On Tuesday morning, I took the time to go around Peckham Rye and High Street to survey the damage of Monday night’s riots. It wasn’t as bad as I had feared but the damage was considerable. Gregg’s the bakers was burnt out, destroying the several homes above it and endangering the families that contained them. It was fortunate that no one was killed. Sadly this was not true in Birmingham where 3 people have tragically died whilst trying to protect their community.
This phenomenon isn’t rooted in purely economic or social failings but a complex web of factors. Rather than seeking the causes or motivations of the rioters, we should recognise what this represents and discuss how we should respond to it.
This is a crisis of working class communities, but it isn’t new or surprising. It is symptomatic of a society that brands greed as admirable, that puts material wealth before social health. The UK riots were merely an escalation of an ongoing problem, as Stafford Scott wrote in an excellent piece in the Guardian, if you were surprised; you probably weren’t looking.
So how should we respond, what are the solutions?
The response typified by David Cameron & Boris Johnson is a crude attempt to shut down political debate about why this happened now. Any allusion to wider social problems are quickly denounced as “excuse making” or “condoning the violence”. By narrowing the problem as a purely criminal matter, the debate focuses on technocratic issues such as the police operation and cuts to policing, or whether joint enterprise should be used to punish people without sufficient evidence of wrongdoing. Yes, breaking a window is criminal but refusing to acknowledge the context from which this was born is cheap trickery.
In recent days, Darcus Howe and Harriet Harman have been berated and browbeaten for making arguments on how police harassment and government cuts have contributed to bitter sentiment within British youth. To understand the social context these riots have arisen from does not equate to applauding the riots. This nuance isn’t lost on seasoned politicians. Their rejection of these points are mendacious; an intentional misunderstanding for their own political gain. If you accept that the problem is political then you must also accept that the cuts are not helping this political crisis. This short-sighted tactic is in their interest, without proper analysis of the situation -including the social context- we are only doomed to repeat history.
There are serious questions that need to be addressed:
Ignoring these questions belies an agenda to cover-up a deeper malaise in society.
[The] cuts being imposed by the Tory government inevitably create social division. As when Margaret Thatcher imposed such policies during her recessions this creates the threat of people losing control … and culminating in events of the type we saw in Tottenham.
– Ken Livingstone
The deeper malaise has been amplified by the recent government cuts, and so have been pointed to as the cause of the riots by Ken Livingstone (he has since moderated this stance). Whilst this argument is popular on the left it is misguided and patently untrue (as evidenced by FullFact).
These riots were not an organic response to government cuts as some leftists have alluded to. Frustration with police harassment of young black men is evident, I know from personal experience that elements within the Met will vigorously pursue frivolous charges on black youths for no reason. As one young girl said in Peckham on the day of the riots:
“I will die for the cause of FUCK THE POLICE! They fuck our lives up everyday!”
However smashing up the local corner-shop doesn’t hurt the police or the “bourgeoisie”, it only further impoverishes our communities. The government cuts did not cause the riots, it only help set the mood music. There is no excuse or absolution for the rioters’ decision to riot but nor can successive governments be absolved of responsibility either. The riots may not have been politically focussed but they were an indication, if not an expression, of a huge and pervasive social and political problem.
In Deptford today, and Hackney on Saturday, we are seeing a different type of response. One that starts with working class people agitating for change within their own communities rather than solely in the palace of Westminster. They are not perfect nor without problems, as I’ve highlighted here, but they are from the people who are most affected. People who can see clearly what Cameron, Gove and co refuse to even acknowledge. Our response must be rooted in real working-class communities, to build them up, link them with anti-cuts campaigns and seek change to come from below, not above. Working class communities do not need to be further patronised with money and shiny youth centres, they need grassroots control of the schools, services and resources within the community.
Mark Duggan may have been yet another black man who died at the hands of the police but his tragic death (like that of Stephen Lawrence) may have ignited a historical opportunity for change.
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