Workers Hammer No. 219
One year since police killing of Mark Duggan
Class and race in capitalist Britain
Nearly one year has passed since the upheaval in London and other English cities provoked by the racist cop killing of Mark Duggan. From 6 to 9 August 2011, black youth along with whites and Asians were in the streets, enraged by a system engineered to keep them poor, unskilled and unemployed. The bourgeoisie recoiled in horror, and unleashed the dogs to hunt down each and every “looter” and “rioter” they could lay their hands on and lock them up for as long as possible. Race and class hatred for those who refuse to meekly accept their place oozed from every organ of the capitalist press. The political satirist Ian Martin aptly described “A prime minister as sleek as a human aubergine, tetchily returning from holiday after holiday to rail against a ‘culture of entitlement’” (guardian. co.uk, 28 August 2011).
Trawling CCTV footage and storming people’s homes in dawn raids, the cops are still making arrests, over 4000 to date. Between August last year and the end of January this year, over 2700 people had been hauled into court, a quarter of them children. Youth offender jails are bursting.
In a story sickeningly familiar to families of black men killed in police custody, almost one year on, the cops involved in killing Mark Duggan have refused to be questioned; the family is still waiting to be told the facts of how and why he was killed. As his aunt said, “We as a family believe that Mark was executed on the streets of London by the Metropolitan police” (guardian.co.uk, 29 March).
We print below a presentation given by comrade Kate Klein at a Spartacist forum in London on 1 October 2011, edited for publication.
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The upheaval in London and other cities threw a giant floodlight over the racist, class-divided hellhole that is Britain today. It was sparked by the shooting to death of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man in Tottenham, by police — a racist atrocity. Like countless other cases of young black men who have died at the hands of the cops, the racist justifications, lies and cover-ups followed thick and fast: he had a gun, he shot at the cops, he was enmeshed in gang crime. I thought it was fitting that 1000 people came out for his funeral on September 9th. It was an outpouring of grief and anger for a young black man, the father of four children, killed in cold blood by the police. And it said to the cops and the government, you shot down one of ours, we will not forget.
As we wrote in the aftermath, 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 here. So the shooting down of Mark Duggan was one atrocity too far, and when the gathering of people including his family protesting outside the Tottenham police station were spat on by the cops, the lid blew off the tremendous anger among minority and working-class youth — at the racist cops, and at the economic system that gives them no jobs and no future. Tottenham blew up in flames just like the riots in the Broadwater Farm estate in 1985, when the cops killed a black mother. Broadwater Farm is where Mark Duggan grew up. What’s really changed for black people in this country since then?
The government was quick to seize on these events to ramp up the repressive powers of the state. There was a clamour from politicians and media for water cannon and plastic bullets for the cops, and for the families of “looters” to be evicted from council property and to have their benefits cut off. More than 2000 were arrested in London alone; around the country over 1700 people appeared before the courts in connection with the riots, with just over 300 sentenced. Two-thirds of those arrested were remanded in custody, an unheard-of rate for such petty offences.
David Cameron led the pack, condemning criminality and “moral decay”, which might have been applied to his government’s dealings with Rupert Murdoch. A kid in Manchester was jailed for two years for attempting unsuccessfully to lift some cigarettes; two young guys who set up a Facebook page inviting people to a riot that didn’t happen got four years. The magistrates courts were instructed to pass cases on to the crown courts, which have greater sentencing powers. Meanwhile Labour went after the Tory-Liberal Democrat government from the right, calling for more cops and slamming the planned cuts to the police budget. Diane Abbott, black Labour MP for Hackney, called for curfews, while Tottenham’s black Labour MP, David Lammy, condemned the “totally unacceptable” behaviour of the rioters, while voicing only mild criticisms of the cops who gunned down Mark Duggan.
Let’s put what happened in a broader context. The austerity and racist cop killing that were at the roots of the upheaval are being carried out by the same British capitalist class that has been key to the NATO terror bombing of Libya, and the bloody occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, where British forces were in the forefront, including under Labour governments. Wars against semicolonial peoples abroad, as well as war by the capitalists on the working class and minorities at home, are endemic to imperialism.
In capitalist Britain, deaths in police custody, disproportionately of black people, are quite staggering in number. In March 2011, reggae artist Smiley Culture (David Emmanuel) died during a police raid at his Surrey home, with the cops claiming incredibly 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. As is well known, the Metropolitan police publicly executed Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005 when he was deemed a “terror suspect”. Throughout the public outcry against the police — and a whitewash inquiry — then Labour mayor Ken Livingstone stood foursquare behind the police. For the cops, killing with impunity is really business as usual under capitalism. The police are at the core of the capitalist state, along with the courts and the armed forces — the purpose of which is to uphold through organised violence, the power of the capitalist ruling class to exploit everyone else.
Then there is the daily harassment and humiliation meted out to the black population, especially youth who are deemed criminals by the cops and wider society. According to a recent study by researchers at LSE and others, black people are subjected to stop-and-search by the cops 26 times more than whites. Everyone knows the US prison population is disproportionately black and Hispanic; less well known is that the British prison population is 15 per cent black while the black population of Britain is just over two per cent of the total.
We say: Free all those arrested for “looting”!
Tory, Liberal Democrat and Labour politicians all ranted against the evils of “looting”, but everyone knows that the capitalist rulers are guilty of looting the country’s wealth. The City of London is looted wealth, made from the grinding exploitation of working people. The wealth of the British Empire, which ruled over about a quarter of the globe in its heyday, was built by enslaving dark-skinned peoples and looting the wealth of societies all over Asia, Africa and the Far East. Friedrich Engels in The Condition of the Working-Class in England wrote that the majority of offences against property arise from some form of want because “what a man has, he does not steal”. People are driven to these acts by the intolerable conditions of their lives. In the face of ludicrous claims by the government that the economic conditions had no bearing on the rioters, we said that all those arrested should each be given £10,000 and released. There is 20 per cent unemployment among youth overall, but it’s 50 per cent among black youth. And, great surprise, the map of where “looting” was concentrated is the map of the highest spots of unemployment, and of concentrations of poor black people — Hackney, Lewisham, Haringey.
Just take a stroll through the British Museum and you can view a tiny sampling of the looted trophies: the Elgin marbles from the Parthenon, the Rosetta Stone from Egypt, the Benin bronzes looted by the British when they sacked and burned down that city in 1897, part of its imperialist conquest of Nigeria. Between 1801 and 1805, the 7th Earl of Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, removed the marble sculptures from the Parthenon that are now housed in the British Museum. His son, the 8th Earl of Elgin, in the aftermath of the second opium war in China in 1860, ordered French, British and Punjabi soldiers to sack the Summer Palace in Beijing. Victor Hugo wrote: “One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace. One plundered, the other burned” and “back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away”. “Before history, one of the two bandits will be called France; the other will be called England.”
Writing about the riots, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) equated looting with the expropriation of the means of production — the seizure and collectivisation of industry, the banks etc, by the proletariat. They said: “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 2011). Riots are not a way forward for workers and the oppressed, do not advance any struggle for emancipation; the point is not to seize the articles of consumption but for the working class to seize the means of production and run society. Because such explosions are an expression of despair they often involve ugly incidents of indiscriminate attacks on individuals. So the killing of three young Asian men in Birmingham by a car driven straight at them was 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.
Racist legacy of empire
Much of the black and Asian population of Britain today is descended from those who emigrated from the former colonies of Britain after World War II when there was an acute labour shortage. The bourgeoisie tried at first to plug the holes in the workforce with East Europeans and Irish.The Irish were historically used as cheap labour building the railways, canals and roads. But labour shortages persisted and when the US became off limits for black Caribbeans after the passing of the racist, anti-immigrant and anti-communist McCarran-Walter Act in 1952, that immigration was redirected to Britain. The British government actively recruited workers from the Caribbean and from South Asia: London Transport set up a recruiting station on the island of Barbados and brought workers over to work on the buses; women from the Caribbean were recruited to staff the health service. Men from South Asia who had fought in the British Army during the war were employed in the car plants, foundries and other industries.
But when the postwar labour shortage ended, both Tory and Labour governments introduced more and more legislation to stop immigration, laws which were overtly racist. For example the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act ended the automatic right to enter this country for people from Commonwealth countries which included India, Pakistan and former colonies in the West Indies. It also set up quotas which favoured immigrants from Europe and white Commonwealth citizens from Canada, Australia and South Africa. The Labour Party opposed this law until they got into office in 1964 and began extending the anti-immigrant legislation. Peter Fryer in his book Staying Power the History of Black People in Britain points out that “Labour had, of course, to appear to be slamming the door in a more civilized fashion than the Tories, and a year later  the Race Relations Act outlawed ‘incitement to racial hatred’.” This law, as Fryer says, was “spectacularly inaugurated” in the prosecution of the black nationalist Michael X (Michael de Freitas) for making anti-white statements. It was a Labour government in the 1970s that introduced the notorious racist “virginity tests” for Asian women entering the country at Heathrow airport. After 1971, you could enter the country and work here if your grandparents were born here — which favoured white Canadians, Australians and South Africans, but not black Caribbeans, or Indians or Pakistanis.
By the 1980s, the British capitalist class took its policy of deindustrialising the country to extreme lengths, deliberately increasing the economy’s reliance on the City banks and financial sector. The former coal and steel producing areas in Scotland, Wales and the north of England were turned into wastelands, severely weakening the industrial proletariat. Chronic unemployment and poverty also blighted towns such as Oldham and Bradford, which had once employed thousands of Asian workers in a booming textile industry. In the summer of 2001 Asian youth in Oldham fought back in defence of their communities against provocations by National Front and BNP fascists. An occupying army of cops moved in and subjected these youth to mass terror and arrest. We said at the time what was urgently needed was trade-union centred protest against the cop occupation, “drawing in the power of the urban working class of the Manchester area so that besieged minority youth in this enclave of Oldham, a run-down former mill town, are not left to go it alone against the organised violence of the state” (Workers Hammer no 177, Summer 2001).
Racism against Asians increased dramatically with the launch of the “war on terror” by Tony Blair’s Labour government. Under Blair and Gordon Brown, Labour turned the screw on immigrant and minority communities and thus alienated a key constituency that had traditionally supported Labour. Such electoral support was a kind of quid pro quo for a degree of cultural autonomy granted to minority religions and languages in schools, loosely known as “multiculturalism”. In February 2011 David Cameron denounced the “doctrine of state multiculturalism”, for having failed. So-called “multiculturalism” is a bogeyman for the racist right, because they see it as an expression of racial tolerance. But “multiculturalism” is a form of voluntary segregation based on inequality. It is rejected by many secular Muslims, Sikhs and others because it strengthens conservative, patriarchal and religious elements within minority communities and is inherently oppressive to women. Marxists fight for voluntary integration of all minorities based on full equality. We recognise that minority communities, like the rest of society, are class-divided and that the struggles of immigrant and other minority workers for jobs and equal status, as well as the liberation of women, require breaking the grip of religious and other conservative community leaders.
To the degree that minorities have been integrated in this country, it was fought for in the streets and on picket lines. In 1958 in London’s Notting Hill and in Nottingham, black and Asian residents fought racist mobs backed by police in scenes similar to those in Oldham in 2001. Blacks and Asians have been integrated into the workforce and the trade unions and have historically played a prominent role in the class battles of this country. The Grunwick strike in 1976 in London was a landmark battle by Asian women for decent working conditions. In 2005 a wildcat strike by ground crews at Heathrow airport paralysed British Airways and cost them millions. The ground crews were racially integrated, and they struck in solidarity with 600 sacked Gate Gourmet catering workers, the majority of whom were Sikh women, showing how class struggle can transcend ethnic lines.
Monarchy as pinnacle of class privilege
Class inequality in Britain was glaringly obvious throughout the August upheaval. Hearing the first of the appeals of those sentenced for “looting”, the Lord Chief Justice recently intoned that these sentences had to be “significantly higher” than the standard — enough to deter the great unwashed masses from seizing private property, you know. When I first moved to Britain from the US in the early 1990s I was struck by how many people I met — liberals, not reactionaries — defended the institution of the monarchy, or were at best indifferent and thought it “harmless”. This is at bottom an expression of acceptance of class inequality in society as inevitable and here to stay. The monarchy is the pinnacle of class privilege. We call for its abolition and for the abolition of the House of Lords and established churches, as an elementary democratic demand — it would not lead to socialism in and of itself but is necessarily part of a revolutionary programme in Britain. As we wrote in “Down with the monarchy and the ‘United Kingdom’!” (Workers Hammer no 215, Summer 2011): “The continued existence of such feudal relics is an assertion that class privilege and vast inequality is part of the ‘natural’ order of things in which each — ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’ — has his place.” Contrary to those who think it’s merely symbolic and harmless, the monarchy is there as a rallying point for reaction, which could play a pivotal role in a social crisis of great magnitude where the bourgeoisie feels its class rule threatened, “providing constitutional cover for a right-wing bonapartist coup” and mobilising all reaction to stabilise the capitalist order.
Class struggle and the fight against racism
If you are new to Marxism and you’ve just bought our newspapers you will notice our insistence that the trade unions can and must be mobilised in defence of minorities, immigrants, Travellers, all those under siege by the capitalist rulers. Trade unions are key to the ability of the workers to fight. They are where the working class is organised and has the potential power to shut down the flow of goods and services through strike action. The unions are a defensive bulwark against the attacks of the capitalists. In Britain trade union membership 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 takes a political struggle against the reformist trade union bureaucracy, which is tied to the Labour Party and to the racist capitalist order.
One conclusion to draw from the recent upheaval is that the plight of the working class is not separate from that of racial and ethnic minorities, quite the opposite. Attacks on one go hand-in-hand with attacks on the other. It’s abstract to young people now when we link together class struggle against the capitalists and their state, with the fight against racial oppression. So it’s instructive to look at a time when it was different, the 1984-85 miners strike. It is not an accident that the last big assault by the state on Britain’s black and Asian inner-city areas was in 1985, the same year as the defeat of that heroic strike. It was a year of bitter class war, when the coal miners and their families defended themselves against an army of police sent by Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government to occupy the coalfields. Powerful bonds were forged at the time between the National Union of Mineworkers and black and Asian minorities, who saw in the (mainly white) miners union a powerful force taking on the hated Thatcher gang, and became enthusiastic supporters of the strike. At the same time, many miners became newly aware of and convinced of the importance of combating racial oppression. It was an example of how consciousness changes profoundly and quickly during periods of intense class struggle.
In the aftermath of the strike, the cops staged a series of racist provocations that sparked explosions of anger in major black and Asian neighbourhoods. A cop 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. After Brixton, Liverpool’s Toxteth area erupted. Then police invaded Broadwater Farm on 7 October 1985 in the aftermath of the racist cop killing of Cynthia Jarrett. 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, we noted that Thatcher was intent on teaching a bloody lesson to the black and Asian population that had supported the miners, warning that this would mean escalating racist attacks.
“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 defeated the miners strike. The “inward policeman” in the form of the Labour Party leadership under Neil Kinnock and the TUC were openly hostile to the strike. Those particularly responsible for the defeat were the “left” trade union leaders who refused to strike alongside the miners, including the dockers union leaders, who sent their striking 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.
The defeat of the miners is still reverberating in massive deindustrialisation and the unions on their knees. 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. The main reason for that is the refusal of the trade union bureaucracy to lead any real fight against austerity and job cuts. So what has been the response of the trade union officials, in the midst of this economic crisis? Well, the TUC called a national protest last March  on a Saturday, where some half a million workers came out, who were treated to Ed Miliband the Labour Party leader as keynote speaker, lecturing about the need for cuts to reduce the budget deficit, but not Tory, Cameron cuts — we need Labour cuts. Before the last election Labour promised cuts deeper and tougher than under Thatcher. Because for the TUC the whole point of the exercise is to get another Labour government. Then some of the public sector unions called a one-day strike in June. Now they’re planning another “day of action” at the end of November. That’s it, that’s them leading “struggle”. The trade union leaders have always been central to the Labourite mechanism tying the working class to the capitalist order.
Our job as Marxists is to intervene into class and social struggles with the aim of forging a revolutionary workers party. Such a party will champion the interests of all the oppressed, fighting against racism, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant chauvinism. It will be an internationalist party, because as Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, the workers have no country. 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.
There will be renewed struggle by the working class, uneven and unpredictable, and struggles by minorities, and new militant leaders will emerge. For those struggles to succeed ultimately they must be armed with a Marxist political programme, linked to the fight to build a multiethnic workers party that will do away with this entire system of wage slavery through socialist revolution. Our programme is for workers revolution to smash the capitalist state, divest the capitalist parasites of the wealth that was created by the workers, and make the working class the new ruling class. Our model is the Russian October Revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky, which to date was the only victorious proletarian revolution resulting in the dictatorship of the proletariat. We fight today for new October Revolutions, to bring about a worldwide planned socialist economy.