The riots that exploded on the streets of London and other English cities last month provoked a vicious backlash by politicians and the media. Brian Richardson argues that the rage people expressed was rooted in the grinding poverty and injustice at the heart of British society.
Photo: Guy Smallman
How many rivers do we have to cross
Before we can talk to the boss?
All we have it seems we have lost
We must have really paid a cost
The great Jamaican musician Bob Marley neatly summarised the underlying cause of riots in the opening lines of one of his most militant songs "Burnin' and Lootin". Similarly, Dr Martin Luther King Jr once described them as the "voice of the unheard". Such eloquence and insight were conspicuous by their absence from the foam-flecked responses of our political leaders as they reacted to the events that rocked England in August.
In his address to parliament and his subsequent "fightback" speech, David Cameron insisted that what we had witnessed was "just pure criminality". London mayor Boris Johnson agreed, insisting that there should be "no sociological justification" for the riots. Meanwhile education secretary Michael Gove fulminated against Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman when she tentatively sought to raise a point about the impact of the withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).
The hypocrisy of these interventions is quite breathtaking. Johnson, alongside his fellow Old Etonian Cameron was, of course, a member of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University. These drunken louts habitually abused members of the public and trashed restaurants just for the fun of it. Though he too went to Oxford, Gove is not quite as privileged. Perhaps this explains why he once claimed £7,000 in parliamentary expenses for fancy home furnishings.
Over on the Labour benches, Ed Miliband was initially determined to ensure that no one made the same mistake as Harman. Instead his followers were instructed to simply condemn the riots. Thus we were subjected to the nauseating sight of former communities secretary Hazel Blears denouncing the "deliberate, organised and violent criminality" and demanding that Cameron "give his full backing to the police". This is the same Hazel Blears who shamelessly waved around a cheque to pay back the £13,000 she greedily pocketed after "flipping" her second home.
The leniency shown to MPs was nowhere to be seen in the magistrates' courts where summary justice was meted out to those people charged with crimes in connection with the riots. Sentences so far have included four years in prison for "inciting" rioting on Facebook and six months for stealing bottled water priced at £3.50. Many have been remanded in custody and will be sent for sentencing to the crown court where the penalties are potentially far higher.
As the fires finally burnt out, some supposedly more considered analyses began to emerge. However, there remained a consensus that there was no similarity between these events and the noble and selfless struggle for democracy that we have seen in the Arab revolutions. It was even suggested that there is no comparison to be made with the riots of 1981 or other riots that have occurred since. It is apparently now accepted that those disturbances were sparked by genuine grievances, such as police brutality and racism. By contrast, the events this August were just looting: mad consumerism, feral youth and a few selfish opportunists grabbing free stuff.
So the usual suspects were hauled into the dock and blamed for the riots. We've been told that the causal factors included a lack of discipline at home, single parent families and absent fathers, unruly schools, welfare dependency and gang culture. For good measure, Cameron even threw in the Human Rights Act and, ludicrously, health and safety legislation.
Other pundits fleshed these ideas out, citing the apparently invidious influence of rap music and MTV, which supposedly encourage a nihilistic, anti-education, anti-work and irresponsible "ghetto fabulous" lifestyle. The most rancid outburst came from historian David Starkey. He provoked justifiable outrage with a Newsnight appearance during which he mimicked Jamaican patois, argued that Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech had finally been proved right and claimed that those white people who had participated in the riots had "become black".
The common thread that runs through these explanations is that they absolve politicians and the state of any responsibility for the unrest. Instead they place the blame squarely within those communities themselves.
Let us consider more closely the claim that this was just pure criminality which was qualitatively different from anything we have witnessed before. It should be remembered that the catalyst for the riots was the death of a mixed-race man, Mark Duggan at the hands of the police on 4 August. In the aftermath of that killing, a determined but peaceful demonstration assembled at Tottenham police station demanding answers from senior officers. By then the claim that Duggan had fired at police officers had been exposed as false. Fighting subsequently broke out when the police refused to speak to the family and mistreated a young woman.
I vividly remember almost exactly the same thing happening in Brixton in December 1995 when protesters gathered to demand justice for the families of two black men who had been slain in separate incidents by the police that year. I also recall that in the midst of the riot numerous shops, including a sports retailer and a department store, were systematically looted. Chris Harman argued that the same phenomenon happened during the riots that rocked England in 1981 and it was also true of Los Angeles in 1992. According to French sociologist Michel Fize, looting was not a significant feature of the 2005 Paris uprisings simply because there are hardly any shops in the suburban areas where the banlieues are located.
It would be churlish to deny that some of that looting was systematic and planned and some involved organised gangs. While the looting this time round may perhaps have been larger in scale, it was not different in nature from what has happened before. Arguably these organised looters were simply taking their lead from the bankers - who have looted the economy on a scale that no one on the streets in August could ever have managed.
The behaviour of individual looters may not have necessarily been consciously radical, collective or progressive, but it cannot simply be dismissed as apolitical. We live in a society where money and private property are revered as Moses and the Prophets, where everything is a commodity that can be bought or sold. For a fleeting moment when they appropriated those goods, the looters were, to borrow a phrase from one of the summer's most popular songs, forgetting about the price tag.
The suggestion that these riots were inevitable is not wisdom after the event. In countless meetings in the months preceding the uprising, activists were predicting that there would be unrest. The debating point was not if, but when, things would explode. Furthermore, while nobody could be sure what the spark would be, it came as no surprise that the trigger turned out to be a police killing. According to the charity Inquest, 320 people have died at the hands of the Metropolitan Police since 1990 and across the country the total is 1,410. The media has tended to emphasise the looting - but in many areas the police were the main focus of anger.
Harassment and intimidation
Many of those who protested on 6 August were there in solidarity with Mark Duggan's family, because they know that it could have been them. Police harassment and intimidation are, quite simply, a fact of life particularly for black youth in inner cities. In Nottingham there were direct attacks on police stations.
It was all supposed to be so different after the Stephen Lawrence inquiry exposed the institutional racism at the heart of the police force back in 1999. New Labour resolved to root out such discrimination and promote a "step change in society". Meanwhile successive police commissioners solemnly declared a preference for "intelligence-led policing" instead of the blunt instrument of stop and search.
Those promises have proved to be so much hot air. According to the Ministry of Justice's own figures, there has been a 70 percent increase in the number of stops and searches in the past five years. 310,000 black and Asian people were stopped in 2008-9 compared to 178,000 in 2004-5. This is supposedly justified by the "war on terror" and concerns about gun and knife crime. The tangible results are pitiful. Just 1 percent of searches made under terrorism legislation during 2009 resulted in an arrest and none of these were for terrorism-related offences.
While the endurance of institutional racism means that black youth are more likely to suffer harassment and intimidation, it is by no means exclusive. In 2008-9 there was a 30 percent increase in stops and searches among white people.
These encounters stir up simmering tensions. Those who are constantly targeted feel humiliated and angry and this anger can explode into full-scale confrontations. That is why it is frankly astonishing to hear David Lammy and Diane Abbott, the black Labour MPs who represent Tottenham and Hackney North constituencies respectively, weighing in behind the police demanding crackdowns and curfews. Lammy's claim that the disturbances in Tottenham were caused by outside agitators was particularly disingenuous.
In the midst of the riots the cry for calm and unity by Tariq Jahan, whose son was mown down and killed in Birmingham, was genuinely heart wrenching. We can all feel sympathy for him and those small shopkeepers who work long hours for little reward. However, the likes of JD Sports, Primark and Carphone Warehouse are not part of the local community in any meaningful sense. They are huge retailers selling overpriced goods and exploiting workers the world over. Corporations like Nike and Apple cynically and aggressively pitch their products at young people.
Right wing critics ridicule the notion that the riots were sparked by the government's austerity programme. Clearly it is too simplistic to suggest that what primarily motivated the rioters to nick loads of trainers and iPhones was the withdrawal of the EMA. However, there is a very direct connection to the educational, economic and social exclusion that black and working class youth experience and the brutalisation they experience at the hands of the police.
Moreover there is plenty of evidence that the politicians could ponder. Back in 2007 the then director general of the prison service Martin Narey - no firebrand - starkly warned in an official government report that, "The 130,000 young people excluded from school each year might as well be given a date by which to join the prison service some time down the line."
Many young people are hanging out on the street precisely because they have been excluded by schools. These schools cannot afford to "waste" time and precious resources on unruly, awkward or struggling students who won't guarantee exam success and a lucrative place at the top of the school league tables. The withdrawal of the EMA and the hiking of university fees will exacerbate the exclusion of inner city youth by ensuring that more of them will be "not in education, employment or training".
This cycle of deprivation and harassment is nothing new. Back in the day the late Bernie Grant definitely "got it". When the Broadwater Farm Estate exploded with rage in 1985 the then Haringey council leader declared that the police "got a bloody good hiding". Two years later the people he had stood by and spoken for showed their gratitude by electing him as their MP.
Grant and Abbott entered parliament as part of a cohort of black MPs alongside Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz, now chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee. This breakthrough resulted from the existence of a confident and cohesive Black Section inside the Labour Party in the 1980s and was augmented by extra-parliamentary caucuses and influential publications such as Race Today. These groups emphasised black self-organisation and leadership and their primary aim was to elevate "black faces into high places".
The plain truth is that communities like those represented by Abbot and Lammy are blighted by decay and deprivation. London boroughs like Hackney, Islington, Lewisham and Southwark have some of the highest concentrations of poverty in the country. Interestingly Haringey which contains Tottenham, has the most extreme spread of income in its various wards: four Haringey wards are in the richest 10 percent, while five are in the poorest 10 percent. This cheek by jowl distribution of wealth is typical in many areas of London in which the poor are surrounded by commodities they can never afford and affluence they can never emulate.
The origin of this lies in the destruction of jobs, opportunities, local services and communities that Margaret Thatcher wrought in the 1980s. Thatcher infamously declared in 1987 that there was no such thing as society, only individual men and women and families. The neoliberal agenda that she pioneered with its worship of privatisation, the market and the City of London was enthusiastically extended by New Labour.
Scandalously, inequality actually widened under the New Labour government, as the top 10 percent of earners saw their wealth balloon to more than 100 times that of the bottom 10 percent. That is why Miliband cannot consistently and credibly attack the coalition government. His alternative is simply austerity at a slightly slower pace.
Following the riots, Miliband demanded a public inquiry to examine their causes. This suggestion has received widespread backing - but we have been here before. Lord Scarman was instructed to chair such an inquiry after the 1981 riots. Neither his proposals for more accountable policing and community cohesion nor those of Sir William Macpherson a generation later have delivered lasting change. Indeed within four years of Scarman's report there was a further major outbreak of disturbances.
In many respects, both Scarman and Macpherson's recommendations were well intentioned and, indeed, many of the leisure facilities and community projects that are now being slashed were established as a consequence of those events and inquiries. In that respect, the hoary refrain that riots achieve nothing but destruction is factually inaccurate. The plain truth is, however, that discrimination and oppression cannot simply be reformed away because they are built into the structure of a society that is based upon exploitation, oppression and inequality.
In a slightly different historical context, the great black activist Malcolm X famously talked about and welcomed the "chickens coming home to roost". In similar vein, socialists shouldn't join the chorus of condemnation of the riots. Rather we should see them as part of a pattern of worldwide rage and resistance against a bankrupt and corrupt system. Undoubtedly a significant number of those involved in the rioting were among the thousands who joined the student protests in 2010.
The rage expressed on the streets of England in August is a legitimate expression of disgust against an unjust society. Part of the reason for this explosion is the relative weakness of the left and working class organisation, which can provide a focus for people's anger. Ultimately, riots can't beat the government. In the coming months socialists need to find ways to channel the anger that people feel into the kind of collective action that can inflict a defeat on the Tories. In particular, the mass strikes that are on the cards for early November will be a key test.
In less than a year we have experienced mass student protests, a huge trade union demonstration, coordinated strike action and now urban riots. None of this is supposed to happen here in conservative, apathetic Britain, especially when we have had two royal weddings to cheer, and with the Olympic Games to come. The riots have certainly shattered those complacent assumptions. While riots can rock the system, however, it will require conscious collective action to deliver lasting change. The time has come to take the struggles to a new level.