[News] Planet of Slums, Age of Riots - From Tottenham to Oakland

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Aug 12 11:57:55 EDT 2011

August 12 - 14, 2011

 From Tottenham to Oakland

Planet of Slums, Age of Riots


Tottenham, Chile, Tunis

There are too many to count

Oakland, Brixton, Taybat al-Imam

We almost can’t keep the names straight.

Clichy-sous-Bois, Caracas, Los Angeles

The phrase “riot in London” echoed strangely in 
my ear, prompting only muted interest. I have 
been present for a few riots in London and in 
nearby Cambridge, marches against the war and the 
perennial Mayday battle between anarchists and 
the Metropolitan Police. From these to the more 
recent anti-cuts marches which ended in sporadic 
clashes with police, my interest has gradually 
waned, and when I most recently heard this phrase 
“riot in London,” I expected it would be followed 
by yet another description of a ritualized 
protest, with some marchers 
and some anarchists fighting police. This is not 
simply a criticism: I was not not excited, but I 
was certainly not excited either.

Instead, the details began to emerge: the 
immediate spark was the police murder of a Black 
Duggan, who was shot to death by police, and the 
beating of a 16-year old woman demanding answers 
from police about Duggan’s death. The fuel for 
the fire had been long accumulating, however: 
institutionalized racism in the form of poverty, 
police stop-and-search methods, and more recent 
Conservative Party cutbacks in the name of 
“austerity,” this year’s chosen catchword if 
“revolution” doesn’t eclipse it entirely.

The similarities with other serious waves of 
social rebellion then began to emerge with 
increasing clarity. This was both about Mark 
Duggan and it was not (here we can agree with the 
British Prime Minister David Cameron, albeit 
toward the opposite end), just as the recent 
rebellions in Oakland in 2009 were both about 
more than Oscar Grant, just as 2008 Athens was 
about more than Alexandros Grigoropoulos, 1992 
L.A. was about more than Rodney King, the 1965 
Watts Rebellion about more than Marquette Frye, 
and so on. And like these previous moments, the 
London rebellions are spreading with a degree of 
spontaneity and a flexibility of organizational 
forms that has left police utterly confounded. 
There have already been more than 1,000 arrests, 
and as hysterical media outlets up the rhetorical 
talk of “guerrilla warfare,” the police are gearing up for far more.

Mob Hysteria

When economic violence reaches a certain point, 
social counter-violence soon follows, and yet it 
is rarely the bankers or the politicians, the 
purveyors of global austerity measures, who bear 
the brunt. It begins with name-calling, and no 
name has more political and historical resonance 
than “the mob,” the most traditional of slurs. 
to London, we are told, the specter of the mob 
looms, and to the image of the “baying mob,” that 
keystone of journalistic integrity 
Sun has also added the image of the “trouble-making rabble.”

Irrational, uncontrollable, impermeable to logic 
and unpredictable in its movements, these 
undesirables have once again ruined the party for 
everyone, as they have done from Paris 1789 to 
Caracas 1989. In Fanon’s inimitable words: “the 
masses, without waiting for the chairs to be 
placed around the negotiating table, take matters 
into their own hands and start burning

To use the word “mob” is a fundamentally 
political gesture. It is an effort by governing 
elites and conservative forces to delegitimize 
and denigrate popular resistance, to empty it of 
all political content by drawing a line of 
rationality in the sand. To make demands is 
reasonable, but since “the mob” is the embodiment 
of unreason, it cannot possibly make demands. 
Never mind the very clearly political motivations 
that sparked the rebellions around London, as 
well as the growing and equally political 
concerns about economic inequality and racist 
have been well documented, no matter how little many Britons want to hear it.

But I want to address directly the idea that the 
riots are fundamentally irrational, as the smear 
of “the mob” would symbolically insist. Let’s 
listen closely, let’s block out the torrent of 
media denunciation and hear what the rebels are saying themselves:

Argument 1: Nothing Else Has Worked, This Might.

When ITV asked one young rebel what, if anything, 
rioting would achieve, his response was as matter-of-fact as it was profound:

“You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t 
riot, would you?... Two months ago we marched to 
Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, 
and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? 
Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of 
rioting and looting and look around you.”

put it: “you can’t do nothing that’s normal for 
it to happen right.” In other words, legitimate 
discontent has not been heard through official 
channels, and so those suffering turn to 
unofficial ones. If someone has an effective 
counter-argument to this, I’m all ears. This is 
not to suggest that the rebellions have a 
singular logic shared by every participant, but 
that there is logic to be found nonetheless.

This isn’t the only time riots have worked, 
2009 Oakland, it was riots and only riots that 
led to the arrest, prosecution, and conviction of 
BART police officer Johannes Mehserle for the 
death of Oscar Grant. And this effectiveness 
extends to the tactical, while the left marches 
and is surrounded by police, these street rebels 
have proven far less susceptible to tactics like 
“kettling”: as The Guardian put it,

roaming groups of youths cannot be effectively 
kettled. And unlike activists they will often 
return to the site of trouble, seeking direct 
confrontation with police.The looters appear to 
have been more savvy. Large groups targeting 
shops have been melting into a nearby estate in 
seconds at the first sound of sirens arriving.

Argument 2: The Rich Can Do It, Why Can’t We?

Poor people aren’t stupid enough not to have 
noticed what’s been going on in the world around 
them. As capitalist crisis has set in a massive 
redistribution of wealth has taken place, with 
banks and investors bailed out at the expense of 
the population, effectively rewarding them for 
predatory behavior and leveraging national debt 
into economic growth. The rich line their profits 
as essential services and benefits are slashed, 
and faced with such obvious “looting,” we are somehow expected not to notice.

onlooker to the London riots puts it precisely:

This is about youth not having a future
 a lot of 
these people are unemployed, a lot of these 
people have their youth center closed down for 
years, and they’re basically seeing the normal 
things: the bankers getting away with what 
they’re getting away with
 this is the youth 
actually saying to themselves, guess what? These 
people can get away with that, then how come we can’t tell people what we feel?

As one 
female looter told 
Sun, “We’re getting our taxes back,” and 
another told 
Guardian, “The politicians say that we loot and 
rob, they are the original gangsters.”

Argument 3: Locating the Riots.

Essential to the imagery of the irrational mob is 
the insistence that the bulk of the destruction 
is centered on working-class communities, and 
here the logic is fundamentally colonial. The 
poor and the Blacks can’t be trusted: look what 
they do to their own. Incapable of governing 
themselves, they must be taught civilization, by 
blows if necessary. Here again Oakland resonates, 
as after the riots there a solitary African braid 
shop, one of many whose windows were smashed, 
the media symbol of the ‘irrationality’ of 
rioters hell-bent on destruction and nothing 
more. It is worth noting that the poor rarely 
“own” anything at all, even in their “own” communities.

To break this narrative, we must read the actions 
of the rebels as well as listening to their 
words. While working-class communities have 
indeed suffered damage (we should note that 
working-class communities always bear the brunt 
of upheaval), there has been less talk of more 
overtly political targeting: police stations 
burned to the ground, 
courts windows smashed by those who had passed 
through them, and the tacitly political nature of 
youth streaming into neighboring areas to target 
luxury and chain stores. On just the first night, 
in Tottenham Hale targeted “Boots, JD Sports, O2, 
Currys, Argos, Orange, PC World and Comet,” 
whereas some in nearby Wood Green ransacking the 
hulking HMV and H&M before bartering leisurely 
with their newly acquired possessions.

This tendency was seemingly 
on analysts at 
Guardian, who were left scratching their heads 
when the riot locations did not correspond 
directly to the areas with the highest poverty. 
And it’s not just the lefty news outlets that let 
such details slip: 
Kruger, ex-adviser to David Cameron observed 
that:  “The districts that took the brunt of the 
rioting on Monday night were not sink estates. 
Enfield, Ealing, Croydon, Clapham... these places 
have Tory MPs, for goodness’ sake. A mob attacked 
the Ledbury, the best restaurant in Notting Hill.”

While refusing to denounce the rebellions, 
socialist thinker 
Callinicos nevertheless suggests that such 
looting is “a form of do-it-yourself consumerism
reflecting the intensive commodification of 
desires in the neoliberal era.” This view misses 
the far more complex role of the commodity during 
a riot, which was as evident in 
as in 
not only is the looting of luxury consumer items 
far more complex than Callinicos suggests, but 
the argument of looting as consumerism would have 
a hard time explaining both the destruction of 
luxuries and appropriation of necessities that often ensues

Despite the ideological deployment of the specter 
of mob hysteria, in the words of one observer, 
there is 
mindless” about the London rebellions.

“An Insurrection of the Masses”

British media has by now largely closed ranks 
against the rebellion, providing a seamless 
tapestry of denunciation that oscillates between 
the violently reactionary and the comically 
hysterical. But this was not without first making 
a serious mistake, an error in judgment that 
pried open but the tiniest crack into which 
stepped a man who has since become a focal point 
for resistance to the media hype. Darcus Howe, 
nephew of the Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James, 
seems to have inherited his uncle’s acute 
capacity for seeing through the racist hype about 
“mobs” and discerning the political kernel of 
seemingly apolitical daily acts of resistance, of 
recognizing the new even amid the crumbling shell of the old.

When asked in a live BBC interview to 
characterize the recent outbursts, How spoke the following words:

I don’t call it rioting, I call it an 
insurrection of the masses of the people. It is 
happening in Syria, it is happening in Clapham, 
it’s happening in Liverpool, it’s happening in 
Port of Spain, Trinidad, and that is the nature of the historical moment

When Howe refused to follow the self-generating 
script, one so well-known that no orders for its 
reading usually need be given, the flailing BBC 
correspondent turned first to bad logic and then 
to ad hominem attack. If Howe was attempting to 
explain the context of the rebellions he must 
also be condoning their effects, and wasn’t he, 
by the way, himself a rioter as a youth? He 
wasn’t, as a matter of fact, but he was certainly 
accused of being one: Howe was tried for affray 
and riot at the Old Bailey in 1971 only to be 
acquitted. After Howe’s later release on charges 
of assaulting a police officer, 
Kwesi Johnson penned a tribute, “Man Free,” which featured the following words

Him stand up in the court like a mighty lion, him 
stand up in the court like a man of iron, Darcus out of jail, Shabba!

of the interview recorded from a living room has 
spread like wildfire, with more than 2.3 million 
hits as I write, and the 
has since been forced to apologize, blaming unspecified “technical issues”).

“The Nature of the Historical Moment”

Darcus Howe is right: there is something peculiar 
about “the nature of the historical moment.” 
Maybe it began in 1989 in the South, when 
Venezuelans rose up against neoliberalism in 
Caracazo rebellions only to be crushed in blood 
and fire with up to 3,000 dead. Who was the 
subject of that near-insurrection, that 
world-historical detonator which forever 
transformed Venezuela and unleashed all that has 
come since? The poor dwellers of the barrios 
surrounding Caracas and other Venezuelan cities, 
the product of decades of systematic 
underdevelopment and the nascent neoliberalism 
that had accelerated its effects. These were the 
residents of the slums of which our planet was 
soon composed, in Mike Davis’s haunting words, 
and without access to political power or a 
workplace to strike in, they had discovered the 
location of their political action in practice: the streets.

But as jobs have moved South, crisis has come 
North. Or rather, it has been here all along, in 
the South of the North and the North of the 
South, but austerity measures have begun to shift 
the effects of the contemporary crisis to reach a 
far broader demographic. In this context, 
the effects of riots in our historical moment is 
about as effective as bemoaning the existence of 
gravity. Those taking to the streets of London 
and elsewhere are the social product of 
capitalist restructuring in the long term and 
austerity measures in the short term. But a 
historical subject does not gain its status 
merely from being a product: first it must act.

Darcus Howe’s uncle, the late C.L.R. James, was 
straightforward in insisting that it is in such 
action that the new world emerges from the shell 
of the old, and here I only hope to note some 
hopeful indications of this. First and foremost 
is the unprecedented spirit of unity that has 
emerged in the streets of London and elsewhere. 
Guardian reports:

the rioting has been unifying a cross-section of 
deprived young men who identify with each other
Kast gave the example of how territorial markers 
which would usually delineate young people's 
residential areas – known as ‘endz,’ ‘bits’ and 
‘gates’ – appear to have melted away. “On a 
normal day it wouldn’t be allowed – going in to 
someone else’s area
 Now they can go wherever 
they want. They’re recognising themselves from 
the people they see on the TV [rioting]. This is bringing them together.”

This sense of unity is not merely among different 
sets from different areas, but also extends to 
the unprecedented multi-ethnic demographic that 
has participated: poor whites, Black British, 
African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants, South 
Asians, Muslims, and Jews have all played a role. 
While some in the Jewish community 
complained of being singled out for the 
of Hasidic Jews in the first night’s rioting in 
Tottenham, this should instead be read against 
assumptions that the crowd was only Black or only 
Muslim. All ages have participated as well, with 
entire families spotted either looting or warning 
looters of approaching police. The youth, and 
especially young men, have nevertheless 
constituted the functional spearhead of the 
rebellions, with 
observer insisting that “this is a movement of 
the youth, of the young people saying, guess what 
mister, I’ve got no voice, no future, no leadership.”

But if C.L.R. James saw the potential for unity 
amid such rebellions, cracks in the shell of the 
old often produce dangerous shards, and so he was 
also keenly aware of the equal potential for the 
opposite: racist backlash among even poor whites. 
Thus while the more the more liberal wing of 
white supremacy has appeared in the form of 
armies” cleaning up the aftermath of the 
rebellions (wearing t-shirts emblazoned with such 
heartwarming slogans as “rioters are scum”), 
of white racists like the “Enfield Army” have 
also emerged, offering their services to the 
police against the rioters (this alongside the 
more organized white supremacy of 
English Defence League).

“The Left Must Respond”

In a short web comment, 
Harvey expressed the sentiment of many on the 
radical left seeking to walk the fine line 
between uncritically embracing the English 
rebellions and falling into the right-wing media strategy of denunciation:

We have to remain loyal to this crisis. We have 
to support the eruption of the unheard and the 
unspoken in our obscene society
 the problem is 
not the excesses of this or that action, it is 
that the rioters are simply not radical 
enough.  We have to radicalise them further
have to support the anger, but make the anger 
political, and thereby turn it into something 
genuinely powerful and dangerous – a revolutionary moment rather than a riot.

This is certainly true in one sense, but it runs 
the risk of neglecting the fact that “the left” 
is far behind the rebels in the streets. In some 
key ways, these riots are far more radical and 
more effective than the left has proven itself to 
be, and the rebels have certainly surpassed the 
left in tactical savvy as in sheer bravado. Who is really more radical?

left must respond” as one op-ed puts it, if only 
to fight the messaging of the right, but only if 
we recognize that there is much we can learn from 
those rushing through the London streets. As 
observer puts it, these youth “got nothing to 
lose,” to which we might be tempted to add, ‘but their chains

George Ciccariello-Maher is Assistant Professor 
of Political Science at Drexel University. He is 
completing a people’s history of the Bolivarian 
Revolution in Venezuela and beginning a history 
of rabbles, mobs, and gangs. He can be reached at gjcm(at)drexel.edu.

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