The Chair, SWL
Watching flames and smoke engulf north London over the weekend, on television, my mind went to lyrics of “the originator” of reggae toasting, U-Roy: “ah you no see say that a Babylon, burning?” In a matter of days the fires had spread across that country where modern capitalism was born leveraging it to build an empire on which the sun never set. Screaming headlines such as “Britain burns! & “Anarchy in the UK”, echoed the standpoint of the British establishment of politicians, big business, the press and the police, which David Cameron affirmed in parliament: the root cause of the riots is the violent criminality of a few disgruntled hundreds of persons, particularly spoilt youths. Not a few working people in and outside Europe have equally come to see the riots as such, with some groups like the Democratic Greens seeing any contrary view as a “romanticizing” of the civil disturbances.
The matter might however, not be as simple as that. The causes are to be found in discontent and frustration bred by want, oppression, marginalisation and disempowerment of the poor and particularly of ethnic minorities in the UK. The immediate spark of this present eruption of riotous anger was the killing of 29-year old Mark Duggan, a black resident of Tottenham, north London, on August 4, by policemen. The police initially claimed that he was to be apprehended for criminal activities, as part of its Operation Trident, but he opened fire on them, wounding one police officer. Independent Police Complaint Commission’s investigations have proven beyond reasonable doubt that this was untrue and worse still, the police tried to falsify what happened by framing the crime scene. 200 friends and relatives of Duggan marched peacefully to the Tottenham police station on August 6, demanding justice. They were rebuffed.
Such despicable acts as the murder of Duggan and utter disrespect for peaceful demonstrations for justice are typical of the metropolitan police (and one might add the police everywhere). Over 333 persons (most of who were in their youth) have died in questionable circumstances while in police custody in the United Kingdom over the last twelve years, but not one police officer has been convicted for any of these cases. It is hardly surprising that this has sown seeds of deep resentment against this force of “law and order”, over and above society, in the hearts of young people. Similarly, just as Duggan’s friends were shunned, the peaceful procession of 3,000 people to Scotland Yard over the killing of Smiley Culture, a black musician, by the police just two months back, yielded no result. The now hysteric pro-establishment press also did not even mention the peaceful demonstration as news!
It is not accidental that the ignition of most of the riots that have rocked the United Kingdom over the last three decades (and these have been over a dozen) have been the killing of poor black people by police officers who never get convicted. Racism is institutionalised in structures and mechanisms of “law and order” in that country. But this is not merely because of the darker colour of the skins of Latinos, Assians, Arabs or blacks. It is rather because of the poverty and desolation that is the lot of much more significant proportions of ethnic minorities, particularly immigrants. Hustling to survive, many turn to crime for their daily bread, only to be condemned by the same system that begat them and their ways. The largely black community of Tottenham where the present crisis started from, for example, has the third highest level of unemployment in the UK.
Thus at the heart of the race question which, in a sense, these riots bring to the fore again, is the question of sharp and rising inequality. It is not enough, as some journalists noted to observe that the majority of rioters and looters were blacks and Asians. S/He that is down, as the song goes, need fear no fall. They were not just black or Asiatic; they were poor, lumpen, blacks and Asians. Related to this is the issue of respect. The police and genteel English society treat such immigrants, ravaged by poverty as scum.
A riot generally, as Martin Luther King Jr. puts it, is the language of the voiceless, making itself heard. This is not to necessarily support riots, in principle. Without understanding the general frustration, anger and spontaneity that underline most riots, and particularly that which shook Britain to its marrows this past week, we could end up losing sight of the woods for the trees, seeing the seemingly senseless violence and pillage, without grasping the deeper dynamics that drive them. Times of great upheavals in modern industrial society cannot escape the upsurge of riots; pent up fury of the wretched of the earth burn cascading like molten lava from volcanoes of social, economic and political crises.
Britain, being the industrial revolution cradle of capitalism, knows this. The long centuries of struggle with feudalist absolutism started with the riots by peasants led by John Ball and Wat Tyler in 1381. The 18th century “industrial revolution” foundations of modernization were heralded by an avalanche of riots, resulting in the Parliament’s proclamation of “The Riot Act” in 1714, which made the unpermitted gathering of twelve or more persons an illegality that could result in the death penalty. It could be said and rightly so that we have come hundreds of years from that period. But the more things have changed, the more they have remained the same, in terms of the exploitation and oppression of the mass by an infinitesimal minority, and essentially so as well, in terms of state reaction. The youths to paraphrase Trotsky are the barometer of the answer blowing through the wind at points of historical conjunctures.
Signs of simmering vehemence in British youths as capitalism’s stumbling through a Great Recession lays the dreams of many amongst them from poor homes prostrate, burst out onto the surface on November 10, last year (“10.11.10”), when the National Union of Students organised the “Fund Our Future: Stop Education Cuts” demonstrations. What started as a peaceful, massive protest turned violent as a number of protesters occupied the Conservative Party headquarters on 30 Millbank, in Westminster.
The pro-establishment press went to town saying Anarchists had hijacked the peaceful protest. As Patrick Smith of The Guardian, who was on the scene noted though, these supposed “anarchists” were actually “several fresh-faced, excited students” who “said this was their first demonstration”. For emphasis, if you will, he further pointed out that “this tells a different story to the one told by those wishing to discredit the protest as just a small bunch of troublemakers kicking off”.
There is a thread between the riotous aspects of 10.11.11 and the recent UK riots; the “fresh-faced” youthfulness of a sizeable number of rioters. This was why the metropolitan police appealed to parents to call their children home in the early days of the riots. The “burning and looting” was no more by only youths than it was by only “men”, blacks or Asians. As Paul Lewis and James Hakin in The Guardian pointed out during the riots; “the crowds involved in violence and looting are drawn from a complex mix of social and racial backgrounds” even though “in the broadest sense, most of those involved have been young men from poor areas”. But these are not “mindless criminals”. Daniel Hind on Al Jazeera rightly points out that there is” nothing ‘mindless’ about the rioters”. He further notes that “it is wrong to say the riots are apolitical….any breakdown of civil order is inescapably political”.
This is exactly what the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, the British establishment and indeed millions of residents in the UK who have been awed by the violence would not want to hear, but for different reasons.
For the toiling masses, they have been estranged by the sheer terror of the spontaneous violence, even though they share in the economic pains that birthed these cries of petrol bombs, stones, rocks and pillage. Those who had their houses or shops torched are particularly bitter and rightly so. For the men and women of the City, captains of industry and the stock market, such rude risings help to unsettle the already worrisome plummeting of the stock market and challenge their ascribed sole right to looting, legally. For the British state, which represents these capitalist men and women, to accept the spontaneous violence as anything but mere criminality would have been to declare the illegitimacy and anti-people character of the stringent austerity measures it is breaking the backs of working people with, while its millionaire members and their friends still live large. It thus had to speak like and sound very much like Hosni Mubarak in the first week of the 18 days that shook the world.
The “ConDem” government of the UK has not only condemned the spate of violent frenzy and looting; it has made it clear that the “mere criminals” would be hounded and punished, “pure and simple”. The Labour Party also saw the problem as being primarily one of (the breakdown of) law and order. Its leader, Ed Miliband described the riots as “disgraceful criminal behaviour” and called for “the strongest possible police response”. A new panopticon of “discipline” fashioned as spy on your neighbour and report her/him, if s/he has “mysteriously acquired a plasma TV” is to bolster the big brother presence of cctv surveillance. Some parents have equally turned in their rioter-children. New repressive powers could be invoked, including the use of rubber bullets as well as “contingency plans for water canon to be available at 24 hours notice” and “wider powers” for the police. Already, about 2,500 persons have been arrested, the cells in London have been overfilled, there are over 16,000 police officers maintaining order on the streets and at least one rioter was killed. Putting soldiers on the streets is also “not ruled out”.
Of course it is true that while a number of the looters raided grocery stores and other shops for subsistence commodities, not a few looted shops to “acquire” such luxurious goods as plasma TVs and Gucci shoes. And what could be more “feral” than that? But as David Harvey points out, they were no more nihilistic than the “rampantly feral” neoliberal variety of capitalism that most of them have known all their lives, from the time the “milk snatcher”, Margaret Thatcher unchained the animal spirits of privatization, cuts in public services and the vice-like hold of a free market on the jugular of society. Along with these attacks on the working poor, a one-dimensional rash of consumerism is promoted by the media, glorifying brands and logos, so many of which the poor can never purchase. The whirlwind of violence and looting by this manifestation of the spirits of the lumpen underclass was the harvest of the winds of “authority stealing” and violence against the sensibilities and very lives of the immense majority by the genteel upper classes, albeit within the sanctity of parliaments, palaces, and boardrooms in the City.
The foregoing is not to justify what happened, but like Tariq Ali, to seek answers to the questions: “why here, why now?” Riots, in general could be destructive, lashing out more, in a physical sense, at the communities than the rulers whom they are politically directed at. Some riots could even be spurred by rightwing forces who try to latch onto the mass frustration and desperation in moments of social and economic crises, or whom could be in government as with the Nazis and the Crystal night in 1938. They could also emerge from progressive attempts to stop such reactionary fascistic forces. This was the case of the “Battle of Lewisham” riots of August 13, 1977 where pitched confrontations raged on the streets between the National Front and a broad anti-fascist movement. It is thus necessary to situate every specific outburst of riots, within the context of its background and dynamics. To do exactly this with regards to the recent British riots is not to “romanticize” it, but to understand it, interpret it and relate these to the challenge of birthing another possible world, which will emerge as with births; with lots of muck, blood, tears and cries.
There is the riotous element in any revolt and with the spontaneity characteristic of it, the opening moments of most revolts and revolutions tend to be riotous. For those like Hannah Sell of the Socialist Party of England and Wales, whose 1917 calendar started only in October, what they saw from Spain to (particularly) Egypt “were relatively disciplined mass protests which both opposed and largely prevented acts of violence against local shops”. But the opening moment of the Arab Revolution was not at Tahrir Square. It was in the chaos of riots on the streets of Tunis, in the wake of Bouazizi’s self-immolation. If the Tunisian revolution had not been consummated, those events would have ended up as mere “mindless riots” in some history books, just like the so-called “Aba women’s ‘riots’” , “Ali Must GO ‘riots’” & “anti-SAP ‘riots’” in Nigeria.
The global economy seems set for yet worse times. Further austerity measures are likely to be the clarion of Western states. These could trigger off days of rage and movements of indignation. There would be temporary victories and setbacks for progressive forces on the streets and in the workplaces. The rise of rightwing groups like the English Defence League cannot be ruled out, as they propagate xenophobia and the call for order to a mass disoriented by such contradictory upsurges as the recent riots. The need for ceaseless clarification of issues and organising of youths and working people cannot be overemphasized. Rightwing forces also have to be confronted frontally. With such rallies as that of the EDL for 3eptember 3 being massively picketed, in the spirit of the Battle of Lewisham. Lumpen (and not so lumpen) youths could get to burn down the streets of mama Charlie’s Igilandi again in the next wave of insurrection in the UK, but the decisive element in the unfolding scenario would be the movement of the working class. The Trade Union Congress would be dragged in kicking and screaming, by the force of events and persistent calls on it. The first steps towards of mass reclaiming the streets sans the riotous, took place today, with a massive procession through Tottenham.
We are indeed living in turbulent times where the bounds of impossibility dissolve in flames and smoke. Who knows; U-Roy might still get to smoke his “Chalice in the Palace”, with the queen? Or who knows, there might eventually be no more palaces and parliaments of queens, lords and thieving politicians in our lifetime? It is for now just the morning of destruction on creation day.
August 13, 2011