Violence on the streets

In one way I am not sorry they set fire to Lozells on 9 September. It always reeked of poverty. When I lived in Handsworth as a kid in the thirties, Saturday morning film shows were only 2d at Lozells Picture House when they were 6d at the Odeon in Perry Barr. But in spite of that we didn’t often go in the Lozells direction. We were afraid. Lozells Road formed a boundary to Handsworth. Beyond it into the centre of Birmingham were the really destitute slums of New Town and Hockley, where the houses in their thousands were small, black and insanitary, and violence was common among children just as it was among their parents.


Almost all those slums have gone now, partially cleared by a deliberate council programme just before the war; then by German bombs and land mines; and finally by urban planners with their traffic expressways and high rise flats. But Lozells and Villa Cross were left largely untouched, the frayed edge of Handsworth, getting more tattered every year.


As the fabric of Handsworth deteriorated those of us who could afford to move out did so. Those who could afford nothing else moved in to live in our cast-offs, and they have mainly been Asian and West Indian immigrants.


When we moved to Handsworth fifty years ago I was seven, and I can still remember the dismay I felt when I first saw it. Even then it was old and grimy and gloomy. Now I live three miles away, and when I drive through it about once a week it is obviously a ghetto. They say that £20 million has been spent on it. Thousands of patched and leaking roofs have been renewed. The privet hedges have been pulled out of thousands of dank little front gardens and replaced by low brick walls. And concrete tubs of dead plants are dotted along the pavements of Soho Road.


Patching the worn-out fabric of Handsworth like this emphasises the official view that it is considered basically adequate for those who live there. For black teenagers it confirms the fact that there is no escape. There is no need for walls around the ghetto. Without enough money to go and live somewhere else without working — without the need to beg for a job — they must stay there, without work and without hope. In this type of mathematics poverty equals frustration.


Most of the journalists and politicians expressed pained surprise that the orgy of violence and looting came almost immediately after all the noise and fun of the annual carnival. Surely, they implied, a few hours of music and colourful clothing in the streets ought to keep them quiet for a few months. It is a very insulting attitude — partly racist of course: but it is also typical of the capitalist class attitude towards unemployed and low-paid sections of the working class in general. And journalists and politicians — as befits their professions — try hard to talk in the accents of their masters. Of course. I don’t know what individuals in Handsworth felt about the carnival, but it doesn’t seem strange to me that Sunday’s “innocent” fun, organised by the “community leaders”, should turn into Monday’s much uglier and more bitter fun, as the harsh realities of the week reasserted themselves.


The same sort of insulting attitude lies behind all the efforts to explain why the riot happened at this particular time. There is probably some truth in all of them: weeks of TV newsreels of South African riots; drug trafficking and police attempts to curb it; the police handling of a particular parking offence by a Rastafarian; the long history of antipathy between West Indians and Asians. The trouble is that they all assume that any amount of deprivation, frustration, despair can be kept under control by “softly-softly policing” and gestures of community relations.


Speaking with quite a different attitude, television producers show that violence produces results. Industrialists, financiers and even governments have shown themselves prepared to reward it if it is sufficiently powerful. Toxteth, Brixton and Handsworth itself have all received money from central government because they had riots. And the riots in South Africa have evoked trading and financial sanctions from the major western governments because the Botha government is seen as too cautious and niggardly with its reforms. All of this has been shown on television. So has the heavily armed and organised violence of the South African police, so that television has actually been accused of causing the riots in Britain.


The best commentary I have seen on that point of view was made, completely without words, by a television cameraman at the scene in Lozells on the following morning. His zoom lens pulled back to take in the scene of smoking devastation from a dose-up of an advertisement hoarding which carried a huge picture of Sylvester Stallone as Rambo — brown skin, rippling muscles, long tangled black hair, stem fatalistic face — cradling his heavy automatic rifle with his finger poised on the trigger. Rambo First Blood II is one of many films that turn violence into entertainment, a kind of romance, and make a great deal of money from it. Most black youngsters must be able to identify themselves with mistreated. misunderstood John Rambo and the trail of death and destruction he leaves behind him. A large proportion of western society must find the character and the subject sympathetic, judging by the huge box office success this film has been in America. It is a film that has won the approval of that old second-rate movie cowboy. Ronald Reagan, and it shows just how much this society has changed since I used to watch Tom Mix and Flash Gordon on Saturday mornings. Its heroes and its philosophy of life are now unable to escape the obvious fact that capitalism, eastern or western variety, is founded upon violence and is maintained by violence or the threat of it all the time. In every nation the ruling capitalist class has risen to power and wealth by violence. And they defend their hold on society’s means of living, against other nations and against their own working class, with military forces and police forces — the professionals in violence.


Working class violence, in contrast, has no objective and no organisation. It is simply a reaction to living in a society of violence. The vicious behaviour of football supporters at Birmingham City or Brussels is not a ghastly exception. It is part of the social pattern which includes Beirut, Nicaragua, Soweto, Uganda and many others. It is part of the same society as the miners’ strike and the nuclear arms race. And it mainly hurts other workers.


The war let me escape from Handsworth, first as a child evacuee at the beginning and then as a conscript into the navy at the end. It totally altered my view of things, and I wondered recently what my life and my views would have been like if I had been forced to stay in Handsworth. If I had grown up there in the eighties instead of the forties, during a slump instead of a war. with my horizon limited to the Lozells Road, having to spend every day with nothing to do, knowing that I was surplus to society’s requirements, more of an embarrassment than anything else. I imagine that at times I might have felt like looting a few shops or setting fire to a few cars. But the war was six years of the bloodiest violence and destruction the world had ever seen. It was capitalism really excelling all its previous efforts. And it convinced me that I wanted to live in a society without violence. I wanted to live in a world without poverty and shabbiness and despair. I also wanted some of the far better living conditions that I had seen away from Handsworth.


That was when I found socialists to talk to and began to understand the real reason for slums and unemployment and crime and war, instead of believing the bullshit of politicians and priests and community leaders. That was when I also realised that, when it comes to violence, the capitalist state can win against workers every time. That is its job. It may simply smash them or sometimes it may grant hand-outs of money and show willing to talk, but only save more money and to stay firmly in control, like the Polish government did with Solidarity.


Socialists are angry about the sorts of lives we are forced to lead, about bad housing. unemployment, old people dying of cold in winter, and all the other drab, depressing features of poverty — but we don’t pick on other workers — Pakistanis or Italian football supporters, or whites, or blacks, because that only hurts ourselves. It suits the capitalist class very nicely as long as the anger is directed away from them, and away from the real cause of the problems. What really worries them is when members of the working class get together, when they organise an efficient democratic political movement with the single aim of throwing them out, and when that movement starts to gain mass support.


Socialists call on all men and women of the working class, whether they are black, white, brown or yellow, whether they are employed or unemployed, old or young, to join us in a growing political movement to end this violent, poverty-stricken way of organising society. It is ours for the taking as soon as we make up our minds to act all together.


Ron Cook