Socialist Worker

Unrest shows the need to resist the elite’s agenda

Issue No. 1976

Police brutality during the 1985 Brixton riots

Police brutality during the 1985 Brixton riots

“Riots are the voice of the unheard,” said the great black civil rights leader Martin Luther King in response to the uprisings that swept US cities in the 1960s.

Then it was black ghettos that burst into flames of anger at racism and poverty. In Britain in the early 1980s it was young black and white people who rioted in the inner cities.

In France over the last two weeks it has been impoverished and ignored estates that are home to large numbers of young people whose parents or grandparents came as immigrants from Africa.

On each occasion the establishment and its defenders have sought to bury King’s fundamental truth often through citing openly racist stereotypes.

They argue that the violence is simply the result of “mindless thugs” who hate what we are told is a fundamentally decent society.

There then begins a desperate search by hireling commentators for some explanation, any explanation so long as it ignores the fundamental causes of the riots.

So after the disturbances in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley four years ago, and again after the recent communal violence in Lozells, Birmingham, we were told that it was not racism and poverty but “multiculturalism” that was to blame.

New Labour and even figures such as the chair of the Commission for Racial Equality came up with measures to impose a “national identity”, to emphasise “shared values”, which just happened to be the values that suit the rich and powerful.


But that is exactly the approach taken by the French elite through its “republican” model of attempting to contain social unrest.

In 2002 interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy co-opted more pliant Muslim figures into a Council of the Muslim Creed and excluded those deemed too “radical”, just as New Labour is attempting to do in Britain.

They were to be a transmission belt for spreading respect for the French state among alienated young people.

The French parliament banned young women from wearing the Muslim headscarf at school, claiming that it creates divisions, where presumably none existed before.

Mainstream parties of the right and centre left have for decades ignored the institutional disadvantage African and Arab immigrants suffer. They have pretended there is real equality for all citizens, marred only by a few individual hardened racists.

And the result of this French model of enforced assimilation? The kind of urban riots that were supposedly only a feature of a Britain where “political correctness has gone mad”.

So now many of those who said France and its headscarf ban pointed the way to “better race relations” are revealing their true colours.

For them it has never been tokenistic policies by the government and local councils that are the problem—it is immigrants, especially Muslims, who they view as an alien threat.

The conservative press in Britain and the rest of Europe is warning of further unrest across the continent by this “enemy within”.

If there are more riots, they will have nothing to do with some imagined Islamic insurgency.

They will be because large numbers of German, French, British, Spanish and Italian young working class people are corralled onto sink estates, subjected to systematic racism, their lives disfigured by the same neo-liberal capitalism that is crushing all but a tiny elite.


There will be riots for the same reasons there have been mass strikes across Europe by those who do have the collective power and organisation that comes from being at the heart of capitalist production rather than at its margins.

The French government hopes to repress the riots into submission, just as the US state eventually regained control of its cities four decades ago.

But the 1960s ghetto uprisings took place alongside the growing movement against the Vietnam war and, a little later, a resurgence of organised working class struggle. The combination forced major concessions and can do so again.

That places a huge responsibility on the forces of the radical left that have made such advances in elections and referendums in much of Europe this year.

The left, and with it basic union and community organisation, have been absent from the impoverished areas around Paris, London and Berlin for far too long.

The message of hope carried by the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements needs to reach those areas if they are to be drawn into a collective resistance that is far more effective than rioting.

That means ferociously opposing the attempt to demonise Muslims and immigrants. And it means saying loudly that the only meaningful “social cohesion” is based on the common class interests of the poor against the elite.

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What We Think
Sat 12 Nov 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1976
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