violence seen on England’s streets: what of the wide-scale looting which took place, with shops emptied by people of all ages in an expression which seemed to lack any sort of political agenda?
In Riots Reframed, these actions are seen to originate in a consumerist society where brands are kings and citizens are their loyal subjects. With people judged on what they own rather than who they are, an envious divide is created between the ‘haves and have nots’ of society and, when regular order is abandoned, those who cannot usually own the products persistently advertised to them decide to seize them by force.
It was, in fact, this facet of the riots which led some commentators to label the unrest “reckless immoral behaviour that shames Britain”. For these commentators, what else could explain why violence and looting was the favoured course of action, and why the destruction of stores, vehicles and property soon became a norm in the England riots?
In a bid to confront these unanswered questions, the final third of Riots Reframed focuses on an altogether different – and perhaps more intriguing – social explanation for the riots’ outbreak.
Indeed, the British rappers Lowkey and Akala remark that it is logical that a generation growing up in an era of war and conflict – where Britain has been involved in such overt acts of violence as the ‘shock and awe’ campaign carried out in Iraq in 2003 – will see violence and force as a justifiable means to an end.
Moreover, as spoken word poet Zena Edwards notes, political and economic institutions in Britain have openly promoted deceit and selfishness in recent times, with certain MPs having lied to exploit the expenses system and bankers having deceitfully used citizens’ money to spawn a long-term economic recession.
Riots Reframed’s initial insinuation therefore becomes patently clear: with an elected government seen to be using violence, oppression and deception on a global scale (and the police acting similarly on a local level), the structures which should be an inspiration for morality and justice are instead transmitting a message of brutality, conflict and dishonesty to Britain’s youth. In turn, if the riots are to be considered “immoral behaviour which shames Britain”, Alam’s film suggests that Britain’s foreign policy and state structure should also be seen as such.
As the documentary draws to a close, the viewer is left to ponder the following question: if Britain’s youth have been fed a culture of consumption and warfare, what else are they to look to for inspiration? How are we to ensure that a wave of riots like those of August 2011 is prevented in the future?
For Alam, the solution is quite clear. Although the riots were fuelled by violence and led to widespread destruction, it is necessary to seek the underlying causes for the unrest rather than linger over the consequences.
Instead of being a mindless orgy of violence, the viewer is invited to consider the riots as a non-organised expression of collective anger and helplessness, with those feeling downtrodden in regular society now feeling a sudden sense of empowerment.
In Riots Reframed, the riots become an expression of underlying social ills, problems which, crucially, can be changed. If community health has to emerge from within, the task becomes restoring worth in the minds of the youth in communities, as well as mending the identity of the police as the protector, rather than the enemy, of the areas they serve.
In sum, Riots Reframed is a prime example that interpreting England’s 2011 riots need not be a justification of them. By inter-splicing poetry with academic interviews, and by contrasting media quotes and footage with the views of those who lived the on-screen events first hand, the viewer is offered a different perspective to the unrest and, as such, is invited to approach the England riots from an alternative viewpoint themselves.
Riots Reframed was screened as part of London’s East End Film Festival
To find out more, visit the documentary’s website at www.riotsreframed.com