In 2011, UK police fatally shot Tottenham resident Mark Duggan. The ensuing lack of transparency, the conflicting bystander reports, and the tampering with evidence by police came together to aggravate preexisting tensions among race, class, and policing. It was no far cry from the police brutality cases and social undercurrents fueling the #blacklivesmatter movement in the US in 2016. As Tottenham residents gathered around the police station in search of answers, their peaceful demand was met mutely and turned violent, marking the beginning of riots that quickly swept across the UK. The unrest famously saw a widespread burning of property, looting of shops, and resistance against police. Media outlets the world over swooped in for the story, capturing its origins and the complexity of the outcry almost as inadequately as UK politicians. I remember reading about it from my cubicle in New York, mostly confused. There was Theresa May, UK Home Secretary (now the incoming Prime Minister), distilling the entire episode down to “sheer criminality,” pointing out that there was no excuse for “thuggery” on the streets. Even the left opposition leader at the time, Ed Miliband, adopted this simplistic narrative, calling the riots a “stark reminder” of the need for policing on the streets. This statement should have raised red flags: why do riots catalyzed by racially-charged police violence result in calls for more policing? And yet, the incident was overwhelming framed—by left and right establishments—as hordes of youths aimlessly partaking in greedy acts of criminality. Again and again, Boris Johnson, the mayor of London at the time (and until recently another frontrunner for leadership of the UK), pointed to the criminality of the acts, stating that those responsible would “face punishment they [would] bitterly, bitterly regret.”
Riots Reframed is a documentary directed, produced, filmed, and edited by Fahim Alam, a young man with no previous experience in film. A law student at Oxford, Alam was walking to his grandmother’s home in northeast London when he was arrested by police in the midst of the riots. He was imprisoned for six weeks before it took a jury thirty minutes to find him innocent of all charges. True to its name, his documentary provides a much-needed counterpoint to the dominant media and political narrative around the events described above. In a series of interviews carefully balancing renowned academic voices with those of community activists, poets, and rioters who faced the very punishment threatened by Boris Johnson, the documentary provides not only a more nuanced and effective explanation than the mainstream storyline, but also one grounded in the people who were there and who continue to be there.
In fact, that is the greatest feat of the film. Instead of presenting what is a rather complex theory in a top-down, structured manner using primarily experts and authoritative narration, it builds the argument from the bottom up. The film draws on the communities and activists closest to the events, and in a frenzy of energy and desire to tell their story, it trades aesthetic appeal for reality. Scenes flash and vibrate, colors change frequently, and darkness precedes words. Poetry erupts irreverently on the heels of well-spoken academics, and people close to the events are allowed to deliver their unretouched thoughts. In a way, the film is symbolic of the seemingly chaotic nature of the events. It asserts that the riots are a product of many layers: the rise of consumerism, self-worth increasingly tied to net worth, geopolitical policing, the national obsession with “security,” the change of social protections to personal burdens, growing inequality, etc. No topics are avoided, and yet none are overtly presented as a coherent explanation. In this, the film is a brazen call to reclaim a nuanced, inclusive framing of reality and reject the simplistic and frequently manipulative stories told to us by “official” sources.