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When is a riot a rebellion?

August 10, 2011

by Carl Finamore

Rebels set furniture alight near London's Big Ben.
Several days of unprecedented revolt by the most impoverished minority-populated neighborhoods of London have shaken the normally staid and reserved British aristocracy. Prime Minister David Cameron cut short his Italian vacation in sunny Tuscany to return to the red-orange glare of a burning city. The prime minister was not the only one inconvenienced.

In an effort to mobilize 16,000 police officers concentrated in London alone, England’s soccer-addicted fans saw their Aug. 10 match against the Netherlands in Wembley Stadium canceled.

So it appears, this week at least, after years of ignoring glaring inequality and injustice, it is safe to say that all of England took notice of the crowded south London neighborhood of Tottenham and to similar minority communities in Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol where an explosive, fiery social consciousness has been rekindled .

Tottenham itself, where events first ignited over the police killing of an unarmed Black man, is a genuinely multicultural mix of mostly British-born African-Caribbean inhabitants along with Turkish, Portuguese, Albanian, Kurdish and Somali peoples reportedly speaking 300 different languages.

It claims to be the most diverse community in all of Europe but there is no doubt that most share in common the intense poverty and the abuse and neglect by the rich and powerful that is all too familiar.

During this past week, these different languages came together to speak with one voice: Look at us; we deserve to be treated fairly.

London’s current revolt is quite different than the massive protests in other European capitals and even distinguished from those in the Middle East.

The poor of Tottenham, however, do share much with their brethren in the Black and minority communities of North America. Neither have powerful advocates that are independent of the political establishment.

London’s revolt forecasts America’s future?

Traditional community and labor organizations in both Britain and the United States purporting to represent the working class have utterly failed these communities and allowed both Downing Street and Wall Street to impose their most austere policies on these least-represented amongst us.

“Most of all, it once again exposes the trickery and deceit of those who aspire to be our leaders. Not a single Black ‘leader’ has spoken out in defence of the youths. Not one,” Hal Austin writes in the Aug. 9 CounterPunch. Austin is a Barbadian living in London and a leading journalist and social commentator from the Black community.

Cannot the same be said in America where, for example, prominent national voices mobilizing the oppressed communities to demand jobs are noticeably absent?

Of course, the British government peddles a different story about events in Tottenham. Most are echoed by the establishment press.

A typical response came from GlobalPost’s London correspondent, Michael Goldfarb, who was quoted on the PBS NewsHour website as derisively dismissing the social problems of Tottenham by commenting, “The tension around [the police killing of the Black male] got out of hand very quickly, but it was clear almost from the beginning that this was plain old looting” by mainly unemployed youth with nothing to do on hot summer nights.

Police line up outside a burning building in Tottenham.
To the extent that this crude and vulgar opinion is shared by many in Britain, it only serves to confirm the truth: Tottenham residents are isolated politically and socially from the rest of British society and particularly from the rest of the working class.

Fundamentally, their isolated existence explains the different form the rebellion took; more akin to a chaotic riot in many people’s eyes as opposed to the far better organized massive upheavals in Madrid, Athens and Cairo that united majority sections of their population and that, thereby, more easily won sympathy and admiration throughout the world.

It is important to recall that these same massive actions ultimately achieved major support from significant and massive social organizations that helped define the powerful and effective character of their protests.

Culpability for the desperate acts in Tottenham is shared by organizations of the working class that have so profoundly failed to embrace these communities and offer them the same shared benefits of organization and same shared status as brothers and sisters.

Their organizational and political inclusion early on, I believe, would have significantly altered and strengthened how Tottenham residents reacted these last few days.

Divided and disorganized

Attempts during the era of the triumphant civil rights movement to politically and socially unite the Black community in the United States were met with government inspired assassinations and police terrorism, as documented by revelations contained in the U.S. government’s COINTELPRO papers.

As a result, beginning in the 1970s, criminal gangs began replacing FBI-targeted militant organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Black Panther Party, Young Lords, Brown Berets and numerous other effective social and political organizations in the communities of the oppressed.

This had a debilitating effect after several decades and results today in reactions to police brutality and poverty being often marked by scattered individual acts of frustration and anger. Protests are sometimes laced with anti-social behavior previously adopted as survival techniques.

For example, while ostensible political targets such as police cars and offices were burned in both Tottenham and Cairo, there was also in the former case the indiscriminate burning of buildings and some personal accounts of victimization that comes from pent-up rage.

There were other examples of criminal activity and even conflicts between gangs in the oppressed community of Tottenham that were also reported. Again, these are a result of decades of disorganization in the oppressed communities.

Protests are sometimes laced with anti-social behavior previously adopted as survival techniques.

These are not excuses, neither are they defenses. It is an explanation that contains the answer for its resolution: New organizations must be forged that unite the community around common social goals and aspirations.

The proliferation of criminal gangs and the utter lack of a coherent, credible and socially class-conscious leadership are but additional reflections of political and social separation from the majority of working people.

But this reality and the impact it has on distorting the communities’ response should not in any way diminish the powerful and profound social nature of the Tottenham revolt – one deserving of our full support.

A politically cohesive and united Tottenham is the frightening specter that certainly haunts the wealthy elite in Britain, even more than the current, very dramatic random acts of outrage.

The 1965 Watt’s rebellion in Los Angeles was similarly attacked in its day as a criminal enterprise but history has now properly recorded it as a true revolt against poverty and discrimination. History will also record Tottenham on this honor roll.

The rich and powerful benefit from divisions and rivalries in the oppressed communities, both in Britain and in the United States. Arguably, these same forces promote criminalization as a way of preventing the kind of social unity that could become a powerful political force.

A politically cohesive and united Tottenham is the frightening specter that certainly haunts the wealthy elite in Britain, even more than the current, very dramatic random acts of outrage.

As for their richer cousins in the United States, the wealthy elite here are only too well aware of the smoldering embers of discontent that have been stoked by the same draconian reductions in jobs and social services that have been adopted in Britain.

These issues affect the majority of Americans and, hopefully, we will learn from Tottenham that a united response is the best response with no community or section of working people left alone to fend for themselves.

Carl Finamore is a labor activist living in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco, where 60 percent of Black youth are unemployed. He can be reached at local1781@yahoo.com.

‘There is a mass insurrection’

Darcus Howe is a broadcaster and columnist who lives in Brixton, South London. His TV work includes “White Tribe,” in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. Howe organized the 20,000-strong Black People’s March in 1981, claiming official neglect and inefficient policing of the investigation of the New Cross Fire in which 13 Black teenagers died.

Following are two interviews with him: the first by the BBC, broadcast Aug. 9, and the second by Democracy Now, broadcast Aug. 10. BBC later apologized to Darcus Howe and all those offended by its “poorly phrased question.”

Here is the interview with Darcus Howe excerpted from the Democracy Now transcript:

Amy Goodman: We’re going to go first to Darcus Howe. Talk about what is happening in your country right now. What is happening in Britain?

Darcus Howe: There is a mass insurrection. And I’m not talking about rioting; I’m talking about an insurrection that comes from the depths of society, from the consciousness, collectively, of the young Blacks and whites, but overwhelmingly Blacks, as a result of the consistent stopping and searching of young Blacks without cause.

They changed the law. Before, you had to provide evidence that you were looking at this character for doing this and bouncing ladies and pushing his hand in a handbag, before they stop and search you. They moved that clean out and replaced it with anti-terror legislation that allows you to stop and search anybody, anytime, anywhere.

My grandson is 14 years old and I asked him, I said, “Nathan, how many times have you been stopped and searched?” He said, “Papa, I can’t count, it’s so many.” And that anger has been simmering beneath the surface because when you have hundreds of thousands of young people acting simultaneously; the issue has to be simultaneously experienced. And so when Mark Duggan was executed, they all had empathy with it and issues in their minds about what life is and what it is not.

The second practical thing is they’re on holidays. The school year is over. And anybody who’s been cooped up in a classroom in your teens for a term wants out. And you feel freedom of – a spiritual freedom. You breathe widely, “hahhh,” and you say, “School over, monkey turn over.” So that is a moment. I don’t think it would have happened in January or the middle of October or anything. It’s summer. It’s warm. In fact, some of the nights were quite hot.

And Mark Duggan lost his life. The Operation Trident – we have known Operation Trident for a long time. They came to investigate murders and they did absolutely brilliantly. And I have been all open in saying it’s a fine squad.

Now, everything is changing in the Metropolitan Police. It is perhaps one of the most disgraced organizations in the United Kingdom at the moment. And it’s headless – no commissioner, no deputy commissioner. So all these guys who are head of these operations – special operations, special ops, Razorback, Operation Razorback, Operation Trident – they’re all over the place, jostling to draw the attention of the authorities to get that big job and the deputy.

And so they go to Tottenham, where the first explosion took place, without telling the commander of that area. They were carrying that Glock Heckler pistol. That is a murderous weapon. It is the most murderous weapon you can ever put in your hands. And in bright, broad daylight, among ordinary people, they blew his chest away. Up to – they said that he had a pistol. Now they’re saying the extra pistol wasn’t his. We don’t know.

So two things. When they demonstrated – the family – to the police station, the commander could not come out and say anything because he was fussing all around trying to get in contact with his men on the ground. Nobody knew. And they did that and went their way.

And so the degeneration of the Metropolitan Police, the competition for the job of Metropolitan commissioner and deputy commissioner, that competition is on. And each one, each commander, would like to go to the extreme and put up his hand and beat his chest and say, “I qualify.” And that is the spirit at Scotland Yard.

Amy Goodman: Linton Kwesi Johnson, “Man Free (for Darcus Howe).” Linton Kwesi Johnson did this song for our guest, Darcus Howe. This is Democracy Now! democracynow.org, the war and peace report. Our guests are Darcus Howe, broadcaster, columnist, and Richard Seymour, who blogs at “Lenin’s Tomb.” They’re both joining us from London.

Darcus Howe, that song, what is the significance of it? And give us the history of your community, of Brixton, and how you feel this might fit into that history, what is taking place today, now more than a thousand people have been arrested across Britain.

Darcus Howe: It’s very repetitive of what happened in Brixton in 1981 – the exact same thing. They were beating up, stop and search – Operation Swamp, it was – and actually swamped the entire community and searched anything that moved that was male and that was Black.

Rebellion spreads to North London.
It was a clear distinction. And that exploded, I think, about 40 yards from my house. I was editor of The Journal. I led a demonstration of 20,000 people only weeks before. So I thought the best thing, I told Mrs. Howe, “Let’s go to the office up the street and sit in there.” And a serial of policemen lined up in front of my office. So when I was asked, “Where were you when the riot was on?” I said: “You ask the police. They have record of not only where I was, but everything I said on my phone.”

And there’s spontaneity. But the weakness is always the commentators: the press. It comes like a thief in the night to them, because they deal only with what has happened, not what is likely to happen, which is a kind of speculative truth. So they’re always surprised. And whenever there’s surprise, they look for people to blame, to cover up their own inadequacies. Whenever there’s surprise, they create a plot and a plan of some people – I don’t know if they were from Mars or what – as a result. And it is spontaneous.

After Brixton, the riots snaked, as it is doing now through Birmingham, Manchester, all over, Leeds, Bradford. It even included a place in the south called Cirencester of which I know nothing. I didn’t know any Black people lived there – in Gloucestershire. And so, the snake is traveling along the same path that it did in 1981.

Amy Goodman: And what do these communities have in common, Darcus?

Darcus Howe: There is absolutely no difference. There is no difference, in the minutest detail, in the insurrection and the looting. I think there’s much more looting now because they’re on school holidays. And one of the things about young people – because I was young once – [they] like whatever in fashion, [they] must have it; otherwise [they] won’t get a girlfriend. This is the spirit of youth.

Amy Goodman: I wanted … to get your comment, Darcus Howe.

Darcus Howe: Trousers, sneakers.

Amy Goodman: I wanted to get your comment on the London mayor, Boris Johnson, who walked through the streets of Clapham in south London with a broom on Tuesday as residents launched a clean-up operation in one of the worst-hit areas of the violence. He criticized those seeking to justify the unrest:

“It’s time we stop hearing all this, you know, nonsense about how there are deep sociological justifications for wanton criminality and destruction of people’s property. Whatever people’s grievances may be, it does not justify smashing up someone’s shop, wrecking their livelihood and kicking them out of a job. That is not the way to behave. That’s not the way to have an economic recovery in this city.”

That’s the London mayor, Boris Johnson. Do you condemn the unrest, Darcus Howe? Do you [condemn] the riots that are destroying a lot of the communities and the businesses within the poorest communities of Britain right now?

Darcus Howe: Americans will remember the anger of Black Americans at a certain point in history. Rap Brown celebrated that explosion, several explosions in Chicago [inaudible] every day. He says, “Burn, baby, burn!” That was his slogan. And it was approved by radical whites and Blacks. They have a reason for it.

Secondly, they’re very poor now. I have never known young people to be poor as they are now in the midst of an avalanche of advertisements and celebrity with the latest sneakers and top, bouncing around with their little hats on their head. And they cannot get the money to buy it; so they rip off the front of the stores and steal it.

I am not an Anglican Christian. My father was. He was a priest. And therefore, I don’t walk around with Ten Commandments and use them at sharp, historical, political moments in the history of a tribe, in the history of a country, in the history of an inner city. They stole it and they stole it. I don’t make any fuss when they have a lot of MPs and members of the House of Lords in jail for stealing. I don’t make a statement about democracy because a handful of them are thieves. So, this denigration is of Boris’ people because we’re all his citizens, and you look at one and speak about them in a certain way. But Boris is – Boris is Boris.

Amy Goodman: The mayor of London.

Darcus Howe: He’s a highly educated man. He loves Greek civilization and all of that, but Boris doesn’t have – and he’d better be careful, because the Olympics are next year in the London inner city.

Amy Goodman: Darcus Howe, do you have a sense that the feeling of people’s frustration of the poverty, the austerity that’s being raised, goes across race, that you’re talking about the poor whites as well and that it’s a class issue? [A]lso [is there a feeling] that there are those that are taking advantage of a moment of frustration to riot, to steal?

Darcus Howe: Hello? Let me say this. I write a column, a fortnightly column, in the only Black newspaper in the United Kingdom. And last week, before any Mark Duggan or anything, I write not from events only, from my historical sense, from my speculative truth. And I wrote, “I hope Amy Winehouse is floating in the stars, speaking in the air of authority, saying, ‘No, no, no.’” That was a warning.

I am not anybody with special qualities that I could divine what is happening tomorrow. I am not some of those people who do it by magic [who] you pay a little and know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I wrote that specifically because of not only what my grandson was telling me, but the sound of his voice. You can – it hit another pitch. And his friends and his mom and my friends’ children, there was a sense that the lid was going to blow and blow sky-high. So I was not in any way surprised.

Who had to be surprised? Those who govern. So they could do nothing to stop it, because it doesn’t – they don’t know if it’s there. They don’t even know if Black people are there. The Parliament, they didn’t even know what was there. It was there for all those who were paying attention, would see and listen to people, not question them and say, “Are you going to be rioting tomorrow?” No, you just ask questions. And then suddenly they burst out, as though they’re completely fed up.

I assure you and your viewers I knew something was on the agenda. The police did not know. I was in no surprise when Trident killed Duggan, none whatsoever. And I’m not surprised that they have weapons on the street now – armed police – and much more than normal. You mightn’t see it; it might be tucked in a car somewhere.

Amy Goodman: Talk about what you feel.

Darcus Howe: I’m not surprised that they’re tapping the phones of all of us who have been outspoken. And it’s no surprise if I come down the road late and, no, they don’t see anybody else, [so] dive on me and pick me up and fancy a story. That is where we are now.

Amy Goodman: Darcus Howe, what do you think needs to be done?

Darcus Howe: And I’m not [inaudible] or anything. That’s what we are now.

Amy Goodman: What would you, Darcus, what would you … want to see happening right now? How do you think this should all be resolved? We’re talking about four days of this uprising, of the riots, of the fires, of more than a thousand people arrested, police out in the largest presence in history now in the streets of London and others. What do you think needs to happen right now?

We must have broadcasters from all over the world and discuss the future of a civilization within a civilization and make that absolutely clear.

Darcus Howe: There has to be an overture made to young Blacks, saying, “Peace.” And you could do that with making clear that you disassociate yourself – I’m talking about the prime minister now – disassociate themselves with Operation Trident and dissolve it, dissolve Operation Razorback, which is terrorizing communities right now.

And the other thing, the genuine Black intellectuals and working class unionists and so on should hold an international conference within the next six months to lay out precisely the state of society. We must have Black Americans there. We must have broadcasters from all over the world and discuss the future of a civilization within a civilization and make that absolutely clear.

We invite delegates from Africa, we invite delegates from the Caribbean and say this is not the country that Cameron boasts of, and [explain] how, beneath the surface, [there is] terror and the disrespect on the [basis] of race, mainly, and we have to resolve it. We have to resolve it and resolve it in a civilized way.

Amy Goodman: We’re going to leave it there.

Darcus Howe: Not go with a demonstration to the House of Lords or Parliament and to your MP and whatever. We have to lift it sky-high and let the entire civilization of this world know that what they’re doing in Afghanistan is much of what they do to kill people here.

Beneath the surface, [there is] terror and the disrespect on the [basis] of race, mainly, and we have to resolve it.

I’m not angry, but I’m deadly serious. Every time I walk the street, my eyes are scanning the landscape for rogue police officers. And I warn my children to do that, and my grandchildren.

Amy Goodman: Darcus Howe, I want to thank you for being with us –

Darcus Howe: I’m going to see them next Sunday.

Democracy Now! is broadcast weekdays on KPFA 94.1 FM at 7 and 9 a.m. and on over 900 radio and TV stations, the largest community media collaboration in the country. Visit www.democracynow.org for archived shows, transcripts, podcasts and more. This segment was broadcast Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2011.

 

6 thoughts on “When is a riot a rebellion?

  1. Seamus

    Actually, Mark Duggan was armed. Your article says he wasn't. I suspect you're trying to inflame, but who know? Maybe it was just laziness.

    Police have found no evidence that Duggan fired the weapon. The bullet found in the policeman's radio is police issue. That is, it looks like a policeman got hit on the radio by another policeman's bullet.

    Let's hope nothing like those riots happen here.

    Reply
    1. seamus

      Hello Selina,

      Interesting. Mostly, what I'm seeing in the US is white right-wingers going crazy.
      They're not riots though.

      Gary Mikulich: Bomb inside federal building in Detroit. Feb 2011
      David Burgert 2010, 11
      A former militia leader who went on the run Sunday after allegedly shooting at Missoula County sheriff's deputies
      Byron Williams 2010
      Glenn Beck watcher shoots up CHP trying to get to SF ACLU and Tides Foundation (whatever that is). [And I almost drove into it here in Oakland.]
      Roger Stockham
      “A 63-year-old man arrested with illegal fireworks outside a Detroit-area mosque
      Shawna Forde (minuteman idiot)
      Former prostitute and white supremacist murdered a Hispanic family, but accidentally left a witness alive.
      And, that nutter who flew a plane into a fed building some years back. He didn't like taxes or something.

      and etc, etc.

      I think, if the economy gets bad enough, we'll see problems in cities in the US … in spite of the Patriot Act. I hope I'm wrong about that.

      Reply
  2. Fiona

    These riots started off as a peaceful protest calling for answers on the killing of Mark Duggan. However this escalated rapidy and many who joined in didn't even know who Mark was. You seem to have focused on Tottenham and forget that this spread all over London then Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol etc. The riots that ensued were mindless and had no offical protest that made any sense behind them. People arrested included a school teacher, a student nurse, several students and a young college graduate from a very wealthy family. Mob mentality ruled and this kind of distruction is undefendable. People who are now claiming that they rioted because money had been cut from their communitys have cost their communities hundreds of thousands of pounds. If this was truly a protest against the goverment then riot outside goverment buildings thats what the rest of the world does. This turned into nothing more than vandalism and robbery and in some cases murder. People took what they wanted for fun and because they thought they were protected by the crowd and wouldn,t get caught. Video footage of a young exchange student with a broken jaw being supposidly helped and then robbed was disgusting. Was that a protest too? An old man beaten who is now dead because he tried to stamp out a fire, not to metion the three men plowed into by a speeding car while trying to protect their community. For the record the system in Britain may not be perfect but the whole world is suffering from the recession. In Britain the poor are treated better than most in the world, they get benefits, council housing free education and free medical care. It is also considerably cheaper to get a third level education than in the Us and other countries. Im not saying that some of the people did not genuinely riot for a reason but the majority were in my opinion thugs and people swept up in mob atmosphere. Where in other countries people are being persecuted and shot in the streets this outburst makes me feel ashamed for those involved. The parents of Mark by the way condemned the behaviour.

    Reply
  3. Rich

    The BBC isn't government owned for one thing, it's funding is through the government. It's turned out to be rather more independent than most news organisations.

    As for DemocracyNow, based on that interview, it's not a very good news organisation. The interviewer seemed to be fawning over Darcus rather than being an actual journalist.

    And the picture at the top is from the student protests as far as I can see from the banners. Which except for a few incidents, was peaceful, with the students themselves decrying the violence of a few idiots.

    While there are some good points in your article, it's from a perspective I've seen a lot of the last few days, of Americans who really have no clue about what's actually happened.

    Reply
  4. John

    Five people who were trying to defend their property are dead.

    Over 40 people who live in these neighbourhoods have watched their homes burn and are left with nothing but the clothes they stand in.

    Over half the businesses attacked were owned by immigrants.

    Don't pretend this was something it was not. It was not a protest. It was not an insurrection against inustice.

    It was violent criminal anarchy.

    It had nothing to do with social deprivation and everything to do with young people raised with no boundaries, no discipline, and no respect for themselves nor anyone else. A large proportion have only ever known the influence of the Afro Caribbean gangsta culture.

    Even a black mentor who works with the youth of these areas has affirmed the above. Don't try to explain it away because you can't.

    You weren't there and you don't know jack.

    Reply

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