Reflection on the London Riots

The Youth of the Middle East rise up for basic freedoms. The Youth of London rise up for a HD ready 42″ Plasma TV #londonriots

Top Tweet, Day six. Despite the onslaught of corporate, independent and citizen media analyses saturating the web, I find myself continually haunted by these 126 characters. Retweeted, facebook posted, blogged, shared on forums, embedded in articles’ comment sections, it is as if they are following me around the internet. And I want to know why.

By now the notion that rioters are ‘mindless thugs’ has been heavily circulated both by the police press bureau and Government leaders from MP David Cameron to Home Secretary Theresa May. It continues to dominate news coverage and populates twitter feeds and facebook walls, often spruced up with racial and xenophobic slurs.

Yet beyond this government punditry and police PR, a range of discussions are taking place on whether looting is a political act, and if so, What kind of political act is it? A few days ago I was part of an interesting facebook debate linking a Situationist text on the 1965 Watts Riots in the US to the London riots. The Situationist’s argued that “Looting is a natural response to the unnatural and inhuman society of commodity abundance.” Another account posted on indymedia by a Brixton resident gives an on-the-ground glimpse into looting, arguing that in the current failing economy, it can be seen as a rational decision. Hannah Nicklin offers a different take, writing a passionate piece about how the contemporary state of branded identities and exorbitantly priced luxury goods creates a climate of disempowerment.  A strong criticism of the UK’s ‘other looters’: MPs, Bankers, billionaire tax dodgers and David Cameron’s parents is also beginning to emerge. In each of these arguments “rising up for Plasma TVs” is given a broader political context—and as Nina Power, Lee Jasper and Darcus Howe persuasively argue—context cannot be ignored.

Another thing conspicuously absent in the claim that London youth have risen up for TVs is any reference to the police violence and harassment that instigated Tottenham youths’ clashes with police. As the HD ready plasma screens of living rooms and local pubs filled with images of smoke, flames and smashed shop fronts, rare was any commentary on the shooting of Mike Duggan, the police abuse of a 16year old girl at his memorial march, or the police harassment that set off tensions in Hackney—a borough with one of the highest rates of stop and search that discriminates against the black community.

Of course not everyone taking part in the rioting was doing so as a direct result of these incidences. However, we aren’t talking about freak happenings or one-off occurrences, but a pattern of systemic violence and harassment by police. There have been at least 400 Black and Minority Ethnic deaths in police custody in the UK since 1990. The death of Smiley Culture earlier this year saw protests of hundreds of people in Brixton in April, but received little media attention and no response from the police. And there has so far been no Justice4Jean, the man shot 7 times in the head by police in a tube station in 2005.

There has also been a surprising silence on the riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldhamin 2001, sparked by tensions with white fascists and the police. Corporate media and government also blamed those events on minority youth, many of whom were identified via local papers publishing photographers. In the end 200 jail sentences were given out totaling 604 years in prison—including a five year sentence for “throwing objects.” Research into what caused the Oldham riots found that “a context of discrimination and deprivation” including unemployment, low pay, lack of training and discrimination in services were contributing factors, along with police discrimination and an escalation of tensions with the rise of right-wing groups.

Historical links have on some occasions been drawn to the riots in Broadwater Farm (estate in Tottenham) in 1985, Toxeth in 1981, and Brixton in 1981 and 1985. Just a few months ago in an April 2, 2011 Guardian article reflecting on current conditions in Brixton 30 years after the riots, long-term resident Alex Wheatle is quoted stating: “You’re going into dangerous territory, eroding services for young people … I can imagine a repeat of 1981. I can feel the anger. I can feel the resentment towards authority. You’re getting a lot of young people with degrees and big debts, but not jobs. What was really striking in 1981 was the lack of hope. When you have no hope you’re going to confront the police, you’ve got nothing to lose.”

Beyond the national context of the UK, a number of links can be made with recent international struggles. 2005 saw riots in France following the deaths of two boys by electrocution while they were fleeing from police. This event triggered three weeks of rioting. The broader context: police harassment, ghetto-ization, unemployment, lack of services, constant immigration and drug raids and President Sarkozy’s threat of mass deportations. These riots were followed by another mass uprising of youth who occupied buildings and took over city streets in protest of the CPE youth employment contract (later repealed). In 2007 another pair of teenage deaths from the collision of a motorcycle with a police car set off two nights of rioting. In a move akin to Cameron’s, Sarkozy blamed a “thugocracy” of criminals and not “social deprivation” for these riots.

A year later in Greece, riots were sparked after the police murder of a 16 year old boy. The broader context: financial collapse at the hands of the elite, huge cuts to services, government corruption and police abuse. Protests in Egypt also began in direct confrontation to repressive state policing. A ‘Day of Rage’ was called on January 25, 2011 against a national holiday that celebrated police forces. The context in Egypt: poverty, unemployment, government corruption and the rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

Of course these are very different countries with distinct social and historical contexts. But drawing them into connection with the UK riots is not the same as saying their situations are identical. Rather, the idea is to point out patterns—patterns of state corruption, state repression and the uprisings that they ignite. In the face of governments, media pundits and police forces that want every riot, every march, every direct action, and every act of civil disobedience to remain unconnected to both each other and to broader political struggles, it is clear who benefits when we do not make the links. This is why it is so important to map the context, making apparent the continued oppressions of capitalism and imperialism as they propagate racialised violence and class inequalities—be it in our neighbourhoods or in countries across the world.

So let’s be clear:

The Youth of the Middle East rise up for basic freedoms. The Youth of London rise up for basic freedoms. #londonriots



Anna Feigenbaum

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