For four days and nights starting on Saturday, August 8, massive unrest swept through many areas of London and a number of other cities in England, shaking that imperialist country to its foundations. This year has already seen mass uprisings and societal upheaval across the world—in Egypt, throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Spain, Greece, Chile, and elsewhere. Now, images flashed across the globe of hundreds of thousands of youth and others taking to the streets of Britain, exploding in rage at a society that offers them no future except deprivation, brutality, and hopelessness.
What sparked it off was a vicious police murder of a young black man in Tottenham in north London. Tottenham is majority white, with significant numbers of people of African and Caribbean origin, as well as South Asian immigrants. And it is one of the poorest areas of London. According to news accounts, a special police unit, heavily armed, shot 29-year-old Mark Duggan, who had four kids and lived in the Broadwater Farm Estate, a large public housing complex. The Evening Standard, the main London evening newspaper, quoted a witness who saw a swarm of police forcing Duggan and another man out of the cab they were riding in. "About three or four police officers had both men pinned on the ground at gunpoint," the witness said. "They were really big guns and then I heard four long shots. The police shot him [Duggan] on the floor." Duggan was killed with one shot to his chest.
Semone Wilson, Duggan's girlfriend, said: "I spoke to him at about 5 pm and he asked me if I'd cook dinner. He said he spotted a police car following him. By 6:15 he had been gunned down. I kept phoning and phoning to find out where he was. He wasn't answering. I rushed down to where it happened. They let me through the police lines but they wouldn't let me see his body."
The police at first alleged that Duggan had fired a gun at them, and that they had shot him in self-defense. They claimed that the only reason one of the officers was not killed was that a bullet from Duggan's weapon lodged in the cop's radio. It soon came out that the bullet that struck the radio came from one of the police weapons. The cop who shot Mark Duggan said he never claimed that Duggan had fired a gun. The whole police story was exposed as a lie to justify cold-blooded murder.
Further stoking people's fury was the way officials treated a group of protesters, including members of Mark Duggan's family, who marched to the police station after the killing to demand that the police tell the truth about what happened. The police refused to talk seriously with the protesters. And when a 16-year-old woman approached the police to ask questions, she was "set upon with batons," according to a witness interviewed by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
That night Tottenham was turned upside down, as barricades went up and street fighting with cops erupted. The next day, Sunday, the flames broke out in many other areas in and around the British capital: Hackney, Enfield, and elsewhere in the northern boroughs; Brixton and other areas in the south; Oxford Street in central London, the city's main shopping district; and suburbs farther out. By Monday and Tuesday, the unrest had spread to other major British cities, such as Birmingham and Gloucester in central England, Manchester, Salford, Liverpool and Nottingham farther north and Bristol in the southwest.
The British rulers flooded London with 16,000 cops, reportedly the largest police presence in the city's history. The police have continued to go after people following the days of unrest, and by August 12 there were reports that at least 1,900 people had been arrested so far in London and other cities. The police have been using photographs and videos, and possibly Twitter and other social media records, to identify targets for arrest.
Who Are the Biggest Criminals?
From the first hours of the mass revolt and continuously since then, British politicians and media—from the right-wing Conservative Party of current Prime Minister David Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's reactionary-sensationalist tabloids, to the liberal wing of the British bourgeoisie represented by the Labour Party and the BBC—have been rabidly denouncing the youth as "criminals" intent on "mindless violence." They have ruled out of order any suggestion that the upheaval is connected with the killing of Mark Duggan and the overall conditions of poverty, racism, and police brutality.
A report from the A World to Win News Service said, "First, consider the hypocrisy of the political and media spokesman of this system flying into a frenzy of outrage at inner city youth stealing trainers [athletic shoes], mobile phones or other petty items. This ruling class built their system on the slave trade, they enforced a colonial empire at the cost of tens of millions of lives, and today they make hundreds of billions from an empire that stretches around the globe and is enforced at gunpoint in Afghanistan and Iraq. These world-class imperialist hypocrites have no right to condemn anyone for 'looting and thieving.'" ("London's burning—the revolt of the youth," August 9)
Appearing on the BBC talk show Newsnight on August 9, Iranian-British rapper Reveal said, "The early morning stock advice was, take advantage of people's fear, to capitalize on low prices. Look at their [the youths'] 'role models.' They see their government invading and taking wherever they want around the world."
"They wanted to fight the police"
There were reports of many small shops and family stores being broken into or burned down during the four days. According to A World to Win News Service, "The masses taking part in this revolt or out on its fringes are full of the contradictions that come from being part of capitalist society, but being in its most oppressed sections. In one housing estate in the center of the fighting in Hackney, one African-Caribbean mother lamented that the youth were getting away from the original cause of justice for Mark Duggan, and was especially upset at the looting of local shops, but when her son and his mates showed up with a bag of new clothes for her, she was delighted...."
But clearly, within this swirl of contradictions, there was a real sense among the youth in the streets—and more broadly among the people in these communities—that here was a chance to fight back against the armed forces of the state that routinely brutalize and humiliate them. On British TV, a young man was asked if he thought rioting was the right way to express discontent. He answered, "Yes. You wouldn't be talking to me now if we didn't riot, would you?" He continued, "Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard [London Metropolitan Police headquarters], more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you."
An August 9 article in the Guardian newspaper on the scene in Hackney's Pembury Estate housing project was headlined in part, "There was no doubting their aim: they wanted to fight the police." According to the article, for several hours it was the crowds of people "who set the law" there: "Masked youths—both men and women—helped carry debris, bins, sticks and motorbikes, laying them across the roads to form a flaming boundary to the estate.... A man with a Jamaican flag across his face sprayed in red across the entrance to one tower block: 'Fuck Da Police.' 'Come and get us, man,' shouted another, as he hurled a bottle at riot police gathered in the distance."
The killing of Mark Duggan was the match that lit the fire, but rage at the police had been deep and hot already. Black people in Britain are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than whites (a statistic that resonates with those familiar with the infamous "stop and frisk" policy of the New York police, who make an average of 2,000 arbitrary stops a day—with nine out of ten people stopped being Black or Latino). When asked what the youth were angry about, a black student on BBC's Newsnight talk show answered: "They're angry about Joint Enterprise laws, which people, groups of people could be criminalized, even innocent people who know criminals. And if you live in a poor area, if you ever have, you know that it's almost impossible not to know a criminal. And if you're going to be criminalized by that, at a young age, you're going to be sent to jail by the Joint Enterprise laws. You're going to come out, you don't have prospects for a job after that...."
And the people have also seen the police repeatedly lie about their crimes, as they did with their murder of Mark Duggan. In 2005, when the police shot Jean Charles de Menezes, a young Brazilian man, six times in the head following the bombings on London's transportation system, the police said he was behaving like a "terrorist"—in fact, he was doing nothing out of the ordinary. In 2008, when Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper vendor, was clubbed to death during the protests against the G8 countries, the police blamed the protesters—in fact, he was killed by a police sergeant. In April this year, when Smiley Culture, a 48-year-old reggae musician, was killed with a knife wound to his chest during a police raid on his house, the police claimed he had stabbed himself—a highly suspicious story that has led to angry protests.
Further breaking down the legitimacy of the police in people's eyes has been the ongoing scandal around the Murdoch media empire. Two top officers of London's Metropolitan Police were forced to resign when it came out that they had accepted large "gifts" from Murdoch, and that Murdoch's tabloids had given cops thousands of dollars in bribes to obtain information to hack into personal phones of crime victims and celebrities.
The Killing Cutbacks
Another factor fueling the rage that broke through in the streets of England is the current government's vicious "austerity" program. Like the U.S. and other capitalist governments around the world, a key part of the way the British rulers are responding to the overall financial crisis of the capitalist system is to drastically slash government programs dealing with health, education, housing, and so forth—programs that have already been repeatedly cut through the recession of the past few years.
These cuts are hitting especially hard at people already caught in desperate poverty. A World to Win News Service points out, "Unemployment nationwide has almost doubled in 3 years, and it is especially high in places like Tottenham—for every job in the borough there are 54 young people there who need work, and the unemployment rate for black youth is over 50%. One study reported that Tottenham is actually one of the areas of Britain that will be least affected by the government cutbacks—because there was almost nothing to be cut back to start with!"
All this has led to mounting frustration and anger, not only among the "permanently unemployed" and others at the very bottom, but also more broadly among the working poor, students, and others. Last year, British students protesting the tripling of university fees clashed with the police. Among those appearing in court in London after being arrested for the recent events were "a graphic designer, a postal employee, a dental assistant, a teaching aide, a forklift driver and a youth worker." (New York Times, August 11, 2011) A young man in Hackney said, "They were not your typical hoodlums out there. There were working people, angry people. They've raised rates, cut child benefit. Everyone just used it as a chance to vent." (Reuters, August 10, 2011)
Through all the complexity and contradictoriness, one key thing the four days of youth revolt revealed was the potential of the masses of people to not just shake up the hated established order, but to act to overthrow the current system and bring about a radically new, liberated society... IF they have leadership that bases itself on the largest interests of humanity and that has a real strategy for revolution.
More Repression from the Top... Anger Simmers Below
On August 10, Prime Minister Cameron declared that "nothing was off the table" in going after people allegedly involved in the unrest and suppressing future revolts. He dismissed "phony human rights concerns" about using high-tech surveillance and policing measures, and raised the possibility of the police using water cannons for the first time in England. Cameron's talk about "phony human rights concerns" is nothing but a pre-emptive rationale for unleashing extreme repression against the people involved in the upsurge and against whole communities of the oppressed. Cameron has already threatened to evict anyone accused of unlawful activities in the rebellion—and their families—from government-subsidized housing. Asked whether that meant people would be left homeless, Cameron said, "They should have thought of that before they started burgling." There were calls among politicians and in the media to beef up the police forces or even consider the use of the army to put down future unrest—as more major cutbacks in social services and other attacks on the people lie ahead.
The thinly disguised or even openly racist views coming from top officials and in the media have also further emboldened fascist ultra-nationalist groups like the English Defence League or the British National Party. Racist mobs, including members of those groups, have openly marched around and threatened to "kill blacks," and there have been many calls on "respectable" blogging sites like Yahoo UK to expel and even "exterminate" immigrants.
But as the swaggering British rulers counter-attack, it's also clear they've been rocked back on their heels. A World to Win News Service wrote that the youth proved "far more fluid and fast-moving than even the mobile police forces." And, "This has caused shock among the establishment 'talking heads,' who have struggled to explain this. They recoil at the idea that there are broad ranks of youth, numbering in the millions, who feel themselves to be excluded from society and to have no allegiance to its norms and rules and who long for the chance they are getting today." What took place in the streets of Britain was a revolt against the hated established order. And the oppressive state that enforces that order is increasingly losing legitimacy in the eyes of millions, among those at the very bottom and more broadly throughout society.
For now, the government has regained control of the streets of London and other British cities. But the four hot days of August have left a strong impression on many, that things can change. A 23-year-old man said a few days later, "I loved Hackney during the riot. I loved every minute of it. It was great to see the people coming together to show the authorities that they cannot just come out here bullying."