The events of the weekend in London shows the level of anger present in local communities in the capital of the UK. Riots unseen since the early 1980s raged for two days across a seven mile stretch of North London before spreading across the whole of the capital and onto the rest of England. This occurs in the context of uprisings across Europe, particularly in Greece and Spain as austerity measures kick in and ordinary people feel the pain of the bankers’ crisis. With the euro plummeting, and no end in sight to the chaos, it is unlikely that this pain will cease any time soon. The character of the events in London are very different however to that which has happened in Greece. The politics of the situation, high on the foreground in Greece fuelling the anger are less overt in the London Riots – where the anger is more guttural and less well channelled, ignited and fuelled by a Metropolitan police force which is rapidly being exposed as corrupt, unaccountable and fundamentally untruthful.
“No justice, no peace” goes the slogan shouted at the police time and time again in Tottenham on Saturday night as cars, vans, buses and shops were set alight. The police killing of a man under what would seem very dubious circumstances, followed by the beating of a young girl by multiple police in full riot gear as she tried to hold the police to account, set fourth an outpouring of anger. For nearly 12 hours, Tottenham burnt; the police completely lost control of the suburb as the pent up rage of the community was unleashed. People on the ground described a near carnival atmosphere as people felt the strength of flexing their muscles and the endorphin rush of exercising their power.
As Tottenham blazed however, the dangers of the riot became apparent. People were forced to flee their homes as the flames licked nearer, the streets became a frightening place as the clashes turned violent and the unpredictability of both the police and the rioters left many residents, particularly the elderly, disabled and those with young children, feeling very unsafe.
The relationship between the revolutionary and the police is a tense one. On the one hand the police forms part of the repressive state apparatus, protecting the state, which protects capital; on the other hand they are a welcome sight if someone jumps you late at night and steals your ipod. Justice is necessary in any community. At the moment we rely on the police, as mandated by the state to perform this function, but they do not perform this role impartially. Knowing their paymasters, the police will clamp down heavily on live teenagers who hack into corporations computers, but turn a blind eye to corporations who hack into dead teenagers’ phones. They will arrest people en masse who occupy the premises of corporations which practice tax evasion, but they will skim over investigations into tax evasions into those same corporations which occupy high street space in those people’s towns.
The rapid spread of information occasioned by the widespread use of social media is rapidly exposing the double standard of policing which operates in this country. And there is justifiable anger. While the revolutionary rightly condemns policing in the interests of the state, there is no question that policing is necessary. The Tottenham riot saw vulnerable people placed in dangerous situations as the burning rage took hold, while on the following night, the looting of stores saw the young, fit and mobile acquire high value goods through the sheer force of might. Although within the activist community we have developed legal observers to ensure protester safety at the hands of the police, the events of the weekend demonstrate that we must go beyond that to develop our public order monitoring – one which prioritises people over property and protects people from their own rage.
Like the events of the student protests of 9th November 2010, saw a spontaneous eruption in the face of the introduction of £9K fees for students in England – effectively making higher education the preserve of the wealthy, and ensuring debt-slavery for anyone seeking a degree who didn’t have such family advantages. While most of the offences associated with the student protests – including Bryan Simpson, accused of knocking off a policeman’s helmet and facing three years in prison and Alfie Meadows charged with violent disorder (despite nearly dying of a brain haemorrhage after he was brutally attacked by police) – are trivial and designed purely to scare future protesters, the throwing of a fire extinguisher from the roof of Millbank tower was a dangerous and reckless act and one which could have resulted in serious injury or death. There is no doubt that the 17 year old kid who did this had no such intentions, but was merely caught up in the atmosphere and did not properly think through the consequences of his actions. It does however highlight that in the context of a demonstration protesters have the responsibility to keep others safe, not only from the police and state, but also – and perhaps even more so – from their own. Had that fire extinguisher killed someone, there would not only be a family grieving, but a young man who would have to live forever with a death on his conscience.
Property is fair game for destruction – as Durruti said “We are not afraid of ruins, it is we the workers who built these cities, we can build others to take their place, and better ones” and the fury unleashed on the streets of Tottenham is quite understandable, however by the following night, that fury had turned to opportunism as shops were systematically looted of high value goods. Theft from corporations is scant course for worry, however this kind of looting, prompted not be need, as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but by greed, allowing the stronger, more able and younger members of the community to materially advantage themselves at the expense of the security of the rest of the population is concerning. People are far more important than property, and the activists’ first concern when managing behaviour within the context of protest or rioting must be to ensure the safety of both the participants and the wider community, however there is a broader goal of ensuring a just distribution of material assets. Changing the distribution system from those who are empowered by financial capital to those who are empowered by immediate physical capital will lead not to a dictatorship of the proletariat, but to a dictatorship of the mob.
If the experiences of the early 80s are anything to go by, the student protests and London Riots are likely to be just a beginning. Why should those who are denied access to places of higher learning value them, respect them and cherish them as they become merely the reproductive mechanism for future elites; why should those who are being cleared from London boroughs by high rents and the withdrawal of housing benefit feel a stake in the communities from which they are being excluded. Without justice, there can be no peace, yet the police have demonstrated time and time again that they are unable to uphold justice; it is time for the activist community to work hard to attain it. That means not only challenging the forces of repression within the state apparatus which privilege the powerful over the weak, but also the powerful within our communities which seek to exploit situations for their own advantage and ensuring that activists act with a level of responsibility to the safety, security and needs of the wider community not only in everyday situations but also in the context of uprisings.
The activist community must proactively turn itself to creating its own justice and security system based on egalitarian principles and non-discriminatory respect. We must build an alternative justice system which respects human rights, privileges people over property and ensures a fair distribution of wealth. We must demand democratic policing under community control, in the interim however, we must seek to uphold justice where the police are unable to. Where the police lose control, the people must step in and any demonstration in future must take into account the possibility that we cannot rely on the police for the safety of protesters, bystanders or the local community and we must accept our own responsibility for events in the maelstrom of the struggle, ensuring security, safety and justice. Taking power is heady, but as Spiderman said “With great power comes great responsibility”, we need to ensure that when we seize power, we are ready for that responsibility.