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Editorial:Life's a riot

In the summers of 1981 and 1985 inner-city areas across Britain erupted in an orgy of violence and destruction as mass rioting returned for the first time in decades. In St Paul's in Bristol, in Brixton, Toxteth, Moss Side and Handsworth, dispossessed and frustrated black and white youths looted shops, attacked the police and burnt down buildings in a sequence of events that shook the Thatcher government. Home Secretary William Whitelaw toured the battle-strewn streets like the Queen Mother during the blitz, only even less popular than she'd been. Michael Heseltine was despatched by Thatcher to Liverpool (when the two of them were still on speaking terms) to sort out a regeneration package for the city and for the riot-torn Upper Parliament Street area. It was a mini-renunciation of her free-market idealism - and was brought about by the sort of pragmatic attempt to buy off social discontent more typically associated with reformers of the centre-left.

The far left at the time - somewhat stronger in those days and certainly taken more seriously than now - liked to call the riots 'uprisings'. It was wishful thinking of the type they are specialists in, as the disturbances in question did not have quite that sort of focussed, political dimension to them. They were in fact the directionless expression of frustration and bewilderment at rising mass unemployment, inner-city poverty and the type of crushing boredom associated with social decay rather than the stirrings of a potential revolutionary vanguard.

Fifteen, twenty years later, and the riots are back. In truth, of course, they never entirely went away. As violent crime has risen so has serious disorder in towns and cities across Britain. What is most noticeable about the most recent spate of riots though is the numbers of youths involved and the magnitude of the destruction caused. It is the sheer scale of events in Oldham, Burnley, Bradford and elsewhere that immediately leads to direct comparisons with the riots of the eighties.

There is another obvious comparison with the riots of the past too: “race”. In 1981 and 1985 the majority of those taking part in the disturbances were black youths from inner-city areas with large black populations. The rioters were not first generation blacks, but second and third generation, born and brought up in the UK but even more powerless and disenfranchised from mainstream social, economic and political life than the bulk of the rest of the working class. Theirs was a rebellion against the police who harassed and intimidated them and implicitly against a culture that still insisted on seeing them as outsiders.

This time around the rioters have been second and third generation UK Asians feeling the same sort of social exclusion and powerlessness felt by black youths in Britain before them and typically residing in some of the most deprived council wards in the country. Their rebelliousness has been given an added dimension by the intimidating presence of fascist and racist organisations - particularly the British National Party - in towns and cities where they are most heavily concentrated. If there was relatively little involvement by far-right groups in the riots of twenty years ago, the same could certainly not be said this time, with the provocative and violent activities of fascist gangs being the catalyst for some of the most serious events, most notably in Burnley and Bradford.

In Burnley it was alleged by elements of the white working class that Asian areas in the town had received preferential treatment from the local council and other agencies responsible for handing out regeneration monies. In Bradford local white youths complained that Asians were treated with "kid gloves" by the police, for fear the police be labelled as racists.

Viewpoints such as these are rarely the product of genuinely held grievances. Asians in Burnley live in the same type of slums by and large as many white workers do in the town; and in Bradford claims of harassment by the police are far more likely to be made by Asian youths than white youths. Instead, these ideas are in essence the product of a situation where the existing poor fear being made even poorer through the close presence of even more of their number. If the 'new poor' in question have a different colour, different religion and different culture from the majority, the suspicion and distrust is all the easier to justify.

One thing is certain: whatever the precise causes, the rioting that has been taking place is unlikely to get either the Asian or white youths involved very far (unless a police cell for the night is the extent of their ambitions). If New Labour do what Thatcher did and throw a little money in the direction of the affected areas as a token gesture, that will be something (as it was in Liverpool); but the laws of the market dictate that just as one hand gives so the other takes away - probably in the form of lost investment and business shut downs (again as happened in Liverpool).

Tony Benn has said that rioting is the oldest form of social protest and in that he may well be right. But there is no point in white and Asian youths protesting about the other's allegedly preferential treatment and conducting running battles in front of the TV crews each evening. Any meaningful action has to be democratic and organised and based on the recognition that white and Asian youths have far more in common than they have that divides them. They would both do well to recognise that as the poor and excluded they are kept poor because the rich are rich. For it is only then that they can formulate actions based on where there interests truthfully lie - and in fundamental opposition to those who have really gained from keeping them in their subject, inferior position all along.