The riots which started in the Tottenham area of North London on Saturday night and which have since spread to many others parts of the capital have exposed the social decay within the city as we enter the final year before the start of the prestige Olympics.As this article is being posted incidents are taking place in South London, Hackney and elsewhere with virtually every town centre in London being turned into a no-go area with boarded up shops and roaming police.
A number of inter-linked issues are involved here. As with the Toxteth and Brixton riots in the 1980s, these new riots were triggered by action involving the police. This time a well-known local "character" from Broadwater Farm estate (itself the scene of major riots in the 1980s) was shot dead by the police last Thursday as he was been driven home in a mini-cab. Information has been very sketchy - a complaint which has been taken up by the shot man's family and others - and as a result people have been filling in the gaps for themselves. A report that a non-police issue gun was found on the scene has now been contradicted by reports that the gun was wrapped in a sock and therefore was clearly not being used. Another report of a bullet being lodged in a police radio has been challenged by statements that the bullet may be of police issue. When family and friends led a peaceful march on Saturday afternoon to the local police station, no senior officer came out to speak to them and as a result they were stuck outside the station until 9.00pm. Community leaders were already warning that a failure to be seen to be taking this case seriously would have a bad effect. Had they come out to meet and talk to the demonstrators then the protest would have broken up much earlier. As it was by 9.00pm other people were starting to arrive. Word got around of a girl being hit with a police truncheon and this only made the mood uglier. Soon more youths turned up spoiling for a fight. the results were all too graphic.
Reports suggest that a number of these people were linked to local youth gangs. In the following days it has been suggested that members of other gangs have been all too keen to carry out 'copy-cat' riots in other parts of London. This may or may not be true - we shall see. Evidence suggests that the numbers involved are starting to spread out beyond these ranks. Certainly people are starting to talk about the air of tension and pent-up frustration which has existed on the estates of London (and no doubt other cities in the UK) for some time now. The police acted as the spark.
The role of the police generally has come under the spotlight with good reason. For many years now, it has been noted that any controversial incident involving police officers (or The Feds as London youth call them - think about it) will nearly always result in no action of any kind being taken against them. Unarmed people shot dead - no action. Healthy people dying in custody - no action. The strange death of DJ Smiley Culture last year still remains unexplained along with many other cases invoving the police. On the estates the feeling has grown up that the police can act quite literally outside the law and that they see working class youth as quilty by default. Although the notorious and racist sus laws of the 1970s and 80s have been removed, young people in working class areas can still expect to be regularly stopped by police for no good reason. So when a man with no known involvement in gun crime is shot dead 15 minutes after texting his partner to put the dinner on then questions were going to be asked - questions that have got no answer. We demand that this shooting is properly investigated by people from outside the Force but we have little confidence in a just result whatever happens - if the police can get away with blasting an unarmed and innocent Brazillian man on a London tube and then covering up what has happened, then they can get away with anything - and people know it.The recent News International/phone-hacking scandal has exposed the rotten links between the police, MPs and the bosses' press - they are all in it together.
To this must be added the corrusive effects of the cuts and the generally run down nature of many of these areas. Many of the projects which sought to reach out and give help to youth, in particular, on the estates have been cut back or closed. Places in London like Tottenham have long been marked anyway by poor services, run down housing and - above all - a huge lack of jobs. Anyone strolling down Tottenham High Road will note the dismal lack of change even over a period of decades. Before it burned down, the big carpet shop looked exactly the same as when I first saw it in the mid 1970s. No big developments or regeneration here.
This neglect has resulted in a culture of alienation existing, most notably amongst the youth. This explains the rise of the gangs. Where society offers less than nothing then people will end up in gangs and criminality when they have no direction left. They see no future so any appeals from the establishment will just go unheard. Indeed the only response they see from those in authority is one of attack - lock 'em up! It has been left to local groups and parents to try and get young people away from these gangs before it is too late. Needless to say, these youth have no love for the police and are not interested in the'rights' of the big stores which have been looted. It is an irony that London is getting the Olympics next year and no one, apart from the big companies, is seeing any benefit. Under such pressure and frustration, people will end up just lashing out. We saw this in the main cities of the US in the 1960s and in Britain in the 1980s and, more recently, in France.
Of course, rioting provides no real solution. Indeed it just provides an excuse for the state to crack down harder. Many have voiced the belief that the police were actually happy to let Tottenham burn. The excuse about lack of available numbers in the area seems odd when you consider that a big football match was taking place just a few hundred yards away! Politicians have, from the comfort of their holiday homes, voiced nothing but meaningless platitudes. What is needed here is an understanding of the serious and deep rooted problems that have dragged our estates down to the extent that people are ready to say "to hell with it." The police have become part of the problem too and this must be addresed although no-one expects that to happen anytime soon. The police are the bosses' police and act in their interests alone.
This is what capitalism in crisis means. The breakdown of a society which offers everything to the rich and nothing to the rest. People know this and have had enough. When the cuts were announced by the Coalition last year, a senior police officer said that he foresaw social unrest and riots. If nothing is done then the events of the last few days will be just the start. The gang culture on the estates will grow and grow, costing more wasted lives and misery. The choice facing society is a simple one - socialism or barbourism. Capitalism is incapable of providing what people in Tottenham and elsewhere want and need - decent jobs, services, housing and, above all, a future. That is why we must fight for socialism. The last few days shows us just how rotten the status quo has become.The riots may die out in a few days (or they could continue to spiral out of control - nothing is clear yet) but the problem which caused them will not unless we do something about it.