Myth of the rioters without a cause

August 25, 2011

Those who claim that the rioters in Britain this month were motivated by greed rather than outrage at injustice are completely wrong, writes Eamonn McCann.

THE SAME line can be heard everywhere in the media establishment: British riots of past generations were rooted in real grievances. But the lowlifes and looters of the last couple of weeks were rioters without a cause.

In 1981, they claim, the outbreaks in Brixton and Toxteth were an incoherent cry for justice. But the gangs who have just trashed Tottenham, Lewisham, Birmingham, Manchester and so on were fighting not for a better life, but for brand-name trainers and plasma TVs. To hint at any deeper meaning is to condone their wanton destruction. They are criminals and must be made to pay the full price.

In fact, this month's events have been neither more nor less political than the outbreaks in previous generations now recalled as having been sparked by understandable anger.

THE 1981 Brixton riots began on April 10, after crowds gathered to complain about (subsequently admitted) police mistreatment of young Black people. Within minutes, a bus was hijacked and driven at police lines. At least 25 cars were seized and torched, a number of pubs burnt down, and scores of shops looted.

Riot police stand watch over a burning double decker bus
Riot police stand watch over a burning double decker bus

The next night, there was fighting between police and youths in Brixton, Finsbury Park, Peckham, Ealing and Wanstead, as well as in Sheffield. Looting was widespread. Sporadic violence continued for weeks.

On July 3-4 at Toxteth in Liverpool, after police stopped a taxi to arrest a Black youth, cars were hijacked and piled up as barricades and police were pelted with petrol-bombs. The Guardian told of "middle-aged women, white and Black, queuing with shopping trolleys to loot supermarkets."

In Moss Side, Manchester, crowds broke windows, looted and set fire to shops and held the police at bay with volleys of petrol bombs. Woolworths in Southall was cleared of virtually all merchandise.

Handsworth in Birmingham, Chapeltown in Leeds, Bolton, Leicester, Nottingham, Southampton, Halifax, Bedford, Gloucester, Hull, Walthamstow, Coventry, Portsmouth, Bristol, Edinburgh and Reading were among the centers which saw fighting and looting.

Countering claims that these events were qualitatively different to riots in previous and more unjust times, socialist historian Chris Harman observed: "Crowds clashing on the streets with the forces of law, arming themselves in some way or other, smashing windows, looting shops, burning down buildings, besieging police stations, these are all very old features of urban life."

Take the rioting of the early 1930s and the 1880s. Wall Hannigan reported in Unemployed Struggles that 50,000 rioted in Glasgow in February 1931, fighting police and causing "widespread destruction." Trouble then spread to London, Manchester, Port Glasgow, Blackburn and Cardiff. There was looting in every center.

As there was in 1886, when an unemployed march from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park turned violent. In Outcast London, Gareth Stedman Jones recorded: "In St. James Street, all club windows were broken, and in Piccadilly, looting began...Then they moved onto South Audley Street, looting every shop along their route."

London was hit by a "great fear": "The rumor spread that 10,000 men were on the march from Deptford, destroying as they came the property of small traders...In Whitehall, a mob was said to be marching down the Commercial Road. At Bethnal Green, the mob was said to be in Green Street. In Camden Town, there was a rumor that the mob would go from Kentish Town to the west."

Two thousand gathered at Deptford to await the rumored mob. They then marched to merge at Westminster Bridge with columns from Peckham and Battersea, linked arms and rushed Parliament Square "using pokers, lengths of gas-pipe and oyster knives to defend themselves against the horse and foot police." There was widespread looting on the way home.

Had they had mobiles and BlackBerries, they would no doubt have coordinated more efficiently. But it's the thought that counted. The notion that the most recent British rioting has been out of character with the rioting of ages past--that what's happened now has been an orgy of unrestrained consumerism--is not borne out by history.

The response of the authorities has certainly been political. The mass round-up of suspects, the "shop your neighbor" appeals by the Murdoch-linked Metropolitan Police, the police mob-handed in Robocop gear using battering rams to storm into working-class homes and haul suspect teenagers off, cameras on hand to record pictures for reassurance of the ruling class, all this has the character, not of hunting down criminals, but of a major security operation.

Cameron and his class are frightened for the future, of the likely reaction to their planned assault on the welfare state and the rights and living standards of people in the bottom half of an increasingly divided society. This has been a clampdown on the potentially rebellious.

Were the riots political? Of course they were.

First published at the Belfast Telegraph.

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