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The August Riots – one year after

Racism rife, jobs and services in shreds, justice denied – Jeremy Dewar reports

Pam Duggan, whose son was shot by Metropolitan Police officers a year ago, told a memorial service held for Mark Duggan on Sunday 5 August: “We still don’t have justice. I won’t give up until I get justice for Mark.”

Pam and her family still know next to nothing about the facts surrounding the murder of her son.

The bullet lodged in a policeman’s vest was not fired from the gun it was alleged that Mark was carrying, but from a police firearm. The said gun was then said to be in a sock in the taxi (the driver of which has not been heard of since), and now the police are hinting that it may have been found on a wall. So the police version of a firefight in which Mark was killed is a pack of lies.

The complacent and complicit Independent Police Complaints Commission has connived in the cover-up. All 31 police officers at the scene – why 31, why so many for a man with no record of violence? – have refused to answer any questions for the IPCC. In short the cops are totally unreliable witnesses and have shown utter contempt for the course of justice.

The toothless IPCC should be scrapped; instead a public inquiry with full powers, led by Duggan’s family, community organisations and unions, should investigate and prosecute those found guilty or refusing to cooperate.

 

A political uprising

When family, friends and activists confronted Tottenham’s police to demand answers to their questions about Mark’s death, they met a wall of silence; one young woman was manhandled. Word spread fast of this latest insult. Within hours Tottenham was aflame – though the police again tried to lie about the cause for the anger that spilled over that night.

What followed was the most intense and longest period of rioting this country has seen in living memory. From Tottenham to Hackney, Peckham, Brixton and Croydon, then to Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and Liverpool, England was ablaze. At least 66 towns, boroughs and cities were affected and, according to the Metropolitan Police, 30,000 people got involved in London alone.

The immediate, knee-jerk response of most politicians was to dismiss it as the work of gangs and petty thieves – “criminality, pure and simple,” said prime minister David Cameron – or to pretend a sudden outburst of collective madness had descended – “mindless, mindless people,” local Labour MP David Lammy called them.

Those on the left of Labour – like former London mayor Ken Livingstone, and Hackney MP Diane Abbot – and some union leaders – Mark Serwotka and Len McCluskey, for example – tried to turn the debate onto local deprivation, the recent hike in tuition fees and abolition of the education maintenance allowance (EMA), and the hypocrisy of politicians fiddling expenses, billionaires evading taxes and newspaper barons hacking phones.

But none of them pointed to the real causes of the burning anger of the youth: police racism, harassment and corruption, the systemic crisis of capitalism, and the indifference of all the mainstream parties.

Indeed in the heat of the moment even some of the so-called far left claimed there was “nothing progressive in looting and smashing shops” and the riots were “a reflection of the depoliticisation of the black and youth communities”. Likewise the Alliance for Workers Liberty first lectured the youth for “alienating the labour movement” and boosting racism and the English Defence League (neither of which has happened), then concluded: “there is nothing for anyone romanticise about in these outbreaks, by giving them titles such as ‘insurrection’ and ‘rebellion’”.

The study by the London School of Economics and The GuardianReading the Riots – involved interviews with 270 rioters, amassing to over 1.3 million words, has demolished this kind of armchair commentary. It is the most comprehensive and methodologically sound report of what happened – and it confirms that last August saw an explosion of anger from working class youth of all ethnicities against the system.

Reading the Riots put to rest the notion that the riots were mainly the work of criminal gangs: “Despite David Cameron saying gangs were ‘at the heart’ of the disturbances… the research found gang members played only a marginal role in the riots.” Looting was driven mainly by opportunism: “a perceived suspension of normal rules presented them with an opportunity to acquire goods and luxury items they could not ordinarily afford”.

But the most important finding was that the motivation for the violence was hatred of the police, for example:

“One 17-year-old Muslim, who was in full-time work in Tottenham, north London, and took part in the riots, told researchers of an episode when he was stopped by police on his way to school when he was 13: “One of them said to the other one: ‘Mate, why don’t you ask him where Saddam [Hussein] is. He might be able to help out.’ They’re supposed to be law enforcement. I hate the police. I don’t hate the policing system, I hate the police on the street. I hate them from the bottom of my heart.”

A 27-year-old woman from Salford confirmed that police are constantly harassing young people: “’Take your hat off, take your hood off, what you doing, empty your pockets, there’s four of you, you’ve got to split up, you can’t go round in a group – even when they are not doing anything wrong.”

Only 7 per cent of the rioters thought the police were doing a good job, while the vast majority of those interviewed said the main reasons they took part were poverty (86 per cent) and policing (85 per cent).

Seventy-three per cent of respondents said they had been stopped and searched in the past 12 months. Several referred to the police as a “gang”, who regularly plant evidence, beat people up and shoot people. Many rioters not only knew of Mark Duggan, but also other victims killed in police custody, like Smiley Culture and Roger Sylvester.

The Guardian/LSE report also found that political grievances spread beyond the police, however. The government, the queen and the bankers were frequently mentioned as symbols of injustice, callousness and inequality.

A woman in her 30s told Reading the Riots:

I think some people were there for justice for that boy who got killed. And the rest of them because of what’s happening: the cuts, the government not doing the right thing. No job, no money. And the young these days need to be heard. It’s got to be justice for them.” A young lad from Liverpool saw the riots in terms of class: “It doesn’t really matter if it’s Labour or Conservative because the people behind the scenes are always the same, but especially this particular Conservative government on the face of it. I hate them … It’s in their eyes, you know what I mean? They hate the lower classes.

As we said at the time, “In all cases, there were a mix of people, classes and motivations for those who came onto the streets. Like revolutions, so-called ‘riots’ bring people from all the lower classes onto the streets, but this does not mean it is impossible to discern the dominant groups and the main class interests driving the action. It was in the main an uprising of working class youth against police brutality, racism and harassment, and the underlying conditions facing the working class today: mass unemployment (20 percent for youth, 50 percent for black youth), low wages and inflation, the reduction in benefits, including EMA, the raising of tuition fees, poor housing and a chronic housing shortage, and cuts in public services, especially in youth services and education (schools, colleges, universities).”

 

Repression and resistance

If the uprising was political, then so was the wave of repression that crashed down on those charged with theft and criminal damage. Kangaroo courts sat through the night.

The scale of the clampdown was extraordinary: 3,051 cases were brought to court on riot-related charges; 1,968 were found guilty; 846 people still languish in prisons, 86 of whom are under the age of 18. While some of those held are real criminals, guilty of attacks on firefighters, muggings and setting fire to workers’ homes, the large majority are innocent, guilty only of venting their fury against the police and the system.

Teenagers, many deprived of sleep and denied access to families, were encouraged to plead guilty to offences they may or may not have committed in return for more lenient sentencing. They received neither justice nor mercy. In a bizarre twist of logic, injustice minister Ken Clarke directed judges and magistrates to tear up sentencing guidelines and hand down exemplary – i.e. political – punishments.

One magistrate commented that the unprecedented breakdown of law and order demanded such stiff sentencing, whereas anyone who thought about this for one moment would conclude the opposite: that here were thousands of people who were not criminals and would not steal were it not for the exceptional circumstances. Far from deterring further criminal activity, it soon emerged that young people were joining gangs in prison for protection.

There are hundreds of examples of unjust sentences, but just one might encapsulate the heady mix of reaction, racism and revenge that drove the establishment’s response.

Anderson Fernandes walked into an open, ransacked Patisserie Valerie cafe in Manchester and helped himself to two scoops of ice-cream and a cone. After one lick, he gave it away because he did not like the coffee flavour. District Judge Jonathan Taafe, who admitted the crime was “trivial”, sentenced Anderson to 16 months, claiming he had a “public duty to deal swiftly and harshly with matters of this nature”.

Now released on parole, Fernandes is facing deportation to Portugal, despite having no friends or family there and having only spent a few years as a baby in the country, and banned from re-entering the UK for 10 years. He told The Independent, “I had never been to prison before. I thought I would get community service or a tag. It’s not like I smashed a shop or broke anything,” adding, “It was such a stupid thing to do and I haven’t stopped being punished for it since.”

Now is the time for youth, the unemployed and young workers to get organized and fight back. The social crisis they kicked out against in 2011 has not gone away: 20 per cent youth unemployment (50 per cent for young black men); minimum wage jobs and workfare; poor and cramped housing; £9,000 a year tuition fees and no grants even for college courses… the list goes on.

The whole labour movement must take up demands for full employment on trade union rates of pay, equal rates for benefits and wages, including the minimum wage, decent housing, a million new council homes, and free education for all with a living grant for over-16s. Equally important, the unions should use their affiliation to the Labour Party to demand the disarming of the police and disbanding of their special units, like TSG, SO15 and CO20 and the swift trial of officers accused of racism and violence.

But young people should not wait for the official labour movement to come to their support. They can and should organise to defend their areas from racist attack and violence wherever it comes from, gangs or the police, to fight against workfare and for free education. Reading the Riots highlighted the strong link, both in terms of the people involved and the concerns of the rioters, between the student movement of 2010 and the uprising of 2011. We need to make this link permanent – with a mass socialist youth movement, which REVOLUTION is campaigning to bring into existence.

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