by Sukant Chandan
Last summer’s uprisings in cities across England struck fear in the ruling order. But, what did Black Brits learn from the experience? “We cannot understand what happens in Tottenham, Brixton, Peckham, Handsworth, etc. unless we understand what is happening in Africa, Asia and Latin America.”
August 'Riots' One Year On: A Black Power Perspective
by Sukant Chandan
“The Uprising was born out of resistance against white supremacy.”
Introduction and definition of terms
We are now one year on from the 'August riots' in England last year, or what I prefer to call theUprising of Black and Poor Youth. The four-day long Uprising was a historic event. Not since the Miners Strike of 1984-'85 have we seen such civil unrest in England. Little known to most there were a few Black miners in the 1984'85 Miners Strike, but the last politically comparable civil unrest to that which took place last August was the uprising of Black youth in 1981, where over a dozen English cities saw our Black and Asian young people (with participation from a minority of whites) rise up against the daily white supremacist harassment and violence from the police and thugs and in revolt against the conditions of oppression and poverty.
A few clarifications as to the political language used here, especially as we are living in a time of relative confusion as to 'race' and class. Adding to this confusion, the Uprising itself has been subject to white-washing by the white power structure and those consciously or sub-consciously affected by it.
When I refer to “Black” youth, I am referring to a united Black concept to “colonised peoples.” As Sivanandan said, "Black is the colour of our politics"; “Black” in the political sense when used pertaining to all non-white people, in the manner in which Malcolm X defined the “Black Revolution,” as he explained in a defining speech outlining Malcolm's revolutionary outlook in The Message to the Grassroots: "… the black revolution is world-wide in scope and in nature. The black revolution is sweeping Asia, sweeping Africa, is rearing its head in Latin America."
“The Uprising itself has been subject to white-washing by the white power structure.”
Earlier in this speech he outlines in more detail this concept of Black, and the development of this international Black Revolution:
"In Bandung back in, I think, 1954, was the first unity meeting in centuries of black people. And once you study what happened at the Bandung conference, and the results of the Bandung conference, it actually serves as a model for the same procedure you and I can use to get our problems solved. At Bandung all the nations came together. Their were dark nations from Africa and Asia. Some of them were Buddhists. Some of them were Muslim. Some of them were Christians. Some of them were Confucianists; some were atheists. Despite their religious differences, they came together. Some were communists; some were socialists; some were capitalists. Despite their economic and political differences, they came together. All of them were black, brown, red, or yellow."
This understanding of Black must also include understanding the ramifications of the historical and present way in which the white power structure has created an unofficial caste and divide and rule system which basically pitches the lighter skinned peoples against the darker skinned; divides and elevates Arabs, Asians and other non-African peoples against Black Africans (most violently manifested recently in the on-going mass lynching of Libyan and non-Libyan Black Africans by lighter skinned Arabs and with most Asian and Arab Muslims either complicit or supporting this “revolution”), and a host of other tricks to disunite us non-whites / “people of colour”/ Black and Brown people / Black people. Two other examples of this in 2011 were the Lowkey/Ghetts beef, and the Wiley/Jay Sean beef.
“The white power structure has created an unofficial caste and divide and rule system.”
I call the Uprising one of the “Black and poor,” as poor refers to the white poor, who joined in the uprising once the Black resistant-oppressed sparked it all after the lynching of the young Black man, father, and Tottenham resident Mark Duggan (or “assassination,” in the words of Pam Duggan, his respected mother). The involvement of the white poor in the Uprising has contributed to the befuddlement in peoples heads as to the white supremacist / Black resistant central component of the Uprising.
The Uprising did not come out of a vacuum
No organisation or movement for our grassroots youth for a generation
Much of the reaction to the Uprising, both negative and positive, has given the impression that the Uprising had no concrete and obvious historical roots; it did.
Our Black and poor youth have been trying to make their voice heard for a whole generation, mostly in vain, or if their voice was ever listened to it was only to deepen their oppression and alienation. The obvious manifestation of this voice that people have heard is the cultural voice through the medium of music, especially the genre of Grime. Black youth have led a cultural articulation reflecting the growing malaise into which they have been subjected by the white power structure. Their voice has been ignored and their culture has been further criminalised.
Issues such as community disintegration (through gentrification, the housing crisis, and alarming levels of unemployment in the African community as well as sections of the South Asian community), the connected rise of street gangs, the growth of substance abuse and deteriorating or absence of healthy sexual relations amongst our youth from pre-teens, and the connected rise of misogynistic attitudes and behaviour, sexualisation of childhood, are all reflected through the music. The warning signs all around us were ignored for a whole generation, ie., the generation that was born in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Other problems facing our youth include attacks on Black pride. Young people parrot the white power structure, disparaging darker skinned people and women (for example, the tragic and depressing obsession with "lighties" etc). There is also an alarming and general internalisation of white supremacy through their music.
There is very little resistance to this, although there are developing networks of Black Power and/or anti-imperialist networks and artists that have been increasingly challenging these issues in the past several years.
Our Black youth have intermittingly rising up throughout the last fifteen years or so.
This was seen at a grassroots level in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham in the summer of 2000, when South Asian youth took to the streets to fight white supremacist provocations from the far-right and their supporters.
Then Black and radical white youth in high schools and colleges walked out en masse across the country in protest against the war of aggression against Iraq in the spring of 2003, and there were all manner of clashes between police and Black, mainly Muslim youth in this period, in which many youth were charged with “public disorder.”
“Black youth have led a cultural articulation reflecting the growing malaise into which they have been subjected by the white power structure.”
Black youth again fought the police during the Israeli massacre of Palestinians in Gaza in December 2008 / January 2009. This was the first time that pro-Palestinian and anti-war protests saw our youth pro-actively develop a militant self-defence strategy, and they did this several times throughout the three week assault against Gaza.
Since 2009 Black youth, again mainly Muslims but in alliance with non-Muslim radical anti-racist Black youth, have been defending their communities from the far-right English Defence League, who, with what seems like collusion with the police and government, have been conducting violent street provocations against mainly South Asian and Muslim communities. The EDL has been fought to a positive stalemate by the spontaneous resistance of our Black youth.
The student protests, some of which turned violent, also has fed into the culture of resistance developing amongst our youth. Student protests are, like the rest of the left, boring affairs who meekly ask the powers-that-be for this or that reform, however this time because of an injection of our militant Black youth, the protests had a much more assertive and combative air to them.
All these events happened without any organisation that can relate to our youth, can support, mobilise or represents them.
The White left more often than not are a real obstacle and hindrance to the interests of our youth, but I don't want to waste too much time on them here, as they are at best an absolute irrelevancy to our youth and communities, and need to kept well away from us as they are totally stupid and toxic and will sabotage anything they touch.
Our youth are still without any effective organisations that can serve them and the communities in which they live. This is one of the central challenges for those serious about Black struggle, resistance and liberation: the necessity to build an organisation(s) and movement(s) that are fit for purpose. No sign of this as of yet.
It was on this historical basis and experience that our youth finally lost their patience. Seeing another Black person dead at police hands and the deepening austerity into which our people have been forced was the fuel that sparked the conflagration that which gripped England for several days in August 2011.
The Uprising, White Supremacy and the British White Power Structure
“Whites turning Black,” and the continuing relevance and importance of Black Power resistance
There has been an obvious campaign to white-wash the Uprising, to turn it into anything but resistance to the deeply white supremacist nature of this country. This is part of a complex process that the white power structure has been implementing to blunt the effectiveness of Black resistance since the 1980s (and before, as it's a centuries long tactic!), and unfortunately it has been more or less successful in this regard.
These tactics have led to a situation whereby our youth have been without effective guidance. Confusion reigns, with some Black youth having no problem with their white friends using the N word; with Black youth joining the white supremacist EDL; with many Black and Asian youth thinking that white supremacy is no more, and many other disturbing examples.
Mark Duggan was killed after several other high profile deaths in police custody. Sean Rigg on 21 August 2008, Smiley Culture on 15 March 2011 and Kingsely Burrell on 27 March 2011 were all killed in police custody, with the evidence pointing to the deaths occurring at the hands of white police officers.
Mark Duggan was a Black man killed in a community well known for its Black resistance – Tottenham – killed by a mob of 31 white police officers, which sparked local Black resistance from the youth. White supremacy is alive and well in England today.
The resistance and civil unrest in Tottenham spread to other parts of London and then to many other parts of England. The developing disturbances saw white youth participate – even mainly white working class estates in northwest England took up the fight against the police. In Birmingham Black youth shot at police helicopters, and in Nottingham there was minimal looting; instead, Black youth there carried out guerrilla-style attacks on police and police stations. Many of these young people have subsequently been jailed.
Despite promoting white supremacy non-stop through its state institutions, mis-education system, and media, the white power structure was obviously shaken by white working class people joining in with Black people in the Uprising. White supremacist historian David Starkey tried to explain this by saying, on BBC’s Newsnight program, "the whites have turned Black." Starkey meant this to denigrate Black communities and culture and sought to divide whites from Blacks, to try and pull whites back to a position of loyalty to the English white power structure.
“The developing disturbances saw white youth participate – even mainly white working class estates in northwest England took up the fight against the police.”
There was, however, some truth in Starkey's comment in as much that Black culture has become a pole of attraction for those seeking to reject and resist oppression and exploitation. Whereas Starkey sees this rightly as a threat to the system, Black Power activists and radicals can see this as a potentially positive development as well as raising the challenge of keeping as clear as possible that white supremacist ideas and prejudices are not washed away just because people dress, talk and act or act-up in a certain way.
This situation becomes more complex when we see people like PlanB and others play the white-washing role for the system in deleting white supremacy and Black resistance from their narrative towards the Uprising. This is that much more problematic as PlanB and other white artists use Black culture (Rap and Grime especially) to convey white-washed analyses of the Uprising and other social issues, and for this the system is fine and happy (including tories) for PlanB to promote his views in the mainstream film and entertainment industry.
One of the most problematic manifestations of the way whites are using Black culture to perpetuate racism was the outright white supremacist track and video by Maverick Sabre and Professor Green's Jungle (Maverick Sabre subsequently apologised on twitter for his role in Jungle).
There is still little clear leadership on these issues, however there are artists and a growing number of Black Power activists who are addressing these issues as they arise.
An obvious point to make is that Black artists and cultural activists seem not to feel comfortable enough to express themselves about the issues surrounding the Uprising –another form of white supremacist oppression that leads to a near silence from Black cultural voices as to the burning issues facing them.
The Uprising was a Black uprising at root, born out of resistance against white supremacy. That whites got involved is both a positive thing and a challenge. It is important not to get carried away by white involvement, which might lead some Blacks to downplay the white supremacist nature of society.
The Internationalist perspective
Lack of revolutionary international leadership and struggle negatively impacts our youth
The British white power structure is the oldest and most sophisticated and hence most dangerous, sly and tricky of all modern imperialist powers. Its domination and agenda has been international in scope. Malcolm X once said we cannot understand what happens in Mississippi unless we understand what is happening in Congo. To develop and apply this understanding to today: we cannot understand what happens in Tottenham, Brixton, Peckham, Handsworth, etc. unless we understand what is happening in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
This generation is one of the first not be exposed to a growing world resistance to white supremacy. The generations before could not but be influenced by the international struggle of the Black and militant anti-imperialist struggles of the Black Panthers and Nation of Islam, ANC and PAC in Azania/South Africa, of the IRA in Ireland, of ZANU and ZAPU in Zimbabwe, the Sandinistas (Nicaragua), PLO (Palestine), Vietnam, FRELIMO (Mozambique), SWAPO (Namibia), MPLA (Angola) and so on.
These liberation struggles directly influenced our youth, these struggles fed into the Black Liberation Movement in the USA and western Europe. Millions of our youth were politicised by popular Hip-Hop groups such as P-Dog (Rap group Paris) and Public Enemy, and with the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan and Khalid Muhammad sampled and popularised. Every youth could quote these Black militants, such as this sample from Public Enemy's “Night of the Living Bassheads” from the album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back: "Have you forgotten that once we were brought here, we were robbed of our name, robbed of our language. We lost our religion, our culture, our God...and many of us, by the way we act, we even lost our minds." (Khalid Muhammad)
The current world situation is without clear revolutionary leadership as it used to be, and the white power structure has defeated the Black Power element in much of Hip-Hop and Rap, and turned the genre in many ways into carriers of white supremacy.
Africa has been devastated by the white power structure, especially after the socialist countries of the USSR and East Europe collapsed leaving Africa without supporter for its liberation movements and nation building. This left Africa at the mercy of the “Washington consensus,” which means crippling privatisation and indebtedness and an attempt to destroy the sovereignty of African states.
The western white power structure has made sure that Africans on the continent have been gripped by civil wars masterminded in London, Paris, Washington, Brussels and so on. As long as our Black youth are without a clear revolutionary leadership from the “Third World” or Global South, as long as they see our people killing our people and not our common enemy, our youth in the West, too, will fail to focus on our common enemy but instead turn their trauma and anger against each other.
“Africa has been devastated by the white power structure, especially after the socialist countries of the USSR and East Europe collapsed.”
Once our youth see our peoples in the homelands uniting and fighting our common enemy, they will turn their wrath on our common enemy.
This is partly why the Uprising has such historical importance. For the first time throughout the country Black youth and their allies focused on a common foe: the police, who by their own admission are white supremacists, or, in their white-washed language: "institutionally racist."
The Uprising temporarily halted youth-on-youth crime and violence, and united them against their common enemy.
The fact that literally the day after the riots our youth returned to maiming and killing each other is another example of the the lack of leadership and organisation for our youth.
It is one of the challenges of Black Power and pro-Global South activists to popularise the continuing struggle of our peoples which the white power structure demonises, be it the successful Black land seizures of white settler land in Zimbabwe by ZANU, the struggle of the peoples of the Niger Delta against western oil companies, the militant Black struggle in South Africa personified in Julius Malema and the continuation of struggle personified by Winnie Mandela and the rank and file of the ANC and ANC Youth League; of Gadafi who was lynched by NATO and their rebels because he was ensuring African unity was supported in very real and meaningful ways; of the resistance in Libya, Syria, Lebanon to NATO's plans for domination; of the Native and socialist movements and leaderships in Latin America and so on.
Once these international struggles are understood, once our youth realize that their situation is connected to the fight against an enemy that is making all our lives a misery, we will then see our struggle develop by leaps and bounds.
It is also worth remembering that if Brits are willing to support and arm those who lynched and continue to lynch Black people in Libya, then they are ready to do the same to us and actually do the same to us. What was the killing of Mark Duggan if not a lynching of a Black man in broad daylight by white supremacist police?
This occurred at exactly the same time the Brits were massacring dozens of Libyan children (August 08, in Zlitan, Libya) by their air force, and the majority Black Libyan town of Tawergha was being totally wiped out by their “rebels.”
The only two countries in the world that supported the rights and interests of our youth during the Uprising were Libya and Iran, with the Libyan statement made after this author and a colleague at the time encouraged them to do so. They didn't need much encouragement, as Gadafi and Libyans were always enthusiastic to support Black and radical movements around the world including the west (IRA, All African Peoples Revolutionary Party, Native American Movement, Aboriginal rights movement and many more). This is the kind of internationalism our youth need.
That a mass lynching of Blacks took place on the edge of Europe in North Africa directed by the Brits and NATO, which was met by complicity and support of the English left and ‘anti-war’ forces, and that we did not make these links as clear as we could, again points to a great challenge of internationalism that faces us.
Reactions and Results of the Uprising
Best social analysis of England was the Uprising itself
There are events that smack you in the face so hard with reality that it clarifies things in ways that no amount of studying and reading can achieve. The Uprising was just such an event.
The Uprising showed who the most radical elements are in England. It showed who are the most courageous, determined and militant in facing the white power structure. It also showed the lack of wisdom in some senses too of those who participated, but more of that later.
The Uprising showed that the youth who took to the streets to battle the police were the fundamental social basis of a radical struggle in this country. This doesn't mean suggesting they should be recruited or encouraged to carry out acts of violence against the police, but they are the youth who are most in need of an organised and wise Black Power struggle, and anyone wanting to build such a struggle should be oriented to representing and supporting these young people.
At the same time we should understand that many of our Black youth did not actually fight, but for every one who did, there were many others who positively understood what was happening and supported the fight back against the police.
“There has not been any discernable leadership in our communities to critically engage with our peoples as to their common interest.”
The negative and often vitriolic reaction from nearly all quarters to our youth who rose up is indicative of the collapse of the radical grassroots movements, of the manner in which progressive and leftist ideas have hit rock bottom in this country.
While its not really any surprise that white society reacted so negatively to the riots, of particular concern was the way in which the Black (African-Caribbean and African) and Asian communities reacted in such a right-wing manner, with calls for the army to be used against our youth common at the time. This is a reflection of the fact that we allowed the radical and united Black struggles in this country to peter out by the late 1990s, and that there has not been any discernable leadership in our communities to critically engage with our peoples as to their common interest in fighting the white power structure.
Our communities have become fractured, divided, and weakened. All manner of opportunists and careerists have replaced the community activists and assertive radical organisations that we used to have.
There were very few radical Black voices at the time of the Uprising. Amongst those who did assert leadership was veteran Black militant, Stafford Scott in Tottenham, and veteran Black radical Darcus Howe managed to get some good points across in a messy BBC interview.
But a new generation Black radical leadership remains largely absent. However, brothers like Swiss and Akala made some great points and analysis on the Uprising.
What have been the results of the Uprising? I have said that, while we can see the justness of the Uprising, I am not sure it was a wise Uprising.
When our Black communities rose up through the 1960s, 70s and 80s we had a real movement: we had many grassroots radical organisations that pushed for our interests, and many Uprisings of Black communities saw the authorities make some reluctant admission that the rebellions were reactions to poverty and police harassment and brutality. Back then, we often pressured the powers-that-be to invest in our communities, which they did as temporary bandages to cover up the root causes. We also had effective defence campaigns for those criminalized in the Uprisings.
Today, our grassroots is nearly dead, hence there is little pressure on the system. We have no effective defence campaigns, and some 4,000 of our youth have gone through the courts, many imprisoned, all clearly pointing to the weak position from where we are right now.
The necessity and urgency of building the Black Power movement
It is important that people don't get the impression that we are in an impossibly negative situation. Our youth show confidence, assertiveness and politically articulate themselves and their experience in society through their culture and also in the way they directly politically intervene.
Also there has been a small but noticeable shift in the situation in the last three of four years, with the responses from family campaigns around the deaths in police custody such Sean Rigg, Smiley Culture, Kingsley Burrell and other campaigns against police abuse.
Many in the Black community continue to struggle, and a great amount of respect and admiration goes out to them.
At the same time there has been a profound generation gap that has occurred. This is no surprise, as this generation was socially and politically left to fend for themselves.
Nevertheless, there have been important developments amongst the youth, such as the role played by artists, especially Akala, Swiss and Jaja Soze.
For the first time in my political life I have seen the rise of Black and anti-imperialist radical politics as a phenomenon amongst our youth, a process to which Sons of Malcolm and others have contributed. It's a small start, but it is out there.
“This generation was socially and politically left to fend for themselves.”
We are still relatively far from developing a real sustainable anti-white-supremacist anti-imperialist and Black Power youth movement.
Constructing the right conditions for this is a hard process, especially in our times of cultural superficiality and where our youth have so many pressures and distractions. But the necessity of struggle remains, as the white power structure is always deepening and intensifying its war against us.
Along with the process of constructing an organisation or organisations, of developing a movement and movements, we must continue to speak up against injustice, develop defence campaigns, and to support those campaigns that are doing good and important work out there.
The Uprising last year was another major wake up call to fix up our political situation for our youth. No one has really stepped up to the mark. If we don't develop a Black Power youth movement, no one else will.
If we do, we can intervene in situations like the Uprising in a much more positive manner, if we don't, our youth will continue to be devastated and give a little devastation back to society in the form of another Uprising. Which will come again.
Sukant Chandan is a London-based Black Power activist, filmmaker and political analyst. He edits the Sons of Malcolm blog. He can be contacted at [email protected], or follow on twitter @sonsofmalcolm