A young man steals £3.50’s worth of water and receives a jail sentence of six months. MP’s who stole thousands of pounds of our money sit in the palace of Westminster voting through austerity policies. Destroying property is OK if you’re a member of the Bullingdon Club but not if you live on a council estate. It is one law for the rich and one for the poor.
Nor does the naked brutality of ruling class institutions defending their own interests end here. When Mark Duggan was executed by the Metropolitan Police, lies were rapidly spread in the media that the cops acted in self-defence. Collusion between the media and police exposed in the Murdoch affair operated on this occasion, as it so often does.
Mark’s murder was not an isolated incident. Since 1990, 1409 people have died at the hands of the police – and not one single police officer has been successfully prosecuted as a result. The injustice is stark – and clearly apparent to those many communities deeply affected by these tragic deaths.
Since 9/11, racism against the black community in Britain has often played second fiddle to a rising tide of Islamaphobia. The riots were an explosion in the inner cities – places where the majority of black people live as a result of poverty and racism. Those on the streets were not only black, they were from all ethnicities.
But in the demonising of young people we have seen an attempt to further whip up racism by the outrageous implication that disorder is “natural” for black youth. The pernicious English Defence League were all too quick to exploit this with their “Defence Leagues” in places like Eltham – though in other communities such as Enfield they were given the short shrift they deserved.
As the trials roll on, with some courts running around the clock, there is no pretence but that the government and its lackeys intend to continue to dole out exemplary sentences – not to mention collective punishment of their families and communities.
The anti-cuts movement, the labour movement, the left need to rise to the challenge posed both by the riots and their aftermath. We need to involve, work with and learn from black organisations and other self-organised groups, those campaigning against police brutality and for civil liberties. We need to set up defence campaigns for all those arrested, to resist the increasing crack down on civil liberties, to demand an enquiry into Mark Duggan’s death that the family and community can have confidence in and force through the reversal of the cuts in public services at both national and local levels.
Riots are outbursts of destructive anger which historically have often been a way for the voiceless to make themselves heard. People participate for different reasons – and there are often tragic results. The dignified grief of Tariq Jehan will be one of the enduring images of those days.
Many of the participants understand from firsthand experience that we live in a radically unjust and dysfunctional society. But alienation is not just an abstract concept but a brutal reality after decades of neo-liberalism has almost made real Thatcher’s mantra: “there is no such thing as society”. If few of those who took part in the riots look to the left or the labour movement for leadership, this is as much our responsibility, and a product of our weakness, as it is theirs.
Resistance has been on the rise as Cameron’s cuts – and determination to outdo all his predecessors in increasing inequality and destroy the welfare state – threw down the biggest challenge to the labour movement in Britain it has faced for a long time.
When students took to the streets last autumn – and faced the naked violence of police batons and kettling, the mobilisations were inspiring – but there was no victory. In 2011 trade unionists mounted – the massive demonstration on March 26, followed by concerted strike action on June 30. Militant marches against cuts in local services implemented by local councils from Lambeth, Hackney, Manchester and Birmingham and many more may have reached out to some of the young people that took part in the riots, and in Haringey young people led a determined campaign against cutting youth clubs, but none of this stopped the closure of services.
The response to the rising tide of austerity in Cameron’s Britain has not been sufficient either to turn back the tide or to illustrate to the majority that collective action can achieve victories. The left needs to inspire a different vision to that of “broken Britain”, of terminally malign capitalism, which can inspire not only rage against the machine but the creation of communities of resistance in which our aspirations can reach higher than a moment of feeling powerful to one in which those who produce the wealth exert real power and control over our lives.