Reformist Riots by Black Britons
by Gwydion M. Williams
The Brixton Riots of 1987 caused panic at the time. Was Britain’s traditional niceness about to be lost? Were we seeing the start of a race war?
My comment at the time have stood the test of time. I said it was a “reformist riot”, a protest by people who wanted a better spot in the existing system. Britain’s traditional niceness was in fact being trashed by Mrs Thatcher, who a dysfunctional notion of how to be a conservative. The Afro-Caribbean immigrants have meantime been absorbed quite nicely.
I said at the time it was not a race war, it was blacks and a few whites against the police. This has mostly been the pattern ever since, though more recent riots have included more whites, mostly those dispossessed by Thatcher’s war on the British working class.
Here is the complete text of what I said at the time:
Race – Trickles of Blood
(a comment made in 1987)
A short time back, there was a wave of soccer hooliganism. Those involved were predominantly white, though some blacks were involved. More recently we have had a wave of anti-police riots. Those involved have been predominantly black; for the most part children of people who came here from the West Indies in the 1950s and 1960s. Inevitably, this second round of violence has been seen as indicating a “race problem”. To what extent is this true?
We must also ask if the recent round of rioting is likely to prove profitable to the black community. Was it the start of a revolution? Or was it “reformist rioting” – rioting that is likely to force the government to do more for the black minority?
Or again, were we seeing the start of a destructive round of riot and repression? Will we see black communities urged to take an ever more alienated position by those well out of “the front line” – and then left in the lurch if serious repression should start?
These questions will be looked at in detail. But first, let’s look at the history of the problem.
Immigration and Enoch Powell.
Britain acquired its racial minorities in a fit of absent-minded smugness by its rulers. During the 1950s, Macmillan’s claim that “you’ve never had it so good” seemed to be absolutely true. Keynesianism seemed to have cured unemployment once and for all; indeed there was a labour shortage in some sectors. In these circumstances it seemed natural to try to find new workers from parts of the newly-freed empire.
In most other European countries (and most other parts of the world, for that matter) there is a definite idea of citizenship. No one receives citizenship automatically. You can live and work in a country for a long time without gaining the right to stay there indefinitely. Citizenship is only awarded after a series of quite strict tests and checks, if at all. None of those countries acquire minorities by accident or oversight. Most of them are very ruthless with illegal immigrants.
In the last few years, for instance, several of the West African countries have expelled huge numbers of illegal immigrants from other West African countries. Since it was black people throwing out other black people, the matter received far less attention than it deserved. Better remembered (because Britain was directly affected) was the expulsion of Asians from Kenya and Uganda.
In Britain, there was no such thing as citizenship. We were all “subjects of the crown”, whether we lived in the United Kingdom or in the Commonwealth. In the case of immigrants from India or Pakistan, this meant that people could arrive with no knowledge of British culture or of the English language. And it was not up to anyone in particular to help them to settle down.
More importantly, there was no particular limit to the number of people who might choose to come and live in Britain. It had never mattered before – there had been small numbers of non-white immigrants for a very long time, and this had caused no particular problems.
But suddenly the numbers were no longer small, and it did begin to matter. Britain could absorb a few hundred thousand immigrants without much trouble, but how many more would want to come? A million? Two million? Five million? Twenty million?
Moreover, immigration did not occur evenly across the whole society. People like to make their home close to friends and relations, naturally enough. This meant that huge numbers of immigrants would arrive in a particular area in the course of a few short years. Suddenly Brixton became a West Indian area, Southall an Asian area, etc.
Naturally, this was upsetting to people who had lived there all their lives. Racism began to spread among the white community, as non-white immigrants ceased to be an interesting rarity. There were the Notting Hill riots in 1958, in which whites led by fascists and racists attacked the immigrants. It became clear that unrestricted immigration would lead to the growth of a powerful racist right with support in the white working class, and to an ever greater cycle of violence.
In this context, restrictions on immigration began to be introduced. Some Liberals and Leftists called these measures racist, but in fact they were only bringing Britain into line with other nation-states, none of which allowed unlimited immigration. Moreover, these curbs were the only way of preventing the growth of real racism among the white majority.
It was in this context that Enoch Powell began to talk about race and, in 1968, to warn of “rivers of blood”. At first he called for curbs on immigration – but curbs were already being introduced. On the other hand, it was plain that all those who had arrived before the curbs were here to stay. And their children would grow up knowing no other home.
In the face of this, Powell became disorientated. Even though no more immigrants were coming in, those who were already here spoiled his notion of what Britain ought to be. Had he been the sort of racist/fascist that many people accused him of being, he would then have gone on to found a far-right party based on nationalism and racism. He could have build on the widespread popular support he had at that time, winning support both from right-wing conservatives and from racially-prejudiced workers who would normally vote Labour.
Powell did nothing of the sort. Powell was and is a Tory and a nationalist of the old-fashioned sort. He will not break the rules of parliamentary democracy, because those rules are part of the British tradition that he cherishes.
Finding himself unable to make progress within the Tory party, he migrated to Northern Ireland, joining the more moderate of the two main Unionist parties. In two critical General Elections, he urged support for the Labour party. (He saw Labour as the best defence against the EEC)
Powell’s only new contribution to the race issue was a weak proposal for voluntary repatriation. He repeated this call after the first riots in Handsworth. But he seems to lack any strong belief in this “remedy”. (In fact, it seems that a system of voluntary repatriation already exists. It is not given much publicity, and few people choose to make use of it).
Powell probably knows that his solution is no solution. But he can find no other answer, without breaking with traditions in which he has a deep belief.
Powell and Fascism.
Powell is not a racist, in the strict meaning of the term. He is a nationalist, seeing certain British traditions as being supremely important. He does not see race as such as being a problem – he has gone on record as saying that had the immigrants been Germans, say, this might have caused even greater problems. Powell is not a Fascist either. The mainstream of British politics has utterly rejected Fascism as it existed in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.
In the 1930s, there were elements in the political mainstream who admired Hitler and/or urged appeasement. I don’t think Powell was one of these; in any case, that whole tradition failed and was rejected. Right joined Centre and Left in the war against Hitler. And they did so under the leadership of Churchill, the arch-imperialist, the man who was responsible for Tonypandy (generally regarded as the worst thing any British government has done in mainland Britain since the Peterloo Massacre of 1816).
British politics since 1939 has had no place for Fascism of the Hitler or Mussolini variety. And Powell was not the man to break with such a tradition. He was against immigration, against the Left, against a great deal of what was happening in the society, but he wanted nothing to do with the fascist-led National Front. He advised voters not to reject democracy in the hope of finding something better in the gutter. The comparison is of course very unfair to gutters, which have a useful social function; but at least Powell made his meaning plain.
Rejected by Powell, the National Front made a brief showing on the stage of national politics. At one moment they looked like becoming a major political force. But they didn’t last long. Their strongest and most effective elements turned out to be Fascists of a very crude Hitler-worshipping sort.
This crude fascism made them obnoxious to right-wing Tories. Racially-prejudiced workers who might have supported them turned away in disgust from such Hitler-worshippers. Both groups regarded the war against Hitler as Britain’s “finest hour”. Besides, immigration was clearly coming to an end. And it was generally agreed that those who were already lawfully in the country had a right to remain.
The National Front has split and lost support. It has gone back to being a nasty but not very dangerous fringe movement. At the moment, the far-right seem to be concentrating on making random racist attacks on those who can’t easily hit back at them. At no time, not even at the peak of their power, have they risked serious conflicts with any of the far-left groups.
Today, there is no sign of the far-right benefiting from the recent round of riots. The riots were in any case anti-police (and occasionally anti-Asian), not anti-white. The white majority, despite being a minority in some of the areas where rioting takes place, has not been a target and has not seen itself as such. The very opposite has happened; white youths have joined in the riots. An intelligent far-right organisation might have been able to exploit the situation. Fortunately, no such thing seems to exist.
Is Britain racist? There’s no denying that British society is vaguely racist. Some degree of racism has always been there. Or rather, there has always been a vague dislike of foreigners. Non-white foreigners, being more obviously and recognisably different, have usually got a worse dose of such dislike.
Does this mean that Britain is racist in the same way as South Africa is today, or that the USA used to be? By no means. People often talk about racism as one and inadvisable. Any trace of racism, however obscure, is identified with out-and-out blind prejudice. This is both foolish and dangerous. It is wrong to look at just the common element – discrimination according to race – and to ignore the different strengths of feeling.
There are degrees of racism. Britain has never had extremes of racism, and seems to be progressing slowly towards a general absence of racism. Large numbers of people may feel a little bit prejudiced, but are not likely to go to extremes.
A survey for Weekend World found that a majority of blacks felt that they personally had never been discriminated against over jobs. On the other hand, a large minority had experienced discrimination, and a majority felt that there were employers who would discriminate.
If racism in Britain is seen as part of a traditional prejudice against all foreigners, black or white, then it becomes clear that we’re making progress. Typically, there is prejudice and hostility whenever large numbers of foreigners come into the country. They are seen as a threat. Thus it was with the Irish in the 19th century, with the Jewish immigrants around the turn of the century, and with the refugees from Hitler before World War Two. (During the first months of the war, many foreigners, including some dedicated antifascists, were rounded up as a threat and put in detention camps. Only later were they let out again and allowed to do their bit to defeat Hitler).
Colour, of course, adds to the problem. Were it not for the colour of their skins, the children of West Indian immigrants would tend to blend invisibly with the rest of the society (as have the children of earlier waves of immigrants). But the fact that they can be identified, and can identify themselves as a group, makes their position harder.
Even so, on the whole integration has occurred. A few “ghetto” areas get a lot of attention, but they are not typical. Inner-city streets are for the most part quite unlike areas such as Brixton or estates like Broadwater Farm. In general, black and white coexist fairly peacefully. Even the riots were not black against white. They have been blacks plus a few whites against the police and firemen.
A style in rioting.
Some people have been asking if we have been seeing something like the riots in Northern Ireland, which led on to the present IRA campaign. Many seem to fear this; a few even seem to be hoping for it. In fact, what happened in Northern Ireland was very different. Riots there were highly structured, and followed a strict code of conduct.
Looting was rare or unknown. Arson was used fairly selectively (although the burning of buses caused bus services to cease in some parts of the city). Rape was unknown – had rapes occurred, as they did during the Brixton riot, this would have been regarded as an absolute disgrace, and probably dealt with quite swiftly and ruthlessly.
The northern Catholics who rioted had a clear end in view, one which they had held for many decades – they wanted a United Ireland. Protestant rioters had an equally clear aim – to prevent this.
The IRA re-appeared on the scene much in the same way as tulips appear in the spring. They had lain dormant since their last campaign, waiting for another chance. When the chance came, they had plenty of contacts and trained people able to take advantage of it. They organised and trained those who had rioted, and were able to start their war once again. For several years they made progress; since the mid-1970s they have been in decline, although they still have considerable strength left.
The riots in Handsworth, Brixton and Tottenham have been noticeably structureless. The rioters have burned and looted in their own areas; they seemed to be treating the whole thing as just a way to have fun. In each case, it has been a local incident that has sparked things off. The accidental shooting of a woman in Brixton caused a riot in Brixton, and only in Brixton. Each incident has been local, and has had local results.
Moreover, in each case it has been police attempts to curb drug dealing that seems to have raised tensions before the actual explosion. Thieves and drug dealers have played a major role in all the riots. Nothing stronger or more coherent seems to lie behind it.
The Left and the Police.
Riots are often encouraged and applauded by people who would themselves never dream of getting involved. A mindless hostility to the police has been encouraged. The police are seen as an enemy who must be attacked on all possible occasions.
This has been done at an intellectual level by people who mostly risk nothing at all – neither life nor limb, nor income, nor liberty. Naturally, discontented young men are likely to follow such a lead, to take the propaganda seriously.
It is reasonable enough to work for a better police force. Left to themselves, police may become corrupt or brutal, or both. They do plenty of things that deserve criticism.
But such criticism should be aimed at producing a better police force, rather than simply attacking what exists. By world standards, we have quite a good police force. In almost every other country, the police regularly carry guns. People from overseas, with experience of their own police, find British police far less violent and less likely to break the rules. The police are certainly imperfect, but any other police force is likely to be a great deal more imperfect.
Criticism of the police must be specific and detailed if it is to be useful. When public transport is criticised, for instance, one can point to many other countries where higher subsidies produce a very much better system. Some people say our businessmen should be more like the Japanese. Others would like to change our military/defence system to neutrality and a Citizen’s Army, on the Swiss or Swedish model.
But which other police force should we be looking to as a model? In the particular respect of recruiting minority groups, it would be good to learn from the USA. But hardly in other respects.
In fact, most criticism of the police is in terms of an ideal which has never existed, and which no one claims ever to have existed. The police are expected to arrest all the murderers, burglars, rapists, heroin dealers, violent racists etc. On the other hand, police must never stop or search anyone who turns out to be innocent (or whose guilt can not be proved). The police must be blamed for everything that goes wrong, and never given credit for anything they get right.
Of course, there are those who say a revolution is what they are after. The police are part of the old system that they want to overthrow. To be replaced by something like the police in the Soviet Union, perhaps?
No society can operate without some means of enforcing the law. Policemen may not on the whole be particularly likeable people. But the alternative would be something a great deal rougher, more violent and more likely to punish unjustly. The IRA in Northern Ireland has run such a system. Liberals and wet leftists in Britain have been careful to turn a blind eye to it. In the Lebanon, we have an even more drastic example of what happens when each local community tries to enforce its own law and order.
Reactions to the conviction of three men for the murder of PC Blakelock have been quite predictable. The cry goes up “Winston Silcott is innocent”. Winston Silcott would seem to be an unlucky bloke – to be wrongly convicted of two quite separate and unrelated murders! It is true that some of those accused were set free, at the judges direction’s. But someone can be as guilty as hell, and still be quite properly set free due to flawed procedures or suspect evidence. In Northern Ireland, the late Gerard Steensone, alias “Doctor Death”, was held on suspicion of no less that six killings, and had to be released when a “supergrass” was discredited. His rivals in the INLA feud had no such problems; they held him responsible for the killing of their friends, and had no need to prove this to a jury!
It could be that the Blakelock verdict would have been different had the circumstance been different. Juries do take notice of the social context, even though judges tell them not to. For instance, in 19th century Australia, juries acquitted those involved in the “Eureka Stockade”, even though no one doubted that they had done just what the prosecution said they had done. But in that case, it had been the rioters who had been massacred by the police and army. The juries felt that they had already paid the price. In the case of PC Blakelock, it seems that about 30 people were involved in killing him. At least 27 of these got away with it. That’s the jury system – and it usually works against the police and for the defendants.
If we didn’t have the police…
Supposing Margaret Thatcher were to hold a press conference and declare “we’ve just decided on a wonderful new solution to prison overcrowding. Instead of putting offenders in prison, we’re going to shoot them in the legs!” Even the most right-wing Tory would stand aghast at such an idea. Nor is it remotely likely that Thatcher would suggest it.
Yet the IRA has been doing just that for many years, and with surprisingly few protests. There are people on the Left who see no contradiction between protesting at police brutality and applauding the IRA. Maiming and mutilation ceased to be legal punishments in Western Europe a long time ago; the death penalty, too, has been widely abolished. Yet the IRA, which regards itself as the army of an alternative state, can maim, mutilate and kill without protests from Amnesty International or the National Council for Civil Liberties.
To be fair, the IRA would find it hard to operate in any other way. It cannot let the regular police and security forces operate freely in the areas it controls. But crime does not cease to exist in the absence of the police. To avoid a total criminal anarchy, the IRA has to enforce its own law and order.
To run prisons of its own would hardly be practical; nor could it give each case a proper judicial investigation. In practice, it has had no choice. If it is to carry on its war against the state, it must kill or maim those who seem probably to have done something to deserve it.
In the absence of the police, we would not have anarchy. Rather, we would have something like the IRA’s system of criminal justice. (Indeed, we might have something a great deal worse. The IRA has had a long tradition of handling such matters).
A truly revolting alternative.
A few groups on the Left have actually tried living up to their words, treating the rioting as some sort of revolution. One of these is an odd bunch of anarchists who call themselves “Class War”. As far as I can tell, their membership is mostly young, white and punkish. A number of them got involved in the Brixton rioting. They say “We fully admit that many of us were there and took an active part in the proceedings… only a handful of us actually live in the area”. (Class War, 5th page, 3rd column. The newspaper has neither date nor issue-number, but has a large picture of a black petrol-bomber on the front).
“Class War” express pleasure at what happened to the police. Reporting a small riot in Toxteth, they say “…unfortunately, only one pig was injured…” (Ibid., 2nd page 3rd column).
About attacks on firemen, they prefer to say nothing at all. They could hardly applaud such attacks – after all, firemen are without doubt workers, not very well paid workers. They do a difficult, dangerous and very necessary job. They are trade unionists – many of us will remember the last firemen’s strike. Any of us might need the fire service at any time of night or day, literally as a matter of life or death. That the rioters should have attacked firemen shows how mindless and short-sighted the violence really was. “Class War”, like many others on the Left, prefer to ignore the matter.
On the other hand the “Class Warmongers” have no qualms about supporting looting. Thus “As for the looting, Labour might, along with the rest of the Left, prattle on about the redistribution of wealth. The looters are actually practising it. **** all this shit about working class shops, there’s no such thing, it’s a contradiction in terms. Such things are inevitable in the early stages of a revolution. And it kept the cops busy too”. (Ibid., 5th page 1st column).
Actually, the rioters do not seem to have looted at random. In Brixton, at least, food shops were left alone – these were not the hungry mobs of earlier generations. Shops were looted if they had valuable goods in them – or, in some cases, if they belonged to Asians. And there is no sharp line that can be drawn between ordinary shopkeepers and other working people.
“Class War” think they know just what they’d do if they could push out the police. They speak with enthusiasm about a bit of popular justice done in Toxteth. Police pressure on the Croxteth area of Liverpool had driven out a lot of heroin dealers. Some of them tried to shift their trade from Croxteth to Toxteth. Reacting against this “…a gang of 150 youths besieged two houses…. Both were the homes of known heroin dealers. Later in the week the gang, now 250 strong and calling itself “the anti-Smack Squad”, trashed two more houses; the pushers were attacked and one hospitalised”. (Ibid., 2nd page 1st column).
No one feels any sympathy for heroin dealers, of course. But supposing it had turned out they’d got the wrong people? That sort of thing does tend to happen, when an angry crowd is judge, jury and executioner. On name for it is Lynch Law – and, of course, it quite often gets people who are as guilty as hell. At present, it may be easy for local black youths to find and deal with the heroin dealers. The local pot dealers probably pointed them out – and quite possibly organised the whole thing. (Alongside the article is the slogan “This is Toxteth not Croxteth. Strictly Ganja! No H”).
But supposing another band of popular vigilantes were to decide they didn’t want pot sold either? Is cocaine OK? Should glue-sniffing be rooted out? Just who decided what the rules are, and who has the right to enforce the rules? To get anywhere, you would need something like the IRA’s system in Northern Ireland, where it is the IRA’s Army Council that lays down what is and is not allowed. I really don’t expect anything like that to develop in Toxteth.
“Class War” are honest in their opinions. They are also ignorant and short-sighted. Their idea of state repression is unarmed policemen occasionally hitting the wrong people (or else hitting the right people who aren’t doing anything at that particular moment). They want to take things to extremes, but have no idea of what serious repression by an authoritarian state would be like. They probably think they’ve been through it all already.
For their sakes, and for ours, let us hope that they never see the real thing. Their minds do not stretch to the sort of repression that ripped apart the Left in Argentina. And the Argentine armed forces that did the ripping were themselves ripped apart and broken by the British military in the Falklands War. Do “Class War” have any idea of what they might be starting?
Is there a black community in Britain? There are plenty of black people here, certainly. But what do they really have in common, apart from the accident of skin colour? Asians (including Sri Lankans) are Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or Sikhs. They come from four separate states, which have fought wars with each other and may do so again. They speak several quite different languages.
West Indians are very different from Asians, and not all that similar to each other. They come from a great diversity of separate and sovereign islands or island groups. Both their ancestry and their culture are as much European as African. They are Protestants or Catholics or Rastafarians. West Indian unity exists only for playing cricket. (And cricket, of course, is a legacy of colonialism).
Their African ancestry comes almost entirely from western Africa. West Africa itself consists of many different peoples, with quite different languages and cultures. None of them, however, greatly resemble West Indians.
At present, black people in Britain are represented by self-appointed “community spokesmen”. Some of these are good people; others are not. Some outright swindlers and gangsters can be found among them. The late Michael Abdul Malik (Michael X) was an example of the bad sort of “community spokesman”. For a time, he did very well out of playing on white guilt-feelings. Later he returned to Trinidad, murdered one of his own followers and was hanged for it. There are people around at the moment who are little better.
The trouble is, ordinary black people get little chance to say who does or does not represent them. It tends to be white politicians who choose who the “real” representatives are. They may get it right, but not always. There are black “spokesmen” who make a good living out of playing on the guilt feelings of the white establishment.
What is to be done?
The riots are a problem for society, not a crisis. If nothing at all is done, it is possible that riots could become a part of urban life. We could learn to live with them. People in Belfast have learned to live with much higher levels of violence, most of it orchestrated by a well-organised underground army that is committed to overthrowing the state.
And yet life goes on in Belfast. It was even drifting slowly back to something more normal, before the Anglo-Irish Agreement stirred things up once again. London itself carried on through the worst days of the Blitz, and has since rebuilt itself. There will be no race-war, and no rivers of blood. Trickles of blood, at worst.
Still, anything that can reduce riots is worth doing. There is racism in the society, – mostly not extreme or virulent racism, but it would be better to be rid of it completely. Even though most of the immigrants and children of immigrants have settled down quite nicely, it is bad that some have not. Things that could be done include:
(1) Recruiting more Blacks and Asians to the police. The police have made some efforts to do this, but more could be done. It would be wise not to insist on paper qualifications. There is a surplus of white police recruits, so they might as well take those with the best exam results. But there is hardly a surplus of non-white recruits. And success in exams has little to do with the qualities that make for good policing.
(2) It should be accepted that the police can go in hard when rioters start using guns or petrol bombs. A riot where lethal weapons are used deserves to be treated differently. A petrol bomb is not only a lethal weapon; it is deadly enough to be used in regular warfare. The Finns used them against the Russians in 1939-40 – which was the source of the name “Molotov Cocktail”. Correctly used, petrol bombs can destroy armoured vehicles and tanks. When petrol bombs are being used, it would be absurd to deny the police the right to use plastic bullets. (There are strong indications that the police do intend to go in hard, next time there is a riot of the Brixton or Broadwater Farm type. This may be the reason why there have been no more such riots so far.)
(3) On the other hand, police should be far more careful about carrying guns. If they have to go after an armed suspect, why not send in police with full bullet-proof protection, instead of armed but vulnerable?
(4) The present half-legal status of marijuana is a constant source of friction. It would be desirable to prohibit it completely, but it does not seem remotely possible. In practice, use and sale in certain areas is not interfered with. It would be logical to formalise this – its sale should be licences in the same way as alcohol, but with public use still banned. Resources could then be concentrated on other much more dangerous drugs.
(5) Architectural disasters like Broadwater Farm must be made less bleak and inhuman. Ugly slabs of concrete could be painted, for instance. Instead of endless mazes of interconnected walkways, gates should be installed to create clusters of flats with just one or two ways in or out.
(6) Various schemes should be set up to let unemployed workers be employed making our cities less dirty and more civilised and safe. Some schemes exist already, but many more are needed. They would cost money, but so does keeping people on the dole. A real system of social accounting should be set up, to support schemes that are profitable and economic from the viewpoint of the society as a whole.
[ October 13, 2003, 12:41 PM: Message edited by: Martin Red ]