Riots: The left must respond

Let’s get on the streets and demand an end to cuts and police brutality, says James O’Nions

August 10, 2011
5 min read


James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He also manages local activism and events for Global Justice Now.

‘If you’re not careful the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.’ – Malcolm X

A depressing YouGov poll today (pdf) shows that 90 per cent of Britons believe police should be able to use water cannons to quell rioting, while a third believe they should have the use of live ammunition – in other words that they should be able to shoot indiscriminately at people with little accountability, as that’s what such a power would amount to. While we should be wary of polls of this kind as a real arbiter of public opinion, it is nevertheless clear that demands for a virtual police state in response to the riots are reaching fever pitch.

There is lots to be said from the left about the reasons the riots are happening, and commentators from Nina Power to Zoe Williams are starting to do so. We can talk about the impact of spending cuts to youth services, EMAs and the rest on cities where unemployment is high and inequality continues to grow. In London in particular, poor inner city neighbourhoods where young people can (very reasonably) see no decent future for themselves, nestle up against much wealthier areas which seem unaffected by the recession and are still living the high life of iPads, regular weekend breaks in Europe and fine dining.

We can also talk about the psychological impact of 30 years of neoliberalism and the rampant consumerism that goes with it. Hence the phenomenon of ‘consumer rioting’, with high street chains targeted not just for destruction, but for the latest accessories. This could be described as a kind of confused redistribution of wealth – unfair, based on individual smash and grab, and not really redistributing wealth much at all – but nevertheless motivated by keenly felt social injustice. Of course, some of the looting was for what could reasonably be described as necessities too, but any basic collective sentiment, beyond a shared sense of being a generation without hope, was lacking. This was not Athens.

We can and should also talk about the regular, humiliating stop and searches which many of those who have been rioting (and many of their peers who haven’t) undergo. Its no wonder that that the shooting of Mark Duggan set some of this off – these kids know just what brutal thugs the police often are. They know this wasn’t a one-off, but part of a continuum of police repression and impunity that will probably see them getting away with it again. And yes, many of them know exactly how useless and toothless the IPCC is. Of 333 deaths in police custody since 1998, none have resulted in a conviction.

But important though all this is, we need to do more than talk. The right is making the running, and the facts on the ground need changing. While some left commentators (and no, I don’t include Sunny Hundall in that category) have been saying the right things, left-leaning politicians rarely have. Diane Abbott was among the first to talk up the idea of a curfew. Ken Livingstone bashed the government for their cuts, but was most concerned to talk about cuts to the police in London leading to an inadequate response to the riots. He certainly won’t be talking about police violence, given the robust support he’s given to the Met in cases ranging from Jean Charles de Menezes to Ian Tomlinson.

What we need right now are channels for giving voice to the issues which lie behind the riots. This is starting to happen. Last night in Tottenham, 60-70 activists from Hackney and Haringey, called together by the Day Mer Kurdish association and Hackney Alliance to Defend Public Services, met to come up with a response. As a result there will be a demonstration on Saturday from Dalston to Tottenham under the slogan Give Our Kids a Future. Whatever your exact attitude to the rioting itself, its vital to build this demo, and others like it around the country, if we’re to turn the tide of reaction and have a hope of making demands for real social justice. (There is also a similar demo from Deptford High Street at 6.30pm to Lewisham Town Hall today, 10 August.)

All over the world, the rise of neoliberalism has been accompanied by the rise of the security state. This is no accident. The victory for the capitalist class that neoliberalism represents produces howls of protest from the oppressed. Sometimes they have political direction, and sometimes they don’t. The response of the Conservatives, and of elites the world over, is to deny any real grievances and unleash further state-led violence. If we want to build an alternative based on economic justice and freedom, our first job is to ensure that ordinary people aren’t cheering them on.


James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He also manages local activism and events for Global Justice Now.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.


278