305mc: An Analysis of the events of civil unrest in London and other major British cities in August 2011 informed and determined by power, spectacle and memory within contemporary mediated culture

On 4th August 2011, a 29 year old father of four Mark Duggan was shot and killed by police in an anti-firearms operation on the streets of Tottenham, London. What was sparked from this incident through the anger and “the frustrations of questions left unanswered” according to Tottenham Labour MP David Lammy, was the “biggest display of civil unrest in the UK for 30 years” (BBC, 2012). The details of Duggan’s death still remain questionable; however the large scale destruction, looting, arson, violence and mugging which unfolded following the incident was a very real threat to an unsuspecting community. The extent of the violence which was mirrored in other major UK cities including Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham and Manchester is not only an interesting cultural study in terms of crowd dynamics, but is interesting in terms of how the power of the respective media coverage was able to distract the public and over-shadow the truth surrounding a very disturbing incident. There was controversy over the facts about Duggan’s death and whether the discussion of a police injustice should be on the cards. Regardless of this, Duggan’s family where denied an inquest over the death which was described by David Lammy as an “affront” for the family as they were not only denied the inquest but were also refused a reason for not being given it.

When we see crowds gathering, we are drawn to the hope that something exciting is taking place, serving perhaps as entertainment or a distraction from our day-to-day lives. The crowds that formed on the streets of London during the summer of 2011 were reminiscent of Gustave Le Bon’s theory of crowds, in that a crowd is not defined by “a number of individuals finding themselves accidentally side by side” but rather he states “The turning in a fixed direction of the ideas and sentiments of individuals composing such a crowd, and the disappearance of their personality…the lowering of the intelligence and the complete transformation of the sentiments…the sentiments and ideas of all the persons in the gathering take one and the same direction, and their conscious personality vanishes. A collective mind is formed, doubtless transitory, but presenting very clearly defined characteristics” (Le Bon, 1895: 3). In other words by joining the crowd or by becoming one with the crowd, the participating in such an event causes a person to lose a sense of who they are and become completely consumed with the power of involvement.

Over 3,000 people were arrested in connection to the summer anarchy of 2011 which poses a direct contradiction to the notion that the spectacle makes us passive. The spectacle does however engage us on an emotional level, particularly for those who had fallen victim to the unrest but even those who watched it at home on the BBC. This media coverage of the event however was over-riding a lot of other news at the time due to its sheer scale. As a result the original spectacle was eclipsed by the civil unrest. But what was this original spectacle? The bigger picture with this event is not why people were looting and rioting as it was less political for a lot of people and more a way to vent frustrations, but that the significance of the rioting goes back to how it all began. The riots were a spectacle yes but they were a superficial spectacle. The real spectacle which the government had turned a blind eye too was the injustice of the Police.

When people, particularly family members, experience an apparent police injustice, the first place to turn to is the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission). What’s interesting in the context of the Duggan case is the difference in media opinion of the IPCC’s verdict depending on political agenda. Left wing journalism put more emphasis on a massive police injustice becoming more sympathetic with the mob, and right wing reports stressed the importance of police protection, pointing an angry finger at the mob with the Daily Mail claiming “IPCC says non-police firearm found at scene of Mark Duggan’s Death” (Daily Mail, 2012). Straight away there is a debate in which direction to look for answers. To quote Foucault on the premise that police intervention can be justified with the assumption that Duggan did pull a gun, “Discipline…is a type of power…and it may be taken over by state apparatuses whose major, if not exclusive, function is to assure that discipline reigns over society as a whole” (Foucault, 1991: 206) “Discipline fixes; it arrests or regulates movements; it clears up confusion; it dissipates compact groupings of individuals wandering about the country in unpredictable ways” (Foucault, 1991: 208). Regardless however if Duggan was in a position to attack police, and with the IPCC having a history of inaccuracy and Police bias, the Guardian reported that the Police did not only kill Duggan but Mutilate his body to the point where his own mother was not able to recognise him.

Simply by focusing on reasons why an uprising began however is an insufficient way to paint a picture of the political and cultural overview of the situation. It is interesting to note how an uprising against a power institution is in fact controlled by the power institution and how the mechanics of real power has been hidden to disorientate the masses, in a sort of ‘man behind the curtain’ fashion, causing confusion in the direction they should aim their frustrations, “processes of power are pervasive and complex; and often disguised in our society (Asherman and Asherman, 2001: 1).The media is what contributes to and creates our identities particularly in the twenty first century with an explosion of technology. The means by which manufacturers, celebrities and multi-national corporations can manipulate our world view and our priorities continues to be ever more accelerated by this technology. Therefore those who have this power can decide who they want individuals to be through discourse using discursive elements. For example if an artist has a box of colouring pencils, and this box does not include the colour cyan, this would in turn bring the artist to the conclusion that the colour cyan is unnecessary therefore rejecting the colour (Foucault, Discourse or Power/Knowledge article). In this example, with the box representing the media, discourse works through having a series of discursive elements in which the power institution dictates our wants and needs. According to Foucault, meaning is created through discourse. However change can come about with the introduction to a counter-discursive element. For example Debord’s use of situations which are “actively created moments characterised by a sense of self-consciousness of existence within a particular environment or ambience” (Debord, 1983).

We have the media constantly forcing certain discursive elements upon us such as ‘Big Brother’ or the ‘X-Factor’ which form part of the entertainment mainstream. These programs that the media ‘suggests’ that we watch may end up distracting us from something more ‘important’. The same thing happened in London in 2011 where the spectacle of the riots which the media glamourised created a national shock and awe which was a distraction from perhaps racial inequalities and a potential injustice. “The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images” (Debord, 1983: 1)

Guy Debord’s writing became very solemn and pessimistic implying that the spectacle had won and that we live inauthentic lives. We look at celebrities and designer products; we look at fashion and worry about how we might be represented as an individual in society. The way we look, the gadgets we own, our Facebook status and the cars that we drive are the very fabric of twenty-first century life for the majority of people. Guy Debord, one of the French situationists who coined the term detournement, “which involves using spectacular images and language to disrupt the flow of the spectacle” (Debord, 1983) believed that this was a technique to “wake up the spectator who has been drugged by spectacular images” (Debord, 1983) because “all that was once directly lived has become mere representation” (Debord, 1983). This idea of the spectacle of society and how the media controls what we see can be linked back to Foucault’s discourse analysis and the example of the colouring pencils. Discussing political agenda within journalism, we accept the information provided to us by the newspaper we read. Picking up the Daily Mail in August 2011 may confront the reader with a very right wing, conservative interpretation of the events which ignited the rioting. Hence the reader would then begin to accept this interpretation and disregard other theories not being pushed on them through discourse. However political questions do not have mathematical outcomes, with preference playing a bigger role than certainty. Bill Bonner, an American author whose primary concern is economics and finance noted “Socialism failed as a way of running economies. It did, however, succeed in establishing welfare states” (Bonner, 2011). Therefore to say one political party in particular has the correct policy would be an invalid statement.

Foucault’s power-knowledge concept illustrated with the use of the panopticon metaphor describes the notion that the more you observe, the more powerful you become thus an accumulation of knowledge equals power. Foucault observes, “Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategic situation in a particular society” (Foucault, 1986: 92). But what is the complex strategic situation in the context of twenty first century Britain? How are we observed? The major cities in Britain today are littered with CCTV cameras, something that played a huge role in the conviction of over 3,000 criminals throughout the unrest in Britain in 2011. The media produced a lot of images of looters during this time. This observation is an accumulation of power. By building up a visual database of criminals, means the power institution has the ability to convict and regulate the mob.  At the same time however are we able to strike a balance between surveillance and freedom?

In what way does the power institution use an uprising of this sort to their advantage? During a BBC interview with writer, broadcaster and local resident in London Darcus Howe, the BBC reporter Fiona Armstrong used a series of loaded questions in an attempt to subvert the understanding of Howe’s interaction with the riots. The reporter asks “you say you’re not shocked, does this mean that you condone what happened in your community last night?” to which Howe responded, “of course not, what I am concerned about is Mark Duggan, a police officer blew his head off”. The reporter goes on to ask “you are not a stranger to riots yourself? You have taken part in them yourself?” Howe responds “I have never taken part in a single riot, I have been on demonstrations that ended up in a conflict, have some respect and stop accusing me of being a rioter” (BBC, 2011). Whether or not Howe is delivering an accurate version of events here, it is interesting to see the course of intervention that the BBC has made with a member of the public who was emotionally involved with the spectacle, neither coming across comforting or supportive but rather trying to be provocative in seeking primary research, alluding to the idea that the media is a lever of power for the power institution.

The photo images of local people smashing windows and stealing televisions, along with the horrifying pictures of rioting and a woman jumping out of a burning building, which were published in newspapers, are all a means of communication between the media and the public who were not involved in the unrest. These dramatic images, along with the reports all over the television and radio are the elements which develop and cultivate our memory of the event. Looking back over media coverage one year later, it can be these images that define our interpretation of what happened through our memory. Collective memory given to us by the media can be different to how we actually felt at the time, for example the national mourning of Princess Diana’s death that we are reminded of through the media despite how many people actually mourned at the time. We often derive meanings from the memory of how the media presents a news story and not from our own experience. Therefore the memory of something controversial becomes a unified entity as a result of the media, “It is in society that people normally acquire their memories. It is also in society that they recall, recognize, and localize their memories”. (Halbwachs, 1992: 38).

Images released by the media under the title ‘news items’, become much more than just news and certain images of an event may become the symbol or defining moment of that event. The union jack flag may be considered in Northern Ireland, in a political context, a sign of revolution or uprising. The flag may represent the memory of unrest and inequality to people in Northern Ireland but merely just the flag of the nation to the rest of Britain. A recent news article in Belfast reported controversy and violence over the union jack flag that is flown at Belfast’s city hall. The dispute was raised by nationalists against unionists over the inequality that flying the flag represents because of the country’s history. A law was passed recently that would mean the flag can no longer be flown at City Hall. However by trying to remove the problems that are caused by the connotations of the flag did in turn awaken more problems from the reaction of the unionists. Jean Baudrillard argues that meaning has been replaced by signs causing us to live in a simulation of reality. So by removing the flag in Belfast in an attempt to remove some social problems in turn becomes part of the problem “whoever fakes an illness can simply stay in bed and make everyone believe he is ill. Whoever simulates an illness produces in himself some of the symptoms”. (Baudrillard, 1994: 3). Similarly images from news articles such as the ‘falling man’ from the 9/11 atrocity or the woman jumping from a burning building during the 2011 London riots not only form a collective memory of the event but become a symbol that represents social imbalance.

As consumers of media we become the sum of what we have seen, heard and learned through the media. We associate images with meaning and it is often the images we see in news articles which build up our memories because they shock or excite us. The public’s recollection of the 2011 riots is built upon the destructive and disturbing acts of violence on the streets of London. But what do we remember about such an event? Again this takes us down the avenue of political agenda and how different media outputs will influence our memory. The Guardian took part in a unique collaboration with the LSE (London School of Economics) interviewing 270 rioters from the various affected cities “giving an unprecedented insight into what drove people to participate in England’s most serious bout of civil unrest in a generation” (Guardian, 2011). During this research project the Guardian revealed that a mix of emotions and grievances is what brought about rioting however the main cause of the angst was “distrust and antipathy toward police”. So the police play an important role in establishing the memory of what ignited the blaze of the rioting and what fanned the flames, according to the Guardian. However is this memory our memory, or is it the memory that the Guardian for example has given to us? It is evident simply by reading more than one newspaper that collective memory is distorted through the media as there is always a difference in reason and opinion. If you were to read a copy of the Daily Mail in 2011, the reasons for the origins of the riots according to the Guardian may be hidden or distorted, “what allows the reader to consume myth innocently is that he does not see it as a semiological system but as an inductive one” (Barthes, 1973: 142).

Technology in the twenty first century has allowed for a greater demographic for collective and social memory. The rioting and civil unrest of August 2011 in England was discussed on the radio and television which reflected interest across the country supporting Foucault’s idea of power through discourse in the media thus contributing to the accumulation of our memory of the event, “the means by which we draw on our past experiences in order to use this information in the present”. (Sternberg, 1999). Memory can be used as a lever of control for the power institution. Perhaps the spectacle of the summer riots is so memorable because we only feel power when it’s being abused? “Rioters identified a range of political grievances, but at the heart of their complaints was a pervasive sense of injustice. For some this was economic: the lack of money, jobs or opportunity. For others it was more broadly social: how they felt they were treated compared with others. Many mentioned the increase in student tuition fees and the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance” (Guardian 2011).The police however were identified as the primary source of frustration, from Duggan’s death to their general behaviour. However the social memory of an event is what prevents social structures from changing and police intervention was an inevitable part of the situation reconfirming their authority.

Only a year after the civil unrest in England, one in five jailed rioters have been freed before serving half of their sentence says the Daily Mail. According to criminologist Dr David Green the early release “sent the wrong the message to the rioters” (Daily Mail, 2012). But why do people get involved in such a spectacle? We become emotionally involved, our sense of self disappears in the wind as we merge identities and are taken out of ourselves. This involvement may for some, be a release. The deindividuation that occurred during this time caused a lot of destructive energy to be thrown around but not necessarily in the right direction. Many people got involved to attack the police, others were just opportunists. But who was really to blame for the frustrations? Workers may throw rocks at the authorities when really it is higher up in the capitalist pyramid where they should be aiming. Perhaps there was a more orderly and effective way to protest. For example campaigns such as ‘anonymous’, which campaigns for internet freedom and freedom of speech, who can make a difference by pin pointing problems for the public to see. However what took place in London at this particular time was not only a spontaneous outburst of rage and destruction which stood up and threatened the power institution but was also a spectacle which the power institution played upon to distract a wider public. Power “reaches into the very grain of individuals, touches their bodies and inserts itself into their actions and attitudes, their discourses, learning processes and everyday lives” (Foucault, 1980 :3).


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Baudrillard, J. (1994). ‘Simulacra and Simulation’. University of Michigan.

BBC (2011) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mzDQCT0AJcw

BBC (2012) BBC [online] [9 August 2012] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-gloucestershire-19194313

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Foucault, M. (1991). ‘The Foucault Reader’. London: Penguin.

Foucault, Discourse or Power/Knowledge article: https://www.msu.edu/~comertod/courses/foucault.htm

Halbwachs, M. (1992). ‘On Collective Memory’. Trans. and ed. Lewis A. Coser. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Le Bon, G. (1895) ‘The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind’. T.F. London: Ernest Benn

Mail Online (2011) Daily Mail [online] [7 August 2011] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2023254/Tottenham-riot-Mark-Duggan-shooting-sparked-police-beating-girl.html

Mail Online (2011) Daily Mail [online] [9 August 2011] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2023949/London-riots-2011-Hackney-Croydon-violence-shows-sign-abating.html

Mail Online (2012) Daily Mail [online] [18 September 2012] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2205065/Mark-Duggan-shot-dead-police-got-minicab-loaded-gun-looked-like-shoot.html

Mail Online (2012) Daily Mail [online] [18 August 2012] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2190087/London-Riots-2011-One-jailed-rioters-freed-serving-half-sentence.html

Sternberg, R.J. (1999) ‘The Theory of Successful Intelligence’. Review of General Psychology 3, 292 – 316


The Guardian (2011) Guardian [online] [7 August 2011] available from http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/06/tottenham-riots-protesters-police

The Guardian (2011) Guardian [online] [5 December 2011] http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/dec/05/anger-police-fuelled-riots-study


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