World in View: British youth revolt

From the September-October 2011 issue of News & Letters:

World in View: British youth revolt

by Gerry Emmett

The killing of 24-year-old Mark Duggan by London police on Aug. 6 set off the largest urban rebellion in Britain in decades. The situation was made worse by police lies that Duggan had pointed a gun at them, and by their rude, smirking response to family and community members who came to the police station to demand justice and truth.

Honest commentators had long predicted such rebellions. Duggan’s killing, plus the attempted murder of his reputation, was a further provocation to a Tottenham community that is targeted for racist searches and has suffered such police crimes in the past as the death of Cynthia Jarrett in 1985, which sparked a rebellion then; and the police brutality which led to the Brixton rebellion of 1981. Over 300 people have died in British police custody since 1998, and not one officer has been prosecuted.

Beyond this is decades of anger at endless attacks on the British working-class and Black communities, most recently in the closing of youth centers in Tottenham and other inner city communities, and draconian cuts in social services. As a statement by the public service workers’ union Unison put it, “The answer does not lie in David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ but in the defence of public services from a reckless attack by a Government which is indifferent to the social damage being wrought by their economic policies…”

Clashes with police also broke out in cities across Britain, including Brighton, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Nottingham. Police stations were targeted and a number of police vehicles burned. As in Los Angeles in 1992, the rebellion was multi-racial, which incensed the Right.

Bourgeois opinion reeled with horror, as it always does when the class struggle shows itself to be a two-way street. The decades since former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared “there is no alternative” to capitalism have seen an effort to erase the very idea of working-class power and poor peoples’ human rights.

Epithets were launched from the Right, the media, and even parts of the Left against “thugs” and “feral youth.” Murdoch’s late racist tabloid News of the World was hardly missed. The hatred expressed for “multiculturalism” was close to Norwegian butcher Breivik’s neofascist manifesto.

Marxist economist David Harvey observed, “It reminded me of how the communards in Paris in 1871 were depicted as wild animals, as hyenas, that deserved to be (and often were) summarily executed in the name of the sanctity of private property, morality, religion, and the family.” The outrageous sentences being given for small “offenses” like posting pro-rebellion messages on Facebook, or possessing a possibly looted pair of shorts, bear this out. Conservative Prime Minister Cameron shows every sign of wanting to import the worst excesses of the U.S.’s racist criminal injustice system. As it has for decades, the Labour Party is willing to follow the logic, if not to the letter.

Some even wished to counterpose the words of a Black woman in Hackney, London, to the rebellion itself, although she really represented its own class consciousness when she urged the rebellious youth to focus their attacks against the authorities: “This is about a man who got shot in Tottenham. This ain’t about having fun on the road and burning up the place. Get it real, Black people. Get real. Do it for a cause. If you’re fighting for a cause then fight for a fucking cause.”

The contradictions in these British rebellions inhere in such events, which send a powerful message but do not overthrow capitalism and build the new society as they destroy the old. That requires alliances with all forces seeking freedom and the serious philosophic labor required to work out what one is for, not only against.

News & Letters will send a copy of A Philosophic Handbook of Urban Rebellion, articles and essays from Detroit, 1967; Los Angeles, 1992; and beyond, for $7. Please write for a copy.

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