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Police and Thieves: Making Sense of the English Riots

After witnessing several nights of turmoil, the people of the United Kingdom are still trying to comprehend what just happened. There's no simple explanation for this apparently leaderless and rudderless uprising in London and several other cities. But amid the grim ashes and street clashes, the message of rage has seared itself into the public consciousness, rekindling an age-old tinderbox of class warfare.

Burning car

Observers dismiss them as roaming bands of delinquents. Or they describe them as well-organized, tech-savvy flash mobs. They're portrayed alternately as greedy opportunists or as disaffected youth whose day-to-day misery goes ignored until a crisis breaks out. Reflecting the diversity of urban Britain, they are everyone and no one. And they're just kids.

Though the unrest initially grew out of a protest against police brutality in the poor, racially mixed enclave of Tottenham (where another famous riot took place in the 1980s), it's escalated to a level that many people couldn't imagine: So much breaking and burning happening in one of the most prosperous nations in the world.

Yet the riots bleakly mirror the state of working-class Britain. The initial demonstrations, over the death of a local young man, Mark Duggan, stoked long-simmering hatred for the police, who are notorious for mistreating black and Asian youth (paralleling the situation in U.S. cities).

At the same time, youth struggle with massive unemployment, especially in poor neighborhoods like Tottenham, and their government coddles big business while slashing basic welfare services. Though it's not inevitable that these trends will provoke disorder, it's clear that youth have little incentive to conform to a social order that makes them feel utterly powerless. Daily Telegraph columnist Mary Riddell warns that “In uneasy societies, people power—whether offered or stolen—can be toxic.”

Yet there's a palpable absence of a coherent left or labor movement to harness this aggression and channel dissent into positive action. A London-based branch of the union UNISON wrote on its blog on Tuesday:

People in working class communities have looked on with fear as riots destroyed local shops and left some people homeless. Clearly we don’t support opportunistic looting or for acts of random violence. However, if we are to avoid a return to the social unrest and public disorder seen in the 1980s, this demands a response from our community and its leaders which goes beyond mere condemnation.

We must ask why are our young people so angry and how can we unite our community?

The question of why cuts both ways: systemic ills are undeniably feeding into the unrest. But the assumption that rioting is simply a reflexive manifestation of despair reinforces the stereotype that “anti-social” behavior is endemic to poor youth of color. And while everyone is busy pathologizing youth, they'd do well to examine the prevailing societal attitudes that have quietly aided and abetted the rioters' “crime.”

There's a link between the madness unfolding in the streets and the grand delusion in Parliament that the poor are to blame for their own predicament—a deeply ingrained philosophy that was most recently encapsulated in the “Big Society” austerity cuts.

Social historian Ted Vallance says that today's riots resonate with well-worn historical patterns of revolt against the establishment, from the mine worker strikes that helped topple Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath in the 1970s, to the scathing anti-Thatcher poll tax riot in Trafalgar Square. But Vallance also sees a lack of political valence in the current disturbances:

Damage to property has, of course, been a feature of many violent protests in Britain's past. The Suffragettes famously targeted gentleman's outfitters as symbols of patriarchal oppression. More recently, anti-capitalist protesters have often targeted major global brands such as McDonalds and Starbucks.

But the youths involved in this August's unrest have hit local independent shops and chain stores alike—the only discrimination evident is the value placed on particular goods. It has been the accoutrements of urban youth—box-fresh trainers, smart phones, clothes—which have been most readily plundered. The only ideology on display, if it can even be called that, is that of the kindergarten: "Finders keepers".

Still, it's too facile to dismiss the riots as a mindless tantrum. The blog anticutsspace expresses ambivalence and anguish on the left:

We offer unapologetic solidarity and support to those involved in the UK uprisings these past nights. This sentiment extends to both the rioters and to those communities affected by them. We also acknowledge that the unrest has ruined many people’s livelihoods, and homes have been burnt and agree that these will always be the wrong targets for attack. But we know that this sort of looting and destruction are the last actions of the completely impoverished and disenfranchised.

Once again, politicians, the media, and police chiefs tell us that ‘criminal elements’ have ‘hijacked’ legitimate grievances and that ‘thugs’ and ‘outsiders’ are responsible. As the riots spread across the capital and country there are fewer and fewer ways to be an ‘outsider.’ If not ours, then from which society are these rioters?

Not surprisingly, there's little soul-searching of the political class's own culpability in creating the social exclusion that led up to the “anarchy.” Supposedly the problem isn't too much policing but too little, it's not the lack of educational opportunities or youth programs in these neighborhoods but the poor parents who can't control their children. Fresh from their summer holidays, Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson have put London on lock down with 16,000 police, as if the state had been awaiting a pretext to write off “feral” youth as hopeless and justify disinvestment from their communities.

Hannah Sell of the U.K. Socialist Party suggests grassroots action in the vein of the Arab Spring can reframe the public dialogue on youthful strife:

...while the riots have received huge media coverage, they are allowing the capitalist media and the government to further demonise young people, and to potentially divide the struggle against the government.

However, the government can only be defeated by building a mass, united movement of all those under attack from it. The organised working class in the trade unions have the key role to play.

After the fires die down, the U.K. may wake up to a far more oppressive, fearful urban landscape. But the fallout could spur the creation of something that politicians fear more than any ordinary riot: an organized mass movement that knows exactly what it wants and how to get it. We may be seeing the first stirrings of renewed solidarity as neighbors organize community clean-up projects.

And in a few days, activists with the Youth Fight for Jobs campaign , an alliance of labor and community groups, will rally to protest the government's attack on social welfare and to demand equitable opportunities for education and jobs. A leaflet for the gathering proclaims:

We need a mass movement of young people linking with workers who are fighting back....

If we link together with workers taking action and get organised to fight for our services and community we can beat this government that is looting our future!

In a world that denies them a future, youth cannot be condemned for acting as if there's no tomorrow. But it's also up to them to resist despair by demonstrating consciousness and dignity in the face of dehumanizing oppression. Maybe it shouldn't take a riot to get people to take action, but now that it's happened, there's no excuse not to.

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