In defence of the mob

After protesters in Bristol dared to fight back against police violence yesterday, respectable opinion is rushing to condemn ‘rioters’. Richard Linsert asks if it’s really true that riots ‘don’t achieve anything’.

Protesters in London with a placard reading 'We will not be silenced'
‘Kill the Bill’ protests in London. Photo: Steve Eason/Flickr

A police van was set on fire in Bristol yesterday and we’re hearing a lot from the government and the cops about the usual suspects being responsible: ‘outside agitators’ and the ‘violent minority’. But a more accurate picture is also emerging (see here for a detailed account). Local media reports that thousands of people had protested peacefully in Bristol on Sunday afternoon. A hundred or so people later took part in a sit-down protest outside a police station – it’s at this point that there were ‘riot police, dogs and police horses deployed in the street outside the station.’ A report from Bristol states that ‘Protesters were being peaceful, people were sat in front of police station, as in literally sat. Police pushed people, kicked people on floor. People pushed back. Police in riot gear batoned people in the head, sent in attack dogs & horses, people kicked off.’ One protester described her experience as follows: ‘We were literally sitting on the floor shouting ‘this is a peaceful protest’ while police hit protesters round the head with batons.’

We’re seeing the same pattern we saw a week ago on Clapham Common, and have seen many times before – that when the media says that ‘clashes broke out’, it means ‘cops attacked the protest’. Activists involved in the student protests of 2010 are also noticing a rerun of a police tactic from eleven years ago, that of abandoning a van to get attacked, get photographed and so form the centre of media outrage.

More generally, it’s not hard to see why people might feel so angry at our rulers that they set cop vans on fire. A growing section of society is excluded from the basics of a decent life, basics which many people – including many older, white working people – take for granted. Almost half of young people are in precarious work – three times the level for older people. Many people in their 20s have no way of buying a home and can expect to stay in poor-quality rented housing all their lives.  For BME people the unemployment rate is now twice that for white people and rising twice as fast. 6 percent of white people live in overcrowded homes – between 15 and 30 percent of people in different BME communities do. The Tories may have gained the ‘red wall’ seats at the last election, but they were a remarkable 43 points behind among 18-24 year olds, and they have scant support in most major cities.

These social divisions have only gotten worse during the pandemic. Insecure workers are more likely than ever to lose their jobs. People in all BME communities are more likely to die than white people – Bangladeshi, African and Caribbean people are more than twice as likely. In Newham, an East London borough with a large BME population, the pandemic has seen staff at a local undertaker’s working 18-hour days. People, often from south Asian communities, are more likely to live in multi-generational households and to do cash-in-hand work such as driving taxis or in takeaways, so they can’t afford to self-isolate.

Covid has also meant a rise in authoritarian policing beyond what you might expect from a government experienced as alien by many. Dominic Cummings faced no penalty for breaking lockdown rules, but cops have issued fixed-penalty notices disproportionately to young and BME people – young men received 47 percent of the notices but are only 14 percent of the population, while BME people were 1.6 times more likely to receive a notice than white people.

For those at the bottom of the pile, Covid has been a disaster. For working people with secure housing and a secure job, perhaps able to work from home, it’s a different experience. But all working people have had to watch billions being given away by a deeply corrupt government whose first instinct as 126,000 people die is to enrich its friends. Privatised Test and Trace will cost £22 billion in 2020-21 and £15 billion in the coming year, at a time when we’re told there is no money for NHS pay – and Test and Trace has made, a parliamentary committee concluded last week, ‘little ‘measurable difference’ to the pandemic’s progress’. Meanwhile, contracts worth millions of pounds are given out to people such as Matt Hancock’s former neighbour, who had no relevant experience.

In a parliamentary democracy, we’re told, the opposition will hold the government to account. But Corbyn – to whom many young people looked to bring about change – is gone. Starmer heads a Labour Party more interested in demonstrating its loyalty to the capitalist status quo and the British state than in attacking the Tories. If you’re in your twenties, in insecure work and substandard rented housing – or an Asian man in your forties, driving a taxi in Newham – there is no one to vote for who says they will make your life any better.

Predictably, the right wing and the political mainstream talk of thugs and ‘outside agitators’. The Labour Mayor of Bristol runs through the usual checklist of those to blame, condemning protesters as ‘serial demo attenders’ and ‘people from outside the area’. But there’s also a left-wing take on riots which has to be rejected – that they are understandable, but counter-productive in achieving change. Ash Sarkar of Novara Media wrote on Twitter as events unfolded that ‘I don’t think that what’s happened tonight will help #KilltheBill. In fact, I think it might crush the tentative alliance between the left, the Labour frontbench, and grumbling Tory backbenchers. Strategic? No.’

This kind of naïve thinking – taking the shadow cabinet (or even the Covid Recovery Group of Tory right-wingers) as sufficiently reliable allies that we should, so to speak, police our own side for their benefit – has a long history. When thousands rioted against the Poll Tax in March 1990, some organisers rushed to line up with the cops, the government and the Labour Party leadership to condemn those involved as ‘anarchists’. And yet, thirty years on, it’s clear that the riot brought about the end of the Poll Tax and, indeed, Thatcher’s resignation the following November.

Time and again riots have functioned, in Martin Luther King’s phrase, as ‘the voice of the unheard’ – voices which can’t get a hearing through our very partial democracy. Riots can change history. The US struggle for racial justice has involved rioting – sparked by racist and now militarised police – time after time since the Watts Rebellion of 1965. The rise of the Black Panthers, the most significant revolutionary organisation in modern America, was inseparable from the nationwide rebellion after the murder of King. The two thousand or so people who fought the cops during the Stonewall Rebellion began modern LGBT activism and changed the world for millions of people.

If the choice is between supporting the well-funded violence of the state, and the justified rage of the oppressed, it’s clear what side we have to be on. The government now has a choice to make. They have already wobbled – the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which was to be rushed through parliament, is to be delayed. Protests – in particular, the role played by Sisters Uncut – made the difference. For all Priti Patel’s hard right rhetoric, behind-the-scenes details of the policing at Clapham suggest that she’s not capable of the consistent and coordinated work required to turn that rhetoric into reality. The fight to Kill the Bill needs to continue, and can win. If the Tories try to tough it out, we may well see more events like Bristol in the months to come.

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