Workers Hammer No. 216
Capitalism loots wealth made by working people
English cities erupt over racist cop killing, austerity
Free all arrested for looting!
The article below was first published in Workers Vanguard no 985, 2 September 2011, newspaper of the Spartacist League/US.
On 4 August, the cops shot and killed a young black man, Mark Duggan, in Tottenham, north London. Contrary to police disinformation circulated at the time, Duggan did not fire any shots. But that did not stop the press from branding the victim as a “gang member” killed in a “shootout” with police. The family of Mark Duggan, a father of four, were given almost no information about his death. Instead they were told to wait for the results of an inquiry by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, known among blacks as the police cover-up commission. Two days after Duggan was gunned down, his family members took part in a protest of some 300 people at a Tottenham police station demanding information, but none was given. Reportedly, police attacked a young woman demonstrator, knocking her to the ground.
There is a limit to the endurance of minority youth, who have been treated like criminals since the time they could walk. For black and Asian youth in this country, degradation at the hands of the cops, including the relentless use of “stop and search”, is calculated to underline the message: you have no rights whatsoever. The killing of Mark Duggan was one atrocity too far. Anger exploded. Tottenham erupted in flames in scenes reminiscent of the riots in Tottenham’s Broadwater Farm housing estate in 1985, which followed the police killing of a black mother.
Little of substance has changed in the lives of black people since that time. This time around, the revolt in Tottenham ignited a mass of social tinder at the bottom of British capitalist society. Rioting spread like wildfire to other areas of London and to parts of Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool. Black, Asian and white youth took to the streets to give the finger to the police, the government and a society in which they manifestly have no stake. For four days, riots by the impoverished and dispossessed swept cities and towns. Britain was exposed to the world as the racist, class-divided hellhole it is.
The arrogant rulers of decaying British capitalism have long regarded workers and the poor, and especially their black and Asian components, as merely an “underclass” deserving neither of education nor training, worthy only of state repression. In an attempt to deny that the cause of the riots is entrenched economic hardship, exacerbated by his government’s savage budget cuts, Conservative (Tory) prime minister David Cameron blamed the riots on “moral decay” and “criminality pure and simple”, insisting that they “were not about poverty”. Vowing to hunt down and jail “suspects”, Cameron seized the opportunity to massively strengthen repression. A vast police dragnet has so far arrested some 2000 people, on any and every pretext, using information gleaned from trawling social networking sites and CCTV footage (and of course hacking phones). Television news has shown endless footage of gangs of cops brutally smashing down doors of people’s homes to arrest “suspects”.
Shredding any semblance of “due process”, the police are charging suspects before compiling evidence and opposing bail for the majority of those arrested. Cases involving minor offences that would normally result in a caution and would not even go to the lower magistrates’ courts are being referred to the Crown courts, which have greater sentencing powers. The vast majority of those arrested are being jailed, regardless of the alleged offence or of any previous convictions. Such a blanket policy of incarceration will vastly increase the numbers of people with criminal records which, for many youth, particularly blacks and Asians, is enough to ensure that they never work in their lives.
The draconian measures meted out in the aftermath of the riots are an escalation of the type of harsh repression meted out to students protesting against education cuts last year. The message from the capitalist rulers to the working class and the oppressed is clear: meekly accept the relentless attacks on jobs and living standards, or else! It is in the direct interests of the working class, especially the trade unions, to oppose these police-state measures and to demand that all charges be dropped against those arrested. We demand: Immediate release of all those arrested and jailed for “looting”!
Prominent politicians are calling for the use of plastic bullets and other weapons that the British state has historically deployed against the oppressed Catholics of Northern Ireland. The same capitalist ruling class that is brutally cracking down on dissent and opposition at home is engaged in imperialist subjugation abroad. Under the Labour government, British imperialist armed forces were in the forefront of the bloody occupations of neocolonial Afghanistan and Iraq. Under the present Tory-Liberal coalition government, British imperialism is playing a leading role in the NATO terror bombing of oil-rich Libya. Mocking Cameron’s lying claim that NATO bombs are “protecting civilians” and upholding “democracy”, Qaddafi’s deputy foreign minister urged Cameron to step down on the grounds that “violent repression of peaceful demonstrations by police” showed that “Cameron and his government have lost all legitimacy” (Daily Telegraph, 11 August). At the outset of the bombing, the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) issued a statement calling on workers around the world to take a stand for military defence of semicolonial Libya against the imperialist attack (printed in Workers Hammer no 214, Spring 2011).
The flames that engulfed English cities lit up the grotesque class inequality and racist oppression that are endemic to British capitalism. While venal Conservative and Labour spokesmen pontificate against the evils of “looting”, everyone knows that the capitalist rulers are guilty of looting the country’s wealth. The City of London is an international citadel of finance capital whose gleaming office towers represent the opulence that is generated by the grinding exploitation of the working people. Not far from the City are some of the poorest districts in London, where a large percentage of minorities are concentrated. When boom turned to bust, the banks were bailed out (and the gigantic bankers’ bonuses were protected) at massive cost to the taxpayers. Now, at Cameron’s instigation, local councils have begun proceedings to evict families of “rioters” from council housing, while work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith proposed withdrawing benefits from those convicted.
“There is nothing here for us”
The rioting spread so dramatically because, on top of decades of grinding poverty affecting whites as well as blacks and Asians, the working people are being fleeced to pay for the current economic crisis. Nearly a million people aged 16 to 24 are unemployed. Youth joblessness overall has reached almost 20 per cent and is almost 50 per cent for black youth. Official figures for riot-affected areas such as Hackney, east London, show 44 per cent of children living in poverty.
A growing number of youth are being cast out of productive economic life and dubbed Neets — “not in employment, education or training”. The government tripled tuition fees in higher education and abolished the Education Maintenance Allowance, a small stipend that enabled poor youth to attend college, sparking militant student protests last December. Faced with cutting its budget by 75 per cent, Haringey local council, which covers Tottenham area, closed most of its youth clubs. One youth remarked, “At least we had somewhere to go. Now we walk down the streets, we get pulled over by police. There is nothing here for us” (Guardian, 29 July).
There is no justice in the capitalist courts!
In looking at the British “justice” system today, one does not have to be a Marxist to see what class it serves. No one has been arrested from the Metropolitan Police — truly one of London’s most dangerous armed gangs — which has been exposed for receiving hefty sums of cash (in plastic shopping bags) from the gang of Rupert Murdoch & Co. Intimately connected to these outfits, Tory and Labour politicians howl against the “criminality” of anyone who helped himself to a pair of trainers or a bottle of water. The politicians’ hypocrisy is indeed rich in light of the recent scandal over Members of Parliament making taxpayers shell out for the upkeep of their second homes, not to mention the cost of your “duck island” or cleaning out the moat at your country estate!
People accused of involvement in “rioting” are being thrown into prison on ludicrously trivial charges. Two white youths were sentenced to four years in prison for having (jokingly) summoned friends on Facebook to a “riot” that never happened. In Brixton, a black neighbourhood in south London, one person got a six-month sentence for stealing bottles of water worth £3.50. In Manchester an alcoholic who had just been released from prison and had only £4 in his pocket was sentenced to 16 months for taking a box of doughnuts from Krispy Kreme. The truth is that in poor neighbourhoods such as Tottenham, there isn’t much to steal.
The blatant class bias of capitalist “justice” in Britain today recalls the 17th-century English poem protesting the enclosure (ie theft) of common lands that were being privatised by the rising bourgeoisie:
“They hang the man and flog the woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leave the greater villain loose
Who steals the common off the goose.”
Or, as Friedrich Engels, co-author with Karl Marx of the Communist Manifesto, aptly wrote in his 1845 book, The Condition of the Working-Class in England, the majority of offences against property arise from some form of want because “what a man has, he does not steal”. With the masses being driven to rioting by the increasingly abject conditions of their lives, the Spartacist League/Britain suggests, as an immediate measure, that the government give the “looters” £10,000 each and let them go!
Rioting, however, can do nothing to eliminate the grinding poverty of Britain’s working class. As the Spartacist League/US wrote when Los Angeles exploded following the 1992 acquittal of the cops who beat black motorist Rodney King nearly to death, the looting there was “indeed understandable, but won’t do anything to eliminate the entrenched poverty of America’s inner cities
. The point is not to seize articles of consumption but to expropriate the means of production. And that takes a leap in consciousness and organization to do away with the capitalist order” (Workers Vanguard no 551, 15 May 1992).
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), followers of the late Tony Cliff, ludicrously equates looting with the expropriation of the means of production — ie, the seizure and collectivisation of industry, the banks, etc, by the proletariat. The SWP writes: “Karl Marx was exactly right when he talked about expropriating the expropriators, taking back what they have taken from us. That’s what looting by poor working class people represents and in that sense it is a deeply political act” (Socialist Worker, 13 August). The idea that looting offers a solution to the grinding poverty, racism and oppression besetting black and Asian communities shows that the SWP will mindlessly cheerlead for anything that moves, no matter how far removed from socialist consciousness it may be. But the bottom line for these reformists is to refurbish Labour’s image, which they do with calls to “Jail the Tories, not young people” (Socialist Worker, 20 August) and by hailing what they call a “rising against Tory Britain” (Socialist Worker, 13 August).
Riots are an expression of despair, often including ugly incidents of indiscriminate attacks on individuals. The killing of three young Asian men in Birmingham by a car driven straight at them is a heinous crime. The racial tensions between blacks and Asians during the riots were an outgrowth of the “divide-and-rule” policies the British rulers apply to divide the proletariat and weaken its struggles, as they did historically to maintain their Empire. In an effort to defuse those tensions, Tariq Jahan, father of one of the victims, courageously appealed for calm, saying, “I lost my son. Blacks, Asians, whites — we all live in the same community.” He added: “Step forward if you want to lose your sons. Otherwise, calm down and go home — please.”
There is an urgent need for the working class and oppressed to struggle against the relentless attacks on their livelihoods. The question is how. The current deepgoing economic crisis is part and parcel of the normal workings of the capitalist system. There will be no end to the misery, poverty and repression that afflict the vast majority of the population short of the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist order and the establishment of rule by the working class. The SL/B seeks to forge a multiethnic revolutionary workers party — a Leninist-Trotskyist party — based on a programme for international socialist revolution.
Mobilise workers’ social power!
Britain is the latest country in Europe to be swept by major unrest, reflecting seething anger among the working classes against relentless attacks on their living standards. Particularly in Greece, the working class has waged major class battles, including several general strikes in recent years, but the impact of these struggles has been undermined by the reformist misleaders of the working class, who accept the need for austerity as a solution to the economic crisis. In Britain, the fact that the pent-up fury against the government’s attacks on the working class is being dissipated in outbursts of rioting testifies to the low level of class struggle over the past two decades. This is due in no small part to the failure of the trade union bureaucracy to mount any effective struggle against austerity and job cuts, allowing the capitalist rulers to ride roughshod over the working people.
Trade union membership in Britain today is concentrated among low-paid workers in the public sector, with minorities heavily represented. The membership of the rail unions in London Underground and the national railway network, as well as the civil service and postal unions, is multiethnic. Together, these unions have considerable social power. Transport workers in London for example, have the power to bring the city to a halt, including its precious financial district. But mobilising that power requires a political struggle against the reformist trade union bureaucracy, which is tied to the Labour Party and to the racist capitalist order.
It is through the intervention of Marxists into class and social struggles that a revolutionary workers party will be forged. Such a party would champion the interests of all the oppressed, fighting against racism and other manifestations of chauvinism. An integral part of building this party is the fight for a class-struggle leadership in the trade unions. In Britain today, such a leadership would appeal to disaffected youth by waging a fight for jobs, through demands such as a shorter working week with no loss in pay. A class-struggle leadership would demand union control of hiring and union-run job training and skills programmes to recruit minority youth into the workforce and into the unions. The task of a Leninist party is to bring about the necessary change in consciousness in the proletariat, leading to the understanding that a society run in the interests of the working people — with jobs for all and a decent standard of living — cannot be achieved within the framework of capitalism.
From the point of view of Britain’s working class and oppressed minorities, it makes little difference whether the government is Tory or Labour, historically the social-democratic vehicle that tied the working class to the capitalist order. When the riots erupted both parties (as well as the Liberal Democrats) vied to be seen as the best defenders of the police. Not a single Labour MP — neither the so-called “lefts” nor the handful of black MPs — condemned the cops who killed Mark Duggan. Far from it: Labour spokesmen attacked the government from the right, denouncing the planned cuts to the police budget. Labour Party leader Ed Miliband said, “Police on our streets make our communities safer and make the public feel safer” (BBC, 11 August).
Tottenham’s black Labour MP, David Lammy, ranted to the press about the “totally unacceptable” behaviour of the rioters, voicing only the mildest criticisms of the cops who gunned down Mark Duggan. Nevertheless, Lammy, who symbolises a very small layer of middle-class blacks, was subjected to an outrageous racist tirade by reactionary historian David Starkey on BBC television. Black MP for Hackney Diane Abbott, once regarded as a Labour “left”, chimed in with the “law and order” brigade, calling for curfews to help “regain control of the streets”. Labour’s backing for the racist cops is not new: when he was London mayor, Labour’s Ken Livingstone was unwavering in his support for the police who in 2005 brutally killed Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes, deemed a “terrorism suspect”. Mark Duggan was killed under the Metropolitan Police’s “Operation Trident”, which supposedly targets “gun crime” among blacks. This operation was begun under Labour home secretary David Blunkett, in consultation with William Bratton, the former police chief of New York and other major US cities whom David Cameron proposes to employ in London.
Minorities and the 1984-85 miners strike
The link between class struggle against the capitalist state and the fight against racial oppression seems remote today, but this was not always the case. It is not an accident that the last major assault by the state on Britain’s predominantly black and Asian inner-city areas took place in 1985, the same year as the defeat of the heroic miners strike. For more than a year of bitter class war, miners and their families had defended themselves against an army of police sent by Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government to occupy the coalfields. In the course of the strike, powerful bonds were forged between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and black and Asian minorities. While blacks and Asians saw in the (predominantly white) miners union a powerful force battling against the state and became enthusiastic supporters of the strike, many miners became convinced of the importance of combating racial oppression.
The defeat of the NUM dealt a severe blow to the workers movement in this country, the effects of which — from accelerating deindustrialisation to gutting the unions — are still felt today. For minority communities, the strike’s defeat also had grave ramifications. In the space of a few weeks, the cops staged racist provocations that sparked explosions of anger in major black and Asian neighbourhoods. A police provocation in September 1985 in Birmingham’s Handsworth was followed weeks later by the police shooting of a black woman, Cherry Groce, in Brixton, sparking a revolt there. Shortly afterwards, Liverpool’s Toxteth area also erupted. When the police invaded Broadwater Farm on 7 October 1985 in the aftermath of the racist cop killing of Cynthia Jarrett, they got more than they bargained for. As residents defended their communities in a raging battle lasting several days, one cop was killed. For this, three innocent youth — Winston Silcott, Engin Raghip and Mark Braithwaite — served years in prison as the result of a police frame-up.
Following the revolts in Handsworth and Brixton, the SL/B noted that in the aftermath of the miners strike, Thatcher was intent on teaching a bloody lesson to the black and Asian population that had warmly supported the miners, warning that this would mean escalating racist attacks. The article stated:
“The Spartacist League has fought to tap the sense of unity between minorities and trade union militants kindled in the miners strike, as part of our perspective of building the multiracial revolutionary workers party which will be a tribune of all the oppressed. We have fought to mobilise the integrated Birmingham labour movement for defence of the Handsworth community against the cop terror. The same is needed in Brixton and elsewhere. Protest strike action by London’s heavily black and Asian Tube and bus workers, for example, could make the racist bosses put a halt to their reign of terror in Brixton. But that takes a political struggle against the racist, pro-capitalist labour misleaders.”
— Workers Hammer no 73, October 1985
It wasn’t mainly the repression by the viciously anti-union Thatcher government that ensured the defeat of the miners strike. The Labour Party leadership under Neil Kinnock and the Trades Union Congress bureaucracy were openly hostile to the strike. Particularly responsible for the defeat were the “left” trade union leaders who failed to strike alongside the miners. This includes the dockers union leaders, who sent their members back to work twice during the miners strike. A few years later, the dockers union itself was decimated. The trade union “lefts” were wedded to the Labour Party, to “gradual change” through Parliament, and hence to the capitalist order.
When the black Labour leader of Haringey council, Bernie Grant, voiced the simple truth that the cops who invaded Broadwater Farm got “a bloody good hiding”, he was widely denounced, including by the Labour leadership. Grant later apologised, but he remained popular among blacks until his death in 2000. Although he was regarded as a troublemaker by the Labour Party leadership, Grant served Labour’s purpose, notably in 1993 when he helped prevent an explosion of rage from “getting out of hand” following the death of Jamaican woman Joy Gardner at the hands of cops who had seized her for deportation. Above all, Grant played his part in fostering illusions among black youth in Labour, the party that had introduced racist virginity tests for South Asian women entering Britain when it was in office in 1974-79.
The unfettered financial boom that characterised the Thatcher years went hand in hand with the destruction of manufacturing jobs, which continued throughout Labour’s years in office. Among those thrown onto the dole queues were the descendants of immigrants from former Caribbean and Indian colonies brought over to do low-paid work in times of labour shortage, particularly after World War II. Not only the former coal and steel producing areas but also the textile manufacturing towns of Oldham and Bradford, which employed thousands of Asian workers, became wastelands of chronic unemployment and poverty.
For a revolutionary workers party!
Today Labour is lurching towards right-wing populism, which is inherently racist, competing with the fascist English Defence League (EDL) for the allegiance of backward white workers. In recent years, Labour leaders and trade union bureaucrats have embraced the slogan “British jobs for British workers”, historically a rallying cry of the fascists that became prevalent during reactionary strikes against foreign workers on construction sites in 2009. The reformist Socialist Party (SP), section of Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International, wholeheartedly supported these strikes. We categorically denounced these actions and underlined the need for defence of immigrant workers. We pointed out that a class-struggle leadership in the unions would start from an internationalist framework, organising immigrant workers into the unions and collaborating with workers across national boundaries.
In keeping with its long record of supporting the police and prison guards, the SP echoed the Labour leaders during the hoopla over the recent riots, sympathetically quoting a spokesman from the Metropolitan Police Federation bemoaning the low morale among cops due to the government’s intended cuts (socialistparty.org.uk, 8 August). Harassment by cops — lyingly depicted by the SP as fellow workers — has now reached the point where black people are 26 times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched by police in England and Wales, according to a study by London School of Economics and others.
The number of deaths, particularly of black people, in police custody is staggering. In March, reggae artist Smiley Culture (David Emmanuel) died during a police raid at his Surrey home, with the cops making the incredible claim that he stabbed himself to death. The same month, Kingsley Burrell Brown died from injuries sustained in the course of being committed to hospital under the Mental Health Act by police in Birmingham. Last month, 21-year-old Demetre Fraser supposedly “committed suicide” by jumping from the 11th floor of a high-rise block in Birmingham when confronted by police. In a single week in August, three people died at the hands of police: 27-year-old Dale Burns died in Cumbria when police subjected him to shocks from a Taser gun and pepper spray; black 25-year-old Jacob Michael died after being pepper sprayed in Cheshire; 53-year-old Philip Hulmes died in police custody in Bolton.
The racist backlash against “looters” has emboldened the EDL, which smelled an opportunity to mobilise vigilantes in some of the riot-hit areas. Under previous Labour governments, the EDL had drawn strength from the “war on terror” that primarily targeted Muslims, as well as from the relentless anti-immigrant campaigns. The EDL is a deadly threat to blacks as well as to Asians, against whom it has staged numerous racist provocations in the past and [did so] again in east London on 3 September. And make no mistake: these fascists pose a direct threat to the entire working class, as potential shock troops to be deployed against rising class struggle. It is the task of the workers movement to stop them in their tracks.
As distinct from the liberals and reformists who lead Unite Against Fascism, we oppose calls on the capitalist state to “ban the fascists”. It is not hard to see why. In response to the planned EDL march in east London and an anti-fascist counter-demonstration, Home Secretary Theresa May has banned all demonstrations in five London boroughs for a period of 30 days. As Workers Hammer no 209 (Winter 2009-2010) declared, EDL provocations “must be met with massive protest centred on the trade unions mobilised for defence of Muslims, immigrants and all the intended victims of the EDL scum”. The article continued:
“It is in the interests of the multiethnic working class as a whole to combat these racist terrorists. We call for trade union/minority mobilisations to stop fascist provocations. At the same time, as Marxists we make clear that the decaying capitalist system breeds the social conditions in which the fascists thrive and therefore the struggle against fascism is inseparable from the fight for socialist revolution.”
Out of the social struggles that will inevitably be waged by workers and minorities will arise a new generation of militant leaders. What’s needed is a party dedicated to the task of leading the working class to power. This requires socialist revolution to overthrow the entire capitalist order. Fundamental change in the interests of the working people can only come about through revolutionary internationalist class struggle, which must shatter the framework of capitalism worldwide. Socialist revolution will lay the basis for rationally planned economies based on production for need, not for profit, and for a qualitative development of the productive forces, opening the road to the elimination of poverty and the creation of an egalitarian socialist society.