Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Thirty Years On: Rioting In London - Is Anyone Surprised?

I am sure most readers of this blog will have seen the news of the rioting and looting across London from Tottenham to Peckham from Ealing to Hackney and other places including Birmingham and Croydon.  It has now raged for three days and has involved attacks on the police and the looting and burning of shops.  I have written before how the government is ushering in an era which looks unpleasantly like the 1980s with high unemployment and in particular the reduction in opportunities for young people, who increasingly feel they have nothing to lose in rebelling against the government and capitalist society?

Something else which does not seem to have changed is the relationship between the police and ordinary people.  After the murder of  Ian Tomlinson by police in April 2009 and the continued tension with ethnic minorities because of the hyping up of the terrorist threat and the blame being put on to South Asians, activity among far-right political groups, it all seems horribly like 1981 once more.  If you were around in 1981 or have read about the period then you will know it had a summer which witnessed riots pretty much like what we were seeing now.  The Brixton Riot of 1981 occurred in April of that year and raged for three days.  Very much like the rioting we are seeing now, it stemmed from the handling of ethnic minority males by the Metropolitan Police and the bad relations being heightened by rumour around the arrest of Michael Bailey.  Whilst the initial riot was about protest regarding heavy handed tactics by the police, by the third day it was basically a looting spree.  Riots attract different people and get out of hand quickly.  Whilst starting as a political event, they soon bring in people just looking to steal what they can.  I think the looting of phone shops in Woolwich is symptomatic of that phase.

The spark for these riots was the shooting of Mark Duggan by police in Tottenham on Saturday.  Tensions around stops and searches have also contributed to the unrest.  In many ways both the context of Britain in fear of what is being inflicted on it by the government and what worse is to come, combined by heavy handed behaviour by the police have once again led to rioting.  All of this was covered in the Scarman Report of 1981.  I am sure somewhere in the government's or Metropolitan Police's strategy units there was a scenario playing out for summer 2011 just like this one.  Despite the various shootings by police over the past thirty years they seem to behave pretty much as they did in the 1980s.  No-one seems to learn from one year to the next: the police behaviour towards Duggan's family is as if none of these shootings had ever happened and certainly no lessons learnt from them. 

Whilst the hammering of the country by the government, the crass behaviour of the police and the willingness of people unconnected with the initial incident to take advantage of the rioting has not changed in 30 years, the techology has.  The ability to tweet messages and keep in contact via mobile phones and to relay images quickly to different groups explains why we are not simply talking about the Tottenham riot.  We know that there were various groups, following the student riots of last winter, ready for a new round of action.  Summer is always the best time for rioting, you just have to look back to 1911 as I have done.  Yet, all the ministers and the mayor of London, all set off on holiday with no expectation of rioting.  Clearly the police's intelligence is poor and they are not retrospectively hunting down people who use Twitter to organise violence.  If they had not spotted it coming, even in the immediate aftermath of Duggan's death, I think they will continue to be stumped.

The government is wrong to think that rioting will simply go away.  As in the early 1980s it is likely to continue appearing not just in London but in many cities.  The government cannot expect to keep on imposing cuts on services and cutting jobs and most of all opportunities in such a blatant, arrogant way, treating us like idiots when they do not blame their friends the bankers, and expect the British public (and the Northern Irish public either) to remain passive.  The continued police bungling keeps on providing the spark for the whole pile of tinder the government keeps on adding to.

Anyone who had stopped and thought would have been able to put a decent bet on there being rioting this summer.  I cannot believe that the government and the police had not worked through scenarios that showed this happening.  If I can do it, simply watching the television or writing my blog, then they, with all their advisors and their sophisticated computers should have had no difficulty.  I guess that they welcome as a distraction from the continued revelations about how guilty not only News International but also a growing number of its rivals were in hacking the phones of the bereaved as well as celebrities; the corruption connected with that and the government connections to people involved, plus straight forward corruption at the highest level in the Cleveland Constabulary.  I worry that knowing how much 2011 resembles 1981 and even 1911, they had foreseen all of this and yet took no steps to head it off.  It is clear that despite any efforts senior police officers may be making cannot stop their footsoldiers shooting people dead and that will constantly trigger local incidents.  However, I think the broader rioting was expected and has been allowed to run its course to allow the government to introduce the punitive and authoritarian legislation they are itching to impose.  Democracy and liberty are dying quickly in the UK.  I recognise the frustration the rioters are unleashing on this government which is pounding them and keeps telling them to forget have any opportunities in life, but inadvertently they are playing into the hands of a regime which is keen to impose an authoritarian regime and implement a social counter-revolution.

P.P. It is interesting to note that the rioting has spread to areas such as Toxteth in Liverpool, Handsworth in Birmingham and Bristol which experienced rioting in the 1980s.  It is unsurprising the areas affected are those where people still feel as let down by the government as they did 30 years ago.  There seems surprise in the media that so many young people have turned to rioting, without the recognition that if you cut off any hope for such people, they have nothing to turn to except violence.  The hypocrisy of the government as in 1989 over the Tianamen Square unrest, when they laud the overthrow through violent unrest of governments across the Middle East and yet somehow expect their own population to remain passive, I suppose is unsurprising.  I believe that David Cameron really does believe he is doing the best for the UK, even in his reassertion of social class divisions and denying access to higher education for all but the wealthy.  He is  so out of touch with the people that he simply sees all this as criminality.  Of course, every riot has elements of that in, but by focusing on this, he helps the media and the wider population ignore that a huge motive is despair created precisely by the conditions caused directly by government policies.

Cameron knows that the Poll Tax Riot of 1990 helped end Mrs. Thatcher's career and I guess he wants to marginalise this before people start questioning his position, especially as, in a coalition he is in a far weaker position than she was.  I think Cameron will use the riots to bind the Liberal Democrats closer to him, suggesting they sympathise with the rioters if they leave him now.  I also maintain that he will use this as the basis for more authoritarian policies and despite his sour attitude at present is actually enjoying these events.

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