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Public meeting discusses the riots

Leeds District Socialist Party held an extremely successful public meeting on Monday 15th August. Over 30 people squeezed into a room at the Wrens Hotel to hear Iain Dalton (Yorkshire Youth Fight for Jobs organiser and Socialist Party member) introduce a discussion on the recent riots that have sent shockwaves through Britain, and what the response of socialists should be.

Nick Parker, Hyde Park & Headingley Socialist Party

Iain talked about the social conditions that exist in places where riots took place, pointing out that in the London Borough of Haringey the council have recently announced a 75% cut in youth services, meaning the closure of 8 out of 13 youth centres. Unemployment in the area is chronic, with 54 people chasing every job vacancy.

While the riots have been a shock to many, the Socialist Party has long predicted that the government’s brutal cuts package would lead to upheaval. In an article on the Brixton riots written four months ago, we said “The scenes of despair and explosions of anger like those of 1981 will be back on our streets”.

Iain explained what had happened in Brixton 30 years ago, talking about the racist nature of the police and how the violence was a reaction to stop and search laws. With recent estimates showing that black men in London are 7 times more likely to be stopped by police in comparison to white people, and the initial disorder in Tottenham having been provoked by the shooting by the police of a 29 year old black man called Mark Duggan, suspicion and distrust of the police by these communities is understandably high.

The contrast between the Labour Party’s response to the 1981 riots and last week’s troubles was also highlighted. Iain said that due to Labour in 81 still being a ‘bourgeois workers party’ (with a leadership who were pro capitalist but strong democratic structures and a working class base meaning party policy had to reflect, at least in part, the interests of the workers), it was possible for the Labour Party Young Socialists to actually go into Brixton, handing out leaflets and taking up the issues that had led to the trouble.

The Labour Party of today, however, has no alternative to the inequality and instability which leads to riots, preferring instead to join the Conservatives and right wing commentators in condemning those involved as nothing but criminals who deserve to be locked up.

Iain talked about the draconian measures that are being taken and considered in the aftermath in the riots, with at least one council tenant having been evicted due to her son’s involvement, and a petition demanding that those involved should be stripped of benefits getting over 100000 signatures (which means it has to be considered for debate in Parliament under new legislation).

There has also been talk of a crackdown on the streets, with Cameron saying at one point during the trouble that water cannons were available at 24 hour notice. Police chiefs (who also used the riots to speak out against police cuts) disagreed with this, making the point that this lethal weapon is meant for use against large crowds and not small groups of people moving around quickly. With many large protests happening recently against the government’s austerity programme, these sorts of comments do not make for comfortable reading.

Iain finished his introduction by discussing further the role of the police and the courts in these events. Many people, whilst not sympathising with those in court for taking part in the riots, will be appalled at the draconian sentences being handed out, such as 6 months for stealing £3.50 case of water, especially as ex-MP Jim Devine served only 4 months for stealing £8,000+ in expenses fraud. Iain pointed out that this should be no surprise given that the judiciary is heavily biased in its composition, for example, magistrates are overwhelmingly over 50, middle class and white.

The police came under fire from some for failing to defend small businesses and homes. This also came just weeks after ties between senior police officers at the Metropolitan Police and executives of Murdoch’s News International emerged, which led to the resignation of the Commissioner of the Met and his deputy. If the police force were to actually respond to the needs of ordinary workers, then it would be necessary to put it under democratic community control which, unlike the almost toothless police authorities today, would have powers of appointment and control over policing priorities, and would be able to root out racist officers and conduct inquiries into police shooting and deaths in custody with full powers of punishment.

Such control could also occur within the rest of the criminal justice system, including the courts, and would of necessity be bound up with changing the social injustices within society too. In the absence of this, then as occurred during the riots, some local communities will take to the streets to defend themselves. Unfortunately, the far right EDL attempted to jump onto this mood, trying to use it as a launching pad to spread racism and division. If the riots had continued though, then those community groups could have been organised into democratic bodies to defend local communities, as occurred during the revolutionary events in Egypt earlier this year where attempts at looting were made by those opposed to the movement to overthrow Mubarak.

The most urgent task, however, is to organise people and give their justified rage a real political voice, this is why campaigns that organise young people, such as Youth Fight for Jobs are so vital. The Socialist Party does not consider rioting to be a constructive way of fighting to change society, and we do not agree with the position of almost uncritical support that some groups on the left have taken.

Iain’s speech was followed by a vibrant discussion from the floor, with many contributions. The first one, from Andy Smith, talked about the mentality behind the looting, pointing out that poor working class people are constantly made to think that owning consumer goods they can’t afford is something to aspire to, and it is not surprising that they will go straight for these things if they have the opportunity. It is the false ideology behind a system based on profit that makes people believe trainers etc are more important than products that people actually need.

Other contributions talked more about the draconian way offenders are being dealt with, and how it is important to challenge victimisation and disproportionate sentences. The importance of not romanticising the riots was raised again, with it being pointed out that people do have choices.

After responding to a few points made, Iain finished by re iterating the importance of taking a lead, and appealing to non-party members in the room to get involved and find out more about the Socialist Party.

A financial appeal at the meeting raised £45.00, along with a wide selected of books and other literature being purchased. Overall, it was a very inspiring meeting, which helped to put the riots into perspective, and offered many ways of taking the struggle against, cuts, austerity and capitalism forward.