This article is one of a series on faith and politics in Tower Hamlets.
Since the global financial crisis of 2008, a succession of protest movements across the world – from the Occupy movement to the Arab Spring to the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine – have prompted commentators to herald the ‘return of street politics’. In this introduction to the new project ‘Youth Street Politics’, Titus Hjelm argues that the local level marking and policing of boundaries can also be regarded as a form of politics, and that this requires rethinking and expanding the meaning of ‘politics’ itself.
The Arab Spring, the global Occupy movement, anti-austerity protests – it seems that we are witnessing ‘the return of street politics’, as a worried Al-Jazeera opinion piece put it in 2013. The street has also been the focus in the recent riots in Paris, London and Stockholm – although most media pundits interpreted these as mobs of out of control youth, rather than as political events.
Street politics has of course existed as long as there have been streets where people could gather to discuss, protest and sometimes violently demand rights. The history of this kind of street politics is probably as well known from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and its theatrical and cinematic renditions as from history textbooks. It is the kind of street politics portrayed by Hugo and histories of the European annus mirabilis of 1848 that still dominates media coverage. The barricade has given way to the square as the symbol of protest, but the sense of street politics as the politics of spectacle – now intensified manifold by instant global media coverage – remains.
“When a young man from Whitechapel refuses to go to Poplar in fear of crossing from one postcode to another, that is street politics in the everyday sense.”
Instead of spectacle, the project Youth Street Politics in the Media Age: Helsinki and London Compared focuses on the everyday politics of young people in urban space. By hanging around in Tower Hamlets, London and Malmi, Finland, our aim has been to ethnographically map young people’s use of urban space. One of the premises of the project has been that the street is no less political even when it is not a scene of a demonstration or a ‘riot’. This is most evident in superdiverse metropolises such as London, but smaller, less diverse cities such as Helsinki offer an interesting comparison. Urban space is thoroughly permeated by boundaries, whether these take spatial, virtual or cultural forms, and boundaries are by definition political.
In Tower Hamlets, these boundaries are evident in almost every discussion I’ve had with the young people. When a young man from Whitechapel refuses to go to Poplar in fear of crossing from one postcode to another, that is street politics in the everyday sense. When a young woman from a Caribbean background avoids Stepney because she feels unwelcomed by the Muslims in the area, on account of the way she might dress, that is street politics in the everyday sense. Most broadly speaking, the first thing that surprised me was – despite the ‘street’ being the focus of media fears in light of killings involving young people – the noticeable absence of young people on the streets. Partly this was because of the said fears about youth-on-youth violence, but also – and this was disproportionally the experience of young Muslim men – because of recurrent stop and searches by the police.
“The street and its boundaries stretch beyond the physical street, being constantly reproduced in the mainstream and social media alike.”
In addition to rethinking and expanding the meaning of ‘politics’, I argue that in the media age the ‘street’ has to be reimagined as well. The street and its boundaries stretch beyond the physical street, being constantly reproduced in the mainstream and social media alike. For example, Tower Hamlets was (again) the focus of a debate about boundaries – of borough streets, of religion, of multicultural society – when the infamous ‘Muslim Patrol’ video surfaced on YouTube in early 2013. In the video, originally posted by the ‘patrol’ themselves, young Muslim men stop people because they are exhibiting what they judge to be inappropriate behaviour (drinking alcohol, wearing a dress above the knee, and one person harassed for being a ‘fag’) in a ‘Muslim area’. The motivations of the ‘vigilantes’ are one thing, but as our media ethnography of the discussion threads on most YouTube clips with the words ‘Tower Hamlets’ shows, the ownership of the ‘street’ is debated far beyond a small and controversial clique and the rhetoric is uncompromising (‘Islam will dominate’) – and, one might add, uncivilised (‘Islam isn’t a race, it’s just a fucked up religion’). The polarising rhetoric also takes more concrete forms: Not to be outdone, the far-right group Britain First launched its own ‘Christian Patrols’ in the East End a year after the original incident. The struggle for the soul of the streets of Tower Hamlets is fought both offline and online.
Ultimately, to understand young people in diverse 21st century urban contexts requires expanding our sense of ‘street politics’. If politics is interpreted narrowly as party politics, or as extra-parliamentary ways of affecting governments, then we are witnessing a ‘return’ of street politics; the street politics of the spectacle. If, however, we want to focus on the social aspects of being young in the city – the politics of everyday life, if you will– street politics never went away.
Titus Hjelm is Lecturer in Finnish Society and Culture at University College London, UK. He has published widely in the fields of sociology of religion, social theory and youth studies. He is the co-editor of the Journal of Religion in Europe (published by Brill) and the founding chair of the American Academy of Religion’s Sociology of Religion Group.
 Larbi Sadiki, ‘Tunisia: The Return of Street Politics’, Al Jazeera, 15 February 2013, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/02/201321510108764860.html.
 Sam Jones, ‘Muslim Vigilantes Jailed for “Sharia Law” Attacks in London’, The Guardian, 6 December 2013, sec. UK news, http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/dec/06/muslim-vigilantes-jailed-sharia-law-attacks-london.
The image of Whitechapel Road is included courtesy of Alan Denney and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.