Sunday, 14 August 2011

Opposing the reactionary backlash

David Cameron has said that those who "loot and pillage their own community" should be kicked out of their council houses. This has already started to come true, with a woman in Wandsworth served an eviction notice for her son's conviction. But this is just the tip of the iceberg in the reactionary backlash following the riots, and it needs to be resisted.

The most obvious point here is that what we are seeing is an acceptance of guilt by association. Even if you accept the premise that only "tough" action addresses crime, and for that matter that Daniel Sartain-Clarke is guilty (he has at the time of writing been charged but not convicted), neither his mother nor his eight-year-old sister have committed any crime. Cameron's position is that eviction will make life "tougher for them but they should have thought about that before they started burgling," but the problem here is that at least two thirds of those facing tougher conditions weren't burgling.

Likewise, Manchester City Council are preparing to evict the family of a 12-year-old boy photographed stealing a £7.49 bottle of wine from Sainsbury’s. Yet the family did not steal that bottle of wine, even aside from the fact that losing your home is a harsh price to pay for something worth less than a tenner. In justifying this policy, Eric Pickles says that "they've done their best to destroy neighbourhoods, and frankly I don't feel terribly sympathetic towards them." But that can't honestly be applied to the cases we're seeing.

We also ought to acknowledge that the kind of crimes that we're talking about aren't unique to a riot situation. As Cautiously Pessimistic points out;
A balanced, sober assessment of the situation ... tells us that we live in a society where poor people do horrible things to other poor people on a fairly regular basis, without anyone making much of a fuss about it, and also riot from time to time, which means that they start attacking police officers and businesses, which causes a huge fuss, as well as doing horrible things to other poor people on a greater, or at least faster, level. So, those of us who are genuinely shocked and upset by people being mugged or burnt out of their houses can’t just wish for  things to go back to being the way they were before, since that’d just mean a return to a constant low level of anti-social crime, along with, sooner or later, the inevitable return of this kind of uprising.
Which, ultimately, means that if these measures were being applied they wouldn't just be used in the aftermath of significant unrest. They would be constant, and no doubt they would escalate as the knock-on effects of such a policy caused further disturbances.

After all, we should not imagine that kicking entire families out of their home would lessen the sense of anger and alienation that erupted last Saturday night in Tottenham. Nor should we kid ourselves that making life harder for people and taking away welfare will reduce the amount of people who feel they have nothing to lose. All we are doing is pouring more gunpowder on ground, to make the explosion all the larger next time.

Likewise, we need to fiercely resist other measures being proposed - from a ban on social media during unrest, and opening up Blackberry Messenger to the state for scrutiny, to the use of water cannons, plastic bullets, and other excessive force on the streets. The most obvious reason for this being that we cannot and should not trust the state to care about civil liberties and only exercise these measures when unrest on the streets is a threat to the citizenry. Over the past year - most recently at the royal wedding - the mask of liberalism slipped and we saw the gnarled reality beneath. We should never doubt that such measures will be used against genuine dissent far more readily than against general outbreaks of disorder.

There is a different approach to take. What we have seen in a number of places is local communities organising to respond to trouble on their own terms. In Toxteth, there have been meetings on most nights, and Toxteth Against The Riots' has had a presence on the streets both to secure neighbourhood peace and to stop kids being the victims of police violence. Similar initiatives have sprung up in places like Deptford.

This is a counterpoint to the reaction now gripping public opinion. It is a demonstration that working class people can defend ourselves through self-organisation without having to support the state or hand people over to it. It is also a fundamental building block for the kind of community solidarity that can significantly reduce the kind of indiscriminate violence that results in one section of the working class attacking another.

On the other hand reaction is also spreading. There was the clamour for harsh measures against the rioters, fuelled by the sensationalism of the media. But there is also the significant EDL presence in places like Eltham, and the BNP's national day of action yesterday. There are dangerous currents brewing at the moment, which will turn the working class in on itself, as well as deepening the sense of alienation, anger, and desperation amongst the lowest layers of society which caught fire in Tottenham. That the expression of that mood was direction-less, youth blindly lashing out in the form of rioting, looting, etc, doesn't change that.

It is challenging that mood, and building up community links at a grassroots level, that will help us to rebuild working class culture and chip away at the helpless rage and isolationism that many young people feel. But if the actions of a twelve year old boy is seeing his whole family made homeless, and we as a community tolerate that, we can see just how far we have to go.