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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 former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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‘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.

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James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a former Red Pepper editor. He is the head of activism for Global Justice Now.


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