(Courtesy: Nick Hayes, The Guardian)
For the generations of inner-city black working class who had lived through the deprivations under the 1979 Thatcher government and the inflationary decade under the Callaghan government before, the years from 1975 to 1981 stand out in living memory as a period in which violent protests termed conveniently as ‘riots’ (which reached a high point in 1981) and the aftermath of such ‘riots’ defined the contours of their life, livelihood and cognitive world. For the newspaper reading middle classes of the former colonies of the Queen’s country, the memory of these episodes of violent social unrest were quickly erased but the coverage of the Royal Wedding of 1981 did leave a lasting imprint. On the clean white liberal middle class, neither had a lasting impact.
August 2011 will possibly have a similar impact except that the UK is already embroiled in too many imperial misadventures in West Asia, North Africa not to mention Afghanistan for Mrs Thatcher’s political progeny to try an Argentina.
In a perceptive note on the ‘Leeds Footsoldiers’, in the aftermath of the London bombings of 2005, the author had observed that the young – of all colours – who have taken part in various forms of violent protest since 1975 have some things in common: although their anger only boiled over into organised violence for a night or two, that anger never went away. They all come from inner-city areas: a significant proportion of non-white residents, much higher than average rates of unemployment, low educational attainment, and a housing stock that is the worst in the city.
There is nothing wrong with Tottenham
Here is what young people in North London who match that description have to say today:
(For the report, click here)
As the youth clubs began to be closed down preceded by cutting off of access to jobs , education, and health services, the ‘cuts’ had come home to roost. "The youth club was just a place we could all go and have fun, at least we had somewhere to go. Now we walk down the streets, we get pulled over by police. There is nothing here for us."
And this is what the generation that has lived through life under various intensified state policies of racial profiling in Britain since the ‘sus laws’ of 1981, feel about the uses and abuses of ‘stop and search’ methods that have made young people of colour the easy targets of surveillance and ham-handed police action since September 11, 2001.
Mark Duggan was the latest target. But we have not forgotten Jean Charles de Menezes. Let us not forget that he was killed because the colour of his skin appeared to be that of those having a 'terrorist profile' just as Mark Duggan's fitted with the 'drug-dealer profile' in the portmanteau of institutional racism.
The politics of denial
When Darcus Howe, a BBC veteran reminds BBC viewers of the class character of racial profiling, he was accused by the interviewer of being a ‘rioter’.
And yet, there is no institutional racism in Britain (never mind Stephen Lawrence, your death was an aberration) as we have been told ad infinitum by not only Jack Straw and his cronies; but also many of the royal wedding addicted third world upwardly mobile Asians (eternally in denial about their black skin) and their favourite corporate hacks who espouse the 21st century Social Darwinist views on ‘criminality pure and simple’ shoulder to shoulder with David Cameron.
A comrade summarises the endless ‘debate’ on a neighbourhood solidarity e-group :
a) Could the events in the UK be linked to the sights of recent years of unprecedent rise in election expenses, bankers squeezing out billions in the form of state handouts, massive salary packages of corporate executives, unending rent increases to facilitate the royals and yet another wedding bonanza, hacking journalists , clerics abusing kids , police chiefs co-operating with crime, footballers getting millions, gas and electricity companies, and supermarkets , upping prices and miscellaneous others getting their snouts in the trough? Could the youngsters merely be copying their ‘elders’ and ‘betters’?
b) Or the constant parade of adverts for goodies on TV every 15 minutes for products which most people are unable to afford = the reduction of all life, ideas and inspirations to the acquisition of more consumer stuff. The total domination of the market that bankers , financiers and Labour and Tory together have been seeking to impose for decades. Could the young people just have taken the messages seriously ?
c) Or was it the manipulations of the police, who brutally and cold bloodedly shot to kill and murder - an unarmed person , lied about it, roughed up the family demonstrators and ignoring their patience ?
d) Or is it the effects of the cuts - school and university grants , youth clubs and old peoples homes, apprenticeship and training schemes for jobs generally for young people . Unemployment especially for black youths is around 30% whatever the official statistics say.
e) Or, after Labour did their worst, perhaps the intentions of the present millionaire Cabinet to take the country back to Victorian times is being realised . End the national health service [privatisation only delays this ] create mass unemployment [as the Tories always have done], end free education [ too good for the masses] , squash out dissent , bring back hanging , flogging and so on.
Perhaps the lower orders are bringing back their own methods - insurrection and riot?
Are chicken coming home to roost ? Is this what they wanted?
A statement from a neighbourhood solidarity group working in the areas affected most in London by the events of August 2011, pinned down the context :
Let’s get this straight. It is not Highgate or Hampstead that are rioting. Why? Because most there have money, opportunities and comfortable lives. Give that to us in Tottenham and Hackney and we wouldn’t riot either. We say “we” because it affects us all. These riots are about class and privilege – or lack of it. People loot to get the things – the fabricated desires – that advertising tells us we need, when they can’t get them any other way. Capitalists strive to create ever greater demand for products, from more and more ”consumers”, and last weekend they got more than what they bargained for: those kids consumed the only way they could. We may not agree with it. We may not like it. But, that’s the reality. This is a class thing.
This unnamed commentator hits the nail on the head.
As the flames on the street of Britain spread, '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'. These 'riots' were political. Gary Younge wrote in the Guardian.
To quote Dr Sophia Himmelblau,
It’s going to take more than posturing, ‘blitz-spirit’, keep-calm-and-carry-on clap-trap and colonial Kipling-esque “keeping your head” to fix this mess. The strikingly middle-class, broadly white efforts to sweep issues of inequality under the carpet of a simulated big-society photo-op has been a telling, if little discussed, aspect of the recent rioting, making little headway in the scramble of blogposts and tweets attempting hasty analyses of the unfolding turmoil. This doughty bunch of volunteer cleaners, the substitution for a non-existent community, appeared right on cue to fill the media narrative all day following a night of London’s most extensive social unrest in decades. Even Mayor Boris had leisurely returned from holiday to be snapped with the broom-wielding bourgeoisie of Clapham as they amassed for a bit of symbolic social cleansing.
For all the passive-aggressive conscience salving however, the outraged ensemble with their newly purchased brooms still need to face up to the rampant inequalities and social exclusion that a gentrification of urban neighbourhoods (usually by them) exacerbates.
When the liberal middle class conscience goes into denial, work like this has to be undertaken to prove a causal connection between ‘austerity measures’ and ‘social unrest’.
Martin O'Donnell lays down an alternative way forward:
If we as a society want to avoid a repeat of the horrors of the rioting and looting that took place across this country, then the social and economic direction we’ve been going in since the 1980s has got to be abandoned. Putting hundreds if not thousands more in prison will not resolve this country’s deep-rooted social problems. Neither will bringing in Bill Bratton or any other so-called ‘super cop’ to oversee increased repression in the inner cities. Beginning now to redistribute this country’s vast wealth via progressive taxation, investing in training and jobs, restoring the EMA, reversing the tuition fee increases, re-creating the opportunity for real social mobility and re-building a genuine sense of community will.
HOwever, the state of social and political agency for alternative action is so fragmented that Tariq Ali's warning may very well be the chosen way forward:
The young unemployed or semi-employed blacks in Tottenham and Hackney, Enfield and Brixton know full well that the system is stacked against them...the fires will be put out. There will be some pathetic inquiry or other to ascertain why Mark Duggan was shot dead, regrets will be expressed, there will be flowers from the police at the funeral. The arrested protesters will be punished and everyone will heave a sigh of relief and move on till it happens again.
In the end, it all goes back to the gospel of supply side Jesus which readers may wish to explore.