London's Burning – the revolt of the youth
from the A World to Win News Service
9 August, 2011
“Mindless violence” - “pure criminality” - “monsters taking over our streets” - the British politicians and media, from the Tories and Murdoch's rabid tabloids to Labour and the liberal BBC, have closed ranks to denounce the tide of unrest sweeping the country's cities. But what is taking place on Britain's streets is a revolt against an oppressive state apparatus that is enforcing an unjust society, an apparatus that has lost much of its legitimacy in the eyes of millions. It is a revolt against state-backed racism and the colonial mentality of the British ruling class towards black people. It is a refusal by hundreds of thousands of youth to accept a world where they are destitute, with no jobs and no future.
In an interview with the BBC Tuesday morning, Home Minister Theresa May set the official tone by ruling out of order any discussion whatsoever that the urban rebellions might be due to anything other than just “thieving and looting”. But what was the spark that set off this firestorm of rage? It was the killing of 29-year-old father of four Mark Duggan by the Metropolitan Police in the North London borough of Tottenham. Duggan was a resident of the Broadwater Farm Estate, a large social housing complex that was the setting for a powerful rebellion 26 years ago, when a police raid killed Cynthia Jarrett, the mother of a local community activist. Mark Duggan was widely known in the local community, who have been shocked and angered as details of the killing have emerged. He was killed by the police after an armed unit stopped the mini-cab he was travelling in.
According to the Evening Standard, the main London evening paper (‘Father Dies and Policeman Hurt in ‘Terrifying’ , shoot-out’, 05/08/2011), a 20-year-old eyewitness saw Mark Duggan killed while he was lying on the ground. The witness is quoted as saying: ‘About three or four police officers had both men pinned on the ground at gunpoint. They were really big guns and then I heard four long shots. The police shot him [Duggan] on the floor.’
The police initially claimed that Mark Duggan fired a bullet at a police officer which lodged in the officer’s radio, ‘luckily’ saving his life. It has since been reported that the bullet was in fact fired by a police weapon. Now the cop who shot Mark Duggan says he never claimed Duggan had fired at all. The whole story that Duggan fired first and the police acted in self-defence is now in shreds.
But here's the important part: most people were pretty sure there was a police cover-up even before the facts came out. Over and over again people have seen the police cloak their bloody repression in lies. When the young Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes was shot 6 times in the head in 2005 following the bombings on London's transport system, the police said he was behaving like a “terrorist”, only for it to be shown later he was doing nothing out of the ordinary. When Ian Tomlinson, the newspaper vendor, was clubbed by a police sergeant during the April 2008 G8 protest and died, the police first denied they'd struck him at all and instead blamed the protesters. The Innocent Project documented how over a period of years nearly 200 people died while in police custody – but not a single cop ever went to prison for any of these deaths – as if every single death were somehow natural or brought on by the dead man himself.
And all this is part of a bigger web of lies and deceit, where the politicians and media tout their wars as being waged for “democracy” and “freedom”, when they are nothing but vicious wars for empire, and they call this capitalist dog-eat-dog hellhole of inequality and oppression the best system on earth.
The so-called Independent Police Complaints Commission say there is no truth in the allegations that Mark Duggan was killed in cold-blood by the police. And the politicians from the entire spectrum are saying, calm down, wait for its verdict. But what sort of credibility can this body have? The Director of the IPCC is Moira Stewart, a former Police Commander who was criticised for failing to pass on vital information to her superior, Ian Blair, then Police Commissioner, about the case of de Menezes. The IPCC is meant to investigate all killings by the police. Putting Moira Stewart in charge of investigations for the IPCC makes the organisation into a travesty.
Here we see the theory of checks and balances in capitalist democracy in action! The police investigated by the police and then declaring themselves completely innocent. Is it any wonder the oppressed peoples in areas like Tottenham have no faith in this system?
On top of this, police credibility has been seriously undermined when the Met's top two officers recently had to resign after it came out that they had taken gifts worth thousands from cronies of the Murdoch media empire and that Murdoch's agents had paid cops hundreds of thousands in bribes for personal phone numbers of crime victims, royals, and celebrities.
Labour Party politicians initially made some noise about how the revolts are being fueled by cutbacks by the Conservative-Liberal Democratic Party coalition. And the current government austerity programme, and the larger financial crisis it is part of, is indeed hitting people hard. Unemployment nationwide has almost doubled in 3 years, and it is especially high in places like Tottenham – for every job in the borough there are 54 young people there who need work, and the unemployment rate for Black youth is over 50%. One study reported that Tottenham is actually one of the areas of Britain that will be least affected by the government cutbacks – because there was almost nothing to be cut back to start with!
Tottenham and most of the other areas that have seen the most intense fighting – Peckham, Lewisham, Hackney, in London, Liverpool's Merseyside, and similar districts in Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham – all sit towards the bottom of the food chain inside imperialist Britain. And for 13 years, the very Party that working people, women, minorities and the poor generally were told was theirs – Labour – presided over an intensification of social and economic inequalities. As Tony Blair's top adviser Peter Mandelson infamously said of Labour, we are intensely at ease with people getting seriously rich. They have also turned out to be intensely at ease with people sinking into grinding poverty.
But as the rebellions continued, Labour has ditched its talk about the social causes of the rebellion and jumped into line with the entire British ruling establishment and begun to call for more repression – on BBC, former London Mayor “Red” Ken Livingstone is trying to prove himself “electable” in the upcoming Mayoral elections, by hailing the police, and calling for beefing up their ranks. Black Labour Party MPs or ex-MPs like Dennis Lammy have joined in, as has Dianne Abbott who said, “Cuts don't turn you into a thief.” Labour will undoubtedly renew their talk of how these events show the need to fight the “Tory cutbacks” - but only once they are sure that the rebellion has been crushed by brute force.
Deep down everyone knows why the police shot Mark Duggan. Black people in Britain have suffered the worst of all from imperialism. First black people were enslaved in the African Holocaust, then the lands were colonised in the nineteenth century ‘Scramble for Africa’. How does a nation that has committed such genocide justify its actions to itself? By telling itself that black people are ‘violent’ and ‘savage’ and deserve to be exploited and oppressed by ‘superior’ white people. It was these self-serving stereotypes that are the background for the mentality of the police officers that opened fire and killed Mark Duggan. The people who have protested and revolted will sense this, even if these views never appear in the mainstream media.
One of the main themes being put out by the media, including the BBC, is that the police have been going “too easy” on the youth rebelling in the streets. This has unleashed a frenzy of activity from the English Defence League, the British National Party and other racist thugs on social media networks. On so-called respectable blogging sites like Yahoo UK, there have been countless open calls not only to expel the immigrants but to outright “exterminate” them. But there is not a word of protest at this from any establishment figure.
And what about the endless stream of charges that, as Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, put it, “Let's be clear, the violence we saw last night had nothing to do with the death of Mr Duggan. It was needless opportunist theft and violence – nothing more, nothing less.” Several things need to be said about this. First, consider the hypocrisy of the political and media spokesmen of this system flying into a frenzy of outrage at inner city youth stealing trainers, mobile phones or other petty items. This ruling class built their system on the slave trade, they enforced a colonial empire at the cost of tens of millions of lives, and today they make hundreds of billions from an empire that stretches around the globe and is enforced at gunpoint in Afghanistan and Iraq. These world-class imperialist hypocrites have no right to condemn anyone for “looting and thieving”.
But let's take a closer look at the actual way the “thieving and looting” has gone down. In fact, it is very clear that, as the Guardian headlined their coverage on 9 August, “There was no doubting their aim: they wanted to fight the police.” Much of the youths’ tactics, lighting fires in side street dustbins and the like, have been aimed at drawing the police into fighting them on terrain where they have at least half a chance to get in some blows. The police, in turn, try to avoid that and instead have their own priorities – mainly defending prestigious corporate and government buildings, while conceding to the youth more space to go into areas without such targets.
So when the politicians and media point to the few flats or family shops that were burnt on the first night in Tottenham, it is important to be clear that it is the police themselves who are a major factor in determining what gets protected, and what doesn't. Furthermore, the revolts started in a spontaneous, angry outburst by teenagers who were necessarily inexperienced in struggle. Errors get made in the course of any struggle. There have been two more nights of revolts following the initial revolt in Tottenham, and it seems that despite the rapid spread of unrest, no or at least fewer homes have been destroyed by fire.
The masses taking part in this revolt or out on its fringes are full of the contradictions that come from being part of capitalist society, but being in its most oppressed sections. In one housing estate in the center of the fighting in Hackney, one Afro-Caribbean mother lamented that the youth were getting away from the original cause of justice for Mark Duggan, and was especially upset at the looting of local shops, but when her son and his mates showed up with a bag of new clothes for her, she was delighted: I'm on benefits, we've got nothing, she explained. Mothers struggled with their young sons and daughters not to go out, but shouted with glee when they saw projectiles strike home on a police van. A middle aged Iraqi political refugee clutched to his chest his valuable personal documents that he’d salvaged, and worried that the car burning in the street might ignite his flat just above, but was torn by sympathy for the youth, who were up against the very same forces who'd turned his own country into a killing ground. An Afro-Caribbean woman and her daughters gathered around a burning dumpster singing Bob Marley's song “Burning and Looting”.
It is true that numerous family shops and corner stores have been looted, and this is a source of mounting tension – shopkeepers, often from a single nationality, are forming teams in different areas to defend their shops, which offers the police real opportunities to fan the flames of infighting among the oppressed.
But at the heart of this welter of contradictions, the force driving these rebellions is a sense on the part of the youth that it's a chance to strike back at the larger forces dominating their lives and oppressing them, and they're running to seize that chance. A group of four British-born youth of Somali origin heading for the fighting in Hackney Monday night talked of how they felt that they had no one that they could count on but themselves and their mates, that they might have to drop out of college due to the recent massive hike in education fees, and that they considered themselves “revolutionaries”. One question in the air: how much were the youth influenced by the rebellions in the Middle East and North Africa?
It is also worth pointing out that despite the howls of outrage by the establishment about the “violence ruling England's streets”, there have been no reports of anyone but the police being specifically targeted by the youth. And despite the conflicts that have erupted from time to time on the streets between white, Asian and Afro-Caribbean youth, during these rebellions all comers of whatever race are still being greeted in a spirit of unity and solidarity – a theme that is spelled out repeatedly in the Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry messages that are flying over the airwaves.
Observers have also been struck by the patchwork of rebellion that has swept through the capital and now the country. Previous rebellions – Brixton and Tottenham in the 1980s in particular – were confined to a single area of the capital, in response to a particular outrage by the police. But as in the outbreaks of revolt in France a few years ago, fighting with the police has now erupted in at least 20 or more different districts in the capital plus several in cities in the Midlands, with the youth proving far more fluid and fast-moving than even the mobile police forces. It is no exaggeration to say that this has caused shock among establishment “talking heads”, who have struggled to explain this. They recoil at the idea that there are broad ranks of youth, numbering in the millions, who feel themselves to be excluded from society and to have no allegiance to its norms and rules and who long for the chance they are getting today.
This rebellion is fueled by anger at cutbacks, poverty, racism and the police. There is real fury right now at the brutality and oppression of a state apparatus that can just gun down a black man in cold blood then try and cover its tracks with lies and misinformation. But while this was the spark, the fact that this spark has caught fire and spread so far and so fast reflects much more than any one particular abuse. The police are the front-line enforcers of an entire capitalist system that is built on exploitation and inequality. In the eyes of the system, police violence is by default “legitimate” - because they are the armed defenders of property relations that lead to a handful accumulating fabulous wealth, while millions live with nothing, and no hope of ever having anything more. It is not chance that sees the cops stop young Black men on the street thousands of times a month, with almost no arrests – this is just the sharpest edge of an entire system, and efforts to reduce what is going on to one or another particular abuse will lead to trying to put plasters on the sores when what's needed is to get to the root cause and overthrow the system that is the source of all these abuses through revolution.
As night three of the rebellions winds down, the question on everyone's lips is, what next? Cries are going up for broad curfews or for the army to intervene, ideas that are being evoked even by liberal news presenters like the BBC's John Humphrys. One thing is sure: the justice and respect the masses crave and deserve will not be granted to them by this system.