What Martin Luther King would have really said about the English riots.
By Liz Pellicano and Marc Stears
The most unlikely voice in the debate over the English riots has been that of Dr Martin Luther King, the hero of the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Always a source of inspiration to the left, King has been confusingly enlisted by both those who see the riots as the out-pouring of disaffection with a horrifically inegalitarian society and those who understand them as the self-destructive consequences of an increasingly sick urban culture.
Those in the first camp have continually employed King’s celebrated saying that “a riot is the language of the unheard”, in an attempt to rationalise the actions of the rioters. Seen this way, poverty, inequality, a collapse of opportunities, and, most of all, exclusion for the social and political mainstream were the direct causes of the mayhem.
Those in the second camp have their favourite King citation too. This time invoking his claim that “the limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it…rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat.” From this perspective, the actions were not political in any meaningful sense but the behavioural symptoms of a “sick” culture encompassing family breakdown, rampant consumerism, and a life of actions without personal consequences. The actual political results of unthinking violence therefore invoke authoritarian clamp-down rather than state benevolence. As King argued, or so we are reminded, real political change is predicated on the ability not to alienate but to engage, to bring the nation with us, not to terrify them into submission. Action must always involve an echo of conventional opinion.
And so the all-too predictable polarised argument takes shape, apparently with Martin Luther King on both sides. But they are both wrong.
What would King have actually said about the London riots?
Throughout the mid-twentieth century King and all the other leading advocates of civil rights in the United States developed a position on the politics of unrest that is at once far more subtle and far more provocative than anything we have yet witnessed here. They knew that riots were the result of real social injustice. They also knew that purposeless, violent unrest was always entirely empty as a political act. But that did not mean that conformity or political mainstreaming was the right response either.
King and colleagues always insisted that the only way for those who suffered from injustice to be truly heard – by both the state and the broader public – was through non-violent organization and sustained collective mobilization. Their successful struggles to transform everyday life in the United States involved calculated campaigns of peaceful direct action: sit-ins in segregated restaurants, marches through segregated neighbourhoods, boycotts of segregated public services. They were not appeals to conventional opinion through standard political channels – there was no room for triangulation in the civil rights movement – but they were a million miles away from the scenes in Tottenham last week.
The question that King and colleagues would have asked about the English riots, therefore, is a simple one: how can the destructive energies of the last few weeks be transformed into a constructive political movement? And the answer would have come in strident form: all constructive political movements are predicated on personal transformation through collective organization. They require what King would have called a politics of virtue: a politics that prides itself on the courage, respect, hope, steadfastness, and solidarity of its participants. A politics that looks for release from apathy and disengagement not from the euphoria of trying things on in a wrecked H&M or nicking a new plasma telly but from sustained collective action.
Could such a politics be plausibly built in English cities today? Many will consider such a proposal utopian, far too collectively demanding for the “me-now” generation. Perhaps. But we know what the essential building-blocks of this kind of politics are, and efforts such as those undertaken by London Citizens and Movement for Change have given cause for hope. A collective politics of virtue is built from authentic leadership development in local communities, especially amongst the young; sustained action aimed at concrete and achievable projects that make a recognizable difference in people’s immediate lives; and the deepening and intensification of personal relationships, especially intergenerational relationships in the most troubled of neighbourhoods.
It is these practices that can develop the sorts of virtues that Dr King championed in response to every riot he ever came across: the virtues of self-discipline and common life. Such a politics of civic life – “getting the kids involved in something they might believe in” – is far superior either the demand for state beneficence or to the call for state oppression. It might well be difficult, but as Martin Luther King knew, it is the only option if we are ever to overcome the exclusion and injustices that lie behind all explosions of social unrest.