Social Protest in the Era of Neo-Liberal Class Warfare and Global Recession
On August 4, 2011, officers in the Tottenham district of North London belonging to "Trident," a special unit of the London Metropolitan police for dealing with violent crimes in poor ethnic communities, shot and killed Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man riding in a minicab. On a Saturday, two days later, some 150 local residents seeking "justice" staged a peaceful political march on the Tottenham Police Station, where they stayed for many hours trying to learn why the police had to shoot Duggan when he had not fired on them (as they had initially and untruthfully claimed) and why Duggan's fingerprints were not on the gun that the police claimed was in the taxi. But instead of sending out a senior police officer to engage the marchers as they had requested, the police adopted a dismissive stance toward the local residents.
That evening in the high unemployment districts of north and south London young people rioted. The unrest triggered by Duggan's killing soon spread to other parts of the capital, drawing in men and women from a wide variety of occupations as well as organized gangs. Rioting also erupted in the shopping centers of major cities and towns that had long histories of urban riots: Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, Bristol, and Liverpool. It was the rapid geographical extension of this upheaval as much as its emotional intensity, with young people coming from all parts of these cities to fight the police and break the law, that caught the world's attention and caused vacationing ministers to return from the continent and parliament to reconvene.
For four straight nights British television showed scenes of arson, looting and mugging, burglarized shops and private homes, warehouses and cars consumed in flames. Over large areas of urban Britain disorder spread spontaneously, without organizational leadership, profoundly impacting the local population of shop-keepers and merchants in affected districts. Some lost homes and livelihoods. In London two men were killed. In the "ethnically segregated districts" of Birmingham rioters caused the death of three men of Pakistani descent. Police officers were seriously injured in confrontations, as were local residents intent on defending their property. Then, suddenly, while reinforced police were still making arrests and reclaiming the streets, the mayhem ended and local volunteers began cleaning-up and removing debris, holding peace vigils, not waiting for politicians to lead.
The British riots need to be understood in world-historical terms, compared briefly with similar events in different times and places, from the global North to the global South, from Spain and Greece to Chile and Argentina. In countries where social protests have occurred on a national scale (as in Britain, France in 2005, and the U.S. in the 1960s), their resemblances and differences must also be noted. Although the motivations of those who participated in riots vary widely, and the situations that drive them differ, certain shared characteristics can be identified, starting with outrage at police behavior and cutbacks to essential social services.
Britain's most recent moment of mass protest laid bare popular hatred of the police and frustration with the Cameron regime's neo-liberal austerity policies and intransigence in the face of strong popular opposition to its domestic policies. Abuse of prisoners by police, for example, has been long standing. Over the eleven-years from 1998 to 2010, 333 prisoners have died in police custody in England and Wales yet no officers have been convicted, according to a study by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Police tactics, police corruption, and the daily harassment of youths and working class people, many living below the poverty line in poor areas, but particularly within black or multiethnic communities, are but some of the reasons many Britons tacitly empathized with the wrath of local youth even though they took no part in rioting and were deeply angered by how the youth acted, destroying property and homes in their own neighborhoods.
In the background to the British unrest lay economic policies dating back to the early 1980s, when British capitalists sought to destroy the power of unions, lower wages, and reduce inflation. Along came the Conservative Margaret Thatcher answering to their needs with a right-wing policy agenda, intended to create a society dedicated to greed and consumerism, buttressed by the rhetoric of law and order. Under her leadership official crime rates increased as did long-term unemployment.
Ronald Reagan in the United States pursued similar policies and articulated a similar anti-democratic, anti-union message coupled with sustained attacks on New Deal social legislation. Events of symbolic importance -- Reagan's dissolution of the air traffic controllers union in 1981 and Thatcher's breaking of the coal miners' strike in the UK in 1985 -- further weakened Anglo-American labor and its ability to wage effective strikes. In the U.S. unionism in industry declined, leaving only unions in the public sector relatively intact, though that has now changed as class conflict heats up. In Britain the character of trade unions was already changing before Thatcher; during the next decade new white collar workers came to constitute the Trade Union Congress (TUC)'s main membership, just as unionism in the U.S. was declining. No longer did unions reflect the interests of low-wage and unemployed workers. The New Labour Party, presently led by Ed Miliband, exemplified these changes.
Sociologist James Petras summarized a wide range of factors that have impacted riots and social protest movements globally, starting with the neo-liberal programs administered by labor and social democratic parties while they "promot[ed] multi-national corporation-led export strategies." Labor and social democratic parties "have embraced regressive tax 'breaks' for big business. . . participated in imperialist wars of aggression (Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya) . . . .[and signed on to] the so-called 'war on terror' mostly against Muslim countries while tolerating the growth of the neo-fascist, far-right Islamophobes who practice 'direct action' to expel immigrants in Europe. The European governing parties of the center-left (social democratic and labor) and the center-right (Sarkozy, Cameron and Merkle) have been outspoken in their assault on 'multiculturalism,' code-word for Muslim immigrant rights." To these one must add the recent turn to "austerity" which has worsened the current global recession.
In early 2010, shortly after winning office by a slim majority of votes and forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg, Tory right-winger David Cameron proceeded to implement radical austerity measures that showed his party's subservience to investors and wealth managers, and indifference to Britain's chronically unemployed, its students, and the poor who live in the inner cities.
Cameron and his ministers, like their European counterparts in France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and elsewhere around the world, have been willing to risk broad social unrest at a time when "Youth unemployment in the 27-nation European Union stands at just over 20 percent, ranging as high as 45.7 percent in Spain. In Britain," as New York Times journalist Roger Cohen writes, "youth unemployment has risen from 14 percent in the first quarter of 2008 to 20 percent. About one in every five young Europeans and young Americans is wondering how to get any sort of working life on track." And "[t]he anxiety grows when governments are slashing benefits and pushing back retirement ages in an attempt to deal with spiraling deficits. . . . Brits from Tottenham to Teesside have watched the most patrician cabinet since Macmillan [1957-63] cutting everything from libraries to youth counseling services."
The August 2011 riots can usefully be seen in light of earlier periods of rioting in the U.S. and other countries with long traditions of violent social protest. In the U.S. in the mid-to-late 1960s, when the Democratic Party was in power, riots erupted among the black underclass, notably in the densely populated ghetto of Harlem (1964) in New York City and in Watts, a small, impoverished area within South Central Los Angeles (August 1965). The Watts rioting lasted six days. Other major uprisings occurred in the black ghettos of individual cities across the country, peaking twice: in 1967 and again (for the first time on a truly national scale) in 1968, when the assassination of Martin Luther King sparked riots in Washington, D.C. and in hundreds of cities throughout the U.S., while across the Atlantic students protests toppled General Charles de Gaulle's authoritarian government.
The violent American race riots of the 1960s were spontaneous outbursts that did not require political agency or planning any more than did the 2005 riots in the French republic or the recent riots in Britain. But whereas Lyndon Johnson responded to them with both carrot and stick, Cameron and Sarkozy wielded only the stick.
In April 1992, when the cold war and Persian Gulf War had ended and southern California industries that depended on war were suffering, virtually all of South Central Los Angeles erupted in a spontaneous community-wide insurrection against police brutality and judicial bias. This most massive of urban riots followed the judicial exoneration of police officers who had been videotaped beating Rodney King, and after a Korean store owner who had murdered a fifteen-year-old black girl was tried and allowed to go free. During five days of rioting "54 people died, 2,328 were injured, and property losses topped $900 million." This was "the most ever in any U.S. riot."
The phenomena that fueled black anger and frustration and led many inhabitants of inner cities to turn on their own communities were racial discrimination, high rates of unemployment, an absence of any hope of economic mobility, government reductions in social services as seen in poorly funded schools, and the long history of police brutality directed by many American police departments against young black males. Also among the causes of the riots was a lack of mass organized political expression because neither mainstream political parties nor major unions represented the interests of black citizens.
Many of these same phenomena were present in Britain's urban riots. For centuries Britain like the U.S. was a two-party country in which politicians, once elected to high office, typically ignored the diverse interests and views of the majority. There were exceptions of course, as under the New Deal during the early 1930s and in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Now Britain has three parties all seeking to maintain a status quo advantageous mainly to society's minority of propertied and privileged owners. In this system the mass of low-paid British workers, the unemployed, students, adolescents and young adults remain excluded from mainstream prosperity yet they (and their parents) must pay the price for the mistakes, criminality, and greed of bankers, financiers, hedge fund managers, and politicians.
Angry and embittered, disconnected from organized political mobilization, many people participated in a situation where there was a lot of impulsive behavior and indiscriminate violence, destroying their own neighborhood retail stores and residential houses. In some cases they made no attempt to cover their faces because they did not care that their actions were being filmed. As one rioter told a reporter, "politicians say that we loot and rob, they are the original gangsters." Another explained to the BBC: "We're showing the rich people we can do what we want.'' New Statesman writer and blogger Laurie Penny cited an NBC report in which a young Tottenham man "was asked if rioting really achieved anything:
"'Yes,' said the young man. '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.'
"Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere."
A local councilor who had first-hand knowledge of London districts affected by the rioting spoke about their complexity to Guardian journalist Peter Beaumont. "There were different groups of people with different levels of involvement, many of them overlapping," she said. "There's the 13-year-old kid who heard about something happening on the High Road, who wouldn't usually get involved with criminal gangs. There were those with a more articulated political agenda, including those angry about police stop and searches. But the looting was not about politics, it was about consumerism -- about people helping themselves to what they think they wanted."
Consumerism was certainly a part of the problem, but the loss of low skilled jobs stemming from waves of de-industrialization that have steadily reduced Britain's manufacturing sector, depriving young people in the inner cities of unskilled jobs, seems more important. Coupled with this is Britain's "culture of greed and impunity" for the crimes committed by its ruling elites in government, big business, the police, and mainstream media. As the Daily Telegraph's Peter Osborne put it, "the criminality in our streets cannot be dissociated from the moral disintegration in the highest ranks of modern British society. The last two decades have seen a terrifying decline in standards among the British governing elite." Osborne's response to the riots, despite his pompous tone, highlights the contrast between high and low looting. The lowly get punished, the high enjoy immunity even if they had once engaged in hooliganism while attending elite colleges, as Cameron did at Oxford.
Some post-mortems on the riots have rightly focused on the West's deepening economic crisis, lowering of wages, and stepped up exploitation of workers; other writers have singled out fiscal austerity measures, bank bailouts, and union busting as common strategies of governments for coping with global recession while protecting big corporations and the wealthy. Historically, there is a causal relationship over a long period of time between fiscal consolidation and social unrest. According to economic researchers Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth, from the demise of Germany's Weimar Republic in the early 1930s "to anti-government demonstrations in Greece in 2010-11, austerity has tended to go hand in hand with politically motivated violence and social instability." This correlation seems undeniable: massive unrest most often surges not with tax increases on the wealthy but with cut backs that hit the poor hardest. But as they point out, "the relationship is not deterministic."
Many British rioters acted in accordance with the values and behaviors of the upper classes -- the bankers and speculators who the rioters perceived to be looting the treasury via financial chicanery, bailouts, and the use of overseas tax havens. To these elites, and especially to the politicians who used their parliamentary stipends for personal gain or who spent on the royal wedding in a time of austerity -- the rioters responded by sacking stores, which was their own version of self-help or consumption without labor. Reuters journalist Peter Apps seemed to allude to this by citing these words of a youth after the riots in Hackney: "They set the example . . . It's time to loot."
In present day Britain the antagonistic relation between the police and the people, like the gap between the wealthy and all the rest, is comparable to what exists in the U.S., and both may be greater than in France or anywhere else in continental Europe. Race or ethnicity, however, seems not to have been as big a factor in the British riots as it was in the U.S., let alone in France during nearly three weeks of rioting that started in a Parisian suburb on October 27, 2005, and quickly spread to other segregated ghettos (classified variously as banlieues, "sensitive" or "problem" urban zones) in more than 200 main cities and towns, until it looked to the world like France itself was burning.
The French rioters were mainly unemployed second or third generation North African and sub-Saharan African immigrants, many of them Muslims from the former French colonies. According to police statistics, 2,888 mostly naturalized French citizens were arrested for arson and other crimes. The rioters burned approximately 9,000 private vehicles, police cars, and buses, and 30,000 dustbins; looted and smashed the windows of shopping malls; destroyed warehouses, commercial property, schools, and a Catholic church. Their violent actions were spontaneous and unorganized, injured 126 police and firefighters, and produced two deaths.
In Britain, by contrast, the riots were of much shorter duration (lasting only four consecutive nights), involved more looting, and were more multiethnic with many "whites" robbing stores and "non-white" store owners trying to defend them. Thus there was no clear pattern of race as in Republican France, where the citizenship ideal of equality and fraternity is belied by the lived experience of immigrant youth. When the British rioting ended, fretting over what had occurred lasted but a short time; in France the revolts of the young immigrants were also quickly sloughed off. Nevertheless, the British and French riots need to be seen as part of a broader current of social protest that has impacted public opinion. A closer look at the sequence of events brings this out.
On March 26, about four months before the August riots erupted, Britain's Trades Union Congress [TUC] and various campaigners against public service cuts organized a huge anti-government protest march to change elite minds about reducing public spending. The March demonstration far exceeded in size the 2010 national student demonstrations that brought over 50,000 student protestors into central London and was to be part of an ongoing movement of strikes, civil disobedience, and sit-ins. The new white collar class that had superseded industrial labor and constituted the TUC's main membership, responded enthusiastically. Into central London on buses and in cars came an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 "teachers, nurses, firefighters, council and N[ational] H[ealth] S[ervice] workers, other public sector employees, students, pensioners and campaign groups" rather than the classical working class: factory workers and miners. Parents and children participated in the rally, hoping to deter Cameron from proceeding with his anti-worker policies. Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour opposition addressed a rally in Hyde Park that was entirely peaceful. Peaceful and quiet too was the mass sit-in in Trafalgar Square . . . until the police moved and attempted to arrest a young man for "placing a protest sticker on the 2012 Olympic clock."
According to one participant's account, the action of the police precipitated a fight with the demonstrator, causing the mood of the crowd to change. Many protestors began to chant abuse at the police. Barriers went up; fireworks became missiles; the square became a battle zone. While the police besieged the demonstrators on public property late into the night another event was unfolding elsewhere in the capital as hundreds of "anarchists" clashed with police and attacked property in Oxford and Regent Streets; other groups of young people, not intent on violence, occupied the upscale Fortnum & Mason store in Piccadilly, demanding that the store pay its taxes.
The main March 26 demonstrations were an expression of organized political mobilization on a massive scale, with clear political objectives. They failed to move the Cameron government. The August riots, though entirely disconnected from any political mobilization, also had a political significance, and can be read as its sequel.
Regardless of their duration, mass riots and protest demonstrations are prima facie evidence of failed public policy. In Britain they exposed the limitations of representative "democracy" in a core capitalist state that is reducing its public services to the non-affluent majority in order to concentrate on managing its financial-top heavy "free market" economy. Read this way, the riots were reactions to shameful violations by government officials and the wealthy of the democratic principles of economic equality and equal justice.
More specifically, the riots spotlighted the plight of the poor in the inner cities and revealed political corruption, hypocrisy and double standards at various levels of government. They also revealed the extremely asymmetrical relations of power between the people and the owners of the state. In their aftermath have come harsher policies of repression of the underclass and renewed discussion of measures to break up inner-city youth gangs.
In London alone police estimate that people of all ages participated in the riots and nearly 2,000 have been arrested for offenses in connection with the rioting -- a number that is likely to rise. Britain's lay magistrates and professional judges are severely punishing serious offenders, as well as juveniles unaffiliated with gangs who have had no previous run ins with the law. But a Guardian UK analysis found that the "courts are handing down prison sentences to convicted rioters that are on average 25 percent longer than normal," placing extreme stress on the already record high (86,608) prison population in England and Wales. (In the U.S. the numbers are far higher in absolute terms but also in relation to population size and racial composition.)
The stiff sentences for rioters of all ages illustrate the authoritarian, self-righteous response to the rioting of Prime Minister David Cameron, who defined the episode as "criminality, pure and simple." "There are pockets of our society that are not just broken," he declared, "but, frankly, sick . . . the root cause of this mindless selfishness is a complete lack of responsibility . . . people allowed to feel that the world owes them something, that their rights outweigh their responsibilities, and that their actions do not have consequences. . . . This is not about poverty, it's about culture. A culture that glorifies violence, shows disrespect to authority, and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities." A month after the start of Britain's worst civil unrest in a generation Cameron was still moralizing about bad parenting and the culture of the inner-city "underclass," while denying that Tory austerity policies, disregard of the poor, and the behavior of politicians, bankers, and others in authority had contributed to social unrest.
Cameron's language, justifying harsh punishments for rioters and a general reduction in government services suggests a colonial mentality where the poor and working classes are concerned. For him, as for justice secretary Kenneth Clarke, rioters are "a feral underclass, cut off from the mainstream in everything but its materialism." Nicholas Sarkozy. France's Interior Minister at the time of Paris' riots, used similarly insulting language to label French rioters as "scum" and a social "gangrene" and said that the crime-ridden banlieues [suburbs] ought to be "cleaned with a fire hose."
Writing in late August, Britain's chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks elaborated on Cameron's initial response. Sacks blamed the rioting on the victims -- their dysfunctional families and culture and raised the issue of the internet and cell phone use which, he claimed, had enabled hooded trouble makers to elude police. He also decried the moral permissiveness unleashed by the culture of the 1960s, and called for the "re-moralization of society." London's mayor Boris Johnson "blamed the rioters' 'extreme sense of entitlement.'" Neither he nor Sacks, however, had anything to say about how the criminal, unethical conduct of politicians, police officials, and tax-dodging, ultra-rich CEOs who are never held accountable for their behavior which contributed to far greater, long-lasting social disorder. And neither Sacks nor any Tory politician addressed the willingness of Labour and Conservative governments to spend their scarce resources on the wars in Afghanistan and Libya while leaving urgent social needs at home unmet.
Thus, in Britain and in France ruling elites ignored pre-riot student demonstrations. Unproductive, angry rioting followed, and was met by harsh judicial punishments. The language that authorities used to describe the rioters and justify their repression influenced the tone of subsequent public discourse and gave indirect encouragement to ultra-rightwing, racist political parties such as the new English Defense League and France's National Front. Their incitement to hated and Islamophobia in a time of global recession contravene everything decent in both societies.
- Ellen Salvi, Mediapart interview with French anthropologist Alain Bertho, "Emeutes de Londres: une exasperation mondiale," posted Aug. 9, 2011, and Diane Taylor, "Mark Duggan's family accuse police of operating a 'shoot to kill' policy."
So deep was the Tottenham community's resentment of the police, and so strong were its recollections of the violent riots in the Broadwater Farm area of Tottenham in 1985, that it did not matter that Duggan, a father of four, may not have been a model citizen. The local community's perception of police behavior overrode other considerati
- John F. Burns, Ravi Somaiya and Alan Cowell, "Cameron, in Speech Pledges Swift Reaction to Rioters," New York Times, Aug. 18. 2011.
- Nathaniel Tapley, "An Open Letter to David Cameron's Parents," Aug. 11, 2011.
- See Bertho interview, note 1 above. The social policies of successive British governments have also contributed to rioting and juvenile delinquency by creating for many living in council housing "hardship, misery and ill-health." Andrew Grice, "Slum UK: housing crisis that shames the nation," The Independent, Sept. 8, 2011.
- Caroline Davies, "Deaths in police custody since 1998: 333; officers convicted: none," The Guardian, Dec. 3, 2010.
- Ian Taylor, "Law and Order, Moral Order: The Changing Rhetorics of the Thatcher Government," Ralph Miliband, et al, eds., Social Register 1987: Conservatism in Britain and America: Rhetoric and Reality (The Merlin Press, 1987), p. 306.
- James Petras, "European and US Working Class Politics: Right, Left and Neutered," August 2011. Unpublished paper.
- Roger Cohen, "The Age of Outrage," New York Times, Aug. 16, 2011.
- Harlan Koff, "Understanding 'La Contagion': Power, Exclusion and Urban Violence in France and the United States," Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Vol. 35, No. 5 (May 2009), p. 782.
- Lou Cannon, Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD (Times Books, 1997), p. 347.
- Seumas Milne, "These riots reflect a society run on greed and looting," Guardian, Aug. 10, 2011.
- Laurie Penny, "Panic on the Streets of London," posted at Common Dreams.org on Aug. 9, 2011.
- Peter Beaumont, "London riots; frightened and angry, Tottenham residents seek answers," Guardian, Aug. 13, 2011.
- Peter Osborne, The Daily Telegraph, Aug. 11, 2011.
- Richard Wolff, "Austerity: Why Capitalism Is Choosing Plan B," Guardian, Aug. 22, 2011.
- Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth, "Austerity and Anarchy: Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe, 1919-2009," Discussion Paper Series, Centre for Economic Policy Research; Ponticelli and Voth, "Fact. There is a link between cuts and riots," Guardian, Aug. 16, 2011.
- Peter Apps, "Riots Shake Faith in UK Austerity, Stability," Aug. 10, 2011.
- Haarlan Koff and Dominique Duprez, "The 2005 Riots in France: The International Impact of Domestic Violence," Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Vol. 35, No. 5 (May 2009), pp. 713-14.
- Wikipedia, "2005 civil unrest in France."
- Sherrill Stroschein, "Bilateral Mobilizations, Vigilantes, and Riot Wombles," posted Aug. 11, 2011. She notes that "wombles" "refers to a children's TV series about creatures on Wimbledon Common [who] pick up objects left by messy human beings."
- Nathan Akehurst, "The Battle of Trafalgar," posted at his blog; Ian Gallagher and George Arbuthnott, "The Battle of Trafalgar Square -- On the Ground Reports," March 27, 2011.
- "The battle of Trafalgar," Herald Scotland, Aug. 22, 2011; Laurie Penny, "What really happened in Trafalgar Square," New Statesman, March 27, 2011.
- Paul Street, "David Cameron and the Broken conservative Records of Not-so Anti-Government Victim Blaming," posted Aug. 18, 2011 at ZNet.
- Monitor Editorial Board, "Britain's post-riots search for a gang buster," Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 16, 2011.
- Press Association, "UK riots: nearly 2,000 arrested so far, say police," Guardian, Aug. 21, 2011.
- Alan Travis and Simon Rogers, "Revealed: the full picture of sentences handed down to rioters," Guardian, Aug. 18, 2011.
- Cited in Paul Street, "David Cameron and the Broken Conservative Record of Not-so Anti-Government Victim Blaming," posted on Z Space, Aug 18, 2011.
- Paul Lewis, Matthew Taylor, James Ball, "Kenneth Clarke blames English riots on a 'broken penal system'," posted Sept. 5, 2011.
- Patrick Marnham, "Monsieur Le Brute: He seduced Chirac's daughter then betrayed him. He threatens rivals with violence," Daily Mail, April 20, 2007.
- Jonathan Sacks, "Reversing the Decay of London Undone," The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 20, 2011.
- Clay Risen, "Is London Burning?" New York Times, Aug. 12, 2011.
Herbert Bix, author of Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, which won the Pulitzer Prize, teaches at Binghamton University and writes on problems of war and empire.