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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
10 August 2011

‘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.


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Erictered 10 August 2011, 14.23

Just had a look at you’re “about us” thread.
“non-profit making”.
Just underneath, “Donate to us”.
Another anarchist con.

O'Dear 10 August 2011, 16.14

Erm…how do you expect the publication to be funded? You are confusing profit with running costs. I’m not aware that red pepper has ever described itself as anarchist either. Even if it was, asking for donations to help with running costs sounds anarchist enough to me.

edward j 10 August 2011, 18.42

The reason these people don’t have jobs is they don’t WANT to work.

The reason these people don’t have jobs is they have criminal records.

The reason these people don’t have jobs is they’re illiterate and don’t try to improve themselves.

The reason these people are rioting is NOT that they don’t have jobs, it’s because they want an increase in their benefits.

These people who are rioting are the scum of the earth, the low life of the country. Yes Duggan was shot – whether he shot first is irrespective, he WAS in a gang and as such deserves to be killed in order to keep the public safe.

These people in gangs should be killed – end of, these people who are rioting should be shot on the spot, get rid of this scum.

Symon 10 August 2011, 19.31

Interest rates are at half of a percent. How many more people won’t have jobs once either rates are forced to rise or we have rampant inflation or both.

The monetary system is corrupt. Private central banks, enjoy the privilege of creating money out of thin air and then lending to the government at interest.

It we who pay that interest through taxes enabling private central banks to literally make profit from out of thin air.

The bank of England Exposed


Symon 10 August 2011, 22.38

What is going on is so obvious.

http://carscoop.blogspot.com/2011/07/ferrari-reports-best-ever-six-months-in.html What global recession?

Everyone is angry and that can be a good thing if we consolidate that anger and direct it at the real culprits.

Turn against each other and they win and they continue.

We are being dangled on puppet strings. Let’s turn this around.

Cameron and Murdoch were in news headlines a few weeks ago. Let’s be sure, not let them of the hook.

Symon 10 August 2011, 23.21

This is who we are right now


Aren’t you just proud.

Guess who the culprits are and guess who stands to benefit and prosper.

Did you guess not you?

Brendan 11 August 2011, 02.58

If we’re about standing with people who’ve been oppressed and terrorised then right now we should be speaking out for those who have been persecuted by the rioters, had their homes and businesses burnt and vandalised, been attacked, injured, and now, tragically, killed. Yes, there other vulnerable groups we should stand up for, but NOW is the time to show solidarity and listen to what victims of the rioters are saying. Anything else will make us look like callous idiots. Given that so many victims of the riots seem to be from w/c, BME, or immigrant groups, this is doubly the case.

Lee 11 August 2011, 06.45

‘In London in particular, poor inner city neighbourhoods where young people can (very reasonably) see no decent future for themselves’

Are you kidding? In London you’re only a tube ride away from some of the wealthiest areas on the planet – with loads of employment opportunities.

It’s not the same in the former mining villages of Yorkshire which have suffered decades of poverty and lack of opportunity, and there’s no way out due to poor public transport links.

Could you please point out to me anywhere in London which only has one bus an hour which then takes nearly an hour to reach the nearest economic centre? This doesn’t help when you’re trying to find a job.

Symon 11 August 2011, 07.45

Look… this is the true face and nature of the financial class. If you watch and listen carefully, you will get a glimpse of what is in store for us should we fail to wake up soon. Very soon.


They set the curriculum, they control the media, they are behind the various think tank groups etc. and they control our governments regardless of which party we vote for.

Point being you cannot rely on the system for the truth. You must look outside it.

Deceit. Distraction. Divide and Rule. That’s how they play us.

Stay focussed and inform as many as you can as to what is really going on.

Symon 11 August 2011, 11.19

How the Banks make big bucks


We pay the interest and when we are broke and destitute they clean up yet again.


Only with the collusion of government can this looting of our economy and our wealth take place. Our governments have been captured.

This is the challenge, to restore representative government that serves the interest of the people and are not controlled or beholden to the financial elite.

Scott ffolliot 11 August 2011, 14.31

Mix poverty and oppression and voila

Next the lesson of the Troy gentrification scheme: The Capitalists move out the poverty and move in the well-heeled middle class. The wonders of the free market place.

Isabel 11 August 2011, 15.31

“If we’re about standing with people who’ve been oppressed and terrorised then right now we should be speaking out for those who have been persecuted by the rioters, had their homes and businesses burnt and vandalised, been attacked, injured, and now, tragically, killed.” – Agreed. A good point – we could do more but there are efforts in this direction already. The North London Unity Demonstration has this demand:

Support for those affected by the rioting, including the immediate rehousing of people made homeless, grants for affected small businesses, and restoration of damaged areas.

This also isn’t just a demand for the protest. It is practically being carried out – people are mobilising support in Tottenham for people who lost their homes. But it is also possible to also underline the social and economic factors which contributed to the riots. The march is also a place for people to voice their opposition to what happened – it is possible to do this and ALSO demand no closure to youth services and no to further police powers and stop and search. Can people stop suggesting that thinking about the complex causes of the riots is somehow showing a lack of support for people negatively affected by them. Surely trying to address underlying problems will actually help not hinder quality of life in our respective neighbourhoods.

jane 11 August 2011, 17.41

The lack of ‘jobs’ always gets mentioned by the Left, but the Left refuses to admit to the fact that 90% of jobs created over the last few years have gone to migrant workers.

You can’t have it both ways.

Prioritising looking like ‘nice Lefties’ just finishes up as a gutless cop-out from the issues – issues from which, for sure, young people here are suffering the consequences.

Heather 11 August 2011, 17.44

What no politician is prepared to say is that rampant capitalism caused these riots. Capitalism is not working, but everyone is scared to think of an alternative or is unable too. However, the participants of the riots, those committing the looting and arson come across as arrogant, selfish sh*ts. OK, capitalism made them that way, but still, if you lived in one of the affected communities, as I do, it was a thoroughly scary experience. I am all for a curfew if it stops thugs destroying our community.

Symon 11 August 2011, 19.10

This is not capitalism this corporatism. If it were capitalism, the tax payer wouldn’t be bailing out the speculative loses of the bankers and face austerity in return.

Those guilty of plunder, no matter who they are, should be bought to justice.


Brendan 13 August 2011, 00.52

@ isabel I didn’t suggest we shouldn’t look for reasons, but don’t equate that with deciding you already know what they are ( which many here seem to do), ie poverty, racism, brutality, etc. I’m sure some or all of these are implicated, but the real impression here and elsewhere is of a knee-jerk reaction and leaping to familiar positions without actually thinking and listening (for instance to the victims of the riots). This is what we accuse the right of doing, but I don’t see much difference. And if you talking about complexity, then, for instance, the role of parents, gang culture, ‘discipline’, dependencynetc, may not be palatable to us as reasons, but they are certainly not simplistic.

Comments are now closed on this article.

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