A rebellion against racism and poverty

James Illingworth reports on the mass protests and rioting shaking British politics.

Police look on as rioters pass a blazing building in North LondonPolice look on as rioters pass a blazing building in North London

BRITAIN IS reeling after several nights of rioting in major cities across the country--the worst civil unrest in a least a generation.

What began at the end of last week as a series of protests against police brutality and racism has escalated into a major crisis of the entire social and political order, with police apparently losing control in parts of major cities.

The first wave of unrest came in response to the police murder of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old Black man and father of four from Tottenham in North London. Duggan was riding in a taxi on Thursday, August 4, when police stopped him as part of an operation against gun crime in Black neighborhoods. During the ensuing incident, police shot Duggan twice, with some witnesses reporting that he was restrained on the ground when the shooting happened.

At first, London's Metropolitan Police tried to claim that Duggan had been armed and had shot at the arresting officers. It later emerged, however, that the only bullets fired were police-issued.

Residents of Tottenham, sick of repeated police harassment and profiling of young Black men in particular, organized a peaceful protest at a local police station the next night. After riot police confronted the protesters, however, the demonstration escalated into running battles between local youth and the cops.

The murder of Duggan and the heavy-handed police response to the protests clearly touched a nerve in impoverished neighborhoods across inner-city London. Rioting spread to nearby areas on Saturday and Sunday night, with crowds of young people confronting police, attacking cars and shops, and reportedly looting local businesses.

By Monday, the unrest had spread beyond London, with similar riots taking place in Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and Liverpool. Police were hopelessly outnumbered and out-maneuvered in London itself, with important parts of the capital city in flames and in the hands of the rioters.

The ruling class reaction to the unrest has been typically hypocritical and reactionary. Politicians, police commanders and media pundits alike have denounced the rebellion as "mindless criminality" and denied the importance of social and political causes for the violence. Boris Johnson, the Conservative Party mayor of London, denied that poverty and racism had anything to do with the unrest, saying, "It's time that people who are engaged in looting and violence stopped hearing economic and social justifications."

At the national level, the coalition government led by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats was talking ominously about tripling the number of cops on the streets and perhaps even giving police permission to use rubber bullets on rioters--a move without precedent in British history, though very familiar in Britain's colonial possessions like Northern Ireland.

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IT'S NO coincidence, of course, that these events are taking place in the poorest neighborhoods of London and other major cities. Youth in these areas have grown up in a climate of poverty and racism, facing regular police harassment, along with unemployment rates for youth that were already sky-high before the current economic crisis hit.

If things weren't already bad enough in British cities, the Tory-led government has embarked on a massive program of austerity measures designed to make poor people and the working class pay for the economic crisis. As one protester summed up conditions for working-class youth for a Reuters reporter:

This is the ghetto, this is the slums, they don't care about us. I've been stopped outside my house by the police for no reason. There's no jobs...but still they want to cut benefits. We ain't got no way to survive, and it's like no one cares about us. There's injustice, and we've had enough.

Plus, these young people have seen the bankers and politicians who wrecked the British economy get away scot-free. While the millionaires and their political representatives spend their summer holidays in Tuscany (Prime Minister David Cameron) or Beverly Hills (Chancellor George Osborne), Black youth get nothing but cuts and police harassment.

And when the tensions in people's lives--racism, increasing poverty, alienation and immiseration--reach a boiling point, those in power lecture about how "violence is wrong," without ever once acknowledging the daily violence in the lives of the poor and working-class people.

When asked by an NBC reporter if the riots had achieved anything, one young protester had an eloquent response:

Yes. You wouldn't be talking to me now if we didn't riot, would you? Two months ago, we marched to [London police HQ] 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.

Veteran socialist and author Tariq Ali put his finger on the hypocrisy of the political and media establishment in a comment this week:

They privilege the wealthy. They let it be known that judges and magistrates should set an example by giving punitive sentences to protesters found with peashooters. They never seriously question why no policeman is ever prosecuted for the 1,000-plus deaths in custody since 1990...

Yes, we know violence on the streets in London is bad. Yes, we know that looting shops is wrong. But why is it happening now? Why didn't it happen last year? Because grievances build up over time. Because when the system wills the death of a young Black citizen from a deprived community, it simultaneously, if subconsciously, wills the response.

Ultimately, the unrest in Britain must be seen as another stage in the global revolt against austerity and state repression. Many of the young people on the streets of London and other cities these nights probably took part in the huge, militant student protests in London late last year. They have seen rioting, strikes, mass demonstrations and revolutions spread from Greece to Spain to the Middle East and beyond.

Symbolically, the riots in London broke out as world financial markets were in turmoil over concerns that the American economy is going back into recession and the European debt crisis is spreading to Italy and Spain. The crisis-ridden capitalist system has nothing to offer young people, and it was only a matter of time before their anger exploded into action.

These aren't the first riots of the crisis, and they won't be the last.