For four days in August last year the streets of England burned. There were riots and other forms of disorder in at least 66 towns and cities, involving anything up to 15,000 people—most of them young. The police took a hammering as cars and buildings were set ablaze and shops were looted.
In London riots spread across the city. In Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool thousands came out onto the streets. They were African-Caribbean, Asian and white teenagers as well as some older people.
That the police were the immediate target was little surprise. News of the police killing of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, north London, had spread like wildfire.
The official version of events had it that Mark was a gangster who had been in a gunfight with officers. But few in north London believed this.
Those gathered outside Tottenham police station demanding answers suspected that Mark had been unarmed and was executed by cops despite not firing a shot.
Politicians and pundits were aghast at the scale of the rioting that followed. But the shock quickly turned to vengeful anger. Politicians of all stripes joined a chorus demanding curfews, troops on the streets, plastic bullets and water cannon—and exemplary jail sentences for all those the police rounded up.
Tottenham Labour MP David Lammy denounced the rioters as “mindless, mindless people”. David Cameron followed, describing the uprising as “criminality, pure and simple”. Unfortunately many on the left, and even on the far left, joined the condemnation.
As the political establishment, including the handful of black Labour MPs, closed ranks to attack the rebellion, the hard right spoke their minds.
Fondly remembering racist politician Enoch Powell, historian David Starkey told a BBC Newsnight programme that, “The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion… this Jamaican patois has been intruded into England. That’s why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.”
The media adopted the line that the rebellion was nothing more than gang-driven criminality. But anyone who bothered to ask soon found very different reasons.
At the centre of them lay routine police harassment of young people and a hatred for a society that treats them like dirt.
Outside Tottenham police station on the night of the vigil, a young African-Caribbean man pointed at the cops and told Socialist Worker, “These people are supposed to protect us—when I see them at night I run the other way. How can any of us feel safe when they’re shooting people?”
Another local added, “This is not the first time something like this has happened. There was Cynthia Jarrett back in the 1980s then Jean Charles de Menezes, now this guy in a cab. The police need to stop shooting first and asking questions later.
“If those situations hadn’t happened then my high street wouldn’t be mashed up like it is now. These buildings can be rebuilt. But that man’s life is gone and he’s not coming back.”
Daniel, a teenager from London, described returning from his holiday nine days early so he could join the crowds on the streets.
He told the Guardian/LSE Reading the Riots study, “A couple of my friends pinged me, telling me what happened… I just wanted to be there. For what I’ve been through my whole life, the police have caused hell for me.
“I thought this chance might never come again. This is my chance to get revenge. Not just at the police—at the whole government.”
As rioting spread from Tottenham across London and beyond, the media concentrated on the looting of shops. For them, this was evidence of materialistic “feral youth” demanding “instant gratification—not political protest”.
But the looting was political. Tottenham, like most other inner cities, is surrounded by shopping centres offering the latest “must haves”.
Advertisers ensure that people feel judged by what they own, what they wear and what they consume. They thrive on the knowledge that only a few will ever be able to taste the lifestyle they offer, the rest being deemed failures.
With unemployment spiralling and low pay endemic, for most young people in north London “must haves” are almost always “never haves”. For them, there is simply no way to gain the kind of respect they should be entitled to.
But with the police temporarily driven off the streets, many rioters took the chance to rob shops normally closed to them. For once, it was the most downtrodden that controlled the areas.
Contrary to the common sense view, most looting was not organised by gangs. Only rarely did rioters target individuals and small shops. Instead looting was a collective chance to grab something back from the big corporations that dominate everything.
And for a few days there was a sense of liberation among those who fought back, says Daniel. “I’ll always remember the day that we had the police and the government scared. For once they felt how we felt.”
In the year since the riots the state has reasserted control and has wreaked a terrible revenge on all those who dared to rebel. But the political anger that fuelled the disturbances has only intensified.
No clampdown or repression can hold it down indefinitely. We cannot know when, but we do know the streets will burn again. The task is to make resistance effective, and defeat our enemies.
Common anger fuels many forms of protest
The backdrop to the riots was the deepening capitalist crisis and the way it impacts on so many people. Ordinary people took to the streets and took centre stage.
Racism, police violence and poverty deepened by the cuts were the cause. As the misery piled on to ordinary people their rage built.
This anger comes out in any number of ways. The riots were one expression of that. But the same feeling lies behind the mass demonstrations and strikes of the last two years.
Riots are volatile explosions that, however explosive, tend not to be able to sustain themselves for very long. The state can regroup and fight back. And the police invariably use tactics that remind people of the penalties for daring to protest.
Revolutionaries need to deepen the confrontation and win larger numbers of people to adopting the most effective methods for challenging the system.
That means going further than riots—by building mass resistance based on the power of the organised working class.
The August Riots: one year on