The media has condemned the riots in London as mindless acts of destruction. The Sun newspaper screamed about an “orgy of mob violence”.
Tottenham MP David Lammy leapt on the bandwagon, saying the rioters were “mindless”.
But he is wrong. The riots are a response to the violence that people are forced to live with every day—violence that flows from oppression, poverty and alienation.
Just hours before, the police and the authorities ignored a protest of hundreds of people who marched on Tottenham police station to demand justice for Mark Duggan, shot dead by police the previous Thursday.
The state tries to discredit riots as the violence of a minority. That’s because it is terrified of mass resistance to issues like rising poverty and ongoing police violence. Anger at these injustices builds up like tinder—until someone lights a spark.
Ordinary people, who feel invisible most of their lives, take to the streets and take centre stage.
It’s not about people smashing up their local area for no reason. It’s about them expressing their anger, wherever they happen to be.
The violence of riots is minor compared to the violence the system inflicts on a daily basis—like the famine in Africa that is killing thousands of people and wars that slaughter millions.
Some say riots achieve nothing but give the state an excuse to clamp down on our rights. But riots can win important gains.
The riots in Britain in the 1980s forced the state to retreat from hardline policing. The government was forced to spend money on inner city areas. And they cemented the anti-racist atmosphere as black and white young people fought together.
The longest prison riot in Britain’s history took place at Strangeways prison in Manchester in 1991. Afterwards it was rebuilt and particularly degrading practices began to be phased out.
And we can’t limit ourselves to what our rulers deem “acceptable” behaviour—it is designed to stop us from fighting for real change. What if black people fighting apartheid in South Africa had stuck within the boundaries of the system? The racist apartheid system would still exist.
Riots often happen in the context of wider resistance, like during a general strike in Spain last year when police sparked riots because they tried to stop strikers picketing.
They can involve people coming together collectively to resist, growing into much bigger movements for change as people get a glimpse of their own power. They can grow into urban uprisings where people take control of entire areas—like in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1969.
But the outcome can vary. One participant in the Notting Hill riots in London in the 1970s recalled, “It was fantastically liberating at the time. There was a sense that you didn’t have to just take it from the police—if there’s enough of you the police will run away. But the question is—what do you do with that feeling?”
Where there is a low level of collective organisation, and individuals are not connected to a wider movement, riots can rise and fall quickly.
The initial burst of power is difficult to sustain, and can be trapped in confrontation with the state.
That is why riots alone don’t end oppression and exploitation. Riots worry the ruling class, but more is needed to truly scare them.
As the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg said, “Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken.”
Collective power in the workplace enables the progress of a movement to be decided democratically and collectively. That isn’t the case in the midst of a riot, however liberating.
But it would be a mistake to artificially counterpose strikes to riots and other forms of protest. The critical issue is how to fuse their anger, energy and defiance with the political consciousness and strategy of collective action.
Riots represent the rage people feel at the injustice of the system. Socialists take sides—we support everyone fighting back. As Martin Luther King put it, “Riots are the voice of the unheard”.