Javaad Alipoor continues our debate on the meaning of the UK’s riots
Five people are dead, more than one thousand in jail and Reuters report that Gaddafi has recognized the Tottenham rioters as the legitimate government of Britain. What the hell is going on?
At the eye of this storm lies the body of Mark Duggan, murdered by the metropolitan police. In the past the cops have been careful to leave what they presumably fell is a “respectful” length of time between political and racial murders, at least so the last can drop out of memory, but the point blank shooting of this young man has come up straight between the beating to death of Ian Tomlinson, so that nicety even seems of another time.
The events in Tottenham seem to have escalated very quickly. A crowd of residents assembled outside the police station to protest his death, when a number of police officers fell on one young protester (some reports said a sixteen year old girl) beating and arresting her.
The rightwing press and the middle classes are as ever hoping to present this as an unpredictable carnival of the so-called underclass. There only contact with council estates and the poor being through the Hogarthian moralism of Shameless, they chalk up the three days of violence and looting to bad parenting and a lack of “respect”, noticeably absenting themselves from any comparison between this narrative and the Bullingdon escapades of certain current front bench yahoos.
This explanation will not do. Firstly, let’s say people who are poor and Black or Asian (or white in Salford) just like a good ruck. Fine. Then why riot now? The problem with this account is that it does not account for why the riots took place when and how they did. The fact of the matter is that the prime causal factor of all this rioting has been the shooting of Mark Duggan and this should not be forgotten. His poor family, have since been put through, not only his murder, but the continuing defamation of his name in the national press. First he was shooting at police (turns out he wasn’t according to their own sources), then he was on his way to kill someone (no evidence) then his uncle is supposed to have been a gangster (so what?). I am sure, I am not the only one who notices the ridiculous dance follows the same footfalls as that of de Menezes. First he had jumped over the turnstile (but he hadn’t) then he was wearing a suspiciously padded jacket (only it was denim). In that case it turned out that a combination of murderous incompetence and the racist inability to tell two Brown people apart had lead to the mans life being taken, so forgive me if I jump to conclusions on this one.
The petrol that was lit by the spark of Duggan’s death need not have been allowed to stand out side. The Lawrence inquiry specifically called for an end to stop and search, as the sharpest edge of Police racism. This power has effectively been reintroduced under the terrorism act. It is not coincidental that no serious disturbance occurred in West Yorkshire; after the Bradford Riots of 2001 the WY Police have been very wary about certain aspects of community relations, and a lack of obviously racist stop and search methods, I am sure, contributed to the peace of this area.
Indeed, if we look at all the different areas where the riots happened we see that they seem to be as a result of quite disparate social phenomena. In Tottenham the whole of the rioting seems to have had a very anti Police dimension, and this seems to have been replicated in a lot of predominantly African Caribbean neighborhoods in London. In the texts and tweets that flew about, a real class hatred towards the police is apparent; “See a brother Salut, see a fed shoot” (sic) . Two things need pointing about this. First that in the immediate rioting around London the idea of looting seemed connected to fighting the police, and the farther one gets from the eye of this storm, the less this seems to be the case. Secondly, that no cops got killed. Contrary to the racist and anti working class (never has the word “chav” been thrown around with more bile or frequency) stereotypes that have paralyzed the bourgeois press, this is not a mob of “feral”, “wild” children intent on death and theft. They are poor young men and women sick of being targeted by police, benefits cuts, no prospects. They have no other language.
The fact that mainstream politics has absolutely no answer to the problems of these young people was made apparent in the most allegedly “non political” events of the past few days. The reports from Salford, for instance, suggest that most of the unrest was down to looting, rather than anything else. Karl Marx’s much maligned view of religion, not only as the opium of the people, but as the language through which (lacking anyother) express their discontent is reborn through its perspicuity; a generation brought up with Fiddy as their prophet and AirMax 95s as their Black Stone will surely express their anger and discontent in precisely these terms.
What is essentially a literal act of redistribution of wealth takes here a particularly neo-Thatcherite, even “Big Society” form. There is no Left, no trade union, hell not even a reformist social democratic party that speaks to young disenfranchised workers, so poor people ape the actions of their masters; I am denied the good things of life, so I will take them by myself, for myself.
The ultimate cause of these riots is the lack of any progressive political route for young working class people. There is nothing wrong with anger, even hatred, but it needs direction. This passage à l’acte that we witnessed will ulitmately make things worse for those people and communities caught up with it. Without a plan anger gives you an ulcer; without outward facing discipline it is nothing but masturbatory self harm.
This lack of political direction is even more apparent in the racist chants of so-called “community defense” groups who grew up in South East London, for instance. These people who betrayed the influence of the EDL did much more than any leftist group to influence the turn of events. As the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow, better off sections of the working and lower middle classes may well slowly come to see where their interests lie, but without a plan from left and progressive people to win them over, time and again the post-Fascists of the EDL milieu will come off tops. After all the Daily Mail does their Chav-hating and paki-bashing for them, we need our own propaganda.
As Martin Luther King said; “A riot is the language of the unheard”. I think he is exactly right. We heard the infantile self obsession that passes for politics reflected on the streets this week. If you want something, damn anyone that stands in your way and take it, for yourself. There’s no such thing as a tax raise on the richest two percent, so fighting for a better life just sounds like taking a pair of shoes or a bigger TV. The idea that one might not want to spend every evening gentuflecting before the cold LED throb of a TV of whatever size was missing entirely from a lot of the disturbances, but then again, people do not come onto the streets with ideas fully formed. I imagine, in the early spring, Egyptians would have thought that enough of a payraise for a new telly would have been a good result. Not true any longer.
So in the midst of the competitive condemnation and calls for various prison door keys, there is a message from the storm in our streets. (A recent poll of Guardian readers found that 60% of these San Pellegrino drinkers supported the maximum sentence for someone convicted of stealing a bottle of water from Lidel). The thing is the racism, poverty, lack of jobs, cuts to benefits and overtly political policing that caused this resentment are still there. A critical, disciplined and intelligent movement must find a way to build amongst our communities, or we will not be in a position to provide any shape to peoples anger.
A storm is coming, prepare its path; take the old and rotten to the sea shore and get ready to build again.