How the London Riots Set the Stage for Boris Johnson's Authoritarianism

(This article originally appeared in Tribune Magazine: https://tribunemag.co.uk/2021/03/how-the-london-riots-set-the-stage-for-boris-johnsons-authoritarianism)


By Emmanuel Onapa:


A decade ago, 200 protesters marched from Tottenham to their local police station demanding answers over the death of Mark Duggan, who had been wrongfully shot dead by the Metropolitan Police. What started as a cry for accountability and answers quickly grew into collective rage about state violence, and similar protests took place in cities around the country.


Fast forward ten years, and history seems to be repeating itself. Sarah Everard’s murder, allegedly by a police officer, is another case of police brutality. This time, the rage in the wake of her death has been trained on the authoritarian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.


As Mayor of London from 2008-2016, Boris Johnson’s response to the 2011 riots can cast light on our current fight for liberty and freedom. Britain has long been on the path towards an authoritarian, carceral state: the new bill is only the latest development.


A carceral state extends beyond formal incarceration. It’s more than just prisons and jails. It feasts across the whole political system, responding to social issues and creating public policy through structures and practices that capitalise on punishment. It does not seek to solve social problems: it seeks to oppress. This has been Johnson’s aim since 2011, and his premiership today allows for its expansion.


In response to the events of 2011, Johnson implemented the gang matrix, a contentious database created by the Metropolitan Police to carry out the surveillance and identification of those they deemed at risk of committing gang-related crime. The matrix relied on a calculation to determine an individual’s risk of contributing to gang violence, labelling them green, red, or amber in an attempt to predict the threat they posed, and effectively criminalising them before the fact. The matrix even went to the extent of demonising friendship networks merely because of their affiliations. 35 percent of those on the matrix never committed any serious offence.


From the beginning, the gang matrix broke data protection laws, passing data to third-party organisations without protection. It took years of community scrutiny, reports, and pressure from leaders for the matrix to be recently reviewed, which resulted in the Met’s removal of more than 370 people from the system. Unsurprisingly, the matrix has also been condemned by human rights groups for being racist.


Johnson didn’t stop there. During his tenure as mayor, the now-prime minister also wasted over £300,000 in public funds on water cannons to use on future protesters. Their use was deemed illegalby then-Home Secretary Theresa May, and in 2018 they were sold for scrap – but the initial purchase demonstrates the forceful action Johnson has long sought to take against those who show their anger.


These intentions have followed Johnson into Number 10. Research from Netpol on last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests identifies significant areas of concern, including the excessive use of force disproportionately targeted at black protesters, and the kettling of many demonstrators, including children and vulnerable people, by the police.


In the past couple of weeks, these abuses and the discourse surrounding them have taken a gendered turn. We have seen videos of women being thrown to the floor at vigils and protests. Women are being violently attacked by an institution purportedly created to ‘protect and serve’. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, intended to grant police more powers, is only in its second stage of reading, but the police are manoeuvring ruthlessly, as if it has already become law; indeed, they have acted with effective impunity for years.


The reason they can do so is that they trust Johnson to continue a pre-existing culture within his leadership, and that of the ruling class more broadly, in which police officers know the law will always benefit them. They believe that they are above legislation because those in power will bend the rules to assist and protect them – and history shows that they are right.

But since Johnson’s premiership, the government is digging deeper into the depths of violence, discipline, and punishment, evolving a penal system that is already turning the clock back up and down the country.


The recent handling of the vigil and protests has shows this in its most overt form, as have other plans and pieces of legislation, including the Spy Cops Bill and the Overseas Operations Bill, which seek to increase the immunity of state actors committing violence – necessarily making the likelihood of abuse much higher.


The pandemic has brought Britain closer to a cold-blooded, atomised society, by stripping away our fundamental human rights, including the right to peacefully protest – a fundamental tenet of any functioning democracy. After the 2011 riots, citizens were prosecuted in their masses for rising up against the state: I fear that we can expect the same again soon, if not on an even larger scale.


We must collectively push back against this shift. Centring punitive action as the state’s first response to crises will further marginalise those communities already at the sharp end of inequality, crystallised in disparities in incarceration. This is a growing humanitarian crisis: only a united front with shared goals and a vision for a different kind of nation can eradicate Boris Johnson’s push towards authoritarianism. Only that way can we kill the bill.

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