Naked class warfare in the wake of the UK revolt

[An important debate is taking place among activists in the UK and internationally about the nature of the “rebellion” or “riot” in London last month.  But there is no dispute over the scale of government/police repression which is being carried out against thousands of youth–detailed in this article from A World to Win News Service.– Frontlines ed.]

By Geoffrey Scott, London

Following the four days of rebellion that shook Great Britain last week in the wake of the police killing of a young Black man, Mark Duggan, the British state has unleashed a wave of repression whose severity has not been seen here in many years.

Almost 2,000 people have been arrested, and the police have announced that they hope to grab up as many as a thousand more from surveying CCTV footage. Most of the charges are the kind that would not result in detention, and still less in jail terms, in ordinary times. But the Magistrate’s courts have been working 24 hours a day after the upheaval and handing out three and four-month terms and worse in the name of restoring “law and order”. About half of those arrested have been sent over to the Crown courts, which alone have the authority to issue sentences of more than six months.

So far 138 youth under age 18 (legally children in England) have been sent to prison. The anonymity usually granted juveniles has been lifted by special order. The average age of those convicted in London is 19, and only one-third are being granted bail, instead of the usual 90 percent in Magistrate’s court. Jails and longer-term prisons are full to bursting, with 723 new inmates in the week before 19 August alone.

Some sentences and administrative punishment measures against the families of those convicted have been so extreme that even staunch international law-and-order media like The New York Times have warned the British government about the “long-term impact” of “excessive sentences for minor offences” and “collective punishment” that could discredit it, warning that this might look like a war of the upper classes against the lower.

Some of the more outrageous sentences include: Nicholas Robinson, a 23-year-old Londoner who took a case of bottled water worth 3.5 pounds from a looted store was given six months in jail. Some were sentenced for little more than being present. Three young women from Croydon with no criminal records got six month sentences for “burglary” solely because they entered a store, even though they were not accused of taking anything. Michael Fitzpatrick, an 18-year-old from Manchester, was sentenced to 28 months in jail for going into a store, touching (but not taking) a pair of trainers and sipping from a stolen champagne bottle. The 48-year-old Thomas Downey from the same city was given 18 months for taking doughnuts from a looted chain store. A teenager is to appear for sentencing to custody next week for eating two scoops of ice cream. Another was given nine months for taking a pack of chewing gum.

Even longer sentences are being given to those accused of encouraging others. Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, who allegedly posted calls on Facebook to go out and “riot”, were each given four years in prison for “encouraging the commission of a serious offence” – even though no one but the police showed up at the place and time they mentioned. Four years is the average prison term in the UK for sexual assault, and 47 months the average term for kidnapping. The contrast speaks for itself: almost none of those arrested are accused of causing bodily harm, and many are not accused of any kind of violence at all, and yet their “crime” – rebellion against the police and the established order and lack of respect for private property – is considered almost as bad as rape and kidnapping. The British authorities are making this point explicit by announcing that many offenders are to be paraded in their communities in orange jumpsuits, evoking Guantanamo, as if they were “terrorists”.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron calls this repression the “fightback”. Clearly what is in question is the existing social order. At times like these, when that order is even slightly threatened, the British state, like any other capitalist state, goes a long way towards dropping its usual “democratic” rhetoric. In response to criticism, Cameron denounced “phoney human rights concerns”, and the state is purposely displaying the violence on which the capitalist dictatorship rests.

Politicians, authorities and the mainstream media have tried to cut off coverage and discussion of the police killing that set off the rebellion, as if it had no political and social content and could simply be written off as “a shopping riot”. But on 17 August the police once again blatantly demonstrated their role as the system’s violent enforcers of injustice when they entered the home of the unarmed Dale Burns, a 27 year-old father of two, sprayed him with pepper gas and applied Taser electric shocks to him three times in quick succession, until he died.

What was this rebellion about?

It is undeniable that most of the youth were involved in breaking into shops, particularly chain stores, and taking petty consumer items. But the first building destroyed was not  a store, but a police solicitors’ office in Tottenham, a conveyor belt in the railroading of the youth into the criminal justice system. The office was located only a few hundred meters from where Mark Duggan was gunned down in cold blood.

Consider the story told by Police Constable Paul Warner, who was on the front lines in Tottenham, when the rebellion first erupted. “They were hurling everything they could at us, bricks, bottles, scaffolding, poles, the lot. I have been in some public order situations before but I have never seen anything like this… This was the first time that I have felt that level of malice towards us. There was real hate.” (Evening Standard 12 Aug) The Guardian headlined a two-page spread on the righting in London’s Hackney Central area, “What did they want? To fight the police”. Everywhere, from Birmingham to Croydon, police told tales of being attacked fiercely every time that they were outnumbered by the youth. Anyone who was in the streets, or even saw the video footage, knows that’s true. If all the youth wanted was to loot, why did they risk imprisonment to fight collectively for something that promised such little material gain?

Another side of the anti-police spirit that drove these events is that during the four nights of rebellion there was an almost total end to fighting between local gangs. Gang members spoke openly about how they suddenly felt themselves free to roam into neighbourhoods that had always been off limits to them, as they united in the face of the larger enemy. Locals from Tottenham’s Broadwater Farms Estate recounted a meeting held there to declare an ongoing truce between gangs.

The liberal media declaration that this revolt was nothing but “a shopping riot” has been accepted even by some people who consider themselves enlightened. This is hypocritical. After all, the youth were hitting back at a whole set of invisible chains that lock them out of a consumer society where, they are told in a thousand ways, what you own is the only source of status and meaning. Great Britain’s great wealth, like that of all the imperialist and monopoly capitalist countries, is rooted in a system that has looted the entire planet, exploiting people everywhere and destroying the environment. Why should taking a bottle of wine or a flat screen TV be considered morally repugnant to the rulers of such a system? Why indeed, except insofar as it threatens an order based on private property, one whose routine “legal” functioning makes the means of producing and extracting the world’s wealth the private property of a handful of exploiters who can only use it against the interests of the people and the planet?

Further, how can anyone who cares about a morality in the service of humanity not be nauseated when these youth, who are not running society or anything else and are not responsible for the mess that has been made of the UK and the world, are lectured on values and called all sorts of names by an establishment that over and over again, with the MPs expenses scandal and the Murdoch phone hacking scandal, has been shown to care about nothing but power and profit, and whose highest good is personal gain? Lower level police have been shown to be corrupt by the phone hacking scandal, as they took bribes for turning over confidential information about celebrities, royals and crime victims to the media. But few people have applied the word corruption to the Labour and Conservative Party and police and other top officials whose political and personal intimacy with magnates like Rupert Murdoch are simply considered normal relations of mutual benefit. Yet now they criticize people who have to go out and get their own loot instead of having it delivered. How can these people even talk about “the rule of law” while Great Britain’s powerful have shown time and time again that even their own laws mean nothing to them when there is money to be made, political careers to be advanced – and potential threats to that order to be repressed?

These people have shown that they are not fit to rule.

Economic crisis a factor – but not the only one

Government ministers have been denouncing the “rioters” as “parasites” who “live on the taxpayers’ money”, “refusing to work”, and who are now “biting the hand that feeds them”, and they have called for those convicted and even their families to be cut off state benefits. But who’s responsible for a million youth being out of work? It wasn’t the youth who outsourced the jobs from the working class districts of London, Birmingham, or Liverpool’s Merseyside. Even before the smoke had cleared from some of the burned-out sites, the UK Office of national statistics reported a “shocking” rise in unemployment this Spring, which is hitting the youth, minorities and women especially hard, in particular in poor areas like Tottenham. Is this because the youth don’t want to work – or because the capitalist system is throwing hundreds of thousands of people out of their jobs and into the streets?

So perhaps the politicians who preside over this system that is tossing the youth onto the jobless rolls might offer them more education instead? On the contrary: a week after the revolt, it was announced that “record numbers of youth” who have applied for university have been turned down this year, as young people struggle to get into higher education before huge rises in tuition fees hit next year.

While the austerity budget adopted by the Tory-led government was undoubtedly one important factor fuelling the revolt, the youth in the streets were going up against an entire system that keeps them locked into the bottom of society – a capitalist consumer society where they can’t consume, a society where the great majority get jobs and education, but they are tossed out of school and into the ranks of the permanent jobless, dependent on the dole and benefits, with the ever-present armed enforcers of the system on their backs to be sure they don’t step out of line. The tens of thousands of youth who raged out into the country’s streets last week didn’t just step out of line while protesting for a bit more – they stepped out into the night clad for battle with those hated enforcers of the system, living outside the law and now doing it together with thousands of others like themselves.

 

In addition to their attempts to deny the anti-police and to some degree anti-establishment sentiment that was at the core of this upheaval, the authorities and their apologists have tried to focus attention on what they condemn as “mindless violence”. This, to them, is proof that these youth are “feral” (wild animals), and that therefore “society” needs to protect itself against them by the harshest means possible, as if they were not as much a part of UK society as anyone else. The official response to the rebellion, in fact, is proof that the youth are right about what they are rebelling against: they are not considered or treated as human beings, and the only future the rulers intend to allow them is servile silence or a lock-up.

This “mindless brutality” has been enormously and maliciously exaggerated. Was there such violence? Yes – but consider this: thousands, even tens of thousands of youth were out in the streets of many of Britain’s cities, night after night for four nights, many of them with rudimentary arms – and how many sexual assaults took place in all that? Despite an attempt by the tabloid Daily Mail to invent a rape in a front page story (“Rape in the heat of rioting”), this proved to be a lie, and the tabloid press has failed to find even a single such case to bring against the youth.

But there were wrong and reactionary acts of violence among the people, from rubbishing the establishments of small shopkeepers who are in no way responsible for the people’s problems to the car that ran down and killed three youth of Pakistani origin guarding a shop in Birmingham. Those of us who look at this revolt from the point of view that the youth are right not to accept injustice have to point out that such acts reflect an incomplete or simply wrong understanding of the sources of the problems these youth are rebelling against. In fact, they reflect the dog-eat-dog, look-out-for-yourself-and-your family (“me and my mates” or narrowly-conceived “community”) outlook that the system itself inculcates into everyone in society from top to bottom.

 

But once again, it is the height of hypocrisy for the system’s authorities to pretend to care about the fate of South Asian or other immigrants who have been the target of the police, government anti-immigrant propaganda and official tolerance of hate campaigns (when white people attack immigrants, we’re supposed to “understand” their fears and that the solution is immigration restrictions and deportations). But people of one oppressed ethnicity attacking others, and violence among the people in general, are very much linked to the lack of a revolutionary perspective that can forge unity among the exploited and oppressed and bring about revolutionary change, and not just a shift in the pecking order.

The outrage of these youth is righteous. But they do need to change – they need to understand  where their real problems come from. They don’t need to change in the way that the power structure demands, to accept the unacceptable (and even if they did they might be ground down further anyway). Those who seek radical social change should greatly value these youth’s burning hatred of injustice and the status quo, the fearlessness of those from the bottom of society who sense that they have nothing to lose. Given the desperation of their circumstances and the hopelessness that is a big part of their thinking, in the absence of a revolutionary perspective, it is not surprising that these youth often act according to the same rules and outlook propagated by the people at the top of society and constantly reinforced by the daily workings of the system itself.

 

The change that’s necessary from this point of view can come only as more people understand and fight the system that is the source of their problems, and look for ways to actually bring down that system and replace it with an entirely different one, based on exactly the principles, goals and values that official UK rejects, a society where, as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all” and vice versa.

 

Some “leftists” in the UK such as the Socialist Workers’ Party would like to tame the force represented by these youth and turn it into just one more part of a pressure group to reform the system, rather than to find the ways to seize on its potential for a revolutionary uprising against the system. These youth represent a reality that’s just too scary for them to face, and one that could lose them their hard-won respectability in the eyes of the establishment. And so, while they at times denounce the capitalist system, they repeatedly reduce the source of the oppression experienced by the youth to Tory PM David Cameron (one of their main slogans related to the revolt is that, “Cameron must go”) and the “Tory cuts”. In their major statement on the revolt (which they repeatedly term a “riot”, just like the mainstream media, opening the door to the official bourgeois line that the essence of the revolt was “mindless violence”), they argue that, “Just as with the student protests last year, it is the ‘lost generation’ created by the Tories who are at the centre of these struggles”. A “’lost generation’ created by the Tories”!? From these “leftists”, a newcomer to the UK would not have the slightest idea that the Labour Party, headed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, was the parliamentary party presiding over the  British government from 1997 to 2010, for 13 years – in fact, the only party that most youth on the streets would have ever really known in government until just last year. This was a period when intensified inequality ripped through British society – just as it did through the social fabric of most every country, as part of the wave of worldwide capitalist globalisation. This was a reflection not so much of the policies of this or that party as of the fundamental workings of the capitalist system itself, and it is this that the youth need to understand.

This view of the SWP and like-minded reformist “leftists” does not simply miss the revolutionary potential of these youth for the future, although it most definitely does that. Right now this reformist view is abandoning them to the vengeance of the imperialist state. With a view that calculates the potential worth of a campaign to defend the youth that is based not on its potential for revolution, but its potential for gradualist reform, then for these so-called “leftists” defending thousands of youth charged with petty theft and the like isn’t a big priority – or is even a burden on more “legitimate” protest.

 

But things didn’t have to wind up in this infuriating state of affairs. It is certainly possible to do more, including to mobilise sentiment from within sections of the middle classes to stand up for the youth. The rebellion from the “lower depths” has caused a lot of soul-searching throughout British society. And many don’t like what they see.  A letter to a local newspaper in one of London’s poshest neighbourhoods argued for looking more deeply at the nature of British society: “What of interminable looting by our pig-greedy banking confraternity, looting by commission-hungry property dealers, by supermarket executives whose prices rise as regularly as we ourselves do every morning?” When Conservative Party Mayor of London Boris Johnson went out to join a couple of hundred young people who were cleaning up their local streets in the aftermath of the street fighting, a group he assumed would be receptive to his hard-line message, he began to run through the ritual denunciation of “mindless thieves and looters”, but to his surprise was met by catcalls and jeers, and fled unceremoniously.

 

The youth rebellion has exposed the lies of progress in dealing with the racism that has been a foundation of British colonialism and the galloping inequalities that characterize contemporary UK society. It has brought to the light of day the grim oppression that afflicts millions whose lives are normally hidden from public view. All this offers possibilities for beginning to forge some kind of broader alliance to stand up for and with the youth.

 

In a society that is so marked by consumerism and by increasingly high levels of inequality, many even in the middle strata are taking a surprisingly tolerant view of what they perceive as an understandable redistribution of goods. The politicians, on the other hand, are justifying their merciless repression in the name of standing on the side of the middle class, especially small shopkeepers. Their “zero tolerance” of any infringement of the sanctity of private property, in the real world, mainly reflects the interests not of small proprietors but the tiny handful of monopoly capitalists and their representatives – the real criminal class.

 

And the measures they are taking today may well come back to haunt them. Pauline Pearce is a 45-year old black woman from Hackney, a scene of heavy fighting, who became prominent on YouTube for remonstrating with the youth in the midst of the revolt in opposition to burning a local shop, to “Get it real, Black people, get real. Do it for a cause. If we’re fighting for a fucking cause let’s fight for a fucking cause”. In reaction to the government’s subsequent crackdown on the youth, Pearce observed, “Right now, I feel there’s a nervous calm. Can you hear it? It’s a silence. It’s a calm before the storm. We’re going to end up in two years’ time with a lot of people coming out of jail with no qualifications, no jobs – and what’s that going to achieve? The government needs to be careful. Otherwise they’re going to end up with another right little civil uprising.”

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