Joe Thorne looks for the meaning of the recent wave of inner city riots
Eventually, it always explodes. But what dream has been deferred, how, and by whom? Who are the rioters, what motivated them – and does it matter? Was there a radical kernel to the riots which would speak to us, if only we would listen? Or were they the mute reflex of a nihilist or egoistic sub-generation of looter-consumers – pitiable, and understandable, but nothing more?
To the former idea corresponds a romanticised account of the figure of the rioter as a new vanguard-subject in the class struggle, flawed, but in essence communistic. To the later idea corresponds the view that the rioters need to be rescued by the political programme or organisation of some other segment of the working class: the primary significance of their disorder is as a moral rebuke to the movement which has forgotten them. Both are attempts to constrain a complex reality under too-easy an analysis. There is no ‘essence’ to the riots; beyond their expression of a particular phase in the recomposition of the class-relation in Britain’s inner cities. As we shall see, the riots were partly products of a real, positive and intentional class consciousness, albeit the consciousness of a very particular sub-section of the class. There were also elements in it that were not only nihilistic and selfish, but vicious and cruel.
These tendencies are not expressed as distinct groups of participants: a few ‘proper’ class-struggle rioters, and a few thugs. There probably were some rioters with a clear class-related ethic, just as there were certainly a number who saw the disturbances primarily as cover for mugging and burning their neighbours’ cars. But what is more likely is that such agendas were interpolated throughout the crowd, present to different degrees in different individuals, and differently in any given individual at different times throughout the night.
The romantic idea is easiest to dispense with. Writing for the Commune, Daniel Harvey proposes “loyalty” to the phenomenon of the riots. “We have to support the eruption of the unheard and the unspoken in our obscene society.” Therefore, “the problem is not the excesses of this or that action, it is that the rioters are simply not radical enough.” Of course, there is no one problem which is ‘the problem’. But it is certainly a very big problem that 100 families have been made homeless, and terrified in the process. It is understandable that a broad swathe of opinion will focus on such events, as well as on the destruction of small family-owned shops. Five people have been killed in the riots since Sunday, none by the police.
Many of the differences with the inner-city riots of the 1980s have been exaggerated (for example, burning and looting were common then too, and race was not the major factor overall, however important they were in specific areas.) However, it does seem that there has been an escalation in the use of careless violence. Contrast the burning of family homes from the following sentiment expressed in Liverpool in 1981. “We do not hit family homes’ ‘What about the garage on the corner, people work there’ – ‘Yeah but they don’t own the place, it’s owned by Shell’.” Perhaps the general context of class consciousness has subsided, perhaps 30 years of neoliberalism has produced a material environment so destructive for young minds that they simply don’t care.
(The other major difference, in my perception, is that there were far fewer police injuries and far more arrests. 111 police officers were injured in London over four days of rioting in London, and so far more than 1,000 arrests have been made. In comparison, in the 1981 Brixton riots, 229 officers were injured and 82 arrests were made at the time – though at least 280 were arrested later. This partly reflects superior police training and equipment, but may also reflect poorer organisation and less aggression on the part of rioters – or perhaps too much preoccupation with loot over and above fighting the police. Chris Harman reported that analysis of figures from different areas in 1981 showed that the “greater the number of police injuries, the fewer were the arrests”.)
Much of the looting appears – from anecdotal accounts – to have been more or less a black market capitalist enterprise. “Gang leaders stood back while the younger ones ran into the shops”, reports Jonathan Tomlinson. I saw in Hackney what friends reported in South London: adult men in cars directing groups of children on bikes. A friend described the looting of the Burberry factory outlet: cars with blacked-out windows pulled up, and men loaded in goods by the box-load. We saw opportunistic muggings in Hackney, and one particularly disgusting occurrence of this sort was captured on film. In such a context, it is impossible to avoid criticising “this or that” action, not because it would be unpopular not to do so, but because it is impossible to pick out the valid class content of the riots without being able to distinguish, politically, a burning police car from a burning home.
Class, hedonism, and despair
Will Davies has written one of the most interesting analyses of the week’s riots, but in doing so promotes the idea of the rioter as apolitical consumer.
In themselves, these riots may indeed be about inequality: the concentration of wealth and power may simply have become too unwieldy, regardless of what the rioters think is going on. But for themselves, they are about power, hedonism, consumption and sovereignty of the ego. Anyone who disagrees with that is simply not crediting the participants with being able to make sense of what they’re doing.
Contrary to what Will Davies says, if we credit the participants with being able to make sense of what they are doing, the class politics are abundantly clear.
One man in Tottenham on Saturday night told a reporter that he saw it as a “battle” against the “ruling class”. Elsewhere, a rioter told Sky news that there “isn’t a future for young people, that’s how I see it because the government they are not helping anyone out except the rich people. They don’t care for us.” One of his friends demanded the restoration of Education Maintenance Allowance, more help for single mothers, and a reversal of tuition fee rises. Two girls from Croydon, drinking looted rosé at 9.30am on Tuesday morning put it like this: “it’s the government’s fault . . . it’s about showing the police we can do what we want . . . all this has happened because of the rich people, so we’re showing the rich people we can do what we want”. In a lull in the rioting on Mare St on Monday, one 21 year-old woman who had lived in Hackney her whole life gave me her interpretation.
It’s kids revolting against the capitalist bonds that bind them, shops like Game and JD where they been told they need to shop by the media . . . half the people here have no politics, it doesn’t mean there’s no politics in it . . . they hit the Ladbrokes, I was really pleased about that . . . living in an area like this, you understand.
Police harassment is the other common theme. For many Black people, such harassment is interpreted, probably in part correctly, through the prism of race, and racism. “My son is 12 years old”, says Michelle from Hackney, “and he already knows that police do not work for black people”. A man calling himself L concurred. “This supposed law and order is dishonest. I get stopped and searched. You won’t”, he told a reporter. “They should just say ‘I’m stopping you because you’re black’.” Figures show that black people are 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. (They are less than 5 times more likely, on average, to be convicted for related offences.) However, police harassment was also identified as a principle motivating factor by many white rioters in areas such as Enfield and Manchester. The nature of stop and search is that it works on the basis of identifying people based on their demographic, which is why those stopped under evidence-led powers are less likely to be black. Consequently, a large number of those who are repeatedly stopped – often in an extremely disrespectful manner – are innocent. The proportion of stop and searches which lead to any arrest is low: most, therefore, appear to those stopped as harassment.
At a closed meeting held by community workers in Hackney on Tuesday, a number of young people spoke about the motivations for the riots, as they saw them. They listed a) a lack of jobs, and particular resentment about the lack of Olympic jobs, b) police mistreatment during frequent stop and searches, and c) resentment of ‘newcomers’ or ‘yuppies’, who they believe the intense stop and search regime panders to, and who they accuse of booking-out local sports facilities, making them inaccessible for locals. That morning, on Clarence Road, one man of Caribbean descent told me that the number of children without engaged fathers in the area was partly because those fathers had often been deported.
Some readers may believe that these quotes have been laboriously selected to allow me to build up a picture which suits my ideological prejudices. In fact, the opposite is true. Virtually every published statement in the press on the part of rioters tells the same story: the rich have got it all, we’ve got no future, we want the police to stop hassling us, and, right now, we’re going to do what we need to do to achieve those things. There are a few exceptions, including some racist comments – “the Polish are taking the jobs, so we’ve got to do something”, one man from Manchester told Radio 4 – but the comments quoted are overwhelmingly representative of the opinions which have been reported in the media, and which I have heard in Hackney.
What are the elements of the consciousness which we can infer from these fragments? The rioters understand that we live in a class society, divided between the rich (in whose interests the government and police work), and that cuts to welfare provision represent an attack on their class, by the ruling one. They understand everything from unemployment to consumerism to gambling in class terms. In short, participants in the riots understand everything that the liberal commentariat understand, and more. They are as unrevolutionary as the rest of the proletariat, but accept that illegal direct action is legitimate and necessary.
This account is, necessarily, based on those who are able to articulate themselves, and who choose to do so. No doubt, the same conditions which breed poverty currently breed inarticulacy, and a lack of confidence in self-expression. And the form of the riot mitigates against allowing a visible, vocal leadership to emerge, at least in the short term. But the point is that, insofar as any political ideas have been articulated, they are class ones.
The idea of Will Davies is that although the riots are objectively caused by relative deprivation and police harassment, subjectively they are not about these things, but about consumption and power. Presumably this is also what David Broder means when he says that “unlike the Brixton or Toxteth riots of thirty years ago, there is no struggle and no enemy, simply an explosive reaction to being angry, fed-up and downtrodden.” But such ideas do not stand up to even the most casual attempt to listen to the people involved. No one ever ‘just reacts’, everyone understands what they do through some general framework, more or less sophisticated or accurate.
This does not mean that there is no evidence of “power, hedonism, consumption and sovereignty of the ego” – and, we might add, the thrill of the mob. However, such motivations are themselves far from necessarily apolitical. If one’s protest is against a class dynamic which provides one with disempowerment, material privation, boredom, and the diminution of the ego, it is entirely reasonable to expect a response to involve a negation of those elements. Furthermore, when we re-read that list, we cannot fail to see that it might as well describe the modus operandi of a great many senior bourgeois politicians. Such figures repeatedly accept, uncontroversially and in public, that they enjoy the cut and thrust of parliamentary politics. Their scandals betray their love of an ego-driven, lavish lifestyle that makes the excesses of the rioters seem puny by comparison. This is not merely the well-worn point that the ruling class are hypocritical – the arsonist Clegg, or the vandal Cameron. It is to say that what is seen as exceptional in the riot is rather less so than first impressions might suggest, there really is no realm of purely principled political action. A Hackney resident called Ariom described the sense of solidarity and community he felt during the riot in terms similar to those used by workers talking about their experience during large strikes.
It’s like the old days. It’s bringing the community spirit back. Even though it’s a sad way to do it, it’s bringing the community together. If the riots kick off again, I’m going. . . I loved Hackney during the riot. I loved every minute of it. It was great to see the people coming together to show the authorities that they cannot just come out here bullying.
“Rioting is a politics of despair”, says Owen Hatherley, as if it is the product of some sort of adolescent existential crisis, rather than a politics which responds to the material situation of those who riot. They are frequently unemployed, hence unable to strike, and (for various reasons) unable to affect change through voting. As Piven and Cloward put it, “some of the poor are sometimes so isolated from significant institutional participation that the only ‘contribution’ they can withhold is that of quiescence in civil life: they can riot.”
In this section, I have stressed what is positive in the riots, and I have done so in order to bring to the surface one element in what is, as I have said, a profoundly contradictory situation. I have dwelt more on it than on the other aspect I have highlighted – thuggish, nihilist criminality – not because I necessarily believe it to be more important, or prevalent, but because it is more common to deny its existence at all. Indeed, I cannot claim that I am able to judge the balance; or even that the lines between the different sorts of motivation are always sharp and well drawn. But I believe that I have demonstrated that accounts which deny rioters are capable of thinking politically for themselves are based on a failure to engage with what they themselves have to say.
The left responds
The Socialist Party, which is nothing if not predictable, says that the riots demand a “mass, trade union-led workers’ response”. The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has a broadly similar view. The riots “can have no directly positive effects on the lives of those who riot or on the lives of their families”, and all the agency is in the hands of “the labour movement”, by which they meant the Labour party and trade unions. “A key context for the riots is the decline of labour movement organisation”, apparently, despite the fact that riots were much bigger during the 1981 when unions were close to their peak membership. This is the relatively institutionally-minded wing of the Trotskyist movement.
What is wrong with it? First of all, the trade unions (let alone the Labour Party!), who currently seem unable to organise their members in defence of even their own immediate interests, have no capacity to supply a solution to inner-city youth. Historically, unemployed people and youth have proved more than capable of autonomous self-organisation, and there is no reason that they will not be able to do so again. The unemployed workers’ movement of the US or UK in the 1930s frequently and effectively employed looting and riot, and were organised directly by the unemployed, not by the trade unions. The same goes for ethnic-minority youth organisations such as the Black Panthers or Asian Youth Movement. Furthermore, the institutional-Trotskyist perspective totally denies the potential efficacy of riots as a weapon in the class struggle. Like strikes, riots are frequently unsuccessful, but nonetheless have a more or less effective record in winning concessions from the ruling class. For example, the end of the ‘Sus’ laws in the 1980s, and the injection of money into the inner cities which followed the Brixton riots and the Scarman report. In other words, it achieved two of the immediate political objectives of the rioters.
Meanwhile, an article in Socialist Worker white-washed the riots, making them out to be far better and less complicated than they were.
No one set out to try and kill or injure those living above those premises. They were venting their anger against an unequal society. 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. And as far as violence goes, that was aimed at the police who carry out violent attacks on working class communities on a daily basis, especially against black male youth.
The arsonists may not have been specifically trying to kill anyone, but are nonetheless culpable for burning people’s homes down, whether by intention or omission. The violence was not all aimed at police, and anyone who was present during the riots could see that. The looting was sometimes expropriating the expropriators, sometimes gang-capitalism, and sometimes petty destruction of the very smallest of petit bourgeois livelihoods. The SP and AWL seem not to admit that it had any positive character at all – but this seems wrong. Looting from big chain stores, from a class point of view, is fundamentally legitimate. We don’t fetishise the law: we support unlawful strikes for example, blocking roads, and so on. One way to supplement one’s income whilst causing economic damage to capitalists is to strike for higher wages: another way is to loot. So there’s no need to condemn looting in the abstract, any more than smashing windows or fighting the police.
I lived on the Pembury Estate, the epicentre of the most destructive rioting in Hackney, for six months in 2009. In that time, at least five people died violent deaths within 200 metres of my door, including Christelle Pardo, and Jahmal Mason-Blair, who was 17. Hackney in general, and the Pembury in particular, is plagued by high unemployment, poor housing, falling incomes, and resentment against the borough’s ostentatiously wealthy newcomers. For every available job there are 24 job seekers. The total impact of proposed spending and benefits changes on the poorest 10% in society is equivalent to 38% of net personal income. Nationally, half of young black men are unemployed, and the figure is probably higher in Hackney where total unemployment runs at around 20%. Cuts to youth clubs in Haringey and Hackney led one youth worker to predict in late July that ‘there will be riots’.
An ongoing analysis of those so far brought to court over involvement in the riots suggests that 73% are under 25 and only 12% are women. Reporting on court cases suggest that rioters strongly tend to be unemployed, or working in low-paid jobs. Observers agree that the riots were ethnically mixed, “young men from poor areas”. In other words, the rioters correspond to the profile which we would expect, on the basis of the concerns and demands recorded above. But the same social ground which breeds such class-resentment also breeds a degree of aggression, callousness, and low political ambition. Across the country, between Saturday and Tuesday, both exploded simultaneously, in the same neighbourhoods, and often in the same person.
Any useful political response will take time and enquiry to develop. We can further explore the potential for organising amongst the unemployed, amongst youth, and in opposition to stop and search. Revolutionaries are socially and demographically isolated from the elements of the working class which produced these riots, and doing anything to bridge that gap will be very far from easy. We need to listen to the rioters, and the community members who chose not to riot, many of whom did so for perfectly good political reasons – and acknowledge that the marches and placards of the traditional left have very little to offer, day to day, to many inner city youth. They need a different political practice. So, therefore, do we.
The title of the article is taken from a poem by Langston Hughes
A selected online reading list on riots
The unemployed workers’ movement in the US 1930-1939, Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward
Like a summer with a thousand Julys – an account of the 1981-82 inner city riots by BM Blob
The university, the car factory and the working class – specifically on the 1991 Oxford riots
The Summer of 1981: a post-riot analysis – Chris Harman (Socialist Workers’ Party)
Rioting in Nottingham: a different pattern? AWL report on the 2011 disturbances in Nottingham
Austerity and anarchy: budget cuts and social unrest in Europe, 1919 – 2009 - Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth
 Poor People’s Movements (1977:25)
 The fact is that for many people it will not prove worthwhile. They will go to prison. But to critique the tactic on that ground is very different from making disproving noises about looting in the abstract. It is also the case that destroying small shops in many areas is not only attacking people who are very little distant from the proletariat, but likely to inflame ethnic tension.