Last night, Tottenham was ablaze. Today, the media is as officialdom closes ranks to pin blame on a "criminal minority" and ignore the class anger boiling over across Britain. Already, with the dust barely settled, a narrative built on convenience rather than fact is being billed as truth. It is vital that this is challenged, and people remember what actually happened last night.
To begin with, I'm not going to get into the whole business of condemnation and blame. A riot is not a tactic, carefully thought out and influenced by political debate, but a phenomenon. No amount of carefully-worded calls for calm or "I understand the anger but..." weasel words will stop a similar situation from arising again. It is an explosion of anger, fear, frustration, helplessness, into destruction. To stand back and argue that it was the wrong approach is to step out-of-touch from events as the unfold in the real world. It happened, and in all likelihood it will happen again.
As to why, we know that the immediate catalyst was the shooting of Mark Duggan by police on Thursday night. Following from the news of his death, a number of people - reports vary from 120 to around 500 - gathered outside the local police station. They were demanding answers, asking for someone to come out and speak to them.
The Daily Mail reports that the catalyst for the trouble was a 16-year-old girl throwing something at police. They retaliated by attacking her with shields and batons. The crowd surged forward in anger as a result of this, and the ensuing clashes had soon enough become the full-scale riot that we all saw on television. Far from the police narrative of the vigil being "hijacked by mindless thugs," it seems quite clear that the police had at least as much of a hand in starting the riot as anyone and that simmering class conflict did the rest.
But it would be simplistic to presume that the whole thing hangs on one death at the hands of police and one stone thrown by an angry youth.
As Dave Hill notes in the Guardian;
Tottenham forms the core of the borough of Haringey, where a fast-rising total of well over 10,000 people are claiming jobseeker's allowance. In Tottenham itself, recent government figures showed there were 54 people chasing each registered employment vacancy. It would be wrong and unfair to damn the place as a slough of blight and turpitude, but the long, main Tottenham High Road provides few obvious outward signs of prosperity.Worklessness and its associated subcultures are becoming more deeply ingrained, with Tottenham and neighbouring Edmonton recently failing in a bid to be made a economic enterprise zone and attempts to regenerate the White Hart Lane area threatened by the desire of wealthy Tottenham Hotspur Football Club to move elsewhere.Despite a small fall in reported crime in the year to June 2011 compared with the previous 12 months, Haringey saw an increase in burglaries and an alarming rise in robberies against the person – up from 884 offences to 1,204.Edmonton, which lies just across the borough border in Enfield, has become grimly associated with fatal stabbings of teenagers in recent years. Spending cuts have led to Haringey closing eight of 13 youth clubs with reductions in community police officer numbers soon to come: small sticking plasters that help stem the flow of blood in a city where violence against young people has long been rising ominously.In such a climate, an event such as the shooting dead by police of 29 year-old father of four Mark Duggan on Thursday night is more likely to provide in some minds, especially young ones, a pretext, a rationale or an opportunity to jettison any respect for the law or regard for fellow citizens and let rip.
Of course, the liberal perspective on this says that such a "rationale" is wrong-headed. The police need only to "show that justice is being done" in order to restore calm. People "think they are overpoliced as criminals and underpoliced as victims," and if we can show this as wrong then they will stick to "peaceful protest" as the outlet for their frustrations.
But the fact is that more and more people are having their illusions in social democracy shattered. On the sharp end of capitalism, they can see its reality. In ALARM's words, "an economically bankrupt society, people being pushed out of their homes by gentrification, the NHS is being privatised, schools failing our children. Transport, food, shelter, electricity all utterly unaffordable. All of this is held in place by the murderous force of the Metropolitan police."
This reality compounds a sense of alienation, frustration, and powerlessness. Politicians say what they need to when elections are coming, but none of them speak for working class and no matter how your vote is cast nothing ever changes. The left talk of fighting the cuts, but with an obsessive, insular focus on public sector unions and tactics such as A to B marches that continue to achieve nothing they have little relevance to those at the sharp end of austerity. Or of capitalism in general. This leaves a vacuum, within which the only options are despondency or violence - and it's the mark of someone who'll never have to face that choice to condemn someone for choosing the latter.
Then there's the police. Since 1998, 333 people have died in police custody, without a single officer ever being convicted. Thugs like Delroy Smellie know they will never have to face justice. Cynthia Jarrett's death sparked the last Tottenham riots. Blair Peach, Jean-Charles de Menezes, Ian Tomlinson, and Smiley Culture are just some of the more high-profile deaths at police hands.
On the other side of the law, much lesser crimes by Charlie Gilmour, Francis Fernie et al have fallen foul of politically motivated sentencing. Even anti-fascist action warrants jail time. Not to mention that youths hanging out on the streets and football fans can tell you of police heavy-handedness just as readily as protesters. Ultimately, there is no shortage of resentment for the police, and once you learn what their true role within society is, it is hard to un-learn it.
Not that any of this will seep its way into the mainstream narrative, of course. There will be some acknowledgement of the underlying causes from more liberal commentators, but only in the name of understanding condemnation and an offer of social democratic illusions to placate the seething masses. Conservatives will go beyond the bounds of the absurd, accusing everyone who acknowledges anything beyond evil as a cause of masking up and joining in themselves. Stories of how "Twitter fuelled the riots" will continue to circulate, and the distinction of "peaceful citizens" and "criminal minority" will persist.
But this will not alter reality. It will not stem the rising tide of resentment and alienation across the working class. It will not stop the next riot from erupting when the right spark is created. When that happens, there will be a simple choice. Either we take the side of a working class in revolt or we take the side of the state.