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10 August 2011, 2:00 pm 10 Comments

Politics: The Way We Live Now

This post was submitted by Chris R.

It’s difficult, when reading and seeing coverage of the riots in England, to not see a negative of our own pacification Stateside. Of course, the riots there emerged, and continue to emerge in some places, in response to a specific set of contingencies–the police killing of Mark Duggan, an already volatile cultural climate in the wake of anti-cuts rallies earlier this year, growing dissatisfaction with government austerity measures. But, let’s not forget, we have our own oppressive circumstances to deal with here too. The ranks of unemployed are growing and stagnating in tragic degrees. The economic chasm between the white middle-to-upper-class majority and racial and ethnic minorities is wider than ever. And we even have a similar police killing in San Francisco for a catalyst. So why the quiet?

The first decade of the 2000s in America gave us many reasons for pacifism. Violence, as we saw it, was a means of terror, a tool of catastrophic political malfeasance, an ever-present threat. Any advocation of violence, it seemed, fell in with this abhorrent crowd.

But what we see now in England is that violence can be utilized not only as a strategy of the terrible and powerful (and terribly powerful), but also as a force for the disenfranchised. Physical action by a group of citizens in response to government oppression captures the spirit of the voiceless in a rhetoric stronger than words alone. And, when executed strategically, it is hard to suppress. Of course, thoughtless destruction of the equally disenfranchised’s property is hardly just, but it’s an unfortunate accessory to a movement that, at least, strives for justice.

Violence, by any definition, does not need to be directed at a person’s personal harm to exert its force. There are many things that deserve injury–destruction, even–in today’s America. Perhaps the progressive discontents in America today can learn something from our brethren in England. We certainly have the historical context, from the more violent branches of the civil rights movement to the Haymarket Affair to the very origin of our nation.

Indeed, the most successful campaigns of organized political action in recent American history were spearheaded by queers and queer-allies, who organized the ACT-UP actions across the country against the government’s ignorance of AIDS in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In some small chamber of queer American consciousness, you can still hear their echo: “Act up. Fight back.”

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  • Thomas said:

    You are joking here aren’t you? Please say you’re joking

    Seriously, I live in the country you’re talking about, and I fail to see anything noble about these riots. Don’t attach an ideological motivation to them, because whilst that may have been how they started it’s not their purpose now. Now it’s just an excuse for a bunch of disaffected folk to smash stuff up and steal some new things. Those being targeted for violence are business owners of all sizes, so the motivation is simply greed and rage, with politics maybe at the very very back of people’s minds or used as some kind of weak justification.

    I know it’s probably easy to sit across the pond and see what we’re going through as somehow necessary and even worthy, but really it’s not. It’s just a sad and sorry state of affairs and another thing for us all to worry about.

  • Lisa said:

    I passionately reiterate the above post.

    These riots are NOT ideological; they are merely mindless violence perpetrated by a demographic formed largely of working class 14-18 year olds. I doubt very few have ever heard of Mark Duggan, it is mindless violence with the occasional scream of ‘we’re deprived!’ But of what? Surely they don’t mean deprived like in the Middle East, where their youth actually riot for real freedoms, ours are rioting for a 42inch plasma screen TV and an iPhone. What we are seeing here is a youth focused upon consumerism and the celebrity of the rioter. Many are actually posting their ‘triumphs’ on social networking, posing alongside their haul or wreckage with pride.

    While the news coverage in the US may be different, over here we are not seeing an oppressive government, but instead a broken generation

  • Chris R. (author) said:

    I don’t think destruction needs necessarily to occur in a conscious way to effect positive change.

    But also, I’m skeptical of those who deny the consciousness of these actions. It’s a very simple rhetorical trick for people with the privileges of higher education and relative economic stability and age (let’s not forget that age is a privilege, or at least can be wielded as one) to delegitimize expressions of consciousness by the “working class youth” involved.

    It reminds me of the nationwide tsk-tsk-ing that occurred here when stories of poor black people looting stores in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina broke. It’s easy to be high and mighty when you’re high and dry. These people, without recourse in the face of catastrophic loss, were endlessly criticized for doing the exact thing anyone else would’ve done in the same circumstances. Their social contract broke, and thus did the windows.

    So, are the actions of every individual involved in the UK riots just? Perhaps not. But they certainly emerge from very real economic and sociopolitical motivations, and should be recognized as such.

  • Joseph Varisco said:

    Chris, I think that you make some very valid points. It is certainly easier for us to assess from across the Atlantic, but I do think there are some echoes being heard. I recently had a piece published at TNG addressing the debt-ceiling compromise, which offered similar tones. After reading an article by Richard Seymour at Lenin’s Tomb (http://tinyurl.com/3rlmod7) I offered my own inspired retort at TheNewUsonia, which is more a call to my generation to hold themselves accountable. I even quoted this piece in the article, feel free to take a look: http://tinyurl.com/3rr28es.

    If nothing else, it is important to examine the riots from a multitude of angles and not polarize the situation with angry rhetoric. People are angry and frustrated in so many ways and in so many ways they have every right to be, but this is the time when diplomacy, open forums and insistence on comprehensive solutions seems to take a higher priority.

  • Thomas said:

    Yep and it’s also a very simple rhetorical trick to claim your opponents argument is a rhetorical trick, given of course that it makes the argument appear indefensible.

    And if you want to talk privelege then hello I am from the generation this is being pinned on and have therefore been around the kind of people who are responsible for the riots happening right now. Sure I’m in a relatively privileged position economically and educationally, but having grown up in a largely working class town in the generation under discussion and in the country in question I think I might have a reasonable impression of the kind of people who are causing these riots.

    Yes there may well be some sociopolitical motivation, but it is highly unlikely this is concious or the main intent of rioting. These riots have no aim or goal in mind, they do not struggle for something ‘just’, they simply thrash about causing harm to those who get in their way. It may well affect change, but whether for good or for ill is entirely unpredictable.

    What you’re also failing to realise is that this isn’t some kind of us vs them situation, in many cases sadly it’s them vs them with rioters looting from and destroying their own communities and small businesses who were already struggling in the economic climate. Setting fire to individuals places of work, destroying cars and public transport and, lest we forget, in one instance killing civilians doesn’t make a person a heroic martyr, it makes them selfish, cruel and ignorant.

    Not that this should deny the need to examine what caused these riots. I think we’re all aware Britain isn’t in the best place right now (and having a Conservative government definitely hasn’t helped that) and the system certainly needs changing. But there’s a difference between questioning why these things happened and claiming that they needed to happen.

    Please stop opining for rioting and violence when you’re living so far away from where it’s actually happening.

  • Dave said:

    If you’re really that distraught over the property damage in England, then you must — and I mean this — must be absolutely apoplectic with the destruction being caused by our foreign policies upon so many millions of people abroad — the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents — the harm done to our own troops — the billions of our tax dollars squandered on a war that benefits the few at the expense of the rest of us — a financial and political system that takes from our generation to pay for the mistakes of the older ones who had their opportunity to be wise stewards of our economy and our ecology and failed.

    It doesn’t matter whether you think it’s pretty or noble or nice or warm or fuzzy or triple checked by over 9000 overpaid well-manicured policy wonks — this is called payback and it’s eventual expression is but a natural expression of the injustices inherent in our system. There will be an accounting on our side of the pond — and since the answer is clearly, unequivocally, not going to come from the air-conditioned offices that overlook air-conditioned overpriced automobiles on K Street, it can only come from the heat of the people who actually have to walk on that street. Expect it.

  • Thomas said:

    Oh right so it’s a riot about the war is it? Oh well now I get it. But wait, I thought this was a riot about class conflict. Or was it to do with governmental oppression? Or maybe racism? Funny how no-one can seem to agree on the ideological purpose of these riots, but then as you surely know it’s a funny world we live in.

    And hey, if you want to riot in America then go ahead and do it. Come on, stop talking and start acting. I’m sure you’ll be entirely justified of course with absolutely no moral contention so that’s fine. I mean you may well have a bit of difficulty writing your thesis on the social need for this riot when your belongings are burning away, but at least you’ll be in the right eh? And then when the people you care about lose everything or your loved ones are killed and you can’t sleep at night because the sound of violence is too loud or because you’re worrying about the people you haven’t heard from and can’t contact and when the place where you live becomes a mess where you see tragic moral injustices forced upon people by the self-righteous masses and the country begins a fearful and inescapable game of chinese whispers about where will be hit next, please be sure to send me a postcard telling me just how much you love rioting.

    Until then might I kindly request that you shut the fuck up about things you clearly can’t appreciate and show a little bit of respect and sensitivity?

  • Chris R. (author) said:

    For anyone interested, here’s an excellent piece from someone much closer to the action that touches on some of the points raised here: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/laurie-penny/panic-on-streets-of-london

  • The New Gay » Politics: An Indictment said:

    [...] a deplorable surrender to passivity. Or as Chris R. a NYC editor for The New Gay put it recently, “It’s difficult, when reading and seeing coverage of the riots in England, to not see a negative… The failure of holding our media, government and other social institutions accountable is nothing [...]

  • Politics: An Indictment « In Our Words said:

    [...] a deplorable surrender to passivity. Or as Chris R. a NYC editor for The New Gay put it recently, “It’s difficult, when reading and seeing coverage of the riots in England, to not see a negative… The failure of holding our media, government and other social institutions accountable is nothing [...]