Some truths about last August’s uprisings
When young working-class people rose up in anger last August, the representatives and spokespersons of the ruling class did their best to misrepresent the whole affair. It was, they claimed, the activity of criminal gangs, which took advantage of a ‘misunderstanding’ over police action in Tottenham, north London to launch a criminal looting spree in various parts of London and other towns and cities.
The conclusion drawn by the mouthpieces of imperialism was that the only suitable response was to crack down hard. We have subsequently witnessed draconian custodial sentences being meted out. And most of those sentenced seem to have little to do with gangs. There has, of course, been a notable lack of action against police officers who dragged a young black man from a taxi in Tottenham and shot him point blank in the head, or against those who give the orders.
Those who speak for our monopoly capitalist ruling class knew full well the inaccuracy (to put it kindly) of their pronouncements. To call it spin is an understatement. They were using the tactic of Goebbels – to deliberately and cold-bloodedly tell and repeat lies, lies, and more lies to try to make them stick.
This version of events was refuted at the time by the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) in leaflets, and a special supplement was added in early August to the August/September issue of its journal, Proletarian. The opening article of the supplement began:
“The riots that broke out in Tottenham, north London, on the night of Saturday 6 August, and again over subsequent nights, spreading first to communities across London and then to cities around the country, represent the spontaneous anger of broad sections of working people, particularly the poorest and most oppressed, at police violence, racism and the increasingly intolerable burden of the capitalist crisis that they are being forced to carry, not only through cuts but also through high unemployment and dead-end jobs.”
It went on:
“Young working-class people in particular have shown that they are not prepared to lie down indefinitely while they are kicked like a dog by the lickspittles of the British ruling class.”
The article added that it was the shooting of Mark Duggan by the police in the early hours of 4 August, surrounded as it was by the usual police lies and attempts to cover-up and spread confusion about what really happened, that was the immediate catalyst for the uprising. Empathy with the murdered man was deeper than sympathy, it evoked all the stops and searches, all the harassment, all the insults and put-downs, all the physical battering and beating that are the regular experience of so many working-class young people, proportionally more of whom are black but also many of whom are white. This, linked up with chronic and ever harsher economic deprivation, generated an anger that erupted onto the streets.
The Guardian and LSE report initial findings of joint research
During the week beginning 4 December the Guardian carried a series of page spreads, under the strap-line Reading the Riots, giving some of the early results of research carried out in collaboration by the Guardian newspaper and the London School of Economics,
The study “interviewed 270 people who rioted in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham, Manchester and Salford”, collecting “1.3m words of first person accounts from rioters”. There was a separate but connected analysis at Manchester University of “2.5m riot-related tweets.”
The study repudiates the ranting of the mouthpieces of imperialism and corroborates the above quotations from Proletarian.
The first Guardian article on 5 December began:
“Widespread anger and frustration at the way police engage with communities was a significant factor behind the summer riots in every major city where disorder took place.” The article goes on: “Rioters revealed that a complex mix of grievances brought them to the streets, but analysts appointed by the LSE identified distrust and antipathy towards the police as a key driving force.” (Blame the police: Why the rioters say they took part – Guardian, front page, 5 December 2011. All the quotations below come from the Guardian of that week, unless otherwise stated.)
It further reported that 85% of those interviewed said policing was an important or very important factor in causing the riots. 73% had been stopped and searched in the last 12 months.
David Cameron had been quick to dismiss the idea that poverty was a factor in the disorder. “These riots were not about poverty” he said, “That insults the millions of people who, whatever the hardship, would never dream of making others suffer like this.”
This was blatantly wrong. The independent panel Cameron himself set up has now concluded that poverty was an important factor – more than half of those who had appeared in court had come from the most deprived 20% of areas in Britain.
86% of those interviewed by the Guardian/LSE study said poverty was an important or very important factor in causing the riots (and 68% of the population at large gave a similar response), 59% were from the most deprived 20% of areas of England, and 59% of those not in education were unemployed.
Cameron cares not a jot about millions of people suffering hardship. He is concerned about the large businesses; he is concerned about the interests of the ruling class. Those who went on the streets in August did not set out to make other ordinary people suffer. Whenever the working class fights back some of its numbers get hurt. But the Guardian reports recurring statements of morality from those interviewed. It refers to many instances of people saying that looting was restricted to large enterprises. One said that JD Sports sold Nike which “blatantly commits world crimes in factories and sweatshops, so they’re getting their comeuppance now.” Another told how local participants in the uprising directed looting away from their small local shops.
The Guardian reports one young man in Tottenham as saying: “I still to this day don’t class it as a riot, I think it was a protest”. And the Guardian adds: “He was not alone. A constant theme emerging from interviews with the rioters across England was that they harboured a range of grievances and it was anger and frustration that was being expressed on the streets in early August…..They expressed it in different ways, but at heart what the rioters talked about was a pervasive sense of injustice. For some this was economic: the lack of money, jobs or opportunity. For others it was more broadly social, not just the absence of material things, but how they felt they were treated compared with others.”
The Guardian stated: “Despite David Cameron saying gangs were “at the heart” of the disturbances, evidence shows they temporarily suspended hostilities. The effective four-day truce – which many said was unprecedented – applied to towns and cities across England. On the whole, the research found that gang members played only a marginal part in the riots.”
On the other hand, the Guardian reported: “Again and again, rioters from different parts of the country described the police as a gang.” For example, a 21 year old student in central London said “Police are a gang…they can pull out shanks [knives] or guns and start shooting…They shot Mark Duggan; they’re the gang. Look what they done and they think it’s OK. That’s what a gang is.”
Experiences of police brutality
This chimed in with the experiences of many participants. A 17 year -old Muslim man recounted how at 13 he had been arrested and a policeman had joked about asking him where Saddam (Hussein) was. He said “I hate the police on the street, I hate them from the bottom of my heart.”
A 34 year-old from north London described being thrown into a police van at the age of twelve “handcuffed, beaten, kicked, spat on and called ‘nigger’ and ‘black bastard’” He said that he had never got over his anger with the police and spoke further of three occasions when charges were fabricated against him, one involving a knife. He said, “These are the types of things that if you ask some people on the other side of the fence or from a posher community or people that have never been in trouble, if you said to them: ‘Oh, I got stitched up by the police with a knife,’ they are saying: ‘No, police don’t do things like that.’ Well, believe me, that is what happened.”
But there was general agreement among the interviewees that they had not taken part in race riots. Indeed there was a unity among all those taking part, a recognition of a common enemy.
One 33 year-old man from Liverpool, who described how he had taken part in smashing up a police station said: “I’ve got friends that have been abused in police custody before….I can’t relate being a black killed, because I’m a white man still alive, but I could relate to injustice within the police force”. In fact this man is saying that his experience does mean that he related to the killing of Mark Duggan, that all the divisive propaganda which prompts him to state that he cannot relate was in fact not successful in preventing his sense of empathy and unity.
Young people recognised their power
One 20 year-old in London is quoted as saying: “We had [the police] under control. We had them on lock. On smash. Running away from us. We weren’t running away from the police. They was the criminals today. We was enforcing the law. Getting them out of our town because they ain’t doing nothing good for no one.” It is remarkable that this statement carries the aspiration that the proletariat is the ruling class in waiting! It is an aspiration that needs to spread throughout the working class.
This was further exemplified by a college student aged 20 who wants to be a primary school teacher. She walked with friends in Peckham on the Monday 8 August with her face covered. It was quiet and they found a police car, smashed the windows and stole the radio and set the car on fire. She said: “It felt good, that police car, it felt really good. Especially when my friend took the radio and started saying all this hullabaloo over the radio and confusing them and all that. It was fair for us to do that.”
She went on to explain this fairness, saying that the police had recently broken her little brother’s nose, adding “My little brother, he’s always in trouble with the police. They have no respect, especially for my mum who’s just a little old woman. She’s always polite and stuff as well and they’re always rude to my mum – had no respect for any of us. You get to the police station and they think they can sit there and take the piss out of you so, obviously, in my eyes, I don’t see them as good people.”
A 19 year old student from Hackney said, “I think the looting came about because it was linked to police. We’re showing them that yeah, we’re bigger than the police, we are actually bigger than the police. Fair enough we are breaking the law and everything, but there’s more of us than there are of you. So if we want to do this we can do this. And you won’t do anything to stop us.”
Economics and politics
There was further emphasis of the influence of economic conditions. A 16 year-old schoolboy in Hackney said “Police don’t think we are rioting for a reason. They believe we are rioting because Mark Dugan died and we have no other reason. Like we’re rioting cos they’re not giving us nothing to do, they’re taking away EMA [educational maintenance allowance], taking away free travel, taking away certain allowances that teenagers have and they’re not replacing it with anything good.”
It was also clear that the uprising sidelined bourgeois party politics. Noting that “Politicians in general came in for much criticism”, the Guardian quoted a 23 year-old from Liverpool who said: “It doesn’t really matter if it is Labour or Conservative because the people behind the scenes are always the same.” His perception should be an example to those who call themselves communist, yet have not grasped this elementary fact.
The Guardian gave a quotation from the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) in response to the report on its study. The quotations above, however ungrammatical, are to the point, concise and crystal clear compared with the following ACPO statement:
“Of course the way in which events took place and were seen by others through the media had an impact on confidence in the police, and it is important that lessons are learned from all the different processes and reports investigating what happened. In a survey of 270 rioters, it would be quite odd if a high proportion did not cite the police as a factor in their behaviour. But August showed the ability of our police to restore order using robust, common sense policing in the British way.”
This is full of mainly meaningless clichés. Presumably it is the “robust, common sense policing in the British way” which, having lost control on the streets, being outnumbered and out manoeuvred, then proceeded to arrested so many people in an arbitrary way in preparation for draconian sentencing by the courts. Indeed it was this “robust, common sense policing in the British way” which generated the resentment and anger that brought the young people onto the streets in the first place. It has indeed been getting tougher and tougher (more robust?) as conditions of working-class people have got worse and worse. It targets the poorest to keep them from protesting against the intolerable economic burdens heaped on them, and at the same time does so in a racist way in an attempt to divide resistance. It is notable that those on the streets reported that they were not race riots. The uprising was against the police and racist policing, and the unbearable economic conditions. This generated a unity which overcame divisions.
It must be mentioned that “robust common sense policing in a British way” has a notorious tradition of draconian brutality practised in this country in past years, even more draconian and savage when practised abroad. Now it is reported by Tom Whitehead, Home Affairs Editor of the Telegraph, on its website on 20 December, that Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary has said that plastic bullets and water cannon could be used by officers in future disturbances under proposed new “rules of engagement” for the police. It also stated that the use of firearms would be justified if the risk to public safety was sufficient.
But the irony is that the more draconian the police and other arms of the state become in order to oppress those bearing the ever harsher economic burden, the more does it breed resistance.
More Government platitudes
The Guardian of 10 December reports on an interview that day with Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, “surveying Britain after the summer riots.” It reports him as saying that a “get rich quick” celebrity culture exemplified by The X Factor and the dysfunctional lives of footballers has created a society “out of balance”.
It says he warned that there was “every chance” riots would recur unless structural reforms were made to repair “communities in which so many families are broken.” He also said “Luck is great, but most of life is hard work.”
For the majority of those interviewed by the Guardian, and many, many more, the opportunity for hard work just is not there. There are no jobs because capitalism in crisis cannot provide them. Where is Duncan Smith going to find the “structural reforms” when the government of which he is part is hell bent on destroying the health service, education, social services and benefits, not to mention pensions, in an attempt to shove the burden of the crisis onto the working class? It will only add to the anger that brought people onto the streets, and indeed will add to their number.
It is not broken families but a broken system that is the cause of the ills against which the young rose up. It was indeed a rage against capitalism – capitalism in its decadent, moribund, decaying phase – imperialism. The “celebrity culture” is a symptom, not the cause of a society “out of balance”. What is out of balance is that what is produced by capitalism is out of reach of the masses of the people who need it. Cameron bangs on about the “broken society”; it is imperialism itself which is broken, which cannot deliver a decent life to the working class, bringing deeper and deeper crises and more and more wars.
The cure is to get rid of imperialism
The Guardian/LSE research, no doubt intended to enlighten those who want to perpetuate the present system, has given some valuable voice to the participants themselves. They show anger, determination, ingenuity, the ability to work in organised unity, and some remarkable understanding. This last has to be built upon. What is needed is that this determination and ability to organise and build unity in action is given a direction that will precisely target imperialism. That direction can only come from a Marxist-Leninist understanding that has to be linked up with the struggle of the working class for freedom from exploitation and oppression.