This morning my Twitter feed is full of two seemingly disparate things: the riots in London, the cleanup, the aftermath, and then the recall elections in Wisconsin.
Two things that seem so far apart but when you look at them, aren’t so different at all.
Sure, one is the “right” response to an austerity agenda that slashes public services, busts unions, drives salaries down, puts people out of work, creates false scarcity in order to keep giving tax cuts to the rich. In Wisconsin the crowds swelled in the capitol, they were called “thugs” and accused of destruction and mob violence, but they turned their energies to a recall election that would give them back political power.
In London over the past few days, people who have no faith left in the system have been instead tearing the city down. The riots started over another act of police violence, but they have quickly gone beyond that. As Laurie Penny, a UK journalist and feminist, wrote:
Violence is rarely mindless. The politics of a burning building, a smashed-in shop or a young man shot by police may be obscured even to those who lit the rags or fired the gun, but the politics are there. Unquestionably there is far, far more to these riots than the death of Mark Duggan, whose shooting sparked off the unrest on Saturday, when two police cars were set alight after a five-hour vigil at Tottenham police station. A peaceful protest over the death of a man at police hands, in a community where locals have been given every reason to mistrust the forces of law and order, is one sort of political statement. Raiding shops for technology and trainers that cost ten times as much as the benefits you’re no longer entitled to is another. A co-ordinated, viral wave of civil unrest across the poorest boroughs of Britain, with young people coming from across the capital and the country to battle the police, is another.
The system has failed us here in the US, too. The UK has had a bit more of austerity than we have, but we too have a permanent underclass kept that way through structural racism and an economic system tilted to give more to those that have and to take more from those who are already struggling.
Riots don’t help anything. The communities that burn are usually the communities that can least afford it. Looting, like Laurie notes, is all too often an acknowledgement of the import that material things have been given. It’s also a symbolic gesture, though–you deny me all of this and I will take it.
When real riots happen, you can see the ridiculousness of calling peaceful protest “riots.” You can see the difference between activists occupying a store and sending a Molotov cocktail through its window. You can see the difference between resolve and rage.
You can see who still has any reason to believe that peaceful protest, that voting, offer them any sort of way out.
The protests, the riots, the recalls are all about class–about those who have not being asked to give up more. I can condemn the actions, the violence, the burning, as those on the left seem to be required to do if we utter any sort of acknowledgement that there are political causes, economic causes, social causes to a riot.
But I can’t condemn the outrage. It’s real and it’s justified. Our political system (and the UK’s) is there to be an outlet for our anger, a way for us to express a desire for change. Yet across the US I see attempts to suppress voting by just those who most need change–the poor, people of color. I see concerted attempts to keep any tools of peaceful change out of the hands of the desperate.
Scott Walker in Wisconsin has already passed laws eliminating collective bargaining for workers, cutting wages and benefits, slashing jobs, cutting health care (including funding to Planned Parenthood). His cuts rebound worst on those who already have too little, and on women, who are disproportionately employed in the public sector, in teaching and health care, and whose wages are already lower than men’s.
Other governors around the country are doing the same thing.
A win in Wisconsin–three wins are necessary to take back control of the State Senate, to actually have a meaningful check on Walker’s agenda–would be a sign to the country that the class war isn’t going unnoticed, that the people are angry. The message being brought to the people of Wisconsin is expressly class-focused, and if it works, it will spread.
The other option is continued austerity, and a recipe for continued desperation. Cities full of desperate people are powder kegs waiting for a match. You never know what will set them off.