Mass, trade union-led response needed
The four days of riots that followed the shooting dead of Mark Duggan by the police in Tottenham sent a massive shock wave across the country. However, tumultuous events of this nature were predictable – and were predicted in a number of Socialist Party documents and articles in recent months and years.
For instance in February 2011 the Socialist carried an article by Peter Taaffe on the 1932 Birkenhead struggles, in which a comment was made about today: "The explosion of anger in the so-called ’Tesco riot’ in Bristol indicates the gathering force of opposition from below… such inchoate revolts, only on a bigger scale, will take place elsewhere as the widespread uprisings of the 1980s under Thatcherism showed".
During the four days, five people tragically died, over 100 people lost their homes and over 48,000 shops, pubs, clubs and restaurants were affected in 28 town centres.
"Over the last few days the state has lost control of England’s streets" was the panic ridden comment of the Financial Times.
Sporting and leisure events were cancelled and virtual curfews operated in many areas – from Hackney in London to Toxteth in Liverpool. In the areas where the eruptions broke out, almost no one felt completely safe, for themselves, their families and their homes.
In places not directly affected, people feared what could come.
Riot police with dogs, Hackney, August 2011, photo Paul Mattsson
Prime minister David Cameron dismissed the street eruptions as "criminality pure and simple" and branded "pockets" of UK society as "sick". However the sickest pocket of all in society is him and his fellow multi-millionaires in the British ruling class, who have lifestyles that are a million light years away from those of the desperate young people whose anger exploded on the streets, and also those of ordinary working people across the country.
The ruling class was greatly shaken by the scale of the events and its international standing has been damaged just a year before the London Olympics.
Initially the government struggled to gain control of the situation, hastily convening meetings of Cobra, the emergency civil contingency committee.
But once the eruption was over, it turned to use the fear and insecurity that had developed, to spew out right-wing reactionary propaganda on ’criminality’ and law and order, promoting legal revenge on those involved in rioting in order to cover up the terrible social conditions that lay behind it.
All young people can suffer from this propaganda offensive, with a whole generation potentially being demonised and labelled as troublemakers.
The government tries to deny that the riots are linked to cuts, but Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, blurted out prior to the general election:
"Imagine the Conservatives go home and get an absolute majority, on 25% of the eligible vote, they then turn around in the next week or two and say we’re going to chuck up VAT to 20%, we’re going to start cutting teachers, cutting police and the wage bill in the public sector. I think if you’re not careful in that situation… you’d get Greek style unrest".
The Socialist Party does not support rioting as a method of protest, but we place the blame for what has taken place firmly on the Con-Dem government and say that it must be removed.
This government, on top of previous governments, has worsened and presided over a nightmare situation for young people. Even youth with the greatest determination to ’succeed’ are in despair over the lack of jobs on decent pay and affordable accommodation.
A million young people are unemployed, youth services have been savagely cut, the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) axed, and university tuition fees are to be trebled.
Hackney, August 2011, photo Paul Mattsson
It’s no surprise that some young people have become so marginalised through lack of opportunity that they have become involved in gangs and many have developed – out of bitter experience – an overriding hatred of the police, mainstream politicians and other representatives of capitalist authority.
An onlooker to the riots in Hackney was quoted in the Times as noting: "Unfortunately this is about as empowered as many of these lads have ever felt in their lives and ever will feel".
How sickening has been the moralising by the media and politicians about ’teaching young people respect’, ’the difference between right and wrong’, and ’moral collapse’.
The young people who were involved in the eruption cannot fail to see or instinctively feel how ’wrong’ the greed, corruption and amassing of vast wealth at the top of society is, with the resulting huge inequality.
And what ’respect’ and morals did MPs show when they stuffed their pockets with expenses, or did top police and politicians show when they tried to protect Murdoch’s phone hackers? What an irony that the London Met police were trying to quell this wave of violence without having their chief commissioner’s post filled because the ex-chief had resigned under a cloud of corruption.
Not so ’mindless’
Plenty of riot participants who have been dismissed as non-political ’mindless criminals’ have made political comments to the media against the rich, MPs and definitely the police, whose shooting of Mark Duggan triggered the start of the rioting.
The strong anger at that shooting was justified, especially as it has since been officially confirmed that the initial police version of what happened was false.
Black people in particular have been treated almost universally as potential criminals by the police; they are 26 times more likely than white people to be ’stopped and searched’ under the provisions of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.
But the wave of chaotic and violent revolt encompassed all sections of youth, it was very mixed in composition. In some areas – such as Enfield – the participants were predominately white.
The court cases are showing that the looting involved low-paid workers as well as the unemployed – a reflection of the scale of anger and alienation that also exists in this layer.
But much of the media has deliberately played up the participation of young people who have jobs in order to downplay the plight of the unemployed. In reality, those appearing in court are overwhelmingly young and unemployed – youth facing some of the worst conditions and greatest deprivation.
In the reams of rubbish written in the media about the causes of the eruption, there is little mention of the word ’class’ – that there is no homogenous community from bottom to top, but a gaping class divide, with inequality worsening year by year.
The eruption took a different form in each area. For instance in the London districts of Tottenham and Hackney it took place in the midst of working class communities and was a relatively indiscriminate lashing out.
In Manchester, small independent shops were among those looted, but a particular target was the major chain shops and luxury goods. But whatever form it took and whatever momentary release was gained through the outburst of anger, the unorganised, chaotic manner of the revolt has led to a number of unfortunate and in some cases tragic consequences for the participants, for the communities that suffered the direct effects, and for working people in general.
Over 2,700 people have been arrested and around 1,200 charged so far. Offences vary from the minor to the very serious, but magistrates have been imposing prison sentences in rushed court hearings for even the most trivial cases.
Many young people charged have no previous convictions and momentarily succumbed to temptation to steal goods that were no longer locked away – and are now facing draconian, disproportionate sentences.
Those charged include a student who has been jailed for six months for stealing a £3.50 case of bottled water, a young worker given six months for taking chewing gum and a recent university graduate who took a TV and quickly handed it back in after the riots, saying she didn’t know why she had taken it.
The Guardian reported that 3.5% of all cases heard in magistrates’ courts last year resulted in remand in jail, but for the cases heard so far following the riots, it is over 60%.
Cameron recently said that he had given Coulson, the disgraced former News of the World editor, a "second chance", but he is offering no such thing to these young people and many others.
Those judging them are part and parcel of a judicial system that prioritises the defence of the private property of the rich, and are clearly pursuing a reactionary political agenda in these cases to try to deter further outbreaks of protest and anger.
The Socialist calls for the setting up of a democratically run inquiry into the riots involving elected representatives of trade unions and community organisations, that could also set the parameters on how the offences are dealt with, with the right to review sentences already imposed.
More repressive powers
It is not just the participants in the riots who will suffer the strong arm of the state forces, but trade unionists, anti-cuts campaigners, environment campaigners and others will now be faced with increased police powers and crowd control equipment in future struggles if the government’s threats are carried out.
Cameron has said water cannon will be available at 24 hours notice. But a feature of the eruptions was ’flash riots’ – spreading fast through use of Blackberry Messenger and other social networking.
Water cannon are useless in this type of situation as they can’t be everywhere at once. But they can be used against more static crowds and pre-organised march routes – usual in demonstrations of the labour movement.
When parliament – for the second time in a month – was reconvened on 11 August, other possible repressive powers were outlined, including using army intervention; extra dispersal and curfew powers; increased powers to order the removal of face coverings; the spraying of semi-permanent dye; restricting the movement of ’gangs’; and blocking access to social networking media during times of ’social unrest’.
Disgracefully, the eviction of families from council homes is also being encouraged where a family member has been convicted of an offence; and benefits may be attacked too.
The future use of plastic bullets (baton rounds) has been discussed, though these lethal weapons may not be employed at this stage as some senior police representatives would prefer them to be held back for now.
These include Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, who authorised water cannon and baton rounds in Northern Ireland in the past, but bluntly said during the riots:
"Baton rounds are very serious bits of equipment. I would only deploy them in life-threatening situations.
"What is happening in London is not an insurgency that is going to topple the country".
However, a major campaign needs to be launched against the increased powers that are being proposed, which will reduce the democratic rights of everyone and can be used to try to prevent workers’ anti-cuts demonstrations, to curtail or cancel events like the Notting Hill Carnival, and so on.
No increase in repressive measures will remove the discontent that lay behind the riots – they will only increase it, especially when considered together with the scale of the spending cuts that are still to be carried out and the extremely weak state of the world and British economies.
Firefighters in Tottenham, August 2011, photo Paul Mattsson
Danger of disunity
A potential danger in the present situation is of racial and ethnic division developing in some areas, for instance in Birmingham, where many believe that racism played a part in the terrible mowing down by a car driver of three young Asian men.
The far right British National Party and the English Defence League have both declared that they will organise to ’defend’ communities, which means that they will spread racism and division as much as they can.
In contradistinction to this, local shopkeepers and communities quickly mobilised across ethnic and racial lines to defend business premises and homes in a number of areas during the rioting.
Had the riots continued, these initiatives could have been developed into democratically organised, mass, united defence of communities, with elected organising committees, as the Socialist Party would have called for.
It was also the case that after the riots, in many areas a mass of people turned out onto the streets to help clear up the mess and restore things to normal and donations poured in to help those who had lost homes and small businesses.
Mass, organised protest needed
The campaign ’Youth Fight for Jobs’, which is supported by six trade unions, now has an even more crucial role to play.
But the trade union leaders have a responsibility to take their own national initiatives to cut across potential division and to attract young people and the unemployed into organised action for a massive programme of job creation, investment in social house building, defence of public services, and other measures to improve people’s lives and basic conditions.
In particular, the four million strong public sector of the trade union movement needs to exert a massive show of strength this autumn to tell the government, through a united day of strike action, that it will not accept pension and other spending cuts.
The lobby of the TUC organised by the National Shop Stewards Network on 11 September is very important in building pressure on the TUC leaders for this action.
The government will not gain significant support from its propaganda offensive if the trade union movement puts forward an alternative to the Con-Dems’ stance and cuts agenda, and builds for well prepared, well stewarded, mass industrial action.
It is shameful that TUC general secretary Brendan Barber and other TUC and labour leaders have not launched even a propaganda counter-offensive in defence of working class people and youth against the government’s orgy of right-wing attacks and moralising.
This is despite the fact that the events have exacerbated divisions within the government and between ministers and the police chiefs, including over policing of the riots, the planned 20% cut in the police force budget and Cameron calling on a former New York police boss to help out.
The Labour Party leaders offer no alternative, they have mainly just timidly echoed Tory policies and condemnations of violence. A few Labour politicians, such as Harriet Harman, have tentatively drawn a link between the riots and the government’s spending cuts, but without of course mentioning that Labour supports most of those cuts and that it helped to lay the basis for the present conditions and events during its 13 years in power until May 2010.
So this raises even more forcefully the burning need for urgent steps to be taken towards the creation of a new mass workers’ party – one that can put forward a programme in the interests of ordinary working people across the country.
Following the widespread and profound shock at the riots, there will be many people questioning the nature of the system we live in and drawing the conclusion that it is deeply flawed and needs to be fundamentally changed.
The outburst of unorganised groups and individuals acting in a chaotic, disorganised way, caused the forces of the state to be temporarily overstretched.
Imagine what a mass movement of workers, acting in a highly organised, disciplined and democratically controlled way could do, to advance the interests of the overwhelming majority of people in society.
Armed with a socialist programme, of public ownership of the major companies and a planned economy, such a movement would be invincible, and could bring in a socialist government capable of offering youth a future that would provide them with decent living standards, and use and develop their talents and energies productively.
The above article – printed in issue 682 of the Socialist, newspaper of the Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales) – is an updated and slightly shortened version of the original article under the same title posted on this website on 15.8.11.
NB: The original version included criticism of "the applauding of looting in the Socialist Worker newspaper this week". An article by Gary McFarlane incredibly said:
"Karl Marx was exactly right when he talked about expropriating the expropriators, taking back what they have taken from us. That’s what looting by poor working class people represents and in that sense it is a deeply political act".
The article even tried to excuse arsonists who placed people in danger of burning to death, by saying:
"No one set out to try and kill or injure those living above [business] premises."
What a travesty to suggest that Marx would have supported the looting of goods from small businesses or arsonists setting alight to people’s homes, rather than the mass, organised working class action that he actually stood for, against the capitalist class.
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