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London burns – causes & consequences of the riots – an anarchist perspective

Workers Solidarity Movement, the Irish anarchist organisation has written a thorough examination of the recent unrest in the UK. Because of its length we will be reprinting it in four parts. Probably one of the most considered and indepth analysis of what actually went on and why.


The police killing of Mark Duggan resulted in four nights of rioting across England. The immediate trigger was the killing itself, and the disrespect shown by the police to Mark’s family and friends. But the riots rapidly broadened to expressions of a more general anger and alienation; an anger that was all too often unfocused and striking out at the nearest target of opportunity. This resulted in widespread destruction of resources in already deprived neighborhoods and some anti-social attacks on bystanders. Despite this, the roots of the riots lie in the economic and political conditions of these districts, and not in ‘poor parenting’ or ‘mindless criminality’. These conditions were created by the very politicians and business elite who now call for a return to normality and repression.

The riots happened at a particular moment, a moment when capitalism is in deep crisis. Indeed the riots occurred at the same time as yet another crash in global markets. The two competed with each other to be the lead story on the news. This is not a coincidence; the crash, and the cuts unleashed to impose it’s costs on ordinary people, mean not only rocketing unemployment but also the slashing of public services. And while the focus is on the estimated £200 million of destruction caused by the rioting, this pales into insignificance in comparison with the huge destruction of wealth taking place on the stock exchanges. Likewise, while the media focus has been on the hundreds of workers and small business owners who will face unemployment because of the destruction of their workplaces, the system that bred the riot has refused work to millions – around one million people between the ages of 16 and 24 are unemployed in the UK today.

Now, in the aftermath, it has become clear that those who made the mistake of taking what they had been told to desire are to be brutality punished, to set an example to others that the laws of property are to be respected at all costs – after all, if we could all take what we needed where would be the room for capitalism? There is no other explanation for the sentences handed down, which have included six months for taking bottled water worth £3.50!

And, of course, the bankers that triggered far more destruction and unemployment have been rewarded rather than facing similar punishment. Russell Brand asks, in a blog post on the riots, “How should we describe the actions of the city bankers that brought our economy to its knees in 2010? Altruistic? Mindful? Kind? But then again, they do wear suits, so they deserve to be bailed out, perhaps that’s why not one of them has been imprisoned. And they got away with a lot more than a few fucking pairs of trainers.”

What happened?
In war, they say the first casualty is the truth. After four days of sustained mass rioting which has spread from North London, it is important to go back and see what we know so far. The mass scale of the disturbances is illustrated by the fact that police claim to have arrested over 1500 people, a figure that can only be a small fraction of those who took part in rioting.

The killing of Mark Duggan
The immediate cause of the riots was the killing of Mark Duggan by armed police on Thursday August 4th, as he was travelling home in a minicab. The police initially tried to spin the story that they had killed Mark during a shoot-out but it has since emerged that the bullet that hit a police officer’s radio was in fact fired by the officer who shot Duggan dead, and that there is no evidence that Mark Duggan opened fire at police officers. Over a week after the shooting the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) finally admitted to the Guardian that “It seems possible that we may have verbally led journalists to believe that shots were exchanged.”

The 29-year-old black man, father of three children, was in a mini-cab on the way home when the attempted arrest took place. There were two shots fired by the firearms officer from the Met’s armed CO19 squad – one of which killed Duggan when it entered his head. The other bullet lodged in the radio of a fellow officer. At the scene, the police recovered a weapon which they claim was Mark Duggan’s. They claim that it was a starter pistol which was converted to carry live ammunition.

The police are eager to justify the killing by describing Duggan as a gangster. However, his fiancée Semone Wilson told Channel 4 News that, while in the past he had been on remand, they were planning to move out of Tottenham to “start a new life together” with their children. She also said that “If he did have a gun – which I don’t know – Mark would run. Mark is a runner. He would run rather than firing and that’s coming from the bottom of my heart.”

Demanding answers and the start of the riot
Semone Wilson and other family members went to Tottenham police station at 17.00 on Saturday August 8th, along with local community leaders, to seeks answers to questions about the killing. The police failed to provide a senior officer to answer their questions and, some three and a half hours later, rioting started as the protest dispersed, apparently after riot police had beaten a 16-year-old woman in front of the crowd.

In the riots that followed that night, two police cars and a bus were set on fire and several shops were attacked. The rioting spread from Tottenham to Enfield and Brixton. Police reported they had arrested 55 people and claimed 26 officers were injured. At this point the Duggan family distanced themselves from the rioting.

The spread of the rioting
Rioting spread all across England over the following three nights, with significant disturbances being reported in Birmingham, Salford, Liverpool, Nottingham, Leicester, Manchester, Wolverhampton, West Bromwich, Gloucester, Chatham, Oxford, and Bristol. The police were quickly overwhelmed, and were lucky that for the most part the riots focused on looting and avoiding the police rather than direct confrontation and attacks on the police. This was not true everywhere. In Nottingham no less than five police stations were attacked at various points, but in most places the rioters dispersed when sizeable numbers of police appeared, to melt away and resume looting elsewhere.

The form of most of the riots made it very hard for the police to contain them. In a traditional riot that is directed at the police, the riot typically sees large massed lines of static, heavily protected riot police in solid ranks facing off against the rioters who rain down projectiles from a distance. Both sides may advance, retreat and attempt to outflank each other, but this pattern means that the destruction and looting is relatively contained. But most of the riots that broke out after the first night were focused on looting and avoiding the police, rather than directly confronting them.

The President of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Hugh Orde, wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian in the middle of the riots arguing against the use of water cannon and plastic bullets. This wasn’t on moral grounds, as he ordered their use many times when he was the head of the PSNI in Northern Ireland. He clearly thought that British citizens in London should not receive the same treatment he had meted out to British citizens in Ireland, but, that aside, his main argument was tactical. He wrote “The use of water cannon, while logistically difficult, works against large stationary crowds throwing missiles at police [...] It achieves distance between police and unlawful crowds that is often vital. Utilising baton rounds, an even more severe tactic, is fundamentally to protect life. [...] What we have seen so far from these riots, involving fast-moving and small groups of lawless people, is a situation that merits the opposite end of public-order policing.”

In its coverage, The Economist confirmed why this meant the police seemed to have lost control: “The police’s old tactical manual is based on two principles that were suddenly irrelevant. The first is the assumption that rioters want to attack the police themselves. It makes things a lot easier if you know that they will be where you are. The second is that the main objective is to control ground rather than people. But now, Mr Innes points out, the police have to find “flash mobs” who use social media to gather and grab loot in one place, disperse, then meet somewhere else: “You have to follow them, harry them and channel them away.”
The problem with that approach is that when looters are chased, they split up and police resources are dissipated. Even if officers catch and arrest one (tying up at least two policemen who may be needed elsewhere), they might only be able to charge him (or her) with a minor disorder offence.

The form the rioting took is also shown in the ratio of arrests to reported police injuries. Apart from the first night in Tottenham, when the police were the focus of anger, the number of police injuries reported is a fraction of those that have resulted from incidents where the riot was either based around confronting the police or getting through police lines. The 1981 riots in Brixton, for instance saw 299 police injured for only 82 arrests, according to official police figures. Of course, from the perspective of the police and the British elite, it was extremely useful that the riot took the form of looting which was, for the most part, contained in the impoverished areas of the cities, which meant that no significant elements of capital or the state were badly damaged.

Choosing sides?
In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell provided a useful general starting point for how anarchists view riots, writing “I have no particular love for the idealised “worker” as he appears in the bourgeois Communist’s mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.” What happened in London and spread elsewhere was not some idealised glorious proletarian uprising, but the very real explosion of anger that occurs when years of poverty, police repression, and racism finally reach bursting point.

Some terrible things have happened during the riots, but the politicians who weep crocodile tears for the burning of shops and the anti-social muggings and beatings are the very same people who bombed Iraq back into the stone age, and organised the war and occupation that killed hundreds of thousands. It is not necessary to see the rioters as some example of idealised workers revolting in order to see the hypocrisy and lies of the politicians and media organisations who rushed to portray the events as unusually horrific, rather than a consequence of a deeply divided society. This is not to suggest that the ‘answer’ to the riots is more pool tables in community halls to keep the youth off the street. That sort of sticking-plaster solution may well be applied in the aftermath to address the symptoms, but the cause is the deep inequality that is part and parcel of capitalism. This divide has terrible effects on the individuals who are trapped at the bottom of the wealth pyramid, often in conditions of inter-generational poverty, unemployment, and exclusion.

Brief history of police killings
The motivations for the rioting after the first night cannot be reduced to the single factor of the killing of Mark Duggan. Rather, it was the spark that lit the touch paper of a firework that was ready to go up.

Mark Duggan’s killing is only the latest in a long history of deaths at the hands of the police. Since 1990, 900 deaths have occurred in police custody, and a quarter of these deaths occurred in the custody of the Metropolitan Police. 333 of these deaths have occurred since 1998, 87 of which followed the person being ‘restrained’ by the police involved. Not one of these deaths have resulted with a successful prosecution against the police officers involved; in fact, no police officer has been found guilty as a result of a death in custody in the past forty years.

In 1979, Blair Peach died from injuries he sustained while on an anti-racist demonstration in London. Fourteen witnesses saw Blair being struck by officers from the Special Patrol Group of the Metropolitan Police Force, yet no one was charged and an inquest upheld a verdict of ‘death by misadventure.’ In 1989 the Met reached an out-of-court settlement with Blair Peach’s brother. The 1985 Broadwater Farm Riots were sparked by a similar incident; a 49-year-old mother, Cynthia Jarrett, collapsed and died during a police search of her home.

In 2005, an innocent man from Brazil, Jean Charles De Menezes, was shot seven times in the head as he boarded a tube in Stockwell Underground station by the Metropolitan Police. More recently, thousands marched in south London earlier this year in protest over the death of reggae artist Smiley Culture, who police claimed stabbed himself while they were in his home.

Those who die in police stations are mostly from the poorest sections of the working class. In Britain in general, and London in particular, ethnic minorities are massively over-represented in the poorest 10% of the population, and this and straightforward racism mean that ethnic minorities are, again, over-represented among those who die in custody. Since 1998, of the 333 who died in custody they “were mostly white (75%), male (90%) and aged between 25 and 44.” But as 91% of the British population are classified as white in the census, this means that the remaining 9% of the population account for 25% of all deaths in custody.

The police in Britain are no different than police elsewhere in this regard. In Ireland questions remain to be answered about the deaths in custody of Terence Wheelock, John Maloney, and Brian Rossiter, among others. Were it not for the riots that resulted from the killing of Mark Duggan, his shooting would likely never have been more than a minor item on the news.

Economic conditions in Tottenham
Tottenham is in the borough of Harringey where the riot begun. Unemployment is at 8.8% – double the national average – and it’s estimated that there is only one job for every 54 job seekers. Of the 354 boroughs in England, Tottenham is the eighteenth ‘most deprived’, and according to End Child Poverty, nearly 8000 children live in temporary accommodation. Harringey has the fourth highest rate of child poverty in London, with a staggering 61% of children living in low-income families.

The cut to the Education Maintenance Allowance grant – which is seen as a way to encourage disadvantaged youth to stay in education – coupled with the rise in university fees, has fallen hard on urban youth, who are seeing all options disappear. Symeon Brown, a 22 year old campaigner against the cuts in Harringey, said “How do you create a ghetto? By taking away the very services that people depend upon to live, to better themselves.”

Several youth clubs were recently forced to close in Tottenham, after a 75% cut was leveled at youth services in the area, and the council overall received £41 million less in their normal allocation from central government. At the end of July, the Guardian carried a video story on the closures, in which youth who had used the centres predicted a riot.


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