World Politics

England: Working Class Youth Erupt in Anger

By Graham Durham

The police killing of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old Tottenham man, August 4 sparked the largest ever rebellion by working-class youth in England. Unlike the events in Brixton and other Black population centers in 1981 and 1985, the events of the four nights from August 6-10 spread to all parts of England with at least eight different protests across London and in twelve different towns and cities. The protests were marked by the participation of thousands of young people from all ethnic backgrounds united in their hostility to the state which has failed them and the police who are the agents imposing oppression.

The huge Tory media machine in Britain, still reeling from proven scandals of Murdoch staff illegally phone-tapping victims and celebrities and bribing police, have worked overtime to deny any political or social cause for the protests. This desperate attempt to portray the rebellion as mere looting and greed by so-called “moral degenerates” is proving a massive failure as huge questions about the conditions of working-class young people have sharpened. It is the failing capitalist system itself which is increasingly seen as the cause of the anger among young people.

Initially police and their lame agency, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, claimed that Mark Duggan had fired a shot at police but later conceded that only two police shots had been fired, one killing Mark and the other police shot lodging in a police radio. Mark Duggan’s family were not told of the death in the first forty-eight hours after the incident and at a peaceful protest at Tottenham police station the family were ignored. Only after this did street protests begin. As so often, in the UK and USA, it was police brutality and subsequent conduct that sparked the rebellion.

Poverty and unemployment

Tottenham in north London is a microcosm of areas of the United Kingdom where the additional impact of the worldwide banker-led recession has produced increased poverty. Tottenham has the highest level of unemployment in London at 8.3 percent and over 40 percent of young people live in official poverty. The Tory/Liberal Democrat government has worsened this position—for example, imposing local council cuts resulting in eight of twelve youth clubs closing this year in Haringey, the borough, which includes Tottenham. A week after the protests, and with over 1,000 arrests in London alone, the worst unemployment figures since the Tories were last in government were announced. One of four young people aged 16-24 have no work or training and over 400, 000 Londoners are unemployed.

The killing of Mark Duggan, a Black man, by police echoes the unexplained death of the reggae artist Smiley Culture in south London earlier in the year. Black young people are 26-times more likely to be stopped and searched by police and this racist practice has not ceased despite endless reports following notorious police racism including the failure of the police to charge any of the five racists known to have murdered Stephen Lawrence in south London and stretching back to the police killing of Cynthia Jarrett which caused the Brixton protests thirty years ago.

The Tottenham protests sparked four nights of similar protests across England in Liverpool, Manchester, Leicester, Nottingham, West Bromwich, Birmingham, Bristol and spreading to smaller towns such as Washington New Town in the northeast, Gillingham and Reading in the southeast and Gloucester in the southwest. Significantly, several of the protests involved attacks on police stations. Many of these areas have very low Black populations and demonstrate that the overall cause of these protests is the hopeless position many young people are in as a result of the recession. This is a worldwide phenomenon facing the working-class, and the Arab spring revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, the protests in Greece, Spain and Ireland have the same cause—the insistence of the ruling class that workers must pay for the failings of the banking system.

In the United Kingdom these attacks have hit young people the hardest with the Cameron government coalition removing entirely the Education Maintenance Allowance, which enabled 630,000 of the poorest students to afford to attend college. Additionally, the tripling of university fees, which led to violent protests in 2010, has made higher education unaffordable for most working-class youth. By cutting off the future and with no work available, protests were only a matter of when, not if.

As ever the response of the state—through both Cameron and opposition Labor leader Ed Miliband—is to call for greater repression and more police. Heavy sentences for students involved in fees-protests have been followed by unheard of sentencing at all-night courts. Posting a message on Facebook calling for a protest, which never occurred has brought four-year sentences for two Manchester men; and stealing a bottle of water led to a six-month sentence. Class justice indeed! Paul Stephenson, who was forced to resign as London police chief in July for taking a bribe of a twelve-week freebie at a select country club gets to keep his pension and perks.

Writing in London a week after the protests, there are police helicopters overhead and the endless sounds of police van sirens on raids and arrests. Cameron’s “solution” proposals including curfews, the first ever use of rubber bullets in England (although frequently deployed in Ireland by British forces), and the drafting in of U.S. cop advisers will only lead to more civil rights abuse and greater protest. The hypocrisy of Tory, Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs, many of whom were allowed to pay back the amounts they stole in expenses without prosecution, in condemning young people for lawlessness, is breathtaking.

The truth is out, that if working-class youth act together, then the forces of the state will be severely stretched. A political response began in London on August 13 with a 3,000-strong march through Tottenham organized by the Unity Assembly of local community organizations and political organizations under the slogan “Give Our Kids A Future.” Further activity is planned to resist any evictions of the families of convicted protestors as proposed by Tory and Labor councils.

The trade union strikes against pension cuts in autumn and the battles against cuts in public services have been given a massive boost of energy by the youth rebellion. No one believes that the minority of protestors who attacked local small shopkeepers or local individuals have a tactic which can change society. Indeed such attacks, which led to several deaths of innocent people, can only set back the challenge to Cameron and the politics of the neo-cons worldwide.

Instead the youth rebellion needs to be supported in joining forces with existing rank and file campaigns to resist public service cuts and challenge the state, which seeks to punish them for the recession. Socialists in the United Kingdom have a great new opportunity to build unity and involve young people in the struggle for an alternative to cuts and unemployment both in the United Kingdom and in solidarity with workers across the world.

Graham Durham is a member of UNISON, the public service trade union, and Brent Fightback, a community campaign sponsored by Brent Trades Union Council that aims to unite workers in the public, private and voluntary sectors with service users and all those at risk from the cuts.

—August 18, 2011