Saturday, 13 August 2011

On the riots

On Thursday, 4 August, police in Tottenham, north London, shot and killed a man called Mark Duggan, who they tell us was a cocaine dealer, while supposedly trying to arrest him. They stopped the cab in which he was riding, and told the media that he tried to shoot one of the arresting officers who was protected by his radio, which prompted them to return fire; the Guardian later reported that the bullet found in the radio was police-issue, and that the only other gun found on the scene - not police-issue - had been hidden in Duggan's sock throughout the incident and therefore not only had not been fired but could not even have easily been drawn, which makes the incident a gangland-style execution rather than the tragic results of an escape attempt. Duggan was simply the latest in a long tradition of police killings. In the past 13 years, the police have killed an average of around once every 2 weeks; a total of 333 victims.

This, as well as an apparent police policy of stopping and searching young black people at random with enough frequency that in some communities, getting stopped and searched for the first time is seen as a coming of age event, contribute in inner-city areas to a deep hatred of the police stretching back decades to a time when largely-black neighbourhoods were selectively subject to a permanent police state. Meanwhile, the government's austerity programme has seen Jobseekers' Allowance claimants threatened with being forced to work full-time (on top of the time and effort equivalent to full-time work which they're already expected to put in to looking for a proper job) just to recieve the dole, which works out at between £1.34 per hour and £1.52 per hour for under-25-year-olds and between £1.69 and £1.93 per hour for over-25-year-olds at a time of rapidly rising prices, many benefit claimants increasingly insecure in even the benefits they recieve, council tenants insecure in their tenancies, college students have the Education Maintainance Allowance which in many cases is essential to their family's ability to survive removed and at the same time see any possibility of a university education fly out of sight, and thousands of public sector workers made redundant and tens of thousands more in fear that they could be next, creating a mood of desperation among some layers of the working class and more-or-less universal uncertainty. These are the emotions that would have been running high at Tottenham police station on Saturday 6 August when a peaceful protest against police brutality called by Mark Duggan's family turned violent.

Eyewitness reports suggest that the violence on Saturday began when a policeman took his baton to a young woman with no provocation. This could have been an individual act of violence, which would be consistent with the police culture of aggressiveness which anyone with any significant experience of activism (or even who has watched and read the news with their eyes open over the past few years) can attest to; it could just as easily be part of a concerted police strategy to provoke riots in order to produce a public demand for ever more repressive measures on the part of the state. The latter would be consistent with my own experiences in Manchester on Tuesday; passing through the city centre between around 6 and 7pm, I was suprised (but shouldn't have been) to find an unusually large police presence in Market Street, who were systematically searching shoppers and passersby, seemingly with particular attention to black, Middle Eastern and Asian people and anyone in a hood, police standing guard at arbitrary choke points redirecting people, an unusually large volume of police vehicles patrolling the streets - with their sirens running - and while I was in Piccadilly Gardens around a hundred TAU riot police gathered in full riot gear and simply stood there looking menacing for several minutes before they started patrolling the area looking menacing; of course, none of this did anything to ease the already-high tensions. The extent to which police and/or fascist provocateurs were responsible for violence is as yet unknown, but it is known to be standard police practice for police to infiltrate protests, etc. in order to instigate violence; I suspect that much of the more seemingly-aimless violence, particularly that which was convenient for TV crews, was the work of police infiltrators. Aside from demands for the police to be given greater repressive powers, other effects of the riots which may or may not have been deliberate or desired on the part of the police include a rise in racist sentiment among the general populace (despite the fact that as many of the rioters were white as any other ethnic group), as can be demonstrated by the prevelance of racism in many of the comments on this Facebook page (in particular the responses to this post), and an attempt by elements of the English Defence League to take the next step as a fascist paramilitary force by forming organised vigilante gangs (although apparently only about a dozen people turned up in Manchester so it fell on it's arse, I've got no information about how they fared elsewhere though).

If anyone was in any doubt that the police state has benefited from the riots, this video should put those doubts to rest. This was at a small protest against David Cameron visiting the Manchester BBC to talk about the riots; the police questioned every participant and searched some, with no direct pretext at all. Before the riots, would they really have been able to do something like this without a significant public outcry?

Arrestees have been given rediculous sentences: Ursula Nevin was convicted of handling stolen goods for accepting a pair of shorts looted by someone else, and the police celebrated the five-month sentence; Nicolas Robinson got a six-month jail term for taking £3.50 worth of bottled water from a Lidl, because he "was thirsty". Since the riots dying down, councils have started evicting families of people convicted of offences related to the rioting and looting, which David Cameron has attempted to justify in Parliament by making reference to "bad parenting", whilst parents are increasingly forced to work full-time in order to provide for their families, and at the same time Cameron is cutting childcare services and closing youth clubs. If the government wanted to avoid further violence - which it doesn't - then it wouldn't take the road of punishment. Someone who's been to prison is far more likely to reoffend than someone who hasn't, statistically-speaking. And you can easily see why. A prison stay removes people from everyone they know, costs them their job or disrupts their education, and puts them in a situation where the main currency is contrabrand and you have to be "hard" to be respected (and those who aren't respected are likely to get raped, come shower time). When they come out, there's often nowhere for them to go, they've probably lost their house and their job, all but their family and closest friends might have moved on with their lives (the more likely the longer they've been in prison), a criminal record and/or the gap in their employment history created by the prison stay makes it all but impossible to get a legal job or a house. The only doors open to ex-prisoners are the skills they learnt and the contacts they made inside. And life on the street creates further desperation and also makes what was a small chance of changing your situation microscopic, as applications for jobs and benefits invariably require an address. The hopelessness of life on the street often creates a further downward spiral of dispair, and sometimes crime, as people turn to drugs in order to deal with their situation as best they can, at least in the here-and-now.

1 comment:

Stephen Hall said...

A thoughtful and well written article on the Tottenham riots Alan. Marx writing in 1853 in the New York Daily Tribune on rioting by miners in Wigan of all places said "With regard to the Wigan riots: "Now I am far from defending the aimless acts of violence committed by the Wigan colliers, who have paid for them with the blood of seven men. But, on the other hand, I understand that there is a great difficulty, especially for the inferior elements of the working classes, to which the colliers undoubtedly belong, in proceeding “peaceably, orderly and quietly,” when they are driven to acts of frenzy by utter destitution and by the cool insolence of their masters. The riots are provoked by the latter in order to enable themselves to appeal to the armed force and to put down, as they have done in Wigan, all meetings of the workingmen by order of the magistrates.

I find it interesting that you should suggest that the Tottenham rioting might " easily be part of a concerted police strategy to provoke riots in order to produce a public demand for ever more repressive measures on the part of the state." as it could be result of an individual act of (police) violence....consistent with the police culture of aggressiveness which you suggest "anyone with any significant experience of activism (or even who has watched and read the news with their eyes open over the past few years) can attest to." Perhaps it is a bit of both?