no justice no peace: the riot is the rhyme of the unheard, let us begin to listen.

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.

Or drown.

5 thoughts on “no justice no peace: the riot is the rhyme of the unheard, let us begin to listen.

  1. 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.

    Hi Javaad, a couple of points I’d debate…

    First of all, is it really the case that riots necessarily make things worse for the people and communities in question? e.g. you yourself give an example of Bradford where the 2001 riots are still having an affect in terms of reducing active police racism. (From what I understand having talked to people in Bradford the impact in terms of people getting sent down for a really long time was really bad, so I don’t want to gloss that…) Furthermore, it’s now commonplace to acknowledge that the 1981/5 riots achieved something similar in London, effectively ending the Sus laws – until relatively recently – and bringing more public money into the inner cities. Studies of riots during the great depression in the US showed that the bigger the riots in a city, the more likely the municipal administrations were to increase welfare assistance. So, while I understand the riots will have a number of bad affects on the communities they were in, isn’t it wrong to say so flat-out that they ultimately make things worse? Aren’t they a form of struggle which is very messy, but which nonetheless can have a real impact in terms of securing gains for communities?

    Secondly, when you say it needs direction – what direction? Say the youth can get themselves organised and disciplined – what then? Isn’t the whole point of a riot that it’s a response to a material situation (unemployed, many can’t even vote, or if they can are in non-marginal constituencies) in which it’s not obvious what to do to make your voice heard or have an impact? They see the marches and demonstrations of the left – but can we honestly say to the youth that in these things we’ve found a solution for their problems? I went to a protest against cuts to Hackney Youth Services a few months ago. There were no youth there. It’s clear that the traditional practices of the left don’t engage them. So, what direction do you mean?

    PS – some interviews from Hackney:


  2. Communard,

    I think its not difficult to argue that most of those things you say could be seen as making things better, in fact have made them worse. I don’t know enough about Bradford to really comment, but it seems to me at least superficially that in so far as these were seen as communallly based, they have left deep divisions between working-class communities. As far as the 1981 riots and SUS is concerned let’s examine that.

    The State did not intervene with SUS in order to deliberately antagonise the Black Community, any more than the role of the British Army in Northern Ireland was undertaken to deliberately alienate the Catholic Community. It intervened to deal with a percieved problem/threat. As a Capitalist State it did so in accordance with the only kinds of options available to it, which are necessarily repressive/oppressive and bureaucratic. The nature of that is then what causes the community that experiences the brunt of that to become alienated and hostile. SUS was introduced because of growing street crime. What has been the effect of it ceasing? In the intervening period, despite resources being devoted to “Community Policing” and so on, there has been a substantial growth of street crime in the form of knife and gun crime, the rapid development of gang culture around that, and also connected to more organised crime and drug crime, sometimes on a signifcant scale.

    The growth of gang culture and knife and gun crime has been such as to lead many within the Black Community in London, and other major centres like Birmingham, to demand action to stop it. In part the increase in stop and search has been a response to that. We might want to oppose the killing of Mark Duggan, and seriously question police actions, but he was carrying a loaded gun, and presumably not because he was practising for the Olympics. So, who actually were things made better for by the ending of SUS?

    There seems a direct comparison here with the discussion over Imperialist intervention in Libya. There the argument of the AWL and others has been, if Imperialism is opposing something we also oppose, if it is achieving a goal we have for ourselves, why would we oppose it? Presumably, we are also opposed to working-class communities in Britain being terrorised by criminal gangs, rioters and looters, people carrying guns and knives and so on. Using the AWL logic, on what basis would we then oppose the intervention of the Police and State to prevent that??

    My argument in respect of both instances would be set out clearly why we SHOULD oppose the intervention of the Capitalist State, and instead focus on calling for an independent working-class solution. In the case of Libya it is not a matter of simply opposing the intervention, and therefore by default supporting Gaddafi. It is a matter of combining that demand with the demand for the establishment of an organised Labour Movement response in Libya, of building support for Libyan workers mongst Egyptian, Tunisian etc workers including armed support. Its necessary to begin arguing for an international workers force capable of providing such support in conflicts, and of beginning to create the kind of international workers organisation that does not simply limit itself to calls for the international bourgeois state organs to intervene, but organises practical, physical assistance itself, from money, to resources, to arms, to fighters.

    The same is true in relation to this issue. All over the country workers spontaneously developed Defence Squads to bring the rioting to a halt, and protect their communties. They were what effectively stopped the riots, not the Police. Calling for Police off the streets, or an end to SUS is not a matter either of simply allowing the vacuum to be occupied by those against whom those measures were primarily directed. We do not want the Police off the streets, in order for the streets to then be controlled by criminal gangs, we do not want an end to SUS, only to allow members of those gangs to walk about armed and dangerous and unchallenged. We want the police off our streets, and we want the criminal gangs off the streets too, and we want Workers Defence Squads, Workers democratic Control over their communities to replace both!

    As for the point about more Public Money into Inner Cities, I’d argue this was also a negative. The increased money was at least in part needed, because the riots created a condition of heightened risk for private Capital. Wherever, Capital seeks to invest it takes into consideration a risk premium, as a deduction from potential profits. Its more than possible to see why private Capital moved out of these inner city areas, and having caused higher unemployment and deprivation then required more State capitalist money to replace it. But, the downside from that is obvious.

    One of the advantages of Capitalist relations, of the cash nexus, as marx describes it, as opposed to the previous paternalistic relations of feudalism, is that it does provide workers with a degree of real freedom. They are free to go to work for a different employer if they find something better; they are free to join a Trade Union, and collectively bargain over their conditions and so on. But, as a claimant dependent upon the Capitalist State that is not true. They cannot go to some other competing provider of State Benefits in search of a better deal; they cannot engage in meaningful colelctive bargaining with that State over those benefits. They are, in fact, returned to the same kind of paternalistic relationship that serfs had with the feudal State. And in a very real way. The private capitalist employer has no say over the worker outside work hours – though many would try. But, the State exercises control over all aspects of the claimant’s life. They exercise surveillance to see if you are engaging in any activities they can use to stop benefits; they have a say over your sexual life by rules over c-habitation; they require you to account for all of your movements, for example if you are going on holiday, they want to know where, when and for how long etc.

    And, of course, Benefits are a much lower payment to workers than are wages, despite what the tabloids would have everyone believe. The culture of dependency and reliance on the Capitalist State, which Welfarism creates undermines any potential for working-class self-activity, self organisation, betterment, or pride. In no way can its increased domination over workers lives be said to be an improvement of their condition.


  3. On the one hand you say sus (and related racism) should be opposed, but on the other that successfully opposing it cannot be considered any sort of gain unless itself results in positive forms of working class power – controlling areas and so on. I think that’s abstract and ultimatistic. The reason that the community of Brixton celebrated the Brixton riots with a 20 year anniversary party is that they well understand that such gains were gains independent of whether they were able to go the whole way to assert stable working class rule in working class areas – which, when it happens, will be a proto-revolutionary sitaution.

    To say that the community defence initiatives ended the riots and not the police is, sorry, simply not true. Their role was relatively minor on the national scale, however important it was in very small areas. e.g. Kingsland High Rd in Hackney.

    What you say about public money into inner cities is totally speculative, unless you can find some figures to back up your suggestion that the net impact was malign.

    Also, you argue that gains in the rate of welfare/social security are not gains from a proletarian point of view. Obviously the whole system – like the wages system – is compromised, but that’s a very odd argument. Generations of working class people have fought conscious struggles precisely over this point. You’d prefer they were revolutionary struggles which opposed both wages and welfare in toto? Sure, but that doesn’t mean adopting a dismissive attitude to the real forms of struggle which arise.


  4. I think you are right to say that the Bradford and Brixton riots did make life better in certain very specific ways for the Black working class. I have to say, in this article I was mainly thinking about the riots as we saw them further north, and in later days.
    Clearly, in a society like ours, you have to be a bit of a moron to worry about the “moral” problems of looting (if I might be allowed the indulgence of dropping an overused bit of Brecht “What is the crime of robbing a bank, compared to the crime of starting one), but my point was that the act of individually taking what you want (obviously) isnt any kind of actual solution to working class peoples problems. Infact, the ruling class will benefit from having a few more of our people in privatized jails. All that it really entails is the purely formal acknowledgment that capitalism can’t satiate the demands it creates in people. As you rightly point out bring a revolutionary doesnt maean that we should be “adopting a dismissive attitude to the real forms of struggle”; I think the historic task of Marxists is to bring the inherent universal dimension to the fore in these real forms, which entails, among other things, mercilessly attacking their ideological content.
    It seems to me, and I might be wrong on this, that a basic feeling from some young people was that “I want some more” of what I percieve to be the good things in life. The interesting question is in what way did people transcend this? At what points was looting social? What tacitical lessons where learned in how this social looting operated? To what extent are these strategies of organization that can be replecated in different contexts?



  5. Communard,

    Its equally abstract to simply assert that the ending of SUS was positive without examining how it was ended, and what the consequences of that were. As I said, the consequence was a rise in gang culture, and the replacement of police oppression – only in part – with oppression by vicious armed gangs. That is why I’m interested in the opposition to that by ordinary workers in those communities who suffered from it, and why they called for something to be done about it, as it was their kids being killed and drawn into it.

    I don’t agree that workers gaining democratic control over their communities will represent a proto-revolutionary situation. Housing Co-ops are quite common, and they exercise control over the houses within such a development. That can be developed quite easily without it being in any way revolutionary in the political revolutionary sense, though it would be revolutionary in the true social sense of transforming property and social relations. There are already lots of democratic organs existing at a neighbourhood level such as TRA’s, Town and Parish Councils, and neighbourhood watch Schemes. There is no reason these could not be expanded and given greater content. The principle of having private scurity firms police gatred communities has been established, and there is no reason that workers cannot use this principle to establish their own similar policing of workers estates and communities.

    It is true that it was the Defence Squads that stopped the riots as I showed in my blog. There was no way that the Police had sufficeint numbers, or method to prevent riots breaking out in a sporadic fashion. But, precisely because tioters did not know whether on entering an area they would find a group of workers ready to confront them, meant that this assymetric warfare was reversed on them.

    It is not at all speculative to say that riots, and other such risks lead private capital to leave areas in order to invest in safer areas, where they can make profits with fewer risks. That is not fundamental to marxist economics, but well documented in orthodox economics too. And, it is precisely the economic decline and social deprivation caused by the lack of private capital that makes it necessary for State Capital to have to intervene. A look at areas such as Tyneside where there has been a lack of private capital, and where State capital is therefore more significant is an example of that. In terms of Inner Cities, what is most striking – and anyone who has worked in Local Government, and seen these schemes in action can confirm this – is that often the State Capitalist money does little to Benefit the actual residents of the area on a longer term basis. Capital projects usually have benefit only for a short time, when they are being developed and funded. The main beneficiaries being the firms who get the contracts, and high paid bureaucrats – who rarely live in the affected area – employed to supervise them. Revenue type projects such as the establishment of Theatre Groups have longer term benefits, but again, the main beneficiarioes are the army of bureaucrats or, people who make a living flitting from one NGO to another, brought in to run them.

    I didn’t say that welfare payments didn’t represent an advance. I said that dependence on the State for them as opposed to having the opportunity even to work for private capital, placed workers in a situation of total dependence and servitude. However, workers were quite able to develop and provide their own collective and welfare insurance before the capitalist State pushed them out from doing so, and instead established its own State Monopoly. Given that all of the money paid out in those Welfare payments comes from workers themselves, less a significant loss due to the bureaucracy involved in transferring workes funds from one group of workers to another, I think that it is more than arguable that the replacement of Worker Owned and Controlled Welfare Insurance by State Capitalist Monopoly over it, is indeed a step backwards. That is why marx and the First International demanded the State keep its hands off the workers Friendly Societies and so on, and argued against the workers making themselves dependent on such payments by the Capitalist State, which would undermine their own self-government!

    I am no more dismissive to the struggles for those reforms than was Marx to strikes and other such struggles. But, like Marx’s attitude to strikes, it is our job to point out when those struggles are in fact wrong headed, and merely a reflection of the dominance of bouregois ideas in the workers movement itself.


Comments are closed.