Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Looking beyond the flames

"A fight back is underway" against the rioters in London and across Britain, so says David Cameron. I've already commented on the initial riot in Tottenham, and offered some quick thoughts whilst watching the unrest spread across Britain. But as the jails fill up, and a wave of reaction grows, it's worth reflecting on the situation as it now stands.

Cameron has stated unequivocally that "whatever tactics the police feel they need to employ they will have legal backing to do so." A YouGov poll (PDF) showed considerable support for greater force to be employed by the state. The English Defence League has urged its followers to act as "a strong physical presence" against rioters. And of course the Daily Mail was first off the bat with the plea to shop a looter. In such a climate, it becomes almost impossible to analyse what's going on rationally without being attacked for advocating the mugging of babies - or something equally absurd.

But what we're seeing on the streets is a complex phenomenon. To seriously try and draw a line between two sides, right and wrong, is an exercise in futility. It may be easy for Cameron to dismiss the phenomenon as "mindless selfishness" caused by "a complete lack of responsibility in parts of our society," but for those of us who haven't just jetted back from Tuscany, it's not that simple.

These riots began with the death of Mark Duggan at the hands of the police. More accurately, at the vigil demanding answers for his death where a 16-year-old girl was attacked by riot police. Independent Police Complaints Commission reports confirm that Duggan did not fire at police, and there are even suggestions that he was held down when he was shot. Then there are the 333 deaths in police custody since 1998, the violence against protesters and football fans, harassment of youths, and deaths of people like Jean-Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson. All of which adds weight to the fact that, in opposing the injustices of the present conditions, it is difficult to find objections to attacks on the police.

But, likewise, to "offer unapologetic solidarity and support to those involved in the UK uprisings" doesn't quite cut it either. I can't declare solidarity with people who would help an injured teenager off the ground only to rob him, or who would set fire to a shop and leave a woman who lives above to narrowly avoid escape death. Whilst the outbreak of the riots came with a clear political context, the situation has since become far more complex, and it would be wrong to paint this event as a clear-cut class struggle when working class people are being attacked alongside cops and big chain stores.

Likewise, on the other side of the coin, there has been a laudable degree of community self-organisation in the opposition and response to the destruction. From people assembling on the streets to deter looters and defend their streets, to the clean-up operations organised via Facebook and Twitter, it was clear that people were acting on their own initiative rather than waiting for "leaders" to bail them out. That the EDL and BNP tried to piggyback onto this and paint themselves as defenders of the community doesn't change it's significance, any more than does the equally transparent opportunism from politicians like Liverpool council leader Joe Anderson.

The counterpoint to this is the huge number of people who support the use of ever more forceful tactics by the police, or even bringing in the army. Fuelled by the media and by the "tough" talk of politicians, there has been a growing reactionary sentiment amongst the public. This has already given Cameron licence to discard Theresa May's claim that "the way we police in Britain is through consent." As time passes, it could easily become the pretext for broader repression of dissent where it is needed. The reactionary consensus has also become a blunt instrument to silence any suggestion that the analysis of the riots as "mindless selfishness" may be over-simplistic. Anybody who doesn't unequivocally condemn the entire thing and demand that the army kneecap small children must be seen as a kind of intellectual Fagin, summoning demon youths onto the street through the power of independent thought. I am over-exaggerating, but sadly not all that much.

It is not possible in this situation to draw up "sides." Likewise, I don't want to get drawn into the "debate" on how the government should respond to these events. More important is how our class responds. There are a lot of people who are fed up with the status quo, but who see no way to show that beyond lashing out blindly. Organised, given a political context for their frustrations, the most disenfranchised section of the class becomes empowered.

Amidst the confusion and the contradictions, there are concrete examples of working class self-organisation in action. In the community defending itself - rioters against cops, residents against looters - as well as in the practical solidarity that drove the riot clean-ups. If we can draw upon such elements, whilst challenging the reactionary sentiments and indiscriminate violence they are embedded in, then we have the building blocks of a movement led from below, and of a working class able to stand up for itself and offer a real challenge to the status quo.