Socialist Worker

Racism, riots and resistance

Following the urban revolt that saw riots across Britain, Weyman Bennett spoke to Socialist Worker about the causes of the uprisings and the demonisation that followed them

Issue No. 2265

Police run through Hackney, east London during the recent riots  (Pic: http://www.guysmallman.com/Guy Smallman )

Police run through Hackney, east London during the recent riots (Pic: Guy Smallman)


What do you say to those who argue that the riots were not about politics, but simply about looting?

Riots don’t appear out of nowhere. They are a cry of rage against systematic injustice and oppression.

In Tottenham, people were expressing their anger at the killing of yet another black person at the hands of the police.

The police came in heavy-handed—and people erupted.

Riots have always been about poverty and inequality.

But there is a reason for the looting. All our lives we are told we are incomplete unless we have the newest gadgets, the perfect home and designer clothing.

But we are constantly denied these things because they are unaffordable.

Riots open the floodgates and all the pent up anger people feel pours out.

People helped themselves to things they are usually denied.

Do riots make life harder for poor people?

No one wants to see ordinary people lose their homes.

There are reports that the riots made 47 people homeless. But the government’s new benefit rules will see 300 people lose their homes in Tottenham alone.

In Tottenham eight out of 13 youth centres have been closed down.

One in three families lives in overcrowded conditions.

The government has cut Education Maintenance Allowance so young people can’t study, and there are no jobs.

The damage caused by the riots is nothing compared to the organised looting of the government and their Bullingdon Club mates.

Why has anger at police racism exploded now?

Some of the gains of the 1970s and 1980s have been pushed back.

Stop and search, overwhelmingly targeting black people, is at record levels. Up to one in four people in Tottenham have been officially stopped and searched in the past month.

In 40 years, not one police officer has been prosecuted for murdering a black person.

That tells generation after generation that the lives of black people are not worth much to the system.

And when Mark Duggan was killed, people witnessed it.

They saw the same lies repeated—that there was a shootout when there wasn’t.

There is a folk memory of police violence and racism. Cynthia Jarrett, Joy Gardner and Roger Sylvester all died in police custody.

People know what the police have got away with.

Labour brought us Asbos and criminalised a generation of young people.

The Tories’ racist agenda against multiculturalism means no one believes they will hold the police accountable over the deaths of black people.

In the 1980s some black activists and politicians stood by people fighting racism. Where are they today?

Some of the best fighters have been co-opted by the system. The police got funding to draw in black leaders and talk of black people taking responsibility for their “own communities” began.

Many have gained from this—becoming MPs, councillors or government advisors.

Now they demand more discipline for black youth and harsher stop and search powers. That legitimises police racism.

MPs like Diane Abbott can afford to send her child to a private school while she lectures poor black people about being bad parents.

Then they are surprised when people explode in anger and don’t listen to them.

Are riots counter-productive because they will lead to tougher policing?

The government and the police will try to use the riots to clamp down. But riots aren’t the problem—the system is.

Some say riots won’t achieve anything.

It was initially the same after the riots in 1981.

But later the government had to recognise the huge social crisis in society and put resources into poor areas.

The suffragettes, celebrated by Labour leader Ed Miliband, rioted to win votes for women.

These riots are no different to the ones today.

We win gains by fighting back.

Why is there such a strong ruling class consensus on the riots?

It’s partly because so many on the left have given up defending people.

In the 1980s the Labour left defended the rioters. They identified unemployment as the problem. Where are they now?

Tony Blair cut his teeth demonising working class youth.

He said he would get tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime.

This isn’t a leap to today, with the Tories proposing taking away homes and benefits from rioters, and Labour agreeing.

But the real reason for the consensus is that the riots show how weak the ruling class is.

The government wants massive cuts. Labour would make the same cuts a little slower. The riots show that people can resist.

We have seen a lot of emphasis on the clean-up campaign and reports of vigilantes. Do you worry about a backlash?

The government and mainstream press love the “clean up” because it can fool people into thinking the riots have no support.

Some people will have had good intentions—but the government and the media has used them.

Coverage of the clean-up has been in predominantly white, middle class areas.

Combined with an emphasis on the “failings” of black families, it has a nasty racist edge.

This encourages vigilantism and gives a nod and a wink to racists. English Defence League and British National Party members have talked about “defending their communities”.

But you don’t see the government encouraging people to defend their communities when there is a racist march.

The clean-up is a distraction from dealing with the causes of the riots.

Why do they say that black people live in “dysfunctional” families?

These are racist ideas that blame black people for the problems in society.

Figures show that the poorer you are, the harder it is to keep your family together.

Families break down because parents are forced to work shifts or more than one job, never seeing each other or their children.

If you are black you are four times more likely to be unemployed and will earn, on average, £1,700 less a year.

Poor children grow up expecting their lives to be hard.

They have nothing to live up to—not because their parents fail, but because the system fails them.

The cabinet all went to boarding school—but I don’t hear their parents being accused of neglect and not being around enough.

Can rioting get rid of racism and poverty?

A man set himself on fire in Tunisia. It started a riot that led to a revolution that spread to Egypt and is reverberating around the world.

Riots are part of a rich working class history of rebellion.

But they are just one act in a play—they are not the last act.

We can riot for a day or two, but then the smoke settles.

We can win gains, but not the entire battle.

Riots can play an important role in forcing positive change. But to get rid of racism, poverty and inequality we need more than a riot.

We need a revolution to smash the system.


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