The Blackberry riots of 2011

by Aug 10, 2011All Articles

london_riotsPoliticians of every party are falling over themselves to denounce the sheer criminality of the riots that have swept London and other cities. What they wonít face up to, argues Stuart King, is the link between the rioting, social deprivation, and police harassment of minority communities.

It started, as in 1981, following the death of a member of the black community. Mark Duggan was shot in the chest by members of the Metropolitan Police CO19 gun squad ñ an armed group responsible for many deaths across the capital in the last few years.
As with the killing of Charles de Menezes, the police/press rumour mill immediately declared Duggan had been killed in a shoot out with police. Only later did it emerge that that Duggan had a replica gun and a policemanís radio had in fact been hit by another copperís bullet. The killing sparked political protests in Tottenham on Saturday by family and supporters, then after dark the police were attacked by rioters.

By Sunday 7 August rioting and looting of shops had extended to Brixton and Enfield. By Monday night rioting had spread right across London ñ to Croydon, Peckham, Hackney, Woolwich, Ealing, Clapham Junction ñ and then to Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and Nottingham. The areas of rioting all have large black communities and reflected an outburst of rage at the police combined with opportunist and sometimes planned looting ñ ìan aggressive form of late night shoppingî as one commentator put it.

Blame criminality

Police and politicians, from Home Secretary Teresa May through to Labour MPs David Lammy and Chukka Umunna, have lined up to denounce the riots and looting as pure criminality. Yet there is an obvious social link between the riots and poverty and unemployment. Lammy’s constituency in Tottenham contains some of the poorest areas in London, there is large scale unemployment, with over 10,000 jobseekers in Tottenham itself, with 54 people chasing every vacancy.

The recession since 2008 has exacerbated the growing problem of youth unemployment right across London and the UK. Even under Labour in the boom times hundreds of thousands of young people remained ìNot in employment, education or trainingî(NEET). They have now been added to by many thousands more as austerity and the cuts bite. In Haringey, the local council area that includes Tottenham, eight out of the 13 local youth clubs have been closed because of the cuts, as has the Connexions service that attempted to find young people jobs. Add to this widespread discrimination against ethnic minorities and youth in the job market and you have an explosive mix.

As in the early 1980s, when the Margaret Thatcherís Tories were in power promoting austerity and recession, so in 2011 growing social deprivation, poverty and lack of jobs is producing large numbers of deeply alienated young people who see no opportunities or hope of future employment. Not surprisingly some, faced with a life of poverty, turn to gangs and criminality to make ends meet. In the eyes of the police, riddled with racism still, all black youth are potential criminals, to be harassed and searched at the drop of a hat, a fact that explains the growing hatred for ìthe fedsî.

Police-community relations guff

In the midst of the media onslaught against looters and pure criminals a couple of voices have stood out. Ken Livingstone and Darcus Howe have dared in the TV studios to make the link between poverty and social deprivation and the rioting. Darcus Howe has pointed out how his 15 year old grandson has been stopped and searched “too may times to count” and referred to the riots as an insurrection of the poor, as in the 1980s. Livingstone, with his eye on the GLA elections, has preferred to bemoan the public service cuts and call for the planned 20% cut in the Met police funds to be immediately reversed. If it had not been for hisì7000 extra police in London where would be now he asks probably in a much better situation, we should reply.

Indeed the scale of the riots in London have exposed just how hollow all the talk of improved police-community relations has been over the last two decades. A vast panoply of police-community liaison committee’s, of local outreach, of local policing and community support officers have all proved completely useless and out of touch with the real feelings of young people. Indeed as long as the police go round shooting people with impunity, as they did with Charles de Menezes and now Mark Duggan, and using anti-terrorism powers to harass the black and Asian communities through stop and search, this reform strategy pursued by Livingstone and New Labour was never going to have much effect, apart from buying off a few ‘community leaders’.

Burning and looting

Understanding the causes of looting, let alone dangerous acts of arson, is not the same as supporting it. While no socialist sheds many tears over the looting of JD Sports, Footlocker, T-Mobile and other profit hungry chains, let alone the pawnbrokers and pay-day lenders shops who leech off desperate working class families in debt, there is nothing progressive in looting and smashing shops.

The anarchists and misguided community activists might think this has something to do with insurrection but it is in fact a reflection of the depoliticisation of the black and youth communities and in the end plays into the hands of the police and government.

Some of the looting was no doubt spontaneous but much of it, for example in London on Tuesday, was planned by local gangs using the Blackberry messenger service. There were rioters who expressed their fury against the police, and there were looters who just took advantage of the mayhem to rob and burn. Of course there was often an over-lap between the two groups but we should make a distinction between the two activities ñ one is political one is not.

Many damaged and looted shops and restaurants belonged to sole traders or families, many of the bigger businesses destroyed employed local people. All these groups will be driven to condemn the violence and could end up supporting the tougher measures demanded by government and police. In Hackney it appears the Turkish and Kurdish communities, well organised politically, combined to drive off the looters in organised self-defence. This was certainly more effective than the police intervention and shows what a community can do when organised.

The police on the other hand, as they did in the 1980s riots, were content to let the looters steal and burn the local shops. They plead lack of numbers, meaning we want more policeî, or lack of resources, ie we want more armoured vehicles and water cannon. The chorus about sheer criminality is now turning to how to better arm the police, with a swathe of Tory politicians on TV bemoaning the fact that the Met hasn’t the same equipment, rubber bullets and water cannon, they use in Northern Ireland. Further to the right UKIP and some tabloids are calling for the army to be deployed ñ no doubt building on their success of bringing peace to the streets of Afghanistan! All agree the police are hamstrung by regulation and political correctness, they must be let off the leash along with their police dogs.

Riots: here today gone tomorrow

We are about to see another period of repression directed at the black and youth communities, just as we saw after the student demonstrations. Parents are being asked to turn in their children (who will be locked up for a year or more if they do), communities called on to shop their neighbours and police raids are already ongoing. The purpose will be to deliver a lesson to the black and youth communities: if you fight back we will beat you up and lock you up.

Socialists must stand by all those being repressed and framed for rioting. The responsibility for the events of the last few days, the rioting and looting, rest squarely on the shoulders of the police and the government. They are defending the system of declining capitalism that is driving down living standards, producing mass unemployment and poverty. It is this that has to be overthrown and ended. We will do this only by organised struggle, mobilising the entire working class against the system, not by looting and arson.

Stuart King
Tue 09, August 2011 @ 13:32

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