On this day in 1981, rioting began in Brixton, in the Lambeth borough of London, which ultimately left over 300 people wounded. Brixton was an area with high unemployment and a large Afro-Caribbean community. Due to the high crime rate in the area, in April 1981 the police began a crackdown nicknamed ‘Operation Swamp’. This led to thousands of people - mostly young black men - being stopped and searched under the pretense of the ‘sus’ law, which allowed police to arrest people they suspected intended to commit a crime. The disproportionate profiling and targetting of black men led to rising tensions between police and the black community. Rumours of police brutality added to the climate of unrest, and the arrest of a young black man on April 11th sparked off violent clashes with police. The riots lasted for two days, and saw protestors throwing petrol bombs at police, burning cars, and looting shops. In its wake, the Brixton riots left 300 police officers and 65 civilians injured, along with an estimated £7.5 million in damages. An inquiry into the riots led to the end of the ‘sus’ law and the establishment of the Police Complaints Authority, but denied that the Metropolitan police was institutionally racist. Outrage at the continued targetting of black residents by police also encouraged a rise in black political participation in the United Kingdom. Just four years later, Brixton again erupted in violence after a black woman was accidentally shot during a police raid on her home.
On this day in 1355, the St. Scholastica Day riot began in Oxford, England. The altercation began when two Oxford University students, who were drinking at the Swindlestock Tavern, complained to the landlord about the wine. Harsh words were exchanged, and eventually descended into physical violence when one student threw a tankard at the man. The situation swiftly escalated, and both the local townsmen and University students were summoned to arms by the ringing of a church bell, and battle began in the streets of Oxford. The Mayor rode to the countryside to gather the support of countrymen, who broke into academic buildings and murdered students and scholars. The riot continued for two days, ultimately leaving over sixty students and thirty townsmen dead. King Edward III’s investigation into the incident favoured the University, continuing a trend of the monarch supporting the University over the townspeople. It was ordered for the event to be commemorated annually, with the Mayor of Oxford and his bailiffs to pledge an oath to the university and pay sixty-three pence - one for every scholar killed. The ceremony was largely seen as a humiliation of the Mayor by the privileged elite of the university, meaning that tensions remained high between ‘town and gown’. The townspeople frequently protested at the penance, which eventually ceased in 1825 when one mayor refused to go through with the ceremony. In 1955, on the 600th anniversary of the riot, the Vice-Chancellor conferred an honorary degree on the Mayor, and the Mayor made the Vice-Chancellor a Freeman at the Town Hall. This was an attempt at reconciliation of two sides who had been in conflict for hundreds of years.
[In the British August 2011 riots] marginalized city dwellers turned antiurban violence against the very cities where they lived. The destruction led Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn to describe the rioters, who looted shops and vandalized symbols of authority and prosperity, as a ‘wolfpack of feral inner-city waifs and strays.’ The notion of a lack of governability… is important here. It manifests in diffuse and apparently random patterns of crime and violence, and in self-marginalization by city dwellers who see themselves as victims of social injustice and economic exclusion, standing apart from the mainstream—in the city, but not of it—yet still maintain a high level of connectedness both with other members in their group and with the ebb and flow of the city itself.
The London riots also suggest that the idea of a peripheral settlement or population (which we’ve so far been using mainly in a spatial sense, meaning people or districts that are located on the edge of town) can be broadened to include people who are marginalized or excluded in an economic, political, or cultural sense, even if they live in the physical center of a city. In this reading, which is of course extremely familiar to anthropologists or urban sociologists, the ‘urban core’ of a city isn’t just the older, more central, downtown part of its built environment but also its economically, politically and culturally dominant terrain, the part of the city system that accumulates value at the expense of a periphery… Urban peripheries, in this sense, aren’t merely places on the physical outskirts of a city. Rather, they’re areas that are dominated, marginalized, exploited, victimized, or excluded by the core—wherever they happen to be physically located. The 'ferality’ of the 2011 London rioters thus wasn’t that of a core population attacking its own city but that of a marginalized population attacking a city it saw as someone else’s.
Fmr. Lt. Cl. David Kilcullen, “Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla,” 2013, pg. 67-68