Riots are a period of energised fury that see oppressed people express their anger at the system. They give a voice to those who have had theirs taken away and can expose injustices in society.
Riots can unite people on the streets against a common enemy, such as racist police. This undermines the legitimacy of the state.
And by bringing working people together, the divisions and bigoted ideas can be overcome.
Seeing ordinary people fight back against the system in riots can be uplifting. Riots expose the lie that everyone is content with society as it stands. But riots tend to be short lived.
That’s partly because the police and the state are well versed in how to crack down. Thousands of heavily militarised cops can be sent to “trouble spots” and very many arrests made quickly.
During the 2011 riots in London, for example, the authorities opened courts around the clock to sentence and jail hundreds of young people.
The ruling class can also rely on the press and the media to try to stop the militancy of the streets from spreading.
Riots can force the state to make significant concessions, such as more funding for services. But the state often quickly regains control.
Socialists should stand with everyone who is fighting against the system and for a better world. But we should also look at how to launch the strongest possible fight that has the best chance of winning.
That’s why for socialists, one of the most important tasks is to try take the anger of the street into workplaces. Workers together have a collective power that the state finds much more difficult to suppress.
The system depends on offices, schools, factories, transport systems, warehouses and other workplaces being open in order to function. So when lots of workers strike together, they pose a huge threat to the ruling class.
The bosses cannot jail a very large number of workers without causing the system to collapse.
Seeking to spread the anger of riots has other benefits too.
Rioters may have a single issue they agree on, but they can have very different ideas and goals. And the spontaneity of riots means there can be a lack of collective organisation.
So it can be hard to have discussions that involve everyone and to make unified decisions on what the next steps in the fight should be.
Broadening the challenge to the system means more opportunity for democratic decision making and planning strategies collectively.
It also means more chances to debate which tactics will take a movement forward, and which are ultimately a dead end.
Following the 1981 riots, the Tory government was forced to plough money into inner cities in a bid to stop another flare up.
Thousands of new projects, training and business opportunities suddenly emerged in areas where the local economy was either dead or dying.
Local councillors fast became very powerful as an instrument of allocating grants and employing people to represent “their community”.
In the wake of the Brixton riots, some black activists started to think they could use the offerings of the state to improve conditions.
They started to gravitate towards the Labour Party, and in particular the Labour Party Black Sections. These campaigned for better black representation at all levels of the system.
Through this process, many black people became councillors and MPs in the mid 1980s. They saw themselves as leaders and spokespersons, and the media and the state were happy to give them that privilege.
Anger on the streets had created the space for new black politicians to rise. But most now decided to follow Labour ever rightwards and abandon whatever connections they had to those radicals.
Despite one or two honourable exceptions, most now embraced the party’s pro-police agenda.
And when rioting erupted in later years, they joined those who deplored attacks on the police and the smashing of property “in their own community”.
Getting more “black faces in high places” will not get rid of racism, violent cops or poverty. To uproot racism we need a socialist revolution that puts ordinary people in charge of running society. A united working class is the only force with the power to make it.
Riot! The revolts of 1981
10-12 April: Brixton, London
3-4 July: Southall, London
3-5 July: Toxteth, Liverpool
8-11 July: Moss Side, Manchester
10-13 July: Handsworth, Birmingham
11-13 July: Chapeltown, Leeds
Elsewhere in July: Aldershot, Birkenhead, Blackburn, Bradford, Bristol, Chester, Coventry, Derby, Edinburgh, Ellesmere Port, Gloucester Stoke, Halifax, High Wycombe, Huddersfield, Hull, Knaresborough, Leicester, Luton, Maidstone, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Nottingham, Portsmouth, Preston, Sheffield, Shrewsbury, Southampton, Stockport Wolverhampton
1958, Notting Hill:
Caribbean people in west London fought back over fascist attacks.
1976, Notting Hill Carnival:
66 people were arrested and 60 hospitalised after police tried to arrest a supposed pickpocket
1977, Battle of Lewisham:
Anti-fascists stopped the police-escorted National Front from marching
Demonstration against the National Front ends in fierce fighting with cops
Police raids on the Black and White Cafe triggered riots in the St Paul’s area
1985, Riots in Brixton, Handsworth, Tottenham:
All sparked by police harassment and racism
1987, Chapeltown, Leeds:
Police harassment sparks conflict
1989, Riots in Dewsbury, Leeds:
Fighting after clashes between fascists and Asian youth
1993, Welling, south London:
Anti Nazi League march clashed with police outside the British National Party headquarters
June, Manningham, Bradford:
Riot spreads after police stop football game
Riots after death of Wayne Douglas in police custody
Hundreds of Asian youth fight police and racists
Riots after clashes between fascists and anti-racists
Over 3,000 were arrested at riots in London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham following the police shooting of black man Mark Duggan in north London