From Tottenham to Oakland planet of slums, age of riots
On Line: 16 August 2011 16:17
Tottenham, Chile, Tunis…
There are too many to count
Oakland, Brixton, Taybat al-Imam…
We almost can’t keep the names straight.
Clichy-sous-Bois, Caracas, Los Angeles…
The phrase “riot in London” echoed strangely in my ear, prompting only muted interest. I have been present for a few riots in London and in nearby Cambridge, marches against the war and the perennial Mayday battle between anarchists and the Metropolitan Police. From these to the more recent anti-cuts marches which ended in sporadic clashes with police, my interest has gradually waned, and when I most recently heard this phrase “riot in London,” I expected it would be followed by yet another description of a ritualized protest, with some marchers “kettled” and some anarchists fighting police. This is not simply a criticism: I was not excited, but I was certainly not excited either.
Instead, the details began to emerge: the immediate spark was the police murder of a Black man, Mark Duggan, who was shot to death by police, and the beating of a 16-year old woman demanding answers from police about Duggan’s death. The fuel for the fire had been long accumulating, however: institutionalized racism in the form of poverty, police stop-and-search methods, and more recent Conservative Party cutbacks in the name of “austerity,” this year’s chosen catchword if “revolution” doesn’t eclipse it entirely.
The similarities with other serious waves of social rebellion then began to emerge with increasing clarity. This was both about Mark Duggan and it was not (here we can agree with the British Prime Minister David Cameron, albeit toward the opposite end), just as the recent rebellions in Oakland in 2009 were both about more than Oscar Grant, just as 2008 Athens was about more than Alexandros Grigoropoulos, 1992 L.A. was about more than Rodney King, the 1965 Watts Rebellion about more than Marquette Frye, and so on. And like these previous moments, the London rebellions are spreading with a degree of spontaneity and a flexibility of organizational forms that has left police utterly confounded. There have already been more than 1,000 arrests, and as hysterical media outlets up the rhetorical ante with talk of “guerrilla warfare,” the police are gearing up for far more.
When economic violence reaches a certain point, social counter-violence soon follows, and yet it is rarely the bankers or the politicians, the purveyors of global austerity measures, who bear the brunt. It begins with name-calling, and no name has more political and historical resonance than “the mob,” the most traditional of slurs. From Philadelphia to London, we are told, the specter of the mob looms, and to the image of the “baying mob,” that keystone of journalistic integrity The Sun has also added the image of the “trouble-making rabble.”
Irrational, uncontrollable, impermeable to logic and unpredictable in its movements, these undesirables have once again ruined the party for everyone, as they have done from Paris 1789 to Caracas 1989. In Fanon’s inimitable words: “the masses, without waiting for the chairs to be placed around the negotiating table, take matters into their own hands and start burning…”
To use the word “mob” is a fundamentally political gesture. It is an effort by governing elites and conservative forces to delegitimize and denigrate popular resistance, to empty it of all political content by drawing a line of rationality in the sand. To make demands is reasonable, but since “the mob” is the embodiment of unreason, it cannot possibly make demands. Never mind the very clearly political motivations that sparked the rebellions around London, as well as the growing and equally political concerns about economic inequality and racist policing: these have been well documented, no matter how little many Britons want to hear it.
But I want to address directly the idea that the riots are fundamentally irrational, as the smear of “the mob” would symbolically insist. Let’s listen closely, let’s block out the torrent of media denunciation and hear what the rebels are saying themselves:
Argument 1: Nothing Else Has Worked, This Might.
When ITV asked one young rebel what, if anything, rioting would achieve, his response was as matter-of-fact as it was profound:
“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.”
As another put it: “you can’t do nothing that’s normal for it to happen right.” In other words, legitimate discontent has not been heard through official channels, and so those suffering turn to unofficial ones. If someone has an effective counter-argument to this, I’m all ears. This is not to suggest that the rebellions have a singular logic shared by every participant, but that there is logic to be found nonetheless.
This isn’t the only time riots have worked, either: in 2009 Oakland, it was riots and only riots that led to the arrest, prosecution, and conviction of BART police officer Johannes Mehserle for the death of Oscar Grant. And this effectiveness extends to the tactical, while the left marches and is surrounded by police, these street rebels have proven far less susceptible to tactics like “kettling”: as The Guardian put it,
roaming groups of youths cannot be effectively kettled. And unlike activists they will often return to the site of trouble, seeking direct confrontation with police. The looters appear to have been more savvy. Large groups targeting shops have been melting into a nearby estate in seconds at the first sound of sirens arriving.
Argument 2: The Rich Can Do It, Why Can’t We?
Poor people aren’t stupid enough not to have noticed what’s been going on in the world around them. As capitalist crisis has set in a massive redistribution of wealth has taken place, with banks and investors bailed out at the expense of the population, effectively rewarding them for predatory behavior and leveraging national debt into economic growth. The rich line their profits as essential services and benefits are slashed, and faced with such obvious “looting,” we are somehow expected not to notice.
One onlooker to the London riots puts it precisely:
This is about youth not having a future… a lot of these people are unemployed, a lot of these people have their youth center closed down for years, and they’re basically seeing the normal things: the bankers getting away with what they’re getting away with… this is the youth actually saying to themselves, guess what? These people can get away with that, then how come we can’t tell people what we feel?
As one young female looter told The Sun, “We’re getting our taxes back,” and as another told The Guardian, “The politicians say that we loot and rob, they are the original gangsters.”
Argument 3: Locating the Riots.
Essential to the imagery of the irrational mob is the insistence that the bulk of the destruction is centered on working-class communities, and here the logic is fundamentally colonial. The poor and the Blacks can’t be trusted: look what they do to their own. Incapable of governing themselves, they must be taught civilization, by blows if necessary. Here again Oakland resonates, as after the riots there a solitary African braid shop, one of many whose windows were smashed, became the media symbol of the ‘irrationality’ of rioters hell-bent on destruction and nothing more. It is worth noting that the poor rarely “own” anything at all, even in their “own” communities.
To break this narrative, we must read the actions of the rebels as well as listening to their words. While working-class communities have indeed suffered damage (we should note that working-class communities always bear the brunt of upheaval), there has been less talk of more overtly political targeting: police stations burned to the ground, criminal courts windows smashed by those who had passed through them, and the tacitly political nature of youth streaming into neighboring areas to target luxury and chain stores. On just the first night, rioters in Tottenham Hale targeted “Boots, JD Sports, O2, Currys, Argos, Orange, PC World and Comet,” whereas some in nearby Wood Green ransacking the hulking HMV and H&M before bartering leisurely with their newly acquired possessions.
This tendency was seemingly lost on analysts at The Guardian, who were left scratching their heads when the riot locations did not correspond directly to the areas with the highest poverty. And it’s not just the lefty news outlets that let such details slip: Danny Kruger, ex-adviser to David Cameron observed that: “The districts that took the brunt of the rioting on Monday night were not sink estates. Enfield, Ealing, Croydon, Clapham... these places have Tory MPs, for goodness’ sake. A mob attacked the Ledbury, the best restaurant in Notting Hill.”
While refusing to denounce the rebellions, socialist thinker Alex Callinicos nevertheless suggests that such looting is “a form of do-it-yourself consumerism… reflecting the intensive commoditization of desires in the neoliberal era.” This view misses the far more complex role of the commodity during a riot, which was as evident in Oakland as in Venezuela: not only is the looting of luxury consumer items far more complex than Callinicos suggests, but the argument of looting as consumerism would have a hard time explaining both the destruction of luxuries and appropriation of necessities that often ensues
Despite the ideological deployment of the specter of mob hysteria, in the words of one observer, there is “nothing mindless” about the London rebellions.
“An insurrection of the masses”
British media has by now largely closed ranks against the rebellion, providing a seamless tapestry of denunciation that oscillates between the violently reactionary and the comically hysterical. But this was not without first making a serious mistake, an error in judgment that pried open but the tiniest crack into which stepped a man who has since become a focal point for resistance to the media hype. Darcus Howe, nephew of the Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James, seems to have inherited his uncle’s acute capacity for seeing through the racist hype about “mobs” and discerning the political kernel of seemingly apolitical daily acts of resistance, of recognizing the new even amid the crumbling shell of the old.
When asked in a live BBC interview to characterize the recent outbursts, Howe spoke the following words:
I don’t call it rioting, I call it an insurrection of the masses of the people. … It is happening in Clapham, it’s happening in Liverpool, it’s happening in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and that is the nature of the historical moment…
When Howe refused to follow the self-generating script, one so well-known that no orders for its reading usually need be given, the flailing BBC correspondent turned first to bad logic and then to ad hominem attack. If Howe was attempting to explain the context of the rebellions he must also be condoning their effects, and wasn’t he, by the way, himself a rioter as a youth? He wasn’t, as a matter of fact, but he was certainly accused of being one: Howe was tried for affray and riot at the Old Bailey in 1971 only to be acquitted. After Howe’s later release on charges of assaulting a police officer, Linton Kwesi Johnson penned a tribute, “Man Free,” which featured the following words
Him stand up in the court like a mighty lion, him stand up in the court like a man of iron, Darcus out of jail, Shabba!
“The Nature of the Historical Moment”
Darcus Howe is right: there is something peculiar about “the nature of the historical moment.” Maybe it began in 1989 in the South, when Venezuelans rose up against neoliberalism in the Caracazo rebellions only to be crushed in blood and fire with up to 3,000 dead. Who was the subject of that near-insurrection, that world-historical detonator which forever transformed Venezuela and unleashed all that has come since? The poor dwellers of the barrios surrounding Caracas and other Venezuelan cities, the product of decades of systematic underdevelopment and the nascent neoliberalism that had accelerated its effects. These were the residents of the slums of which our planet was soon composed, in Mike Davis’s haunting words, and without access to political power or a workplace to strike in, they had discovered the location of their political action in practice: the streets.
But as jobs have moved South, crisis has come North. Or rather, it has been here all along, in the South of the North and the North of the South, but austerity measures have begun to shift the effects of the contemporary crisis to reach a far broader demographic. In this context, critiquing the effects of riots in our historical moment is about as effective as bemoaning the existence of gravity. Those taking to the streets of London and elsewhere are the social product of capitalist restructuring in the long term and austerity measures in the short term. But a historical subject does not gain its status merely from being a product: first it must act.
Darcus Howe’s uncle, the late C.L.R. James, was straightforward in insisting that it is in such action that the new world emerges from the shell of the old, and here I only hope to note some hopeful indications of this. First and foremost is the unprecedented spirit of unity that has emerged in the streets of London and elsewhere. As The Guardian reports:
…the rioting has been unifying a cross-section of deprived young men who identify with each other… Kast gave the example of how territorial markers which would usually delineate young people's residential areas – known as ‘endz,’ ‘bits’ and ‘gates’ – appear to have melted away. “On a normal day it wouldn’t be allowed – going in to someone else’s area… Now they can go wherever they want. They’re recognizing themselves from the people they see on the TV [rioting]. This is bringing them together.”
This sense of unity is not merely among different sets from different areas, but also extends to the unprecedented multi-ethnic demographic that has participated: poor whites, Black British, African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants, South Asians, Muslims, and Jews have all played a role. While some in the Jewish community have complained of being singled out for the participation of Hasidic Jews in the first night’s rioting in Tottenham, this should instead be read against assumptions that the crowd was only Black or only Muslim. All ages have participated as well, with entire families spotted either looting or warning looters of approaching police. The youth, and especially young men, have nevertheless constituted the functional spearhead of the rebellions, with one observer insisting that “this is a movement of the youth, of the young people saying, guess what mister, I’ve got no voice, no future, no leadership.”
But if C.L.R. James saw the potential for unity amid such rebellions, cracks in the shell of the old often produce dangerous shards, and so he was also keenly aware of the equal potential for the opposite: racist backlash among even poor whites. Thus while the more the more liberal wing of white supremacy has appeared in the form of “broom armies” cleaning up the aftermath of the rebellions (wearing t-shirts emblazoned with such heartwarming slogans as “rioters are scum”), “mobs” of white racists like the “Enfield Army” have also emerged, offering their services to the police against the rioters (this alongside the more organized white supremacy of the English Defense League).
“The left must respond”
In a short web comment, Daniel Harvey expressed the sentiment of many on the radical left seeking to walk the fine line between uncritically embracing the English rebellions and falling into the right-wing media strategy of denunciation:
We have to remain loyal to this crisis. We have to support the eruption of the unheard and the unspoken in our obscene society… the problem is not the excesses of this or that action, it is that the rioters are simply not radical enough. We have to radicalize them further… We have to support the anger, but make the anger political, and thereby turn it into something genuinely powerful and dangerous -- revolutionary moment rather than a riot.
This is certainly true in one sense, but it runs the risk of neglecting the fact that “the left” is far behind the rebels in the streets. In some key ways, these riots are far more radical and more effective than the left has proven itself to be, and the rebels have certainly surpassed the left in tactical savvy as in sheer bravado. Who is really more radical?
Certainly, “the left must respond” as one op-ed puts it, if only to fight the messaging of the right, but only if we recognize that there is much we can learn from those rushing through the London streets. As one observer puts it, these youth “got nothing to lose,” to which we might be tempted to add, ‘but their chains…’
George Ciccariello-Maher is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Drexel University. He is completing a people’s history of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and beginning a history of rabbles, mobs, and gangs. He can be reached at gjcm(at)drexel.edu. The article was originally published in the counterpunch.org on August 12.
The riots cannot be explained by criminality or deprivation alone. But they were unwise and failed to advance any cause
Gary Younge guardian.co.uk, Sunday 14 August 2011 19.00 BST
Garbage burns during the riots in Hackney, London. Photograph: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
I remember his face. I was on the Boulevard St Michel on a student demonstration. A posh-looking man sitting in a restaurant near the window looked up at the protestors and sneered. I'd seen that look before. I'd been studying in Paris for a few months by then. I'd seen it on the faces of the cops who had beaten me up in the metro and those who stopped and questioned me almost daily, or the landlords whose available flats disappeared when I showed up. It was a look that told me I didn't matter and couldn't do a thing about it.
On the Boulevard St Michel a young black kid also saw the sneer, walked coolly up to the window, and kicked it in. And between the shards, the face of the man at the table contorted in fear as the thin film that separated him from chaos collapsed. The kid walked off laughing.
I can't tell you why he did it. You could not justify it strategically or morally. What I can tell you is, at that precise moment, given the few options available, it felt like an appropriate response. Sometimes, even when it is not possible to fathom the direct cause of an event, the context in which it took place offers many clues.
So it is with the recent riots. Attempts to establish a definitive reason for what happened last week inevitably implode under the weight of their own dogma. With unrest sprawling over various nights in various cities with different targets and intensity, the situation is too complex for any one template.
True, the initial riots in London's Tottenham did have a direct cause – the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by the police, who then refused to engage with his family and supporters about the circumstances of his death. It's unlikely the other riots would have followed without this one. And yet even as the fires burned in neighbouring Hackney a few days later, no one chanted his name or made demands on his behalf. And so it was that a political demonstration which ended in violent disorder triggered a series of unrelated violent disorders devoid of any political coherence.
But while the precise cause may be elusive, the general context is clear. Last week's calamities unravelled as though on a split screen. On one half the contagion of the street, as the rioting spread, on the other the contagion of the markets as stocks plunged.
Long before it became clear that we were heading for a double-dip recession, the notion that a single dip on this scale would cause social unrest was not just predictable but predicted – not just by the left but by, among others, the guardians of global capital.
Warnings came from the new head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde; the police; the ratings agency Moody's and the UN's International Labour Organisation. As the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, pointed out before the last election, the likelihood of unrest would be exacerbated under conditions of economic austerity: "Imagine the Conservatives go home and get an absolute majority, on 25% of the eligible votes," Clegg said. "They then turn around in the next week or two and say we're going to chuck up VAT to 20%, we're going to start cutting teachers, cutting police and the wage bill in the public sector. I think if you're not careful in that situation … you'd get Greek-style unrest." The Tories got 23% of the eligible vote. Despite not winning an absolute majority, it all happened anyway.
Despite historian David Starkey's best efforts, the epicentre of Britain's moral panic moved from culture to class. The primary challenge of integration, it transpires, is convincing a sizeable section of British youth, of all races, that they can be integrated into a society that won't educate or employ them.
Insisting on the criminality of those involved, as though that alone explains their motivations and the context is irrelevant, is fatuous. To stress criminality does not deny the political nature of what took place, it simply chooses to only partially describe it. They were looting, not shop-lifting, and challenging the police for control of the streets, not stealing coppers' hubcaps. When a group of people join forces to flout both law and social convention, they are acting politically. (The question, as yet unanswered, is to what purpose.)
In any case, far from being strange bedfellows, criminality and politics have always cohabited quite happily. Less than a month ago, some of those now bellowing for more law and order (the Murdoch press), the people who are supposed to enforce law and order (the police), and the people who make the laws (politicians) were caught red-handed either committing or colluding in a range of systematic criminal acts during the phone-hacking scandal.
But likewise, insisting on economic deprivation, as though that is the sole context and alone explains their motivations, is only marginally less fatuous. While it was the young who took to the streets, this was not a Greek-style uprising, let alone a distant cousin to the Arab spring. Riots can produce tangible, progressive results. But beyond Tottenham, those who took to the streets last week failed to advance any cause, embrace any ideal or articulate any agenda.
This places them firmly in the context of a weak an ineffectual left that has failed to reinvent and reinvigorate itself in the face of a deep economic crisis. It marks a generational failure. In the absence of any community leadership, viable social movements or memory of collective struggle, the most these political orphans could hope to achieve was private acquisition and social chaos.
The fact that their actions were political does not therefore make them wise. The primary consequences will be greater authoritarianism, more police powers and an emboldened far right.
While in Spain in March, I asked Ignacio Escolar, the author of the country's most popular political blog, why there had been no demonstrations when the youth unemployment rate was 43%. "It's like there is oil on the streets," he said. "All it needs is a small spark and it could blow." Nobody knows where the next spark in Britain will come from. But last week we saw that our streets too are highly flammable.
(From Bring a Green flag to October 8th Mass Rally Facebook page)
On 8th October Stop the War Coalition are hosting a mass rally in Trafalgar square, against the imperialist wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya.
Stop the War's role in the Libyan conflict has been diabolic to say the least. They have ignored, underestimated and even supported (indirectly) the war on Libya.
Bring a green flag to the demo and make sure they cant forget Libya!
To be against the war on Libya, we must show our solidarity with the people of Libya, and their government, lead by Colonel Gaddafi, if we want to be an effective anti war movement.
Do not worry about bringing your own flag, although that would be cool, I will try to get a lot and bring them with me. Also a meeting point at the demo will be discussed closer to time, where we will distribute flags and posters!
For more info on the rally: http://www.antiwarassembly.org/