My local high street is on fire and a workmate in Hackney tells me she’s spending her evenings cowering in her flat as rioters vie with Turkish shopkeepers with baseball bats for control of the streets. In parts of London the police seem to have lost control.
It seems pretty clear that there are strong opportunistic elements involved in the looting – it’s certainly no heroic insurrection of the working class – but there’s a reason these events are taking place at this point at this time, and in places like Brixton and Bradford rather than Kensington and Chipping Norton.
At the most basic level the spark was the police shooting (which is increasingly looking like an extra-judicial murder) of Mark Duggan, a young black man from Tottenham. The police originally accused him of firing at them first, but it’s transpired that the bullet they produced as evidence was police issue and eyewitness accounts suggest Duggan was already on the ground when it was fired. Off the back of the suspicious recent death of reggae artist Smiley Culture while in in police custody, the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, controversy over ‘stop and search’ of black youth and revelations of police corruption at the Met it’s little surprise the community was angry and that riots broke out.
But the authorities’ (and in this I include the media) description of the following riots as ‘copycat behaviour’ or ‘organised crime’ is as worthy of derision in Britain as it is when used by Syria and Iran. I even heard one pundit last night saying there was ‘no connection whatsoever’ between the riots in Tottenham and those that have followed.
But I think the reaction in Tottenham has tapped into a wider anger and hopelessness in London (and now Britain) among young males who see no future ahead of them and no stake in British society.
Unemployment is stubbornly high. Wages are stagnant. Inflation is rising. Social housing is decrepit. Social services are being slashed, including youth employment programmes and the education maintenance allowance, which allows kids from poor families to stay in school. And anyone dreaming of getting out of poverty through higher eduction is now faced with fees of up to £9000 a year. And then they face daily indignities at the hands of the police, punctuated by occasional outrages like the killing of Mark Duggan.
Rioting clearly isn’t the answer, but why are the authorities so surprised when kids in this position decide playing by the rules and taking the respectable route doesn’t offer them a future?
The riots aren’t at this stage a protest against neoliberalism, but they are most certainly a product of neoliberalism.
It’s unclear what the outcome will be, both immediately with the riots and longer term politically. It’s possible that Cameron will deploy sufficient state force to end this quickly and that he will emerge stronger, but it’s also possible that longer term it will damage people’s faith in the government’s ability to maintain order and social cohesion (as the Callaghan government found after the Winter of Discontent) and there’s a chance it could give rise to a right-wing backlash. There are reports emerging tonight of racist thugs going after “blacks” and “pakis” in Enfield..
There’s possibly something deeper happening here too. Every institution of the ruling class in Britain has been discredited in recent years – the banks with the financial crisis, politicians with the expenses scandal, and now the cozy, corrupt relationship between the press, the politicians and the police has been exposed by the hacking scandal. I get the feeling that we could be in the early days of something big.