“Mob rule”. “Wanton destruction”. “Mindless thuggery”. “Sheer criminality”.
Media, politicians and police always say the same thing about urban riots.
Riots can spin out of control and engulf ordinary people. But that does not alter the fact that they are rooted in social oppression.
Criminals may take advantage of riots, but they do not cause them.
The events in Tottenham, Hackney, Croydon, Birmingham, Manchester, and a dozen other urban areas are not some sinister eruption of an underclass of criminals equipped with BlackBerries moving from one hot-spot to another.
They are explosions of anger over lives blighted by poverty.
The long history of riots proves their organisation does not depend on electronic social-networks. And the vast majority of the rioters on the streets in each area were local youths.
What is clear is that the police were the primary targets. “The moral of the story is ‘Fuck the Feds’,” said one Tottenham youth questioned by a journalist about the riots.
In Hackney’s Pembury estate in inner London, one man was seen spraying “Fuck Da Police” on a wall in red paint.
Another shouted, “Come and get us, man”, as he hurled a bottle.
“We ain’t going nowhere,” declared a third, “this is our estate”.
Festering hatred of the police on rundown working-class estates, especially among black youth, has been largely invisible to mainstream politicians and media. But it is easy enough to understand for anyone interested in finding out.
Youth unemployment across Britain is running at one in five. Across London, it is closer to one in four.
Among Afro-Caribbean youth, the proportion is much higher: barely half have jobs.
Capitalist crisis always works this way. Young workers coming into the job market for the first time face the grimmest job prospects.
And among them, because of racial disadvantage and discrimination, young black workers find it hardest of all.
Because of this, even those in employment are likely to be in low-paid, dead-end jobs. At the same time, educational opportunities are being shut down by abolition of the Education Maintenance Grant and university fees soaring to £9000 a year.
And with rents and house prices at record levels, any hope of moving out of overcrowded family homes and setting up independently can appear a distant prospect.
Meantime, councils are implementing huge cuts. Haringey Council (which covers Tottenham) has just agreed £84 million cuts in a £273 million budget — including 75% cuts in its Youth Service and the closure of eight out of 13 Youth Centres.
All of this is set to get much worse.
The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government's program of cuts and privatisation has only just begun.
And with the global financial system hovering on the brink of a second crash and a double-dip recession, some economists are talking about two decades of austerity before the debt hangover is worked off.
With good reason, “Fuck Cameron” was sprayed on at least one wall in a riot zone.
Riots may be spontaneous, chaotic, and leaderless; they may be focused on fighting the police, breaking windows, and looting shops; but that does not mean that they are not fuelled by a deep sense of injustice.
Bankers awarding themselves 20% pay rises and million-pound bonuses out of taxpayers’ money has made riots more likely.
Politicians fiddling their expenses and police taking bribes from tabloid journalists have made riots more likely.
A society riddled with grotesque and growing inequality has made riots more likely.
In the depths of society, mostly hidden from view, there is an accumulation of frustration, alienation, and bitter resentment.
And a raw cutting-edge of this discontent is to be found in relations between young people and the police.
It is inherent in the role of the police that they target the most oppressed sections of the working class, for the simple reason that the poorest are those most likely to be driven to petty-crime and disorder.
This is the root of the moral panic over “gang culture” and “knife crime”.
There is no serious attempt to analyse the social conditions that foster these problems, and no political will to provide real solutions.
Instead, fears of a dangerous “underclass” are mobilised in support of repressive policing of black youth on rundown estates.
Police harassment of working-class youth, especially if they are black, is routine.
Veteran black activist Darcus Howe reported that his 15-year-old grandson cannot count the number of times he has been stopped and searched.
In Haringey, two-thirds of those stopped are under 25, and you are three times more likely to have this happen if you are black.
A Hackney youth worker, surveying the damage on August 9, talked of seeing harassment all the time and of “police officers jumping out of vans, calling 18-year-olds bitches and niggers”.
“It’s bloody hard for these kids,” he continued. “There’s nothing to do at all.
“University fees have gone up. Education costs money. And there’s no jobs. This is them sending out a message.”
Riots are explosions of socio-economic discontent. But they require a trigger. And again and again, the trigger is provided by the police.
Often, it is a police murder, or what appears as such.
It was the death of Cynthia Jarrett that triggered the Broadwater Farm riot in Tottenham in 1985, and it was the police shooting of Mark Duggan on August 4 that triggered the Tottenham riot this time.
Behind the trigger is years of experience of the corruption, racism and violence of the police.
Once a riot starts, there is a tremendous release of tension. It can be exhilarating and cathartic. Humdrum lives are suddenly full of excitement and spectacle.
Temporary control of the streets can be experienced as a moment of heady-hazed liberation.
That control provides a rare opportunity to take that which is usually denied.
The corporate targets of the rioters read like a roll-call of neoliberal retail capital: McDonalds and Starbucks; JD Sports and LA Fitness; Comet and PC World; Currys, Sony, and Carphone Warehouse.
But, in the aftermath, the state tries to use riots to justify water-cannon, rubber bullets, draconian sentences, and even more heavy-handed policing of working-class estates.
As a form of popular resistance, rioting is dangerous.
The state is far too powerful to be defeated by local street-fighters. When police inevitably regain control, mass arrests and a long succession of show-trials can be the outcome.
Since the student revolt of late last year, the militarisation of policing and the criminalisation of protest have gathered momentum. The riots will be used to further this “law and order” agenda.
Riots lend themselves to such an agenda. Because they are spontaneous, unplanned, and leaderless, they can quickly lose direction and become indiscriminate.
This clearly happened.
Many small shops are trashed. Often, they are owned by ethnic-minority proprietors. Often, they are owned by people who put up anti-war posters and stock anti-cuts leaflets.
Criminal gangs can use riots to loot for gain. This, too, undoubtedly happened. Again, small traders suffer as well as corporate retail.
Fires consume both small businesses and working-class homes. And, in the chaos of the riot, innocent bystanders can get seriously hurt or even, as occurred in Birmingham, killed.
Because riots can result in indiscriminate attacks on local community targets, they can quickly degenerate into vigilantism and sectarian strife.
On the night of August 8, police turned part of Hackney into a “sterile area” and allowed the ransacking of small shops to proceed.
A group of around a hundred Turkish and Kurdish men are reported to have responded by arming themselves in self-defence against the rioters.
Arguments are raging across Britain, especially in the riot zones, and perhaps above all among the crowds involved in the local “clean-ups”.
The argument is often finely balanced between those denouncing the rioters as hooligans and those talking about poverty and police harassment.
Often enough, the same person deplores the devastation, but in the next sentence says, like one young woman in Hackney: “But maybe it’s a cry for help as well. People are doing it to be noticed, because there’s a problem.”
The left has to find a way to transform anger and alienation into united mass resistance.
Riots are the voice of the powerless. But, in relation to the power of the state and corporate power, they are as useful as a blunderbuss against a tank.
Popular protest tends to take the form of a riot when there is no other alternative.
The unions are much weakened, the strike rate remains rock-bottom, and the official leaders are shackled by anti-union laws they are not prepared to break.
The Labour Party has been hollowed out by neoliberalism and become an unashamed representative of the rich and big business. This creates a political vacuum — filled for a brief moment by the riots.
We must seek to harness the anger and alienation in a class-wide mass movement against crisis and austerity.
[Abridged from Counterfire.org.]