Carl Taylor gives an eyewitness account of the London riots and the moral hysteria that’s followed
FOR FOUR days in early August angry crowds gathered in poor, inner city areas of London and fought running battles with riot police. The spark was the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan, a young black man from Tottenham, who police claimed had shot at them. This was a blatant lie. Reports have shown police shot into their own radio and claimed Mark Duggan had done so.
As burning cars and looting made global headlines, Tory Prime Minister David Cameron responded by whipping up a moral panic. He described the events as “mindless violence”, perpetrated by “thugs” and “gang members”. Cameron has now pledged a “fight back”. His hypocritical demonisation of the young and unemployed is designed to disguise his government’s attacks on those very people.
As Solidarity goes to press, over 2500 arrests have been made in relation to the riots. The London police alone are aiming for 3000 convictions. Magistrates have handed down harsh custodial sentences to those convicted of looting or rioting. Some legal experts have described many of the sentences as “disproportionate” and “hysterical.” Two men were given four-year jail terms for using Facebook to incite others to riot, while one woman received an 18 month jail term simply for receiving a pair of stolen shorts.
The hysteria has been amplified by the media, who, like Cameron, have rejected any notion of putting the riots in political context. Such was the level of moral outrage that the BBC were even forced to apologise after describing the rioters as “protesters.”
Voice of the voiceless
The rage on the streets was largely a response to the Tories’ attacks on working class people. They have taken a razor to jobs, welfare and public spending in the name of austerity. Cameron boasts his Welfare Reform Bill will “toughen up conditions for those out of work.” Half-a-million public sector jobs have been slashed and nearly one million young people cannot find work. In Tottenham eight out of thirteen youth centres have closed due to cuts.
While some of the anger expressed during the riots was misdirected at innocent people, most of it was aimed squarely at the police.
In Hackney, East London, ranks of riot police were pelted with bottles and bricks thrown from crowds of mostly young people venting their fury over the police harassment they endure daily. Young black men in the UK are 36 times more likely to be stopped and searched by a police officer than young white men.
Contrary to media reports, many rioters expressed their actions in political terms. I heard one man yell, “this is the front line, just like Afghanistan,” as he hurled a bottle into police lines.
Another, sporting a balaclava and a can of spray paint, spoke to Solidarity, insisting similar riots would occur elsewhere: “It will [happen], it’s happening everywhere, people are rising up,” he said.
Even calls by a small group to loot a jewellers shop only metres away could elicit no response. The crowd’s anger was focused on the police who had by then retreated after trying unsuccessfully to drive the rioters into an adjoining street.
In calmer moments, discussions about the police shooting of Mark Duggan could be heard alongside calls to barricade the road to help repel further police baton charges.
One middle-aged man offered Solidarity his explanation for the anger gripping his community, “they [the Tories] have cut the benefits and people have got no jobs, what do they expect is going to happen?”
Blaming the victim
But Cameron is not about to accept responsibility. Instead he is handing greater powers to police to confiscate property and force people to remove face coverings. Area-wide curfews have been proposed to keep people off the streets at night. Those who have been convicted over the riots are now being threatened with eviction from public housing and the loss of benefits.
David Cameron wants the poor to take the blame for what he calls “broken Britain.” He has lamented Britain’s “moral collapse”, the “breakdown of the family” and “parental responsibility”. The hypocrisy is astounding. The only moral collapse has been at the top. Cameron himself was knee-deep in the recent Murdoch phone-hacking scandal and his MPs were caught last year racking in thousands in illegal expense claims. The Tory Sir Peter Tapsell, who asked if the government could round up rioters in Wembley stadium, eas exposed for pocketing £23,000 a year rent for a second home in London.
The riots were an expression of despair and the outcome of a system of racism and poverty that is giving young people no hope for the future. Turning that collective anger into an organised fight back holds the key to challenging the real criminals and looters.