Some Thoughts about the Tottenham Riots
August 12, 2011
A few of us in HSG met up this week to discuss the events in Haringey on the night of 6th August and those that followed. It’s been impossible to come up with something that we all agree on, but we have put some thoughts down about the things we talked about.
We feel that, rather than coming up with unhelpful statements of support or criticism of the actions of those on Saturday in Tottenham, what is needed is to see why these riots happened and how we make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Let’s get this straight. It is not Highgate or Hampstead that are rioting. Why? Because most there have money, opportunities and comfortable lives. Give that to us in Tottenham and Hackney and we wouldn’t riot either. We say “we” because it affects us all. These riots are about class and privilege – or lack of it. People loot to get the things – the fabricated desires – that advertising tells us we need, when they can’t get them any other way. Capitalists strive to create ever greater demand for products, from more and more ”consumers”, and last weekend they got more than what they bargained for: those kids consumed the only way they could. We may not agree with it. We may not like it. But, that’s the reality. This is a class thing.
However, it goes without saying that we totally disagree with the burning down of local people’s homes. About 50 homes were destroyed in the rioting on Saturday. These people have lost almost everything and they need our support. So far, Haringey Council has been trying to rehouse all of the households that need it, and local people are contributing clothing and other necessities. This is impressive, but these people will need continued support. We need to make sure we, and the council, don’t forget them once the cameras have gone. Morevoer, the homes burnt out need to be replaced with better quality housing.
A lot of the media are blaming young people (and some seem to be blaming just black youth). The police call for parents to “ask where your children are”, but Saturday night was not just a youth thing. In Tottenham we saw teenagers and 20-year-olds, but we also saw people in their 30s, 40s and 50s. There were women as well as men, and there were people of all different ethnic backgrounds.
MPs and councillors say they will rebuild Tottenham to what it was (sod that, we want it better!). That won’t solve it. Things go much deeper. A few new, shiny buildings and housing rebuilt to the same mediocre standards might be good for the press and politicians, it won’t stop unrest happening again.
Many existing homes in Tottenham need improvement and there are few decent jobs. Meanwhile, the rich get richer, and politicians and bosses sun themselves in places we can only dream of going to. And we are told to make cuts! Is it any wonder people take to the streets?
This is a wealthy country, but the government has chosen to take away billions from our public services whilst propping up greedy and irresponsible banks with public money. It also sanctions massive corporate tax evasion and obscene fat cat bonuses. The richest 1,000 people alone have a combined wealth of £390 billion. They make their riches off the back of our labour. Why shouldn’t that money be used for the services our communities need?
We haven’t yet felt the full bite of the government’s swingeing public sector cuts, but already they’ve had significant effects for our youths, such as the closure of youth centres or the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance. In any case, the ordinary people of Haringey and the youths of Tottenham know full well that they will be at the sharp end of these austerity measures, made to pay for the wrongdoings of the rich.
In the last few months there have been mass local protests against cuts, student occupations to defend free education, a half-a-million-strong demonstration on March 26th, and 800,000 public service workers out on strike on June 30th. We need to build on these and other inspiring local and national struggles.
A lot needs to change. Listening rather than judging – help rather than jail – are small steps in the right direction.
But we know those in authority will take a different view. Politicians, the mainstream media and the police would have us believe that these riots are nothing but the expression of the inherent “anarchy” that supposedly looms in the masses. Taking advantage of people’s fears, they use this simplistic portrayal to deny their responsibility and justify their increasingly authoritarian stranglehold over society.
What we’ve witnessed in the past few days is the result of the violence and oppression of the State and Capitalism infecting the masses. The ruling class’s violence thrives on rampant economic exploitation and state repression. It manufactures artificial scarcity, breeds insatiable wants, and breaks down the social fabric. This in turn spawns the pure rage of our disaffected underclass youths – a rage that lashes out blindly at anything and everything. And as always when our rulers infect us with the violence, greed and exploitation that they weave into the very fabric of society, it is the working class that suffers the consequences – never the rich who loot us to no end, never the corrupt politicians, never the police.
Already the police are saying cuts to them need to be stopped: “Give the police more powers”, “Let’s have curfews”, “Call in the army” and “Bring in water cannons” are some of the stuff we hear in the mainstream media – music to the ears of the media and police. More guns mean more Mark Duggans, more police powers mean more stop and searches and more tension on the streets. Curfews would mean all of us will be locked up in our homes. Extra police powers will only mean more harassment for all of us.
The reactionary line of ignoring the real social, economic and political causes and calling for more repression will just sweep the problem under the carpet for another few years before it comes back, yet again, with an even nastier bite. Systematic police repression was one of the core causes of the riot. To call upon it as a solution is not only delusional, it is reckless.
If or when the disturbances stop, those in authority will want to try and show they are back in charge. They may try, but no police or army can rule without the consent of the people. Egypt, Libya and Syria had huge military power – look what’s happening there!
Will the Met and Boris ever learn? We doubt it. After the riots of 1985 loads of homes were raided. Hundreds of people – many young, many who were not involved – were pulled into police stations and questioned by the police, often illegally – not to arrest people, but to find out what they knew and put pressure on them to grass others up. Huge resources were given to the Met; community relations with the police went arse up; three innocent men went to jail for a long time; and we never found out who killed PC Blakelock.
Similar things may happen now. Yes, we need to support the parts of our communities who have lost everything in the fires, and get them and the rest of us better housing than they had before. Yes, we need to rebuild Tottenham and make it a place we all want to live in. But we also need to support all those who may be arrested and harassed by the Met. Most will be innocent. Others may just have taken advantage of getting things they might otherwise never be able to afford, and mostly only from corporate chain stores. Many won’t even have been on the streets on Saturday night. Others will be arrested for more serious stuff, but that doesn’t mean they did it. A stronger police force can only mean more harassment, fear, and lock down for all of us. The police will tar us all with the same brush – even those calling for more police powers. We need to be careful what we ask for in the days and weeks following these disturbances.
In a month, six months, a year, most of us may be back to our “normal” lives, the high road will be rebuilt, the burnt-out families will be re-housed, and community leaders, the police and politicians will be saying Tottenham is back to its “very best”. More Aldis and Icelands are not the answer to Tottenham’s regeneration, we want community involvement in any new developments – cooperative initiatives that empower local people.
We note the countrywide groundswell of support for those facing homelessness and loss of livelihood as a result of the disturbances. This chimes well with the community campaign against the threat to demolish Wards Corner and destroy those small businesses and the homes of families living on the site.
We could also note the tens of thousands of working class people, especially young people and those with large families, facing homelessness in London in the next year or two if we don’t stop government plans for cuts to housing benefits and undermining of tenants’ rights for secure tenure. Also, the thousands of family businesses that have gone to the wall in the current financial climate and the hundreds of thousands who are losing their livelihoods due to public service cuts and general attacks on workers’ job security.
Many of us will remember why these riots started, and it goes beyond the killing of Mark Duggan. If the reasons why they kicked off are not properly dealt with – and the causes are huge – there will be more riots and Tottenham could burn again. We hope we are wrong.
Somebody said to us recently, “If you treat people like shit, day after day, sooner or later they will fight back”. That’s what happened in Egypt and Syria, that’s what’s happening now in London. It’s worth thinking about.