Eyewitness to the London riots - it's all about class

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Workers Solidarity interviewed Hackney local and education worker, Alex Carver, about the roots of the London riots. Alex is a long standing activist in the IWW union, housing struggles in the East End, and the big left events since the start of the recession, most recently the M26 Militant Workers Block and the J30 Strike project. He was a direct witness to the rioting on Monday. Here he tells Workers Solidarity why he thinks that the riots are best understood by loooking at class rather than race.

You went down to have a look at the riots, were you not afraid of being beaten and mugged? From media scare-mongering that's what would be expected by most people.

Well, I had no idea what to expect exactly, which is why I went, but no, I wasn’t – and I'm not scared by the riots now. I'm not about to glorify them either, but this is not the start of a new dark age.

What's happened in the rioting is an understandable reaction to the way things are set up – I’m reminded of the famous bank robber Willie Sutton answering the question ‘why do you rob banks?’ with ‘because that’s where the money is’. The kids robbed the shops because that's where the stuff is. They attacked the cops because they'd stop them. It was simultaneous, it was not two groups of people, one with a beef against the cops and another with light fingers – it was one group of mainly young people. They didn't attack each other, rape people, mug people - I was able to walk freely amongst them in my shirt and slacks straight from work; lots of people who were obviously not rioting walked with the crowd in daylight – many have said the mood turned later on but actually I stayed with it with a friend, who was also not dressed to fit in, until after midnight.

I understand things have been much nastier in other places; in Hackney at least, enough of the community were unafraid to go out and talk to the youth, even being supportive and sympathetic, to stop its total destruction.

Many were quick to say the rioting was not political – what did you think from what you saw?

When I went through Hackney on the bus the next morning, the damage visible told an interesting tale along with what I already know: Opticians with £100+ glasses, betting shops, estate agents, JD sports, Barclays, pawn shop/crack converters, electrical goods shop, M&S, a small police outpost and a Spar garage. On the other hand we know a local independent shop was thoroughly looted (the one we stopped being torched) and at least 5 cars were grilled.

The first list of targets was done by a mobile mob who left all other shops and buildings in between - very clearly targeting places with instant value goods, impersonal chain shops - or places they had a beef with. Then the second list of targets that are more obviously anti social happened mostly when the rioting had stagnated on Clarence Road next to the Pembury estate. Choices were being made about what to hit and what not to. If we look at who rioted and how they rioted, we can find political aspects to all this, just not a political motivation.

Do you think those on the left have any useful role to play in relation to the riots?

Along with lots of other leftists I have been watching and engaging, and it has been worthwhile: and I have got a really useful idea of what the atmosphere was like - in Hackney at least – and that’s so, so important. I can’t imagine how differently people who only saw this on TV or from miles down the road feel. We have also been advising on police tactics without encouraging the rioting – it is far worse for the area, in my mind, that any kid gets sent down; dealing with someone who has done a stretch is far harder than finding a directionless rudeboy focus. We have also stopped some bad things, like friendly fire incidents with bricks, and I helped my friend put out a fire in the shop on Clarence Road – again, we didn’t get stopped, lots of the crowd ran in and helped; it was almost as if they were making up their minds. I'm terrified I'll be done for going into the shop though, I can’t imagine a judge believing I was putting out the fire whilst everyone else was pilfering the drinks.

What do you see as the main reasons people are rioting? The left, at least, is identifying racism as a major cause.

I feel quite strongly on this. It is not about race, and it’s not about the shooting either. Those are only elements in an overall economic situation. Up and down the country a racial mix of youth have been taking advantage of the chaos - together. I saw this mix personally, but you can see it on the news and internet too. People are looting because they want things. That’s economic and social, that's not some kind of misguided protest at police racism.

In fact the whole narrative of police racism is useless here. You don't nick shoes'n'brews and run from the police 'cos you feel harassed by Stop and Search, and certainly not these kids - they're scallies, rudeboys, they get stopped 'cos they're the kind of kids who do naughty things - like they're doing now. They feel harassed certainly, but they also feel fully excluded from far more than polite treatment by the cops; otherwise their behaviour is inexplicable.

Things have moved on from the early 1990s in terms of policing, but also, things were never really primarily about race rather than poverty in many of the previous famous riots. The people at the bottom of the heap are there because they came to the UK as poor migrants and have been slotted into their new society at the same level at best, or even lower most of the time. This isn’t because all half-decent jobs bar ethnic minorities; look at the difference between Bangladeshi migrants and Indian migrants in terms of earnings and social position; is white English peoples’ racism so complex that they manage to exclude Banglas but allow Indians a foot on the ladder? Of course not.

Social outcomes are primarily set by economic background, your class. Of course that ties in with ethnic groups, but it is that way round. Not the other. Some ethnic communities are poor, their poverty leads to exclusion, which leads to a disregard for the law, which leads to police attention, which leads to grievances. Of course this is also true for completely native white communities too – indeed, poverty is generally shared in mixed race communities. A legion of liars will now come out of the woodwork to try and make this about race and policing, not capitalism. Ignore them and their false 'community' - they are the problem, not the solution.

I know that saying this is considered racist by a whole range of people on the left, in education, in community organisations, in the unions. Even people with a class analysis seem to be obsessed with racism being the core oppression in the UK. I can just see how badly attempting to express what I have just said to a colleague at my school would go.

"Racism man. It's so bad. That shit's like, gotta stop? You know you cross the road sometimes: feel guilty. Police - of course they're racist, especially the coconuts who are ashamed of their blackness (that's not racist 'cos its anti police and the police are racist, see, so it's not). We need to have a long hard talk about racism, lots of awareness training, more black role models, less England flags, more Carnival; we need to kill the racist inside us. The crime figures, unemployment figures, academic figures, homelessness stats - how can you look at them and not see how racist this country is? What do you mean, class is an easily more significant factor? You definitely need to go on a course about this. I bet you don’t even like spicy food."

A lot of my parents’ generation take 'institutional racism' as a given, due to the recent history of colonialism for them and the experience of the early days of mass migration to this country. They see it as a huge issue, and are encouraged to do so by both the right and the left of every stripe, television and print media, historians and authors alike. Very few people think it is actually an easier issue than class, very few realise it is actually an easy excuse for the powers that be. We aren’t confronting the establishment with their racism, we’re letting their economic system off the hook. If they can say the riots are about racism, and they can racialise the obviously economic elements, they can muddy the water and keep public opinion divided and divisive. The right will be bolstered by indignant white people and the left will throw itself into
1) attacking the right,
2) more pointless race initiatives that actually stigmatise and divide our communities as opposed to uniting them.

What visibly unites the rioters is not race, but from up and down the country - dress code. The police see people like that and make the probably very accurate assumption about where that person is from and the kind of attitude they have - and they harass them, they stop them, they give them grief; cos they are think they are from a poor, dispossessed place both literally and psychologically - and are likelier to have committed some street crime.

Why am I not allowed to say that? That crime is linked to poverty? Are we not the left any more, and now have some kind of oppression - lead analysis of everything?

What about the argument that the riot is primarily caused by poor policing and in particular police harassment?

Police visibly target visible crimes, because not only are these easier to solve but they are under pressure from the public: the kind of person who writes to their local paper cannot see fraud and rape, they see street robbery and vandalism. This means police spend most of their time focussing on kids in sportswear; what I'm saying is that this isn't the police being massively prejudiced, it's them going to where the kind of crimes they are told to deal with are.

Police harassment leads to a dislike of the police, but the explosion of disregard for the law over the last few days needs to be seen a broader phenomenon with many factors playing a role in creating the character of the riots. This is actually a far more rewarding way to look at things from a left perspective because it suggests that there are systemic problems that 'better policing' will never address.

The police are slammed again and again about the racism that must be endemic in the Force due to the figures for Stop and Search and the prison population; if they alone could do something about it, they would have. I think the truth is that demanding the figures change is just a game politicians play to complicate a straightforward class and poverty issue - that the geographic areas the prison population and kids who get regularly stopped come from, are poor areas abandoned by the political class, with demands unmet by the economy.

To say whether we think the police unfairly target people of a certain age, race, or appearance is to pointlessly put ourselves in their shoes rather than focus on the bigger issue of why crime happens. I think the important thing about police harassment here is to understand that it exists as a concept in its own right – it has a life of its own.

What matters is that we accept people in many ethnic communities, areas, and age groups, discuss police harassment and are encouraged to do so by politicians and the race industry (all the dodgy think tanks, campaign groups, 'race advisers' etc.) and the ‘community leaders’ that rub shoulders with the race industry and MPs. This is convenient for the political class, as it gets people into a proper tizzy over who is harassed and who is not, why they are harassed, who can be in the oppressed group, who has a legitimate grievance, who gets the funding for their project – etc.

Coming to this situation as someone who wants everyone to be in the same community organisations reveals just how clever the move to special interest groups by the last four governments has been. Until now it has kept a lid on things as our traditional support networks at work and at home have been destroyed along with our job and housing security. People will often yell ‘police harassment’ as a battle cry – the war is over our entire quality of life and sense of belonging.

What do you think will be the consequences after the riots?

Well I can only speak about Hackney, where no one lost their home or died. But if the looting continues nightly and Primark and M&S close down forever, what of it? What will make us happy is a choice of jobs, homes, places to spend time with our friends - not a choice of groceries and underwear. Perhaps this will help more people see that. From the flames comes clarity. The obvious inability of the cops to gain control in the last week means that hopefully we won’t talk endlessly about better policing of poverty, but address this violence by looking at what the answer really is; a society where
1) we feel included, all of us, as many as possible, and
2) where what we want isn't behind glass. 

Read more political analysis of riots

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