Riot Redactions, Colonial Reverberations

by James Trafford / August 25, 2020

Image: the 1981 Brixton riots, photographed by Kim Aldis

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Uprisings reveal policing including that of the British state as not only domination, exclusion and hierarchical ordering but grounded in an originary war and the unpoliceability of colonial subjects. 4328 words / 17 min read

Reactions to recent riots have quickly reproduced familiar frameworks of paternal condescension that are underpinned by machinery designed to short-circuit the political under politics-proper – of commission, inquiry, report, watchdog ad infinitum. Critics have centred how the criminalisation of protests, fires, and looting similarly indexes their depoliticization: either consigned to “criminal mobs” or rewritten as symbols of broader unrest and so-called social exclusion. So often on the left, confrontation with the police doesn’t provide explanatory traction in and of itself so much as it is treated as merely the indication of the increasing authoritarianism that has been required by a state responding to successive hegemonic crises since the 1980s.

This echoes widely-made arguments that we are recently met with a state of exception in which police militarisation and securitisation rescind the distinction between war and peace. Shifts in policing are purportedly representative of a ‘new punitiveness’ and the increasing suspension of policing by consent under the law.1 According to John Pratt, the 1980s and 1990s saw the state pushing “back the existing boundaries of punishment to much more unfamiliar regions, even to conjure up new possibilities of punishing”. Reasons given often focus on domestic shifts from welfarism to disciplinary neoliberalism, in which policing becomes a form of crisis management that exacerbates social inequality and precarity for the marginalised.

Here, I want to suggest that this line of thought is not adequate to understanding riots, politics, and policing. Response to uprisings in the 80s set in place more complex machinery through which policing became insulated from critique by employing strategies that internalised colonial governance within the British state – of personnel, training, organisation, weaponry, but also and at least as significantly of logics grounded on the unpoliceability of colonial subjects. Part of this logic centred on the idea of the post-colonial immigrant as causing the extinction of British order, and so intrinsically violent and disordering – antagonistic to all possible forms of civil order. Criminalisation and a discourse of social exclusion have been fundamental to the attempted sublation of this originary violence, whilst policing became the pervasive political form.

In the Grip of Violence

Let us first consider the circulations of violence that reverberated across colony and metropole. As the authors of Policing the Crisis and Empire Strikes Back explained at the end of the 70s, thinking shifts towards authoritarian policing in mainland Britain required attention to their reliance on interconnections with empire that could not be excised. Characterisations of breakdowns of law and order were entwined with the presence of post-colonial migrants and their families – understood as an exogenous attack against the “survival of the existing order of things”.2 A crisis of hegemony caused by economic and social anxieties regarding a threat to traditional ways of life was dealt with by reinstating the authority of the state through a war on crime:

The beginning of the seventies saw not only the self-recognition of a society firmly caught in the grip of ‘violence’, but general fears of a further slide into lawlessness. The stark choice was between authority and disorder.3

As was shown in 1979 by the landmark report Policing Against Black People, with popular morality defining Black people as an “alien wedge”, the police had come to re-create, reinforce, and arbitrate on that morality to determine Black people’s chances in life:

To drive a car anytime in Lewisham or New Cross is a big joke. You might as well walk. And when you do that, you might as well stay inside, and me no friend of the wicked. I driving from Lewisham to New Cross and get stopped three times. The whole place full with road blocks, transit vans, police cars, the lot. Curfew in this town.

Jim Moore draws attention to how these connections shift attention away from the supposedly “new possibilities of punishing” upon which Pratt pronounces, and towards the interweaving of colonial and mainland policing:

At a point that Foucault implies European penality had moved beyond the bodily and theatrical, participants in the 1857-1858 Indian rebellion were, following the due process of law, being tied to the muzzle of a cannon before its discharge spectacularly terminated their lives.4

Far from “new”, punitive policing was fundamental to the British. The mythic form of Peel’s bobby was both predated by, and often defined in opposition with, the militaristic model of policing developed in Ireland.

Far from “new”, punitive policing was fundamental to the British. The mythic form of Peel’s bobby was both predated by, and often defined in opposition with, the militaristic model of policing developed in Ireland. From the start Britain’s policing by consent was born of abjuration of this paradigmatic fissure across its wider geographies. This begins to account for why and how mainland policing would draw on colonial counterinsurgency techniques under the conditions of a nation that had largely been forced to shrink away from empire only to return it to the metropolitan centre.

For instance, after the 1981 uprisings, policing models were developed that drew directly on those used in Northern Ireland and Hong Kong. These distilled decades of British colonial policing into command and control networks, riot suppression units who were armed and flexibly deployed, and street patrols for curfew enforcement. As Gerry Northam writes, their

public order tactics are a compendium of methods which have been tried and tested for forty years in all the former colonies. They have repressed dissent and put down uprisings in the Caribbean, up and down Africa, in the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent and in the Far East.5

In consultation with the Hong Kong police a public order manual was developed advising tactical options in the face of rioting that included use of smoke, baton rounds, tear gas, and in the case of lethal rioting, firearms. This found justification in Lord Scarman’s report on the Brixton uprising where he had written that “[t]he police must be equipped and trained to deal with this [disorder] effectively and firmly whenever it may break out”. For similar reasons Kenneth Newman was appointed Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in 1982. He had previously worked for the British Palestine Police, and most recently as Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Newman restructured the Metropolitan police developing trained tactical groups that could be transformed from ordinary police officers to a paramilitary group equipped for fast and flexible deployment. At Broadwater in 1985 this allowed for more than a thousand police officers to have been transformed into riot gear and armed with plastic bullets and CS gas within a few hours. As Northam puts it, this remade the police “as members of an army rather than a constabulary”.6

Though, as we will see, seemingly contradictory, this more militarised police-force was, by the end of Newman’s tenure in 1987, deemed far more legitimate than it had prior to it. In 1983, Ferdinand Mount, the head of the Prime Minister’s policy unit wrote in the Standard that “the conduct of the police is being brought into question, not among parts of the working class who might regard themselves as the hereditary enemies of the constabulary, but among the respectable middle classes”. Explaining this, and the strategies drawn on to deal with it, require analysis of deeper frameworks underlying counterinsurgency strategies.

Originary war

One way of reading the above arguments would be to say that a state of colonial exception latterly made its way to metropolitan centres. Moore, for instance, thinks that colonial excess was justified by the supposedly universal principles of liberalism, with tyranny legitimised against those who required the ‘discipline of a stronger and less corrupted race’ as Lord Acton put it in 1862. But this accepts the terms of liberal colonialism understood as a civilising mission – whether understood as misguided and racist, or as beholden to (Eurocentric) justificatory structures ‘of its time’. The exceptionalities of liberal political philosophy and their outworking in colonial practice are understood as lacunae in an otherwise universal humanism. Explaining the viciousness of empire by means of exceptionality offers a get-out clause that liberalism could retroactively suture. The wounds of colonialism could be figured as an unwelcome breach in an otherwise universal doctrine whose aims were reformism for all.

However, the viscerality, violence, and coercion of colonial policing was not set against an eschatological horizon in which a stronger race could redeem the colonised such that they could take their place within the universal order of things. As Frantz Fanon wrote:

The colonial world is a Manichean world […] the colonialist turns the colonised into a quintessence of evil […] The “native” is declared impervious to ethics, representing not only the absence of values but also the negation of values. He is, dare we say it, the enemy of values. In other words, absolute evil.7

Manicheanism was installed by the colonist as total opposition without the possibility of reciprocity against the colonised who was fabricated as absolute evil. This negation of values is the index of the unpoliceability that provided justification for colonial policing. It is not a negation that would qualify universality and appear under its exceptionalities. The production of total disorder made concrete through colonial policing, could not possibly be oriented towards a potential ordering or making-lawful of the colonised. In other words, policing was not grounded on a relationship between lawful self and criminal other since the standards of law cannot possibly hold for “absolute evil”.

So the ideal of a unified eschatological order supposedly set in place by policing is impossible because disorder is circumscribed under order – as that which is out of place, disruptive, and abnormal according to the dictates of the colonists. In this way, the coloniser “not only imposes a separation of the species but in fact ‘fabricates’ its other, the colonized”.8 If policing is concerned with the ‘removal of the dirt/crime [as] a reimposition of order, a re-placement of matter into an ordered system’, as Mark Neocleous wries,9 this is grounded on the disavowal of its impossibility.

The bordering of the Manichean world signified by police officer and soldier thereby produced and reproduced a pre-emptive crafting of disorder such that order, civilisation, and lawfulness, could be created in the image of their negation. The active manufacture of the colonised world as disordered must be disavowed by the colonist such their own ‘civility’ and ‘lawfulness’ could be naturalised as universal order. So both the myth of universal ordering and the unity of colonial order relied on sublating the imposition of Manicheanism that was its founding act.

Conceived in its entirety, policing relied not on the possibility of ordering but on the absolute unpoliceability of the colonised. In this sense liberal policing wasn’t so much developed endogenously by the metropole and exported outwards, as it was fashioned in distinction with, and protection from, the supposedly lawless and despotic ‘other’.

Criminalisation and (attempted) sublation

The above helps us to understand more deeply the ways that major strategies of counterinsurgency became used in mainland Britain. As explained by Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy among others, the post-colonial immigrant and their families were framed as causing the extinction of British order – making way for the reproduction of the unpoliceability of those seen as intrinsically antagonistic to values. For instance, just prior to the April uprisings, on 28th March 1981, Enoch Powell gave a speech in which he warned of the dangers of a “racial civil war” in Britain, later echoed by the Daily Mail’s headline “Black War on Police” (7th July 1981).

The militarised policing of targeted communities had focused attention on race and threat against the state. As Salman Rushdie noted in the early 1980s, “[f]or the citizens of the new, imported empire, for the colonised [Asian and Black people] of Britain, the police force represents that colonising army, those regiments of occupation and control”.10 However, an explicit war between state and Black and Asian communities was causing the legitimacy of the police to come under fire. As the Institute of Race Relations had put it shortly after the 1981 uprisings, “the actions of black youth on the streets destroyed at a stroke the myth of police invincibility”. Amidst this, Newman recognised that it was imperative to “educate the public that the ‘battle’ analogy is inappropriate” – propping-up policing would require the attempted sublation of violence.

With the colonial world necessarily “divided in two” as Fanon wrote, the lack of mediation between the imposition of colonial violence and those subject to it was also its Achilles heel. This allowed the enemy to be named and disclosed that there was no possibility for justice under a shared system. For this reason a primary technique developed by colonial counterinsurgency was the masking of Manichean war in shifts from enemy-centric to population-centric warfare. Felicia Denaud writes that “colonial modernity ushers in a political reliance on the category of war that works to conceal how it conceptually produces thresholds that materially manage the constitution of violence itself”. Under counterinsurgency strategies this material management operated as attempted sublation of Manichean war, translating it “into a permanent state of siege” as Amílcar Cabral put it.

In mainland Britain, criminalisation became central to this attempted sublation, developed most proximately from the strategy of ‘Ulsterisation’ in 1970s Northern Ireland (itself drawn from strategies used in Vietnam). Under command of renowned proponent of counterinsurgency Frank Kitson, the region saw methods of pacification and stabilisation focussing on population control combined with coercive and covert murder and systematic torture that would “squeeze the Catholic population until they vomit the gunmen out of their system”. Counterinsurgency, for Kitson, was a contest for legitimacy that could not be won through a military solution “because insurgency is not primarily a military activity”.

However, Bloody Sunday raised the spectre of war and enemy, giving credence to the Provos’ framing of ‘civil war’ with a delegitimised colonial army. Kitson was removed soon afterwards with a CBE and Newman installed to reorganise the RUC and work within a modified legal and criminal justice system. This process of Ulsterisation would diffuse the remnants of enemy-centric war through the professionalisation and militarisation of the police, forming tactical support units and intelligence led targeted operations. With the RUC taking the primary role in policing the PIRA, this allowed for criminalisation to transform acts of colonial war into crime scenes and PIRA members into criminals. The intent of the policy was the reconfiguration of political conflict as an operation against criminal gangs. As Newman later stated, the aim was separating insurgents from community support:

The object is to prise open and progressively widen a gap between the terrorist and the ordinary people so that they will be increasingly perceived as criminals and not as wayward political heroes.

As such, disorder was distributed across the population, making way for more complex and indirect forms of power and surveillance, with the police supposedly acting on behalf of a unified people, where that ‘people’ also contained the enemy-within. So criminalisation was central to Ulsterisation’s creation of permanent structures to cope with the security problem.11 This wasn’t an act of depoliticization so much as the sublation of an ongoing war against political actors with the potential to upturn existing colonial power relations.

Criminalisation and professionalisation thus strengthened the legitimacy of coercive force whilst delegitimising political action against the state by ensuring the pervasiveness of policing across people’s lives. Seemingly paradoxically, the militarisation of policing and the framing of threats as criminal were part and parcel with the manufacture of political consensus upholding policing by consent.

These struggles were far from disconnected to those on the mainland. With some prescience, in 1973, Conservative MP John Alec Biggs-Davison stated ‘if we lose in Belfast we may have to fight in Brixton or Birmingham […] Perhaps what is happening in Northern Ireland is a rehearsal for urban guerrilla war’. In 2014 declassified files showed that Thatcher had also made these connections explicit in 1984, centring fears about the relationship between Catholic alienation in Northern Ireland and struggles of Black and Asian people in maintain Britain:

If these things were done, the next question would be what comes next? Were the Sikhs in Southall to be allowed to fly their own flag?

Unsurprisingly Newman’s mainland strategy closely followed Ulsterisation, with criminalisation and militarisation essential to transforming Black and Asian communities from enemy of the state into enemy of ‘the people of Britain’. The enemy within would therefore become the enemy of all, since, as criminals, they embody a struggle against social order. As Newman stated, “it would be better if we stopped talking about crime prevention and lifted the whole thing to a higher level of generality represented by the words social control”.

In part this manoeuvre was brought about by the ‘professionalisation’ and reorganisation of policing as structure that comes to be both identified with the ‘people’ and the domain of politics proper. New regulations instituted practices drawn from Ireland across Britain, bringing social services under the banner of community policing, and a new Police and Criminal Evidence bill sought to expand powers of surveillance across public bodies. Multi-agency information collection and Neighbourhood Watch were integral to this reform, implicating many into routine and formalised low-level intelligence gathering that was used to justify passport raids, raids on Black clubs and meeting places, and arbitrary arrests by Special Patrol Groups.

Criminalisation manufactured the normalisation of this pervasive and coercive policing, with communities targeted as criminal and ‘constitutionally disorderly’ as Newman characterised Jamaican people, now indexing not a rupture in the fabric of warfare but a break in the ‘normal’ social order. This was part of the process by which social and political struggles are from the start ostracised from the domain of politics ‘proper’ whilst elevating those activities to that which is absolutely alienated from the normalising, or civilising, functions of social life.

With criminalisation, entire populations were framed and produced as source and index of primal disorder not against the “state” but against Britishness itself.

Anti-dialectics of inclusion

A second related attempt to sublate Manicheanism under dialectics was readily taken up by liberal and social-scientific “explanations” of crime and criminality. In a near-total doctrine of ‘social exclusion’, poverty and hyper-exploitation were rewritten as social pathologies supposedly purged of race. For instance, Scarman’s report spoke of ‘understandable’ failures of black communities to deal with oppression and poverty, having “no doubt that unemployment was a major factor […] which lies at the root of the disorders in Brixton and elsewhere”. This continued scrutiny of families, communities, and children which had accounted for the poverty and life experience of Black families by differences in family structure, parenting style, and household organisation.

Since Scarman, and into the 1990s and 2000s, sociologists and politicians have paternalistically considered feelings of powerlessness and frustration on behalf of Black cultures in the face of being shut out of mainstream society and at the bottom of the economic ladder.12 This might appear to do justice to social and economic conditions but implicitly this upholds the idea that criminal justice is not capable of functioning as a reformatory and rehabilitating service for criminals because of an epidemic violence and criminality largely confined to Black young people in urban environments.

For instance, whilst recent Conservative plans have been painted as uniquely severe, at their core is a whole-society approach to tackling serious violence that has cross-parliamentary support and deep historical roots. This is clearest with a new legal duty to prevent and tackle serious violence that was originally put to consultation by Theresa May and Sajid Javid. The duty will require organisations like NHS trusts and schools to identity ‘warning signs’ and share information on people deemed vulnerable to serious crime. It’s backed up by discourses of violent youth radicalisation from gang crime to extreme ideologies, a new Offensive Weapons Act, and Violence Reduction Units (VRUs) that integrate military, police, and civil power.

Much of this is deemed acceptable so long as the upstream explanations for violent crime are social exclusion and poverty. The Public Health Approach (PHA) that was advocated by the Labour party, at least by Diane Abbott under Corbyn’s leadership, has been promoted as a reformist model of policing that is antagonistic to the aggressive style of current Conservative discourse and policy. But in essence these are different management styles of the same approach, with people who represent the potential for violence requiring pre-emption, tagging, and risk-assessment.

The justification for these programmes lies with an understanding of criminalised behaviour as a kind of innate pathology that is awakened by economic hardship and social marginalisation. As such, what becomes written as reciprocity and recognition under the law relies on the anti-dialectical imposition of law that is rendered objective through policing. The ongoing metastatisation of law as metonym for social order relies on a continued appeal to disorder as harbinger of societal destruction, the key figure of which is the pathologized criminal. So, whether we attend primarily to socioeconomic force or psychological effects, this foregrounds how logics of exclusion sustain the idea that they are at odds with universality. The impossible promise of social inclusion for those pathologized and lawless is vital to the machinery through which the alleged universality of lawfulness is reproduced.

Pure criminality

Criminalisation and the dialectics of inclusion and exclusion have functioned as ideological alibi for the institutional super-structure of a subterranean war.13 These strategies enclosed the complex and hierarchical structure of warfare within the state and its machinery, occluding its Manichean logics under a dialectic of inclusion. Those people figured as disorderly would supposedly be allowed a place within the British order, whilst ensuring that proximity with post-colonial migrants remained synonymous with disorder and lawlessness.

To bring the Manichean struggle back into the domain of confrontation – as is possible through uprising, rioting, and looting – is to render explicit a submerged and hidden warfare that cannot be sublated. The sanctioning and censure of these actions in the aftermath of uprisings does not result from the external misapprehension of its antipolitical nature. Rather, it relies on the imposition of power to continue the redaction of originary violence through its attempted sublation under the domesticating and legalised violence of criminalisation.

In 2011, then Prime Minister David Cameron stated that ‘in large parts of the country [rioting] was just pure criminality’. The uprisings were dismissed for their irrationality, sheer criminality, and racial degeneracy just as the summer uprisings of 1981 – as “mobs”; rampage; a “London looting campaign – imitation riots” (Daily Telegraph, July 8th 1981). Yet this supposed annexing from the domain of politics has been met with the consistent recognition of their force as the Manichean negation of politics. So 2011 rioters were given harsh custodial sentencing because ‘the very fabric of society was at risk’, as Novello Noades, Chairman of the Bench at Camberwell Magistrate’s court put it. In 1981 Eldon Griffiths, Conservative MP representing the Police Federation, stated: ‘the time has come to set up specially trained squads of men with all the support of helmets, fireproof uniforms, armoured cars – yes, and even guns if necessary’ (Daily Express, 6th July 1981). Recent protestors will likely be subject to similar fast-track justice tactics as those used in 2011, with Justice Minister Robert Buckland promising to see “violent criminals” behind bars within 24 hours.

To reiterate, these manoeuvres do not show depoliticisation through criminalisation. Rather, they portend a political excess that, perhaps unwittingly, animates the severity of threat to the integrity of the nation’s institutions. Cameron’s invocation of “pure criminality” is the analogue of Fanon’s “absolute evil” – both index the aporia that brings into being logics of policing: some people are both essentially lawless, and subject to the highest and most vicious exercise of the law. This attempts to recuperate the domain of lawfulness against the disordering that provides its integrity.

Cameron’s invocation of “pure criminality” is the analogue of Fanon’s “absolute evil” – both index the aporia that brings into being logics of policing: some people are both essentially lawless, and subject to the highest and most vicious exercise of the law.

Perhaps the uprising does not index originary war, but it provides clarity through which police can be named as enemy, and policing can be seen as the pervasive political form of power. This is policing, not merely as domination, exclusion, or hierarchically ordering: it is policing grounded in originary war. As Fanon recognised, its end could only be found in abolition, but where that would also be the abolition of the coloniser – which is to say the state itself and our conscription under it.

  1. For example, Nils Christie. 2016. Crime Control as Industry: Towards Gulags, Western Style. London: Routledge.; John Pratt. 2002. Punishment and Civilization: Penal Tolerance and Intolerance in Modern Society. London: Sage. 

  2. Paul Gilroy et. al.. The Empire strikes back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain. London: Hutchinson. p. 24 

  3. Gilroy et al.. The Empire strikes back. p. 22 

  4. Jim Moore. 2014. “Is the empire coming home? Liberalism, exclusion and the punitiveness of the British state”. In Papers from the British Criminology Conference, vol. 14. pp. 31-48 

  5. Gerry Northam. 1988. Shooting in the Dark. London: Faber & Faber 1988. p. 135 

  6. Northam. Shooting in the Dark. p. 138 

  7. Frantz Fanon [1961]. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press. p.41 

  8. Alvaro Reyes. 2012. “On Fanon’s Manichean Delirium”. In The Black Scholar. Vol. 42, No. 3-4 (Fall-Winter). pp. 13-20, p. 16 

  9. Mark Neocleous. 2000. The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power. London: Pluto Press. p. 87 

  10. Salman Rushdie. 1982. ”The new Empire within Britain”. In New Society, 9. pp. 417-421 

  11. P. Neumann. 2003. Britain’s Long War: British Strategy in the Northern Ireland Conflict 1969-98. London, Springer. p. 109 

  12. Patrick Williams. 2015. “Criminalising the Other: Challenging the Race-Gang Nexus”. In Race & Class, 56(3). pp. 18-35, p. 25. 

  13. I am thinking with Felicia Denaud’s incisive concept of the “unnameable war”; At the Vanishing Point of the Word: Blackness, Imperium, and the Unnameable War, Doctoral Thesis. (forthcoming) 


James Trafford (@james_trafford)

James Trafford is author of The Empire at Home: Internal Colonisation and the End of Britain (Pluto Press, forthcoming 2020) and is currently working on the intersections of policing and racial capitalism.