How the State Used Media Narratives to Suppress the London Riots

by R.L. Stephens II on August 25, 2011

BBC Interview w/ Darcus Howe c/o

As many may know, the English riots began in response to the shooting of a Black man, Mark Dugan, in North London.  The man was armed (and possibly a drug dealer), but the circumstances surrounding the shooting are dubious at best.  Initially, people took to the streets to protest his death; however, this inciting incident was only the beginning.


As the participants broadened, the riots were no longer an explicit reaction to state-sponsored violence against Black people.  Soon, a narrative of resistance against multiple layers of political and economic repression, as perpetrated by the state and capitalist interests, began to emerge.  This emerging resistance narrative was troubling to those in power, and they used a combination of state-repression and media fear-mongering to distract people from the structural oppression that motivated the riots.


The following is a useful example of how television media outlets attempted to frame the riots as criminal, and not political, acts of chaos while also muting any sort of nuanced explanation of the feelings and experiences of those who chose to participate.

“I don’t call it rioting; I call it an insurrection of the masses of the people.  It is happening in Syria, it is happening in Clapham, it’s happening in Liverpool, it’s happening in Port-au-Spain, Trinidad and that is the nature of the historical moment”.

Notice that after the interviewer cuts the man short, the following story is about how an international soccer friendly is going to be called off.  This serves to reinforce the frame that participants in the “insurrection” are hurting the entire nation; the *entire nation* will not be able to play soccer, a masterful creation of an Us vs. Them.  This framing attempts to distract the viewers from identifying with the counter-narrative that Darcus Howe illustrated, while also making them feel as if they are personally harmed by the people’s actions in the streets.


Narratives, or the stories and phrases used to shape a person’s attitudes and beliefs, are the critical battleground in the struggle between privately-held power and public resistance.  From the above video, we begin to see that in the immediate riot coverage, it was imperative to criminalize the rioters’ behavior, and to deprive the actors of any degree of political motivation.  This was an effective tactic because, in my opinion, most people don’t want to be seen as criminals.


By denying any degree of political consciousness, the crime narrative allows the rioters to be seen as mindless degenerates that only possess the power to aimlessly destroy.  The moment then becomes a crime wave, not a social movement.  So not only does a criminal label/narrative allow the establishment to deter further participation, but those labels allow the state to use overwhelming force to crush the actors.


Is the Moment Criminal or Political?


If you pay attention to the dominant narrative, the people on the streets in England represent a “vile” and “criminal” element that should be killed, prosecuted, or eliminated.  This sentiment directly conflicts with the West’s uniform condemnation of state repression against the violent unrest during the so-called “Arab Spring”.  The rebels in the Arab world are lauded as courageous, whereas the rioters in the West (like Greece and England) are criminals.


The following video demonstrates that the UK is not free of the classist, racist, and militarist impulses that dominate much of the media coverage in the United States (i.e. Fox News).  The video also shows the hateful manner in which the London rioters (and anyone seeking to provide context for their actions) are dehumanized and their plight is further dismissed by “well-to-do” people.



Yet, it is true that malicious and apolitical activity has occurred during these riots.  It is also true that politically motivated violence occurred as well.


At the moment, there is a struggle to frame this historic moment as either criminal or political.  One thing is for certain, this moment is not completely one or the other.  I think Freely Associating does a good job of describing this tension as the writer answers whether the riots fall into what he and the organization call a “Moment of Excess”.


“For us a moment of excess is an intense collective experience, a moment in which we feel — viscerally — our own collective power, a moment in which we glimpse other worlds outside and beyond capitalist social relations. So in this sense there’s no doubt the nights of rioting and looting were moments of excess for many of the participants.”

“But moments of excess aren’t “pure”; they don’t stand “outside” of capitalism. The glimpse of other worlds we get in a moment of excess is from the standpoint of where we are now, i.e. within a fucked-up, capitalist world. And there’s no doubt a lot of fucked-up stuff took place over the four nights of rioting.”

“We’re not interested in drawing up criteria which determine whether events qualify as moments of excess, or which can categorise their content as “progressive” or “revolutionary” or “anti-social” or “reactionary” excess. There’s a  danger here of simplifying the notion of moments of excess so that they become a glimpse of some pure liberated zone, a taste of milk and honey. The streets of Tottenham, Hackney, etc. were certainly not pure liberated zones.”

State Response


Since it is clear that the moment is neither all criminal nor all political, a nuanced approach must be taken in order to actualize any degree of positive change.  Of course, that is not what the state is doing.  In pursuit of its own self-interest, and with the support of much of the public (like the conservatives on the talk show), the state is using disproportionate force in order to deter further mobilization.  The egregious amount of force the British government uses in response to the riots is only possible because of the dominance of the criminal narrative.


The narrative of the riots as a “criminal issue” has been an effective frame for justifying abusive force, and demonstrates just how important framing/narrative was in the initial coverage of the riots.  There were efforts to provide counter-narratives, but for the moment, the criminal frame is working well. The state now criminalizes any degree of participation in the riots, even an act as simple as a Facebook comment in support of the rioters.  Seriously, there are two men in prison for four years due to creating Facebook pages about the riots.


From the Guardian:

Two men who posted messages on Facebook inciting other people to riot in their home towns have both been sentenced to four years in prison by a judge at Chester crown court.

Jordan Blackshaw, 20, set up an “event” called Smash Down in Northwich Town for the night of 8 August on the social networking site but no one apart from the police, who were monitoring the page, turned up at the pre-arranged meeting point outside a McDonalds restaurant. Blackshaw was promptly arrested.

Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, of Latchford, Warrington, used his Facebook account in the early hours of 9 August to design a web page entitled The Warrington Riots. The court was told it caused a wave of panic in the town. When he woke up the following morning with a hangover, he removed the page and apologised, saying it had been a joke. His message was distributed to 400 Facebook contacts, but no rioting broke out as a result.


Other Harsh Punishment


Take Anderson Fernandes. He faces possible jail time for stealing two scoops of ice cream during a Manchester riot. There are other cases involving petty theft like stealing a bottle of water, a cake and chewing gum – CNN

Nicholas Robinson, 23, an electrical engineering student with no previous convictions, was jailed for the maximum permitted six months after pleading guilty to stealing bottles of water worth £3.50 from Lidl in Brixton. He had been walking back from his girlfriend’s house in the early hours of Monday morning when he saw the store being looted, his lawyer said, and had taken the opportunity to go in and help himself to a case of water because he was thirsty. (Guardian)

Ursula Nevin, a mother of two who was asleep when the Manchester riots were raging, but who was sent down for six months because she accepted a pair of looted shorts from a friend. (Guardian)

A dental nurse who left her baby son at home while she went to loot electrical goods sobbed loudly as she was given three months at the same court. Shereece Ashley, 20, headed to Tesco on Old Kent Road after seeing it being ransacked on the TV. District Judge Alan Baldwin told her: “You have a young child, who, if you go into custody, you will not be able to look after. But I’m afraid this offence passes the custody threshold.” (Mirror)


Many of these charges are nebulous.  In fact, this whole controversy started because people sought to resist unfair treatment by the state, and as a result, the state responds by treating people unfairly.  Sending these people to prison only reinforces the social dislocation that caused the riots in the first place.  Although, deepening social dislocation can have the desired effect of muting people’s voices for a while, but it is clear that these events are then likely to be cyclical.  These riots included a diverse range of participants, and perhaps it was my hope that effective mobilization and unity would result from the spontaneous chaos.  It is still possible that these events, even the tragedies, may still create multi-sector organization and action.  We need healing, not repression.

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