“Riots are the language of the unheard”: reflections on the protests after the death of Edir Frederico Da Costa

Rosa Soros reflects on the protest after the death of Edir Frederico Da Costa.

(Photo: Steve Eason)

What a farce! There was a state-sanctioned murder of another young black man in police custody (and, inevitably, another cover-up), yet it is the protest against this killing that is accused of turning “violent”. The very moment Edir Frederico Da Costa was at the mercy of racial profiling and a corrupt police force, the state forfeited its right to a peaceful protest.

The authors of this tragedy, deserves nothing less than the collective rage and anger of those who consistently come up state violence and repression. Martin Luther King said, “Riots are the language of the unheard”, and it is in this vein that we salute those who stood up against the violence of the state and the police.

However, there is a worrying tendency in the wider left to reproduce harmful discourse that replicates the logic of the bourgeois state, siding with the ruling class when civil disobedience crosses the boundaries of what constitutes a “peaceful” protest. On social media the usual suspects, liberals and social democrats, tweet their bewilderment as to why “local youth” are setting bins on fire in their own communities. But what is more concerning is that much of the self-professed “radical” left is mimicking this line of inquiry.

This is a red herring that attempts to distract from the political potency of riots and working-class self-defence against the state. We would do well not to get distracted. The idea of “community” needs to be evaluated through a material lens.

What constitutes a community? I’ve lived in Stratford, near Forest Gate. The area is not a wholesome, multi-cultural, vibrant hub of opportunity, but a fractured, anatomized borough of London in which the manifestations of social and economic inequality are very real and very visible.  An area where the Olympic Park and Westfield shopping centre, naked expressions of corporate opportunism, have forced local families out into pockets of poverty, where several pubs are a no-go for lefties, black people and non-black people of colour, and where fascist stickers litter street lamps.

What community are we talking about? Why do we fetishise the idea of community, and even more so when discussing various disparate communities? What is there to salvage in a place like Forest Gate where the housing is less than fit for purpose, where gentrification is pushing rents higher, pushing ordinary people out, and bringing well-to-do “young professionals” in?

Class is what unites us. We need to re-establish class consciousness and recognise the valid expression of rage and disruption when people fight the state. According to Inquest, there have been 1,500 deaths in police custody since 1990 in England and Wales, and more than 500 victims were from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.

BME people in the UK only make up 14% of the population, which puts into perspective the systematic nature of racial profiling, racism in the police force, and the subsequent lethal police brutality that disproportionately affects the working class and precarious people of colour.

The violence that is enacted by the state against disaffected and marginalised people, and again any who challenge its authority, must be met with dissidence. In the words of Black Panther and revolutionary Fred Hampton, “I’m not afraid to say I’m at war with the pigs.”

We should not shy away from declaring class war (we have always been at war) and recognising how racism operates within capitalism and how the capitalist class maintains dominance through racism, sexism, and other modes of oppression.

This is our struggle, and we have a collective responsibility to turn solidarity into action. An injury to one is an injury to all. Solidarity in struggle, solidarity as action. If we are true revolutionaries then we do not squabble over bins lit on fire, but salute and stand up for those willing to defend themselves against state repression by any means necessary.


  1. Rosa Soros article Riots are the Language of the Unheard tipped me back on to my laptop. Stratford and Forest Gate rang very large bells in my head. In 1969 I stepped out of Stratford tube station to a sea of Alf Garnett demolition, meaning row upon row of two up two down, loo in the backyard houses that the Luftwaffe had miserably side stepped three decades before. That initial mess was small fry, I spent the next series of years at North East London Polytechnic (now updated to University of East London – names change but geographical setting does not) bathed in a sea of slums. Looked a mess then, 48 years down the road, apart from cladding improvement on tower blocks, looks half a century worse. But there is more to say.

    Newham, the borough that holds this picture postcard, is give or take the odd metre square, exactly the same size as the town I grew up in, Crawley new town (keeps Gatwick airport from slipping runway-wise too far south), 4 x 4, 16 square miles. The difference is Newham holds four times the population to Crawley’s 60 000.

    When at the Poly one of the lecturers remarked that the borough had the lowest university application rate per thousand of the population of any place in the UK. Explanation ? Local inhabitants biologically thick caused by the murky river that slips past the flood barrier, the sweet smell of the A11, or the intellectual legacy of the shere volume of the unskilled ranks ? Of couse not, if they run ‘o’ levels in West Ham Football Club, Securicor raids or generally hyper-ventilating shopping in Green Street market it would reverse the academic picture. The educational picture is culturally painted. On this same remark I noted that waiting for a bus in the area was a version of This is your Life, within minutes an unknown bus stop associate will have elaborated three-fifths of their life story and be digging up the opening two chapters of yours. During an early morning queue for the breakfast break at Tate and Lyle I became aware of no money due to the slow learning about living with 24/7 shift work. When this was mentioned to the person in front of me in the line without even turning a ten shilling note was passed back to me. Another instance when smoking but not selling them had cloaked WHU (football club) I tried to buy an individual cigarette off one of the 30 000 that had come to watch the famous team lose. By the end of a nicotine filled afternoon I ended up with more than I could inhale but not a 30p would be taken. All small fry fragments but my time in East London was basket full of them. A culture of blind help and solidarity.

    Fascist stickers on lamp posts. Two things to do, 1. stick anti-Nazi ones over the top. 2. build solidarity and support to all instances of working people fighting back. My time in East London delivered me in to Socialist Worker, the great character the recruited me, inspired and guided my reading and analysis finally got washed up on the shores of those 48 years of battle, ” . . . the working class are not responding to the attacks.” For all his academic might he was really saying the the class is not falling in to the text book mode that his Marxism was predicting. His Marxism was wrong, the class was arriving on unique historical waters. A period never inhabited before. The 50s and 60s of the permanent arms economy that produced the balloon of full employment, wages and reforms deflated in to a 70s life raft of debt. The ruling class spent many a sundry session dividing, liquidating and splintering the class. But for all their efforts and half a century down this crisis road the nausea of capitalism floats higher than ever. And the brick work of working class recovery is as there as ever. A class battle clock is ticking, note Grenfell, quite when the alarm will be triggered nobody knows, but trigger it will.

    My time in the London Borough of Newham taught me that and for all the greying travels since no a drop has evaporated. Riots are the language of the unheard has never been truer, keep your ear to the east London ground (and every other part of the globe as well).

    Colin Frost-Herbert


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