Essays

Thoughts on the Birmingham Riots

I was in Birmingham on Monday night, having heard in the afternoon that something might be happening, and I watched events unfold right from the start, until around 11pm when I left town. Most of what I say here will refer to what I saw in Birmingham on that night. Things may have been different on Tuesday, or in other places, and I will do my best to be clear when I am reffering to Birmingham, nationally or other places.
What happened on Monday night what not what I expected. From the outside, Tottenham looked pretty textbook – decades of bad policing, from stop and searches, to the 400 deaths in custody without a single officer being prosecuted, including the recent death of Smiley Culture, all brought right to the surface with the shooting of Mark Duggan – one which looks increasingly like another attempt by the MET to cover up the killing of a person by their officers, as happened with Ian Tomlinson, Jean Charles de Menezes, Harry Stanley and countless others through the years. Apparently sparked by the beating of a 16yr old girl, the riots seen in Tottenham on Saturday seemed like an angry outburst in response to social conditions – not just the policing but years of deprivation, record youth unemployment and the cutting of services. North London SolFed put out a statement that I would agree with

The video footage here is fairly good to get an idea of what happened, although I don’t agree with the commentators opinion of why it did (the shopkeeper aside).
What happened in Birmingham was not textbook. Like many other people, I had said there would be riots at some point. But I didn’t expect them to be like this. In fact, I’d hesitate to call them riots at all, but it’s what they’ve been dubbed so I’ll stay with that. This could have been about the death of Kingsley Burrell in police custody, or about the same kinds of policing issues as Tottenham residents experience. It could have been about social deprivation, and about cuts. It could have been about criminal’s doing crime, or opportunists taking their chance to grab something. It could have been about bored teenagers in the summer holidays out because it’s something to do on a Monday evening. But it wasn’t. It was about all of these, and that is the first problem we face.

If you think this wasn’t about the police, then ask why did Handsworth West police station get set on fire?
If you think this wasn’t about social deprivation, then ask yourself why this map shows such a strong correlation between rioting in London and the social deprivation index, this map which shows the correlation between unemployment and riot locations, or the map linked to from this Guardian article which maps suspects addresses, riot locations and the deprivation index, and also tells us that 41% of suspects came from the 10% of most deprived areas in England, and that the majority of suspects come from deprived areas, 66% of those areas got poorer between 2007 & 2010.
If you think this wasn’t about cuts, the recession and austerity, then ask yourself why is it happening now, and not a year or two ago?

This is not a simple issue, it does not have a simple answer. There is not a homogenous mass of people that we can label as “the rioters” (although I will use that term to refer to the collection of people who were there on Monday night, who were not shoppers or workers or police). There were looters, and opportunists. There were people who were just playing cat and mouse with the police, some just along for the ride or to see what happened.. there were even some breakdancing crews out.

There is one thing that I feel that I can definitely say about Birmingham on Monday night. It wasn’t a racial thing, black white and asian were all represented. At first everyone played cat and mouse with the police, getting into a group big enough that a police line would appear or run at it and then scattering in small groups, often getting stopped and searched, and regrouping by seeing each other.
I had no real problem working out who was involved and who wasn’t, even though I was on my own and didn’t know anyone. There were obviously friendship groups at play here, people seemingly naturally moving around in groups that anarchists would recognise as affinity groups – something that I think @aaronjohnpeters mentioned as happening in London. Regrouping by recognising other people who are there with a common purpose. And they ran the police ragged.
They had no desire to fight the police though, not at all. When some of them ran up the ramp towards the palisades, cordons went in to stop them from entering and trapping them on the ramp. What this did was to stop the cat and mouse. Up to this point, there had not been any robbing, though there had been the opportunities to do so. I still thought this was going to erupt with the police getting heavy and people defending themselves by fighting the police. All the really rowdy public order situations I’ve been in have been in London, and the Met and TSG handle things rather differently.
If we’d been in London, I think the TSG would have kettled that square of the junction of New St & Corporation street. This kettle would have contained many members of the public – shoppers and workers, who had stopped to see what was going on, as well as the rioters. They would have drawn their batons, smacked some people round the head and it would have kicked off. That’s kind of what I was expecting.
Now comes a surprising statement. I think the police did a good job. You won’t hear many say that, and I’m someone who is highly critical of the police. If the police had gone in heavy then it is likely that many people would have been injured. It feels wrong to say that now that people have died, but if people, especially bystanders, had been injured or even killed by the police on Monday night, then many parts of the city could have erupted in riots out of response to the policing.
I don’t see how the police could have stopped this, bar having thousands out on the streets of the city centre. Water cannons would be useless as people would run down side streets – you can’t take a water cannon up Needless Alley. And after a short time, when it runs out of water, and it’s maximum speed is slower than someone on a bike, it becomes a target for attack, and so do the police.
Give people a common enemy and they’ll turn and fight. This truism is dangerous right now. At the time of writing, it looks like the racist far right are failing to capitalise on this in any large way. The EDL didn’t turn up in Birmingham city centre, and in Eltham they made complete tits of themselves by fighting the police. In Birmingham the fragments of BNP and NF do not seem to be gaining any ground. We need to be aware of their attempts to take advantage of this, but as there was no racial divide in the riots, they are struggling to take advantage of them – I think that most people are aware that this was not racial.
Another danger is that this is used to divide the working class, to get us to see “the underclass” as the enemy. Chavs, scum, feral rats, vermin, benefits fraudsters. They’re the problem. Scrounging off you and then out robbing from the shops. Can’t be arsed to work. So someone who steals a £3.50 bottle of water, gets 6months, whilst someone who steals £22,000 gets 16 months. One of those is an ex-MP, the other is a teaching assistant. To say that we need to be looking at the bosses, the banks, the MPs who steal and scrounge more from the working class every day than the rioters looted from independent shops is not to condone, support or encourage what happened. Instead it is to look at the deeper reasons that have caused these events, and to believe that real change comes from changing the structures of our society, the structures which create the boundaries of how our society looks and changes the probabilities and tendencies of the personalities and characteristics of people in that society.
It’s not a straight relationship. It’s simply about likelyhoods. It is wrong to say that if you are poor you will loot, because many people who are poor do not steal and loot. But that does not mean that it is also wrong to say that poverty makes it more likely to do so.
On it’s own, poverty wouldn’t be enough. The cuts, especially the cut to EMA and youth services will have an effect. The student demonstrations of 2010 were full of teenagers angry about the cut to EMA, and that anger hasn’t dissipated – even if it wasn’t expressed outwardly here, and many participants were too old for EMA anyway. 20% youth unemployment plays a part – at the very least in creating many of the opportunists who hadn’t gone there to rob, who aren’t really criminals, but see the chance to get something they can’t afford to buy, or can sell for a bit of cash or just wanting to say fuck you or the same set of motivations that means teenagers shoplift every day. Lots of different reasons, all adding up to a situation where the state and the police lost control.
Now they know that the police can’t control them, it will happen again, in most major towns and cities at some point. All the measures that people seem to be calling for – water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas, live ammunition, the army on the streets, shut down of social networks, internet access, mobile phone networks – seem at best useless and dangerous, and at worst straight up inflamatory.
Then there are calls for rioters to have their benefits removed and talk of them being evicted. Now apart from the presumption that all the rioters are on benefits (some of todays court cases have been for unemployed people, some for employed people – again showing a complicated situation – this is not just an uprising of the extremely poor, precarious and desperate), this idea is clearly ludicrous. If these riots were not just about poverty, you’d be creating riots by creating a group of people who, assuming that the wheels of justice have managed to convict the right people, we can say are happy to riot, and are now homeless, without access to benefits. What do you actually think is going to happen?
3 people in Birmingham have died. Many in Tottenham are homeless. What we need to do now is think about how we stop this – in the short term and in the long term.

What I have is more questions than answers. In the short term, it seems to have gone quiet now. Tariq Jahan’s words on Wednesday night were truly powerful and this man is due a huge amount of respect.

Combined with the rain, and the rumours of football fans and / or EDL coming to the town centre to protect it turned out to be false, meant that what was for a time a very tense situation turned out to be nothing. No rioters turned up – and a police presence meant that anyone who came out in a small group went home so even if there had been enough people there to riot, they never all got together in the same place or time to have the numbers. The EDL didn’t turn up so those problems didn’t come up, and the tensions between parts of the asian and afro-carribean communities in Birmingham that saw Lozzell’s riot in 2005, following rumours of rape, did not surface again. I think that in Birmingham, everyone is aware that this is not a racial issue (apart from the racists obviously, but they would, despite all the evidence to the contrary.).
This is a social issue. But it goes deeper than the cuts. @sredniivashtaar said that this is a glimpse of anarcho-capitalism and I agree with that. The papers called it anarchy, they were wrong.
Anarcho-capitalism is capitalism at it’s most raw, and a total rejection of ideas of the community, placing individuals as the only actors in our socio-economic world. There is no such thing as society, only individuals. Anarchism is built on ideas of community, direct governance and working class, grass roots organisation. The two philosophies share the belief that there should not be a state which means people only have an indirect access to the governance of their lives, but for anarcho-capitalists, the mechanism of governance is the market, whilst anarchists will look for the community, as sets of people who work together for a common purpose, as being the mechanism of governance.
One of the reasons that I am actively campaging against cuts to state spending is that the state provides an arena in which working class organisations can bring improvements in their conditions within capitalism, through struggle. The cuts will only worsen the conditions of the working class, whilst the bosses consolidate their capital, and make sure we pay for their losses.
I am a fan of dystopic sci-fi, especially the near future type stuff. In my head I’m thinking about a story which starts off like this – depression, ever growing underclass, either state loses control entirely and we get a situation in which there is no police force or state and gangs roam the street robbing and looting whilst vigilantes protect their own neighbourhoods, and chaos reigns every night. Or one in which we have a fascist, corporatist state, or an openly corrupt oligarchy or kleptocracy – something more akin to Russia than early Mussolini. But I don’t think those are likely outcomes.. just I can see a story to write from here..

Doom mongering aside, I’m going to give some thoughts about what I think we need to do in the long term, and how we got here in the first place. Events seemed to have shown that in the short term, a strong police presence, some rain, unfortunately a tragic event and thankfully calming words were enough to stop this for now. Possibly by the time you read this I’ll have been proved wrong. I hope not. I don’t pretend to have anything of an answer to this to be honest – I can’t think how any authoritarian policing measures can stop this (although large police numbers clearly can help). The sentences handed down today, some of them have been ludicrous, with people going to jail for swearing at the police, or a 6 month sentence for stealing a £3.50 bottle of water are compared to the sentences handed down to bankers for crashing our financial system, the MPs who fiddled expenses, the police officers and press whose corruption has been revealed, it makes me wonder why we allow ourselves to be divided and attacked in this way.
This is, I think, much of the reason why I will not condemn the looters, or call them chavs, or scum, or feral youth, or vermin (like they should be exterminated).
When people who trash shops, try to set fire to things, manage to set fire to them and get convicted for arson or steal expensive plasma screen TVs, are running the country and saying that people who have trashed shops, tried to or even succeeded in setting fire to things or stolen plasma TVs should all be going to jail and talking up the use of water cannons and rubber bullets (both of which are dangerous, and kill – in the case of rubber bullets very regularly in Northern Ireland) to prevent them from doing so, you have to wonder how such a hypocritical situation is allowed to continue.
In the long term, we need to look at the long term reasons why this is happening. This is the bit were trolls get to pretend they’ve read nothing else, think I blame it all on Thatcher and that I support Labour.
For 30-40 years this country has been run on a neo-liberal agenda. Sometime around the oil shocks of the 70s – before Thatcher – the economic management of capitalism by the state changed from vaguely keynesian ideas to vaguely monetarist ones. I’m not going to go into the economic details, because it is the social outcomes of those details that are important. In the post war period, increases in wealth were fairly evenly shared by everyone – the wealthy got much, much wealthier of course, and it was still very unequal, which large amounts of poverty – but from the late 70s, the income levels of the majority of people stagnated, whilst the wealthiest 10% grew rapidly, and the wealthiest 1% even more rapidly.
Ideas of individualism were pushed forward, and working class structures were destroyed or restricted – both in terms of legal restrictions on unions, and the outright destruction or allowance of our manufacturing sector to be reduced, the casualisation of the workforce and downward pressure on wages. All of these things have contributed to a situation in which there is no society, no reason not to rob these shops. The emphasis on consumerism and materialism that capitalism wants, that the bosses want, the idea that entrepeneurship is about getting money and material objects for you rather than creating stuff for the benefit of the community, that you look after yourself and other people don’t matter – they aren’t your concern – do you really expect that some people are not going to think that it’s ok to steal in order to get the material things they are told that they need in order to be respected?
I know from working with teenagers that having a nice mobile phone does get some respect from others, having clothes gets respect from others. It’s how it works at secondary schools. Some of those are genuinely impoverished, whose parents and siblings live day to day. They may well have taken the chance to grab a phone, or some clothes. To be honest, I don’t blame them, They have their opportunity to steal from the corporate stores that flash these objects in front of their faces but do not have the opportunity to purchase them. I am not at all happy about people stealing from independent stores, especially ones like Ideal who are a truly legendary skate shop in Birmingham that needs our support – I know other independent businesses got hit.
Now at this point in time, I have to remind you, there are many different people involved in this. I’m perfectly aware that many of those stealing stuff were not in a precarious situation, not really deprived in an absolutist sense (although the relative deprivation does have a relevance here, just in a more subtle way). Poor possibly, but also some not. So don’t just go well if they can afford blackberries they’re not deprived, because some of those stealing will be. I talked to a homeless man who was picking up stuff that had been looted from eat, and then dropped by some looters when they got ran at by police with dogs.. don’t tell me that man wasn’t deprived, or that he should be locked up for nicking those cakes and crisps. It’s not black and white, it’s not simple.
Neo-liberalism leads us towards anarcho-capitalism and a shrinking of the state, but also has an element of corporatism to it – outsourcing to private companies so that state spending is done through the private sector and the state and market become a total overlap, only not like communism with the state as the dominant actor, but with the market as the dominant actor – and authoritarian measures designed to prevent dissent from growing (there goes my dystopic doom mongering again).
What I see here is the outcomes of the nature of the structure of capitalism, being allowed to come closer to the surface by decades of neo-liberalist, individualist and materialist governance, a period in which working class solidarity and structures have become weakened. Ultimately what we need to do is to change the structures of capitalism, but for now I think we need to focus on ending neo-liberalism, of which the austerity agenda is just one part. The anti-cuts movement needs to broaden it’s focus, and to argue that these riots are part of the outcomes of neo-liberalism. At the same time, we need to rebuild the community and workplace structures that have become so damaged in the last 40 years, and work towards replacing capitalism with a sustainable socialist system.
I guess it’s time to get round to reading about parecon and whether it’s a good plan or not.

tl;dr? tough. It’s too complicated.

Other articles: David Harvey: Feral Capitalism Hits the Streets

Kenan Malik: Moral Poverty and the Riots

Truth, Reason, Liberty: In The Ashes of a Riot & Opposing the Reactionary Backlash

ALARM: Understanding the Riots, Where Next

Dan Hancox: Rap Responds to the Riots

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