A Pan African Human Rights Organisation challenging the misrepresentation of African people, culture and history in the British media.
Tue 9 August 2011
Opinion: Summer of Discontent 2011
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Submitted By: Toyin Agbetu
On 16 April 1963 Dr Martin Luther King wrote;
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom.”
Why These Youth Uprisings Cant wait
I open with this quote by Dr Martin Luther King for there are many who today still deny the relevance of the righteous element that sparked this uprising and in their myopic analysis of the situation we find ourselves in continue to state we as a people must wait for justice. Now, Dr Martin Luther King would not have sanctioned criminality but he would still have been on the streets in peaceful non-violent militant extremism advocating peace and justice.
An uprising is not a riot although it shares common themes. A riot tends to be a spontaneous explosion of illicit behaviour typically fuelled by alcohol or some heady testosterone mix such as sports or overt police aggression. However an uprising is a semi-organised movement against oppression, an act of civil disobedience operating in an arena where there is no effective political method of securing justice, a cry against repression and the shackles of powerlessness if you like. Whilst an uprising by the militant nature of its composition like any communal gathering of people will typically host some members who act in an opportunistic method to feed their addiction to consumerism, morally, it is anything but criminal.
When Nina Simone performed the civil rights anthem ‘To be young, gifted and black’ her powerful voice combined with the spiritual lyrics of the song written by Weldon Irvine spoke much of the potential of young Africans to recognise their inherent genius and realise their potential.
Yet against the backdrop of problems faced by African people in today’s Britain, we see the existence of a socio-political landscape that despite being big on spreading rhetoric about its commitments to fairness, tolerance and human rights continues to thwart this mission. It is interesting that the peoples of Egypt have been reported in the New York Times as supporting the young people marching against Britain’s conservative authoritarian regime (they and the Liberal Democrats did not ‘win’ the election and therefore seized power denying the will of the people).
Indeed, only months ago it was the very same British media that are now condemning what is rapidly becoming a national youth uprising who were openly praising the so-called Arab spring. Only this time we are not hearing calls that Cameron and Clegg should go although this is most likely because the option of replacing them with Miliband and the equally feckless Labour is not an option for change.
The initial uprising in Tottenham and subsequent incidents in Brixton on the following day are not the result of equal opportunities, social mobility and rule of law. Instead they were the opening of a pressure valve releasing an accumulation of cuts, discrimination, educational disaffection but most significantly a feeling of fear.
Please don’t confuse my use of the words fear with its physical manifestation, these young people are already used to the rough physical law of the streets where gang members either from the police force or those involved in badness mean the ordinary task of stepping out everyday carries a risk to life a few of us can imagine. No. The fear I refer to is a spiritual one where their entire life’s existence means nothing and the only thing they have to look forward to is the prospects of a bleak future caused by an illegitimate government that is both corrupt and unwilling to protect the most vulnerable.
It is important not to underestimate the impact of the terror perpetrated by a Police force in crisis as week after week we learn of racist officers, brutish officers, corrupt commissioners but more important than that – violently criminal police officers who harass, set up and kill with almost total immunity from prosecution.
Right now there is much condemnation of young people in the media with many pretentious middle-class-whilst-pretending-to-be-common shock jock pundits simplistically characterising our young people as animalistic thugs and looters with minimal acknowledgement of their growing fears and thwarted ambitions.
People who have never experienced the reality of living in a society where all the institutions of authority act like the enemy, a society where you as a parent fear for your children every time they are out of sight on the streets, a society where the police are not the friendly bobbies who engage in ‘safer neighbourhood policing’ but instead are known as the largest gang of racist bullies determined to humiliate you on the streets through stop and search or worse yet terminate your life once in custody without fear of sanction.
It is often believed that a free press is a valuable check on the abuse of state power in a democracy. Yet what option does the vulnerable have to expose injustice when that very media body itself generates and maintains odious stereotypes that appeal to its target audience at the cost of the facts.
1. There is an odious assertion that all of those engaged in criminality were African when in Truth the uprising was a multi-ethnic, multi-genrational, mixed gender effort occurring as a result of the socio-economic pressures faced by all people across the UK.
2. When the Police killed the 29-year-old father-of-four, Mark Duggan, the national media in Britain failed to gauge the level of discontent generated amongst innocent law abiding young people across London. The release of coded language by organisations like the BBC stated a ‘non police issue firearm’ was recovered and spun a yarn about a bullet being found in a police radio as a way of suggesting that Duggan had shot at the police with his own firearm. The problem with this is that upon further examination of the facts it has now become clear as was suspected all along, that this given scenarios is highly unlikely to be true.
3. According to the vehomously anti-African tabloid the Daily Mail, it is claimed “[Mark Duggan] shot the officer from Scotland Yard’s elite firearms squad CO19 in the side of his chest with a handgun. The bullet lodged in the police radio that the undercover officer was carrying in a side pocket. Armed officers shot the gunman dead seconds later.” However a Guardian headline reads; “Initial tests show bullet lodged in radio during Duggan shooting was police issue“ it continues to quote “The bullet which was found lodged in the radio of one of the officers at the scene is still undergoing forensic tests”.
But now we know that the first ballistics examinations suggest that it was a police bullet that hit the officer - “These are very distinct as the Metropolitan Police uses the [brutal] dum dum type hollowed out bullets designed not to pass through an object. The early suggestion from the IPCC was that the Met officers had returned fire after someone in the minicab opened fire. But the result of the ballistics early test suggests both shots fired came from the police.”
4. This paints a very different tale from the Mail and asserted version published by the BBC. It also tells young people that the police and media are not to be trusted. Therefore when the continued assault on the character of the man in question continues, there is legitimate reason to believe that any of us can be next.
5. In fact even the London Evening Standard, another tabloid not sympathetic to the African community surprisingly published an article that suggested that an officer was injured by the bullet from one of his colleagues when it reported;
“I was coming home from work when I saw it all happening in front of my eyes... I came around the corner and saw about six unmarked police cars cornering a people carrier near a bus stop...I heard the police shout something like ‘Don’t move’ and I saw them drag the driver out of the car. I don’t know if they dragged the other guy out in the passenger seat. He was the one who got shot - the passenger... About three or four police officers had both men pinned on the ground at gunpoint. They were really big guns and then I heard four loud shots. The police shot him on the floor.”
Now, if this account of the incident is accurate and at present there is absolutely no reason to believe otherwise it would suggest that Mark Duggan had already surrendered and was in police custody when he was murdered. Whether it was an act of anger, revenge, overzealous behaviour or sheer incompetence either way there is a serious question of doubt over the legality of the tragic incident leading to him losing his life.
And now as the so called ‘community leaders’ and opportunist politicians are coming out calling for peace, it is obvious that they haven’t got a clue. On a positive note more young people are finally becoming politically literate as they become aware of who David Lammy is. On the other hand this is because his numerous notorious comments to the press where he has been “winning plaudits for his response to riots” whilst standing behind the police condemning his younger constituents has led to him becoming one of the most hated Africans amongst young people in the UK.
Let me be very clear here. I am not claiming that the damage of property and businesses especially in the very communities where we live and work is a positive development. Yet up until now, we have to give thanks that there has been no loss of life. In my world, no amount of damage to property no matter how tragic can compare to the loss of a single life.
Mark Duggan was shot dead, we need answers and then justice.
When the British government attacks other nations, they often refer to their bombings of innocent civilians as collateral damage, I disagree, that’s state sanctioned murder, what the young people are doing as a result of a society that has failed them is collateral damage.
But first we must always honestly acknowledge and condemn any wrong doing so let me give thanks to brotha Kwaku who on 23 August at Westminster Hall will as part of BTWSC & WSDG hosting an International Day of African Resistance Against Enslavement (a reparation conference at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham will be taking place on the same day). In an email I just received from him he reminds us that a young African family has been made homeless after their home was burnt out in north London, whilst another African had to leave his own restaurant through the back window after he was threatened by a knife wielding youth who proceeded with others to ransack his shop which had only opened a year ago. In Brixton one African pharmacist was lucky “as he averted having his shop being ransacked because he stood his ground pleading that it was his business and livelihood”.
I can also testify that when Clarence Road in London was the epicentre of conflict in Hackney we were fortunate that the young people there were prepared to listen to reason and stop the damaging of one of our African book shops, I spoke to some but there were a tiny hardcore minority who were so hyped up that it was only the presence of the crowd who prevented further damage and kept the collective focus on aggressive police officers. This is not a joke business and I do believe the minority violent criminal element amongst those uprising should be arrested. In hackney they were clearly of various ethnic backgrounds. But please note my words, the minority violent criminal element, not all young people. I fell the need to stress this point again and again. Unless you are there on the streets it is not as simple as it seems on the edited news clips that are cycling round and round on the 24 hours news stations (where Brooker’s Newswipe when you need him).
A couple of nights ago a well paid radio presenter from the comfortable public funded studios of BBC Radio London said our young people should have some ‘dignity in [their] poverty’, they were criticised for being ‘inhumane’ which incidentally is another byword for subhuman, they were labelled ‘rioters against humanity’.
Meanwhile shock jocks on racist stations like LBC went further with presenters and listeners calling our children thugs, hoodlums, chavs. It was even said that ‘poverty does not excuse them to plunder’. I disagree. You see we observe rich people plundering, our bank accounts, our pensions, our national finances, our taxes, our national insurance contributions. Every day ‘classy’ rich people plunder us with scams and financial thuggery and leave us feeling mugged, our socio-economic wellbeing demolished, our aspirations in ruins, our future murdered.
It is hypocrisy for MP’s to cut the benefits of the vulnerable (unemployed, disabled), remove Educational Maintenance Allowances (EMA) and triple university tuition fees when they themselves continue to receive and increase their own state benefits which are cunningly relabelled ‘allowances’ and ‘expenses’ to stop us thinking of them as dole for politicians.
How do they get away with it. Well they allow us to vote every four-five years and then if we don’t vote for any of them rather that resigning and letting the next lot of smaller but more innovative political parties try to do better, they steal power under the guise of a coalition abusing the fact that we the people do not have the protection of a written constitution to guarantee our rights and freedoms. They then use the police as their own private army to instil fear and discontent amongst the olders whilst protecting their keeps from the righteous wrath of the young and angry just as the old men of property have continued to do since days of olde.
But in a democracy where the overwhelming majority of young people (and others) refuse to vote because they do not want to endorse a corrupt political system, the only valid method of political protest is often the messy explosion we are seeing on the streets of London and now across Britain today.
In simple terms this is what honest politicians if witnessing the same in foreign regions say - Egypt, Libya, Syria perhaps Iraq would call a vote of no confidence. In fact, Britain would be leading the charge to say that the governing regime should step down and allow peaceful democratic elections.
But because this is a case of home grown terror, domestic extremism, label it what you want but there is a clear political root, a desire to use force to send a ideological message of ‘we are no longer afraid or willing to play this game’ – the British have taken another tact. To attempt to characterise the whole uprising as an expression of mindless opportunist criminality and instead of owning the abject failure of the state and wider society to cater for the needs of young people instead and rather foolishly label all of them, not just a small minority amongst them with legitimate concern, but all of them as thugs.
This is a very bad move.
You see it is important to recognise the role of the police in this summer of discontent.
The police force is the internal army or domestic policing force of the UK. In London it is supposed to be governed by the Metropolitan Police Authority and ‘regulated’ by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (nee Police Complaints Authority). In reality both of these bodies whilst great ideas in principle are downright corrupt and woefully inept in practise.
I say this not just from reading articles on their failures but also from having firsthand personal and organisational experiences with both institutions.
Now this is a problem because in the UK the police are the first tangible public face of the state that young people interact with. If that initial experience is negative and that negativity then consistently acts oppressively and without accountability then people (for this transcends age) lose all confidence in the physical and political reality of the state. The police can then only rely on force to coerce compliance, threats to maintain order.
This is all very good until one day a group of fearless teenagers outraged at the callous murder of a man likely to have posed no immediate threat and the alleged unjustified assault of a teenage sixteen year old girl who demanded answers decide to fight back.
Then those bored, unemployed, angry, excitable young people of ours that politicians love to so quickly condemn as lazy and useless ingeniously show how they can utilise technology to access their social network to develop a strategy capable of defeating the states internal army.
Our admittedly ideologically vacuous young people whom so many erroneously write of as useless and lacking potential demonstrate a level of leadership, enterprise and self empowerment that whilst unconventional in style – is elegant in effectiveness, resourcefulness and execution and to be honest - very British albeit with that unmistakable indomitable flavour of the African spirit of resistance.
Like I said earlier in any uprising there will be collateral damage. In this instance that damage has been fuelled by the overwhelming success of capitalist based consumerism. As a result instead of police stations, political offices, job centres, opulent symbols of state infrastructure and neighbourhoods of the rich and exploitative being visited, it is venues containing mobile phones, clothes, music, electrical goods, drink, food and cash machines, in general they took items they believed necessary as the core requirements for a basic standard of living in today’s society of must have status symbols and materialistic acquisitions.
I believe that in itself is telling of the ideological nature of Britain’s education system which trains young people to become submissive servants and consumers of stuff as opposed to education encouraging Africentric free thinking where collaboration is more important than competition, community is more important than individualism and spiritual fulfilment more rewarding than the materialistic ownership.
It is a bit too late for tired ‘community leaders’ and their liberal-conservative-socialist theorists to come out of the wood work preaching peace and prayer at us when until their government funding was cut they too sought to bask in complacency whilst they reaped the benefits of a ruthless capitalist system that during the time of their prosperity squeezed our blood dry with taxes, excluded our children from education, employment and legitimate enterprise and plundered our motherlands in the name of globalisation. Nor is it acceptable to place all the blame of the shoulder of parents, for the age range of those uprising in the streets is wide with the vast majority being teenagers and in their early twenties.
Yesterday a thuggish police woman in riot uniform jeered at me asking what the police should do to stop the rioting on the streets. This occurred after I challenged the rough handling of her colleague’s as they humiliated a young brotha by going though his pockets in front of his distressed girlfriend. The female officer continued by stating she saw all of the young people out on the street at night (it was after 10pm) as being involved in ‘yobbery’ whilst her political counterparts went on TV pretending the nature of racism had changed since the uprisings in the 1980’s. Her abrasive manner did not make me want to discuss anything either but I’ll offer a few quick thoughts right now. Please bear in mind these are off the cuff, without polish and in no particular order.
a) Target and arrest the hardcore minority of young people involved in violent criminality. Leave the rest alone.
b) Suspend and give us the names of the officers involved in the shooting of Mark Duggan. Immediately.
c)Announce an immediate overhaul of the MPA and the IPCC (and Press Complaints Commission)
d) Support the formation of a new permanent amalgamated body with the power of both the MPA and IPCC with the authority to retrospectively review all deaths in custody and unsolved tragedies like the New Cross Fire in 1981 with an panel including respected academics, educators, barristers, forensic scientists and activists from our community and interested parties from the judiciary, executive and legislature with the relevant qualifications.
2. Peace - For many of us who live safe mundane lives without coming into contact with the harsh realities of the real world our children inhabit this is likely to be both terrorising and exciting. For the rest of us it’s a natural response to years of oppression and living in degrading conditions with little prospects for socio-political improvement. Over the past few days I have heard members of the public and shamefully some of my own community call for the use of water cannons, armed forces, curfews for under 25’s, a block on Facebook , Twitter and Black berry messenger services, the list goes on. Calm down.
I would suggest in seeking solutions, there is less hysteria and more rationale thought. It was the activist Spartacus R (now Ancestor) who wrote in his book Violation about how the physical (historical and contemporary) and more importantly persistent non-physical violence from the state towards African people was akin to a being engaged in a war with an enemy that is determined to psychologically and biologically destroy African people. This may not seem to be a calm analysis but it is a valid one. Overwhelming physical force is only likely to be met with physical force in a long drawn out guerrilla style act of warfare where the state will ultimately lose; if the government sanctions the use of armed officers then the young guns in our community who have temporarily stopped their armed criminality will start to use lethal force. This will not bring about peace.
3. Opportunity – Whilst the murder of Mark Duggan was one of the catalysts, this was always about much more than police aggression and unaccountability. Everybody need to have purpose providing genuine opportunities for change and growth in their lives. Whilst anger and poverty have a central role in sparking this movement, it is boredom, lack of purpose and the rush of adrenaline that comes with the excitement of being given an opportunity to feel the power of rebuking authority and return the fear to those that abuse and/or commercially exploit us that fuels and is causing the uprising to spread. Young people must become true stakeholders in society in a meaningful way instead of being consistently labelled powerless losers. If the largely peaceful student protest was unable to reverse the decision on student tuition fees then what use is democracy? Reverse toxic ConDem and new Labour policy and restore power to the disaffected electorate/non-voter. Employment, education and opportunity for enterprise, not cuts, cuts and more cuts. Government can take a harder stance at their own risk but this will include the possibility of police officers choosing to stand down in protest and refusing to take bullets for leaders they themselves have no confidence in.
4. Media / Educational Reform - Young people are consistently subjected to the barrage of political opinions that on one hand cheers them when they engage in sports for England and then moments later brandishes them all as looters. The Sky, Daily Mail/Telegraph brand of media is particularly toxic to society, they rely on the UK’s ethnic majority to endorse mob rule rhetoric but as we have seen, it is the passionate minority that has the UK cowering behind closed doors, not the other way round. The government and its supporting media sidekicks need to publicly admit it is wrong about the young people on the streets all being ‘a bunch of criminals on the rampage’ and recognise the stories where they have prevented criminality.
Ask them why are they out on the streets. Stop allowing older people and a small minority of criminally minded individuals exclusively speak for them. Listen, let them tell their own stories.
5. Reparation - Set up a compensatory reparation fund for those who have lost property, their homes and businesses in the uprisings. It is the state and its agents that bear ultimately responsible for creating this situation, not insurance companies.
6. Youth Representation - National media organisations need to locate and identify people who speak with clarity who can defend the young people involved in the uprisings and capable of making a distinction between them and a small hardcore of ‘rioters’ instead of demonising them all. These individuals (who must not be successful entertainers or sportsters) once endorsed by young people should have unfettered and permanent access to government and national media.
7. Education – My views on educational reforms are radical. Eradicate all university fees and limit access to those that show genuine commitment (or latent potential) to academic development. I propose a three day week in state schools, the remaining two days should be spent be in community based education centres. The state could use the public purse to donate venues and cover costs using an overhaul of its existing but flawed free schools model. These education centres which would be culturally specific would teach community development, enterprise and self development to learners of all ages.
8. Peoples Inquiry - Professor Gus John has a proposal for a People inquiry into young people and violent crime. Read about it, support it, fund it and implement it.
9. Scrap Stop and Search –Remove stop and search powers from rank and file officers. Only enable responsible officers trained in carrying it out with sensitivity and authorised through Section 60 / 44 to use it.
10. Parenting and Role Muddles – Parent need to take greater responsibility for the political education of our children and understand that the educational system at present is not set up to empower young people with the tools to avoid unnecessary conflict. Indeed the British government daily teaches through its military interventions that ‘might is right’ when it bombs less defended nations to further their own agenda, ignores global impoverishment which it is responsible for causing and cosies up to fat cat bankers, corrupt state leaders whose amoral behaviour is tolerated for economic gain.
Without us as parents advocating literacy as a means of empowerment at home, our children will often ignore the very answers often that lie right in front of us.
There are probably a whole load of missing points, flaws and contradictions in my suggestions, but this is what immediately comes to mind without the required time to reflect on my writing and critically asses its content. I’m sorry I did not have the time to include related links and references but there is a wealth of media out there, I’m sure you can locate it if you are really interested. I also know and acknowledge the need to things like mentors, role models, identity classes, Rites of passage, panther type level of organisation for self defence, etc, but many of these things are tasks that I believe should not be put out for tender to the highest bidder but instead managed by a responsible community in-house so to speak. This is not about what we should do, but what Britain as a whole needs to do.
I’ve grown tired by the rank hypocrisy of rent-a-mouth politicians both African and otherwise labelling our people as having ‘no kind of morality’. I also disagree with those who argue our complaint is justified but not the behaviour whilst failing to offer any meaningful solution other than wait or continue to do what you always did.
Earlier this year we celebrated the 30th anniversary of African people who rose up and protested against the deaths and disrespectful indifference of thirteen African children burnt alive at a party in New Cross, over twenty thousand strong, led by Africans supported by many others. Today as was then, a racist amoral government, police and national media attacked us, arrested us, and demonised us without providing justice for the family, friends and community who are till this day still in mourning waiting for justice. Now a new generation are rising up, most unaware of the politics and history and unencumbered by fear whilst feeling the call to be heard and recognised as valued stakeholders. One day some of us will step up and accurately teach them our history and all the discrimination, the neo-sus laws, anti-immigrant sentiment, everything they experience today will make total sense, and then, those who think they are angry now will learn to feel the heat of a pure wrath against injustice, but till that day I am reminded of the immortal lyrics... it’s been a long time coming but change, is gonna come.
Please be safe tonight.
May the Ancestors guide and protect us.
Toyin Agbetu is a writer, film director, poet, and founder of Ligali, the pan African human rights based organisation.
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