Urban Rage: The Revolt Of The Excluded

Author: Mustafa Dikec
Publisher: New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 2017. 275p.
Reviewer: David T Herbert | July 2018

This book focuses upon the outbreaks of urban riots and protests that have been the episodic experiences of several Western democracies during the later 20th and early 21st centuries. The term “urban rage” is used to represent these episodes of protest and violence. We are reminded that we live in an urban age that has become an era of urban rage. The main thrust of the book is to demonstrate these episodes of urban rage and to propose the causes that underlie them. Examples of urban rage are drawn in considerable detail from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Greece and Turkey. All of these countries, we are told, are democracies that have lost their original ‘raison d’etres’, have become repressive and no longer recognize the equal worth of all citizens and residents. It is this last theme that leads to the excluded — those, principally ethnic minorities and recent immigrants, who are not treated fairly or equally and are on the outside margins of society. A central argument is that those who revolt, protest and often cause damage and mayhem, are not driven by pathological motives. They are not criminals or offenders by any kind of natural or chosen forms of behavior; rather they are victims of a structure that denies them access to proper welfare, work and a full place in society. Through this they become vulnerable to aggressive policing in particular and to many forms of stigmatization by agencies of government and often by their host populations. The housing markets work in such a way that they are also geographically isolated in areas such as the French banlieues and problem estates.

This is a carefully researched piece of academic work as testified to by the detailed notes and the extensive bibliography. Many of the incidents discussed, such as the Ferguson uprising of 2014 in the United States city of St Louis and the riots that followed the shooting of Mark Duggan in London in 2011 are well known and well documented. These events and many similar expressions of ‘urban rage’ are recounted here in great detail and at times the book reads as a form of investigative journalism rather than a more conventional academic study. Throughout analyses of many examples, especially those drawn from the United States, the United Kingdom and France, the thrust of explanation is the same. The ‘outsiders’ or those of the wrong skin color or migrant status are stigmatized and disadvantaged by key agencies in the societies in which they live. They are victims of a set of structural or political conditions that fails them. In these situations, their urban rage is a justified form of reaction as they do not have access to any other kinds of protest or requests for help that are likely to lead to positive outcomes.  They are in many ways what WJ Wilson once termed the ‘Truly Disadvantaged,’ or the underclass of the urban age.

The geography of the excluded is exemplified many times in the book but perhaps most forcefully in the chapter titled ‘The Algerian War is not over in France”. In France, state policies and housing market dynamics led to deprived neighborhoods in peripheral areas of major cities – the banlieues. The term ‘banlieue” became shorthand for the excluded who comprised their majority populations; they were associated in the public mind and more significantly by the police with criminality, insecurity, ethnic separatism and Islam. The author argues that these images ignore the grievances of the residents who faced unemployment, discrimination, stigmatization and police violence. “The banlieues are revolting because the conditions are revolting.“ Urban policy served to disadvantage further the excluded populations; the Chirac government in 2003 launched a demolition and reconstruction program that reduced the supply of social housing. The process of gentrification dispossessed many low-income families of their housing. ZUS, or the sensitive urban areas designated in 1996 were often the sites of intense revolts. Prominent politicians such as President Sarkozy made statements that stigmatized black youths and immigrants and viewed their actions in pathological terms. They were seen as individuals with criminal tendencies.

A persistent theme throughout all the case studies is that of police malpractice and brutality. The accusations of racism are specific, as examples are described of the attitudes and actions of police to black youths. There is a catalogue of police killings of individuals in all the countries that served as catalysts for the subsequent uprisings. The criticism extends to the criminal justice systems for their failure to bring the police officers involved to account for the events. There are citations of long delays in the process of subsequent investigations, of jury bias and of a tendency to acquit those involved. The pursuit of the police and their activities is unrelenting and there are no ‘good cops’ in this narrative. Much of this material was intensively covered in the media at the time and is very familiar. This account certainly adds detail, but there is very little reference to media coverage of what became headline events for a significant period of time. There is no doubt that policing practice focused on specific groups and that the correspondence with color was marked. The targeting of youths of color and the American criterion of ‘manner of walking’ exemplify police selectivity. It can also be acknowledged that some of the outcomes of official inquiries beggared belief. But there are other sides to the story that find no place here. The adherence to ‘political correctness’ in the United Kingdom, for example, allowed the abuse of vulnerable children by predominantly Asian men to persist over years. Community policing initiatives have tried to build bridges with black youth. The accusations of ‘racism’, often not well defined, are thrown out too carelessly and not just in the context of policing. There is very little reference to the dimension added by acts of ‘Islamic’ terrorism.

The other theme that receives some prominence is that of housing policy. Problem areas with large numbers of disadvantaged residents have continued to emerge with the more recent housing policy initiatives and are exemplified in Sweden and Turkey. This process is of course not new, and has been part of urban fabric since the emergence of cities especially in industrial times. In Sweden, the Million Project aimed to build a million new public housing units, but by the early 1990s they had become the least desirable dwellings and ‘flight’ of the better off left them as clusters of the disadvantaged; the Swedish word ‘forort’ for suburb now has negative overtones. In Turkey, major projects favoring the wealthy placed the eviction of six million households on their agenda. The projects included a Presidential Palace. Turkey sits uneasily in this critique of the workings of democracies. Much of the discussion is about the powers invested in Turkish President Erdogan and as the author comments, Turkey no longer looks like a liberal democracy.

This book makes a strong case for recognition of the growing and sustained disadvantages of the excluded groups in modern societies. It also catalogues the policies of governments and their spokespersons that have served to add to the stigmatization of sections of the population and to the concentration of the disadvantaged in specific geographical localities — a fact that increases their problems and may lead to unacceptable forms of policing. The political or structural explanation suggests a cumulative process that compounds rather than alleviates the problems. Any other kind of explanation receives short shrift. There is no sense of a balanced argument in this book. Analysis of urban problems is invariably complex, and competing explanations need at least to be considered. The author has a mindset that he sets out in the introductory chapter and follows throughout the text. Most of his central tenets are at least worth considering in a more reflective way.  The structural or political drivers that underpin urban rage are very significant, but can you really dismiss pathological factors totally? Protest takes many forms but when it escalates into riots and damage to property, other groups tend to join in and at least some of those are bent on criminality. Looting was described as not being a feature in the United Kingdom riots of 2011, but the fires burned and there was loss of property. The term ‘rent a mob’ often used in the press may be derogatory, but there are groups that appear to seek out the opportunities that a riot presents. There is also the claim that urban rage is justified. Can that really be the case when it is expressed in the attacks on businesses and public buildings and in the fear and sense of insecurity it may engender among often vulnerable local populations. Then there is the relentless criticism of the police with the accusations of brutality and racist attitudes. Yes, there are well documented cases where the evidence is unequivocal, but a general and completely unqualified condemnation? There is no obvious line of theoretical or ideological position that underlies the argument. The focus of the political and institutional sources of the problem suggest structuralism; David Harvey, who is a Marxist theorist, is mentioned a couple of times, and his ideas on accumulation through dispossession are perfectly relevant. As stated earlier, the notes and references are impressive and the author has clearly drawn upon them to support his position, but it is implicit rather than explicit.

This book lays bare the problems of the excluded groups and seeks to explain their existence and persistence. Urban rage it is argued is the ultimate form of dissent when all other avenues of protest have failed. His plea is for agencies of state not to rely on pathological explanations, but to recognize the need for liberal democracies to return to their basic values of fairness and equality. This case is well made and should be heeded. Alongside that however, there should be some recognition of the positives. There are dedicated workers in the voluntary sector who demonstrate that principles of welfare and fairness exist. There are reactions to racism with changes in public policies and much more awareness of the needs for sensitive policing. This book offers a strong indictment, but the situation may be less bleak and more open to change than it assumes.

David T. Herbert, Emeritus Professor/ProVice Chancellor, Swansea University, UK

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