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Nick Wright was head of Haringey Council's Police Research Unit before, during and after the Broadwater Farm fighting and here reviews recent events in the Tottenham area. You can read more on the 21st Century Manifesto blog.

'Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are' Bertolt Brecht
 
'What is the crime of robbing a bank compared with the crime of founding one.' Bertolt Brecht
 
The pattern of disturbances over recent days are an index of poverty pay, unemployment, housing need and urban misery. But they are represented by politicians, pundits and premier as pure 'criminality, as, 'thuggery'. I wrote these lines seconds before the millionaire David Cameron (Eton and Oxford) appeared on Channel 4 News to denounce the 'criminality pure and simple' of young people with little prospect of a well paid job, a decent higher education, a house of their own, the chance to raise children in comfort and security or a proper pension.
 
Primitive ideas of inherent, innate and inborn criminality are surfacing, expressed overtly by some, covertly by the more sophisticated. There is education minister Michael Gove's attempt to mobilise the public's natural feelings of outrage and fear into a crusade against organised criminality and gang culture – as if the chaotic actions of London's notoriously disorganised youth gangs were enough to checkmate the country's largest police force.
 
These events drove news reports of the economic basis of the crisis – the collapse in share prices, the downgrading of the United States' credit rating, the crisis in the eurozone – off the front pages. But rioting and looting is no less a basic expression of crisis in the capitalist system. 
 
The deeply irrational response of much of authority, government and media is to accuse those who seek explanations for these events in the material facts of  economic life as 'justifying' criminality.  
 
The 'riots' that began in Tottenham following the shooting by police of a local man echo the events of 1985. On 5 October 1985, a black woman, Mrs Cynthia Jarrett, collapsed and died after four Tottenham policemen searched her house. The following afternoon a protest at Tottenham police station passed off without serious incident but tension grew during the late afternoon and evening as police flooded the area. A night of violent fighting between police and local people resulted in the death of a police officer. The following morning the Broadwater Farm estate was under a police occupation that lasted for months as those in authority scratched around for explanations that would justify their actions and explain the events. Not the least bizarre was the suggestion that behind the conflict were 'street fighting experts trained in Moscow and Libya'. More toxic was the theory of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police that places like the Broadwater Farm were 'symbolic locations' where lawful authority was challenged.
 
But this was no isolated incident. It was preceded the previous week by the shooting by police of another black woman. Mrs Cherry Groce was in bed when the police raided her Brixton house seeking her son. A protest at Brixton police station led to widespread clashes in which, for two days, the police lost control of the streets.
 
Much like the Brixton and Broadwater Farm events of the 1980s the flashpoint is a seemingly random act of capricious authority. Cherry Groce, Cynthia Jarrett and now Mark Duggan, all died as a result of police action. In the case of Mr Duggan today the initial police report that he died in an exchange of gunfire are now flatly contradicted by the facts. 
 
But the breakdown in trust (or rather the erosion of toleration) between the working class youth of Britain and the police lies not simply in these shootings but in the stready accretion of millions of street encounters over decades. Mark Duggan was a child when the 1985 fighting took place. But the conditions that produced the events of that year, most especially the daily expectation that young people will be repeatedly stopped and searched, remain.
 
The mothers and fathers of the children and young people on the streets today were the  youth of 1985. This is a generation whose view of the police has been formed not only by their teenage experiences. Formed not just by the great battles around jobs – the Great Miners' Strike and the Battle of Wapping but more recent events; the police shooting of Jean Charles De Menezes at Stockwell underground; over-the-top policing of the 2009 G20 protests; the 'kettling' of young people and students protesting as fees hikes and cuts in the education maintenance allowance; the killing of Ian Tomlinson; the infiltration of climate change protests; and most recently the resignation of top police officials following revelations of police corruption and unseemly cosiness with Murdoch media managers.
 
The Broadwater Farm Inquiry conducted by Lord Gifford QC was quite explict about what was needed: 'The police should adopt a policy of co-operative policing, meaning a policing strategy by which the police at all levels co-operate, on a basis of mutual respect and equality,with those various agencies that represent the community, in order to deter and detect those crimes which the community belives to be priority evils'
 (The Broadwater Farm Inquiry Report 8.11 page 194 ISBN 0 946918 59 7)
 
A full generation later the idea that such a perfect state could be achieved in late capitalist Britain  looks dangerously naïve.
 
The police are a physical expression of the state's claim to a monopoly of force and the arm of the state most visible to young working class people. A few thousand youth – perhaps directly and consciously motivated only by a desire to fight the police and an opportunity to acquire a limited range of consumer goods that they otherwise could only rarely afford – were able to out-manouvre the capital's police force. This fact alone has profound implications for the stability of the system. If consent for the state of things as they are cannot be maintained then the state of things as they are can only be maintained by coercion. Or possibly not.
 
The economic crisis is proving intractable. Inflation is eroding wages and the ConDem government is stripping away the features of the welfare state and income support that make life for millions in the minimum wage economy barely possible. This combined with anger at the corruption of the political elite and the corporate cuddle that bails out the banks with money taken from the millions is eroding the fragile basis of the political settlement (or ideological truce between the three major parties) that is a guarantee of continuity for bankers, bosses and bureaucrats.
 
In the aftermath of the 1985 Lord Scarman, a wily defender of the system, warned the political elite to listen: 'When there is conflict in society it is always the powerful institutions which find it easy to put out a version of the events which – even if it is based on hearsay – is reported in the mass media as if there is no other truth', he said.
 
A generation later listening alone will not resolve this crisis. There will be an attempt to confine the debate to the prosaic and necessarily technical questions of public order policing. Some bemedalled chests will take a hit. Some top brass will be tarnished. But the police is not simply a force it is also an aggregate of human beings with a long institutional memory.
 
I also would not be surprised to find out that at some level, the relative ‘failure’ of the police to deploy effectively has something to do with the widespread feeling among the police – following the cuts announced in police numbers – that the government needs to be taught a lesson.
 
A month after the Broadwater Farm fighting Sir Kenneth Newman faced an angry meeting of the Metropolitan Police Federation. He was told that senior officers: '“permitted our men to be humiliated.'
 
There will be a powerful impetus to beef up the public order capability of the police and deploy more powerful weaponry. But it won't do. For all their many faults todays police managers, or most of them, know just how fragile social peace is. They understand that there is a material basis for crime and disorder. Indeed, they could not do their job, or make sense of their work, without adopting a fairly materialist and 'sociological’ approach to the ground they police. 
 
This contradiction, which finds its sharpest expression on the streets, eats away at the capacity of the state to overcome the conflicts that inevitably and inescapably arise when the interests of the two contending classes cannot be reconciled.
 
 
 
 
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