'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

London: Dubstep Rebellion (Part 3) 

UPDATE 2: A glimpse of the variegated participants in the riots:

And as multi-ethnic areas from London to Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol burned, a myth was being dispelled: that so-called black youths are largely behind such violence.

In Tottenham on Saturday many of those who gathered at the police station to protest against the shooting of Mark Duggan were, like him, black. But others were Asian and white.

By the following day, as the looting spread to other north London suburbs, there appeared to have been a slight shift in the demographic, which started to look younger. In Enfield most of those who gathered in the town centre were white. The youngest looked about 10-years-old.

Those taking part in the battles in Hackney's Pembury estate on Monday included many women. Teenage girls helped carry debris to form the burning barricades or made piles of rocks.

One, with a yellow scarf across her face, was seemingly at the forefront. She helped set a motorbike alight, walking away with her hands aloft. Other women shouted instructions from the windows of nearby flats and houses.

Croydon is burning down, shouted one woman who looked about 40, from her flat above a shop. Another warned the crowd when police were spotted nearby.

UPDATE 1: An anarchist group, the North London Solidarity Federation, has issued a statement about the riots:

Over the last few days, riots have caused significant damage to parts of London, to shop-fronts, homes and cars. On the left, we hear the ever-present cry that poverty has caused this. On the right, that gangsters and anti-social elements are taking advantage of tragedy. Both are true. The looting and riots seen over the past number of days are a complex phenomenon and contain many currents.

It is no accident that the riots are happening now, as the support nets for Britain's disenfranchised are dragged away and people are left to fall into the abyss, beaten as they fall by the batons of the Metropolitan Police. But there should be no excuses for the burning of homes, the terrorising of working people. Whoever did such things has no cause for support.

The fury of the estates is what it is, ugly and uncontrolled. But not unpredictable. Britain has hidden away its social problems for decades, corralled them with a brutal picket of armed men. Growing up in the estates often means never leaving them, unless it's in the back of a police van. In the 1980s, these same problems led to Toxteth. In the '90s, contributed to the Poll Tax riots. And now we have them again - because the problems are not only still there, they're getting worse.

Police harassment and brutality are part of everyday life in estates all around the UK. Barely-liveable benefits systems have decayed and been withdrawn. In Hackney, the street-level support workers who came from the estates and knew the kids, could work with them in their troubles have been told they will no longer be paid. Rent is rising and state-sponsored jobs which used to bring money into the area are being cut back in the name of a shift to unpaid big society roles. People who always had very little now have nothing. Nothing to lose.

And the media's own role in all of should not be discounted. For all the talk of the peaceful protest that preceded events in Tottenham, the media wouldn't have touched the story if all that happened was a vigil outside a police station. Police violence and protests against it happen all the time. It's only when the other side responds with violence (on legitimate targets or not) that the media feels the need to give it any sort of coverage.

So there should be no shock that people living lives of poverty and violence have at last gone to war. It should be no shock that people are looting plasma screen TVs that will pay for a couple of months' rent and leaving books they can't sell on the shelves. For many, this is the only form of economic redistribution they will see in the coming years as they continue a fruitless search for jobs.

Much has been made of the fact that the rioters were attacking their own communities. But riots don't occur within a social vacuum. Riots in the eighties tended to be directed in a more targeted way; avoiding innocents and focusing on targets more representative of class and race oppression: police, police stations, and shops. What's happened since the eighties? Consecutive governments have gone to great lengths to destroy any sort of notion of working class solidarity and identity. Is it any surprise, then, that these rioters turn on other members of our class?

The Solidarity Federation is based in resistance through workplace struggle. We are not involved in the looting and unlike the knee-jerk right or even the sympathetic-but-condemnatory commentators from the left, we will not condemn or condone those we don't know for taking back some of the wealth they have been denied all their lives.

But as revolutionaries, we cannot condone attacks on working people, on the innocent. Burning out shops with homes above them, people's transport to work, muggings and the like are an attack on our own and should be resisted as strongly as any other measure from government austerity politics, to price-gouging landlords, to bosses intent on stealing our labour. Tonight and for as long as it takes, people should band together to defend themselves when such violence threatens homes and communities.

We believe that the legitimate anger of the rioters can be far more powerful if it is directed in a collective, democratic way and seeks not to victimise other workers, but to create a world free of the exploitation and inequality inherent to capitalism.

INITIAL POST: The Independent Police Complaints Commission determines that Mark Duggan, the man whose death at the hands of the police ignited the London riots, did not fire upon the officers:

Mark Duggan, whose shooting by police sparked London's riots, did not fire a shot at police officers before they killed him, the Independent Police Complaints Commission said on Tuesday.

Releasing the initial findings of ballistics tests, the police watchdog said a CO19 firearms officer fired two bullets, and that a bullet that lodged in a police radio was consistent with being fired from a police gun.

One theory, not confirmed by the IPCC, is that the bullet became lodged in the radio from a ricochet or after passing through Duggan.

Duggan, 29, was killed last Thursday in Tottenham, north London, after armed officers stopped the minicab in which he was travelling.

The IPCC said Duggan was carrying a loaded gun, but it had no evidence that the weapon had been fired. It said tests were continuing.

The officer who fired the fatal shots has been removed from firearms duties, which is standard procedure, pending the IPCC investigation.

Officers from the Met's Operation Trident and Special Crime Directorate 11, accompanied by officers from CO19, the Met's specialist firearms command, stopped the silver Toyota Estima minicab in Ferry Lane, close to Tottenham Hale tube station, to arrest Duggan.

He was killed by a single gunshot wound to the chest, and received a second gunshot wound to his right bicep. He was pronounced dead at the scene at 6.41pm.

Would this information have been released in the absence of the riots? One wonders. I do know that out here in California, in Oakland in January of 2009, the Alameda County District Attorney's Office displayed no interest in prosecuting BART police officer Johannes Mehserle for the killing of Oscar Grant, until after the riots in downtown Oakland.

Laurie Penny also has an interesting insight about this:

The people who do will be waking up this week in the sure and certain knowledge that after decades of being ignored and marginalised and harassed by the police, after months of seeing any conceivable hope of a better future confiscated, they are finally on the news. In one NBC report, a young man in Tottenham was asked if rioting really achieved anything:

Yes, said the young man. You wouldn't be talking to me now if we didn't riot, would you?

Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.

Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere.

There are communities all over the country that nobody paid attention to unless there had recently been a riot or a murdered child. Well, they’re paying attention now.

Penny touches upon an important subject here, the inability to bring about any progressive or radical change through socially acceptable political activity. Elections? Please. Protest marches? Largely ignored as in the instance described by the man in Tottenham. Civil disobedience and direct action? They have either been reduced to a form of street theatre, or, alternatively, when effective methods have been used, they have thereafter been criminalized and broken up by the police through preemptive surveillance, raids, and, once initiated, mass arrests.

Penny hints at the real question, which will go unanswered by the media: what is the alternative to riotous violence for the young people of the lower middle classes and the lower classes of Britain? And, the answer is, of course, none. Antonovich succinctly addresses the subject in a comment over at Lenin's Tomb:

One can tut tut about the efficacy of the riot, but really its one of the few forms of fighting back left to people in the face of one of the most serious ruling class assaults in decades and in the absence of any meaningful union action, reformist party or effective revolutionary party.

In the short term, the riots are likely to reinforce the power of capital, and this is probably one of the reasons for the ambivalence on the left towards them (see, for example, the comments on both Penny's and lenin's blog). The government is likely to increase spending on the police, while further empowering officers in regard to their ability to arbitrarily detain, arrest and even inflict violence upon people. It may even distribute some crumbs in the form of social assistance, which can be conveniently rationalized as an anti-recesssionary measure. But not so much as to repudiate the neoliberal trend of leaving the people of these communities at the mercy of the market and intensified surveillance.

Meanwhile, the long term is less clear. My educated guess is that anarchists see hope in the explosion of spontaneous anger over the killing of Duggan and the treatment of people in lower income communities, as it presents the possibility of the emergence of a collective resistance to the police, and, ultimately, capitalism. Even some Leninists appear to believe that some resistance, however turbulent, is better than none, although they seem to find the lack of any political connection to the participants in the riots, as noted by Antonovich, unnerving. In London and elsewhere, the riots have exposed the class separation, and the lack of understanding that goes along with it, between the residents of the affected neighborhoods and their allies on the left, a separation given a powerful emotional expression by Penny.

Accordingly, while the organizational efforts of the rioters have been impressive, outflanking the police in many instances, the ideological orientation is less so. As mentioned here yesterday, the looting of stores for goods in order to sell them is not a leftist act, rather, it is a type of conversion of goods for profit that has long been associated with capitalism. Similarly, the destruction of buildings used by corporate retailers and local merchants can facilitate the implementation of pre-existing gentrification schemes. Don't be surprised if Cameron, Clegg, and Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, announce a fund for rebuilding neighborhoods damaged by rioters, with the beneficiaries being large development groups. As in the US, residents of these neighborhoods will be dispersed, so as to reduce their ability to collectively organize themselves in the future. Riots can easily be incorporated into the narrative of disaster capitalism, and avoiding such outcomes is the challenge facing people in these communities.

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