Adam Polaski

The U.K. Riots & Where the LGBT Community Fits In

Filed By Adam Polaski | August 11, 2011 8:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Media
Tags: BBC, Carol Costello, CNN, Cornel West, financial crisis, Fiona Armstrong, job insecurity, LGBT community, LGBT homeless, LGBT homeless youth, Poverty Tour, Tavis Smiley, UK riots, United Kingdom riots, United States poverty, uprising

UKRiots.jpgFor four days, the United Kingdom has endured riots that began in London but quickly exploded beyond the city. The streets are full of crowds engaging in violent acts, including setting fire to buildings and looting stores. More than 800 people have been arrested in London alone, and hundreds have been charged with crimes.

The riots can be traced back to last Thursday, when police officers reportedly killed Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old man, while arresting him as a suspected gang member. A crowd convened on Saturday for a peaceful protest to speak out against police violence in the city, but the scene devolved into a violent confrontation between the crowd and police officers.

The mainstream media is representing the riots as crazy, random, unprovoked violence, but British analysts and other media players are looking at the roots of the riots. Mother Jones reports:

Media reports and opinionators point to three main causes: racial tensions, high youth unemployment rates, and a desire to loot and profit in the midst of chaos. Al Jazeera columnist Dan Hind's op-ed points out that these causes are pretty intertwined:

So there is no single meaning in what is happening in London and elsewhere. But there are connections that we can make, and that we should make. We have a major problem with youth unemployment. There have already been cuts in services for young people. State education in poor areas is sometimes shockingly bad. Young people cannot afford adequate private housing and there is a shortage of council-built stock. Economic inequality has reached quite startling levels. All this is the consequence of decisions made by governments and there is little hope of rapid improvement.

Media Misrepresentation

Most of the mainstream media is ignoring the valid, legitimate claims that the protesters are raising against their governments and the power structures in their countries. Just as the media did in Egypt and Tunisia, the uprising is being painted as a group of crazy, violent people hellbent on rioting for no reason at all.

Take, for example, this video from BBC News, which made the rounds yesterday and was denounced as a deceptive, misleading interview by an anchor who implicated her subject as a rioter and ignored his legitimate arguments against real structural issues facing the United Kingdom:

At one point the interviewee, Darcus Howe, a West Indian writer, said:

What I was certain about, listening to my grandson and my son, is that something very, very serious was going to take place in this country. Our political leaders had no idea. The police had no idea. But if you looked at young blacks and young whites with a discerning eye and a careful hearing, they have been telling us - and we would not listen - that what is happening in this country to them ....

And then, of course, the interviewer, Fiona Armstrong, cut off his insightful, important statement with an idiotic question asking if he condoned the violence.

The BBC has since apologized for the conduct of Armstrong. But her behavior is an exaggerated representation of the way that the media can hijack a story and shape it to fit their narrative - that these riots are meaningless, misdirected violence and nothing more.

Where the LGBT Voice Fits In

As an LGBT community, why should we specifically care? Because the people who are rioting and protesting in the United Kingdom about their dire financial situations, racial tensions, and the militaristic police state of the country are also representing the interests of many LGBT people. Homeless LGBT youth and anti-LGBT violence while police officers look away are not issues that are unique to the United States. The United Kingdom endures similar problems, and if the young rioters can convey their message that they can no longer stand for such unstable economic situations and a corrupt police force, the LGBT people - especially LGBT people of color - who are disproportionately struggling against those same issues will benefit.

The U.S. Situation

Could a similar uprising in the United States happen? We're facing many of the same issues - our financial instability, our power-hungry representatives, and our system that rewards wealth instead of representing the interests of the American people. After last month's debt ceiling disaster, where huge amounts of time were spent on silly, gridlocked debate only to end up with a horrible plan that will hurt the poor while continuing to reward the rich, some of those enormous structural flaws in our system were put on an immensely visible platform. But the poor continue to be ignored.

They're certainly not helped along any by our media, which hardly ever discusses the problems facing people in poverty or pressures the government to do something about it. Even when those issues do get airtime, they're flattened by overpaid television anchors who repeat the "lazy homeless" rhetoric as fact. Watch this infuriating CNN interview where Carol Costello attempted to push the issue of U.S. poverty to the bottom of the priority ladder while hearing from Tavis Smiley and Cornel West about their "Poverty Tour."

In addition to citing a study by the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation, Costello contributed to the "right-washing" of her news network. The interview is full of dangerous statements that trivialize poor people, but the worst may be this: "The president represents everybody in America. [He]'s dealing with a lot of stuff right now. So why concentrate on one segment of the population?"

These are the problems that need to be talked about and need to be discussed. President Obama, who was elected partly thanks to the support of poor people who finally saw hope, has all but ignored the poverty population in the country. This needs to change.

In the past year, we have seen the power of popular revolution. In Egypt and Tunisia, the masses joined together to protest their dictatorial rule, and they succeeded. There is little that is focused about the rioting in the United Kingdom, and yes, it's dramatically different from the revolution in Egypt, where a single rallying cry - Mubarak must step down - easily echoed throughout the world. But misrepresenting the uprising as a random, violent outburst of little real significance is irresponsible. And ignoring the potential for the same outrage to catch fire in the United States - after seeing it happen in the United Kingdom - is perhaps even more irresponsible.

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>people who are rioting and protesting in the United Kingdom about their dire financial situations, racial tensions, and the militaristic police state of the country are also representing the interests of many LGBT people

What building in America would you like to see set on fire to represent your interests?

No thanks. Another drastic error of believing the enemy of your enemy is your friend.

While I agree with the riots because of the context of injustice and oppression that rioters faced, I completely disagree with the level of violence and theft that has resulted from this.

Mob-attacking a young man, breaking his jaw, then robbing him and leaving him to wander in the street?

Setting buildings on fire that people have to escape from?

You can argue that the media needs to separate the two--the rioters fighting against oppression and the rioters out to create utter mayhem for shits and giggles--but it doesn't change the fact that these atrocious actions are happening by "rioters" (in whatever collective sense there is).

Stealing TV's, XBox's, and designer clothing, posting your pictures on Facebook and attacking innocent people doesn't say to anyone that you care about liberation from an oppressive and unjust society.

The contrast between Polaski's post applauding riots which endanger the lives and destroy the livelihoods of people who have little if any actual influence over systemic oppression makes for an entirely shameful counterpoint to Dr. Weiss' post saying that we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard and disavow the use of violence except as a last resort in direct self defense.

Maybe you should listen to what the rioters themselves have to say.

"It was good though.. good fun... course it is.
Free alcohol...
It's the government's fault... I dunno... conservatives... whatever whoever it is I dunno....we're showing the police we can do what we like.
It's the rich people...the people who have got's the rich people's fault, it's because of the rich people, we're showing the rich people that we can do what we want."

"Rich People" in this case meaning local shopkeepers.

These comments sound very similar to a lot of the ones made during the L.A. Riots, where "progressive" liberal commentators were cheering on predominantly black and Latino rioters for "fighting back against the man" even though they were actually attacking Asian small businesses, *not* any of people actually responsible for oppression.

To be fair, I think there are legitimate reasons for civil disobedience by these rioters: racial profiling, police abuse, unwarranted searches and arrests, allegedly murdering one of these young men, being systematically disenfranchised by a government that ignores the needs of the poor.

And those who are engaged in civil disobedience because of those reasons have every right to protest and be angry and deserve our support.

But those who would cross the line into violence and attacking innocent people are only doing a disservice to the very real issue they fight for.

Likewise, those who are using this as an opportunity to get free stuff under the cover of the mob or cause chaos because this is "fun" or a great opportunity to get free stuff, such as those quoted above, have no business there. They should be ashamed of themselves and held fully accountable.

I'm not condoning violence or senseless rioting or burning down buildings. I think there are a few distinct groups of people involved here. I think there are people who are taking advantage of the crazy situation there and looting to loot, people who have valid economic and social concerns who see rioting as the only way to speak out about what they're facing, and people who are perhaps doing both.

I'm not making excuses for the violence. But I do think it's important to consider WHY the violence is happening. In considering the reasons why these people may feel their only option is to loot and engage in such violence - that there is no hope for them otherwise - we can arrive at some understanding of their problems and anticipate when those very same problems may manifest themselves in the same way here in the United States.

I urge you to read Murtaza Hussain's piece on Glenn Greenwald's blog today, where she explains the importance of the UK riots in a way that the mainstream media is not:

"While the violence and destruction of property which have occurred this past week are intolerable and worthy of full-throated condemnation, anyone with an interest in maintaining social cohesion should pay heed to the demonstrable results of economic hardship coupled with cuts to social services. The United States has experienced incidents of domestic unrest, some of which have culminated in rioting, but nothing yet on a scale as widespread as what has been glimpsed in Britain in recent days. The current debt crisis and the resulting debate around cuts to government spending is a time to reflect on the serious, tangible, effects of cutting social services. While spending must be curbed, too often politicians make, for them, the easy decision of cutting support to those who are already the least enfranchised members of society."

And again from Hussain's piece:

"Had there been a terrorist attack in Britain this past week as opposed to social unrest, there would undoubtedly be a huge chorus of voices in the U.S. loudly extolling the necessity of maintaining and even increasing defence spending, but there has been no commensurate call for protecting social spending in order to avoid the danger of Britain-style unrest. Those seriously concerned with national security should awaken themselves to the fact that there is absolutely nothing safe or secure about soaking your country in gasoline by ignoring, and exacerbating, the plight of its most disenfranchised citizens. Eventually an event will come along to strike a match; at which time the meaning and utility of “national security” will quite viscerally move from the abstract to the concrete."

Rachel Bellum | August 11, 2011 1:17 PM

To me, Costello seemed to be trying more to fill her role in the conversation than engaging in "right washing." Even if West wasn't engaged in a poverty tour, one would have to be completely ignorant of his history not to know how he would respond (and that it would be both forceful and convincing). I assume the Heritage Foundation study was brought up because it's topical, and, likely, either because Smiley and West wanted to address it or had been addressing it on the tour. It does provide a way to discuss the meme that poverty in America isn't "real" poverty anymore.

I can't not take the opportunity here to say that Cornell West has been an intellectual hero of mine since I was very young. But I would like to congratulate Tavis for opening by calling out lunacy in no uncertain terms.

While I agree with what Dr West said, I think he could have flipped the script on her by saying that yes, people with those things are being driven into the poverty class.

Rachel Bellum | August 12, 2011 2:45 AM

Yes Greg, that probably would've been a nice addition, and, unfortunately, probably a necessary reminder that most people are not invulnerable to finding themselves in this position.

I can't remember if it was cited here or elsewhere, but I recently saw figures saying that the majority of people declaring bankruptcy due to medical bills in 2009 had health insurance, for example.

West and Smiley may be fielding those kinds of questions about the Heritage Foundation's study, but Costello asserted it as an entirely reputable, not even plausibly questionable source. The foundation is known to have a super right-wing agenda, and that agenda in this scenario was to downplay the severity of the poverty situation in America.

Just because the majority of people who live below the poverty line are not homeless - or, with regard to the Heritage Foundation study - own a microwave - does not mean that their poverty is less concerning. A microwave is $50. Putting food on the table every night is substantially more than that. The plight of impoverished Americans shouldn't be trivialized as something that's not "real."

Costello was not doing reporting in her interview. She was saying, explicitly, that Obama shouldn't be pandering to one sect of the population - the poor - although he's been doing it since he took office by prioritizing the interests of the wealthy.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 11, 2011 4:36 PM

Support for Obama is eroding everywhere and it's accelerating because of his refusal to do anything real about long term mass unemployment, which is worse for Blacks and other people of color, especially youth. "Last hired, first fired' is still very much in force, just as it was during the Depression of the 1930's. A recent poll by WaPo and ABC reported that "the number of liberal Democrats who strongly support Obama’s record on jobs plunged 22 points from 53 percent last year to 31 percent. The number of African-Americans who believe the president’s actions have helped the economy has dropped from 77 percent in October to just over half of those surveyed."

Ever since West,Smiley, Black Agenda Report and others began articulating the growing dissatisfaction with Obama among Blacks and other people of color, particularly youth, they've come under a sustained attack by right-wingers, i.e., Democrats and liberals.

In AlterNet's report; Why Liberals Attack Progressive Heroes Like Cornel West they asked why "when someone such as Cornel West speaks out, packs of careerist liberals—or perhaps one should call them neoliberals—descend on the apostate like hellhounds, never addressing the truths that are expressed but instead engaging in vicious character assassination. The same thing happened to Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky, Dennis Kucinich, Jeremiah Wright and others who defied the political orthodoxy of corporate capitalism.

That seems to be the fate of anyone who opposed the election of Obama, and will probably be the fate of those who oppose his reelection. It certainly was the case at many GLBT blogs.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 11, 2011 3:59 PM

These riots are occurring because working class youth know what's in store for them in the rigid English caste-class system - austerity, unemployment, racist violence and as an added bonus, the chance to get killed fighting for BP in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Who wouldn't be enraged?

The only way to end the rage and hopelessness these riots feed on is make sure working class youth are given a chance at a decent life. That won't happen under the rule of Tories, Lib Tories or New Labour. That won't happen as long as England has a monarchy, a landed aristocracy and an established state cult, the C of E. They have to be abolished and their wealth dedicated to social progress.

England and the EU, like the US and the Arab/muslim regions, needs a socialist alternative.

Elizabeth, her litter, the landed aristocracy and the anglo catholic bishops should be grateful. When they're unceremoniously tossed into the Dumpster of History they probably won't have to face a guillotine.

A good job with good wages and benefits, good, low cost housing, good benefits and income for retirees, students and single heads of households, socialized medicine, short work hours and long vacations are more than the hallmark of decent societies.

They're rights. Inalienable rights. Rights worth fighting and dying for. In Cairo. In Madrid. In Damascus. In Gaza. In Athens. And, it seems, in London and in working class neighborhoods all over England.

Rights worth assaulting and robbing teenage boys, 70 year old store owners, and women over, too.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 11, 2011 6:20 PM

Riots are not political and not led and organized by the political left. They do, though, originate in a political and economic context, usually one that involves extremes of poverty and a large dose of racism. The kind of poverty and racism characteristic of US and English society for centuries.

Let's be extremely clear about something, luminum. The rulers - the looter classes, the banksters, the royals, bishops and aristos - are the ones who promote austerity, poverty and racism. They, and only they, cause these riots.

Call Buckingham Palace if you have a complaint. 9am - 5pm (GMT) +44 (0) 20 7839 1377

Bullshit. People are morally responsible for their own actions, and *only* their own actions -- the ruling class is 100% responsible for the injustice it commits, and the rioters are 100% responsible for the damage they're doing. They don't get to say, "My wrongdoing is your fault, because you 'made' me do it."

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 12, 2011 5:20 AM

It's not a semantic question involving the definitions of legal cause, cause and effect or responsibility. It's a political question - which side are you on. The looter classes are responsible for widespread and very deliberate pauperization of working people in the US and England. Especially youth and especially black youth and other minority youth.

In England "48% of black people, 31% of Asians (Muslims- BP) and 20% of whites reported that they were out of work…" (BBC Jan 20, 2010).

In the US the ruling classes, using 'last hired, first fired' as a strategy created, caused and are entirely responsible for youth unemployment rates of disastrous proportions. The US BLS reports for June 2011 show Black unemployment is 17.5% (U3) for adults and 41% (U3) for youth. For Latino/a's Latinos the figures are 12% (U3) and 26% (U3) for youth. (U3 only measures those collecting benefits and now that Congress passed and Obama signed the 'deficit crisis' bill that ends benefit extensions the U3 rate will drop, but not because unemployment is dropping.

The only responsible parties for the conditions that cause and create poverty and despair among youth here and in England are the ruling classes of those countries.

Socialists and the left stand with working class youth whatever the opinions of liberals and conservatives and whatever their method of fightback. We would rather see it organized and aimed at promoting the demise of the power and wealth of the rich but, when push comes to shove, socialists want the violence and theft of the looters, the banksters, the warmonger and their political allies stopped. We want to confiscate the excess income of the rich from all sources including inheritances and trust funds. Socialists want them taxed at the rate of 90% above $250,000.00 and 100% above $499,999.00.

Socialists think the US deficit should be renounced and subject to default except for those parts dedicated to programs like Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. We want Obama's wars of aggression stopped and the trillions garnered from fair taxes on the rich, demobilization, and default of US debts to the rich and foreign concerns allocated to a vast project to green industry, agriculture and the infrastructure and in the process eliminate unemployment and give youth something to live for, something to work for.

Socialists think all the wrong people are in jail. They should be pretty much emptied of working people and a decent society would make robust efforts to turn the ruling class enabling clergy, the rich and their political hustlers and the military officer corps into productive citizens, ending their careers as parasites.

Social injustice does not excuse further acts of injustice. The ruling class oppressing a group of people doesn't give that group of people free license to single out some kid walking down the street, beat the shit out of him, break his jaw, and then steal his stuff. Do you excuse kids from bad living situations for taking it out on other kids? Are bullies justified to you if they come from terrible homes?

The ruling class is responsible for oppressing this group of people and it is responsible putting fire to a pot, but they did not break that kid's jaw. And if it comes to it, they didn't assault a bystander or light a civilian's home on fire.

You might believe that if you were angry enough from being systematically oppressed by the government that you would be justified in murdering someone who has nothing to do with your fight. You might also believe that you could finish killing them and say "Look what you made me do!" and wash your hands of culpability. But the oppressive forces at work did not trick you into killing this person, they did not tell you this person was responsible for your situation, and they did not in any way relate this person to your struggle. You just chose someone at random to take your anger out on, no matter how justified it might have been.

A person oppressed by racism/poverty/sexism/homophobia/transphobia doesn't have an excuse for misdirecting their justifiable rage on their spouse or children. Nor are these rioters. Ultimately they are responsible for how they direct their anger and who the focus of that anger is.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 12, 2011 3:38 PM

Do you excuse kids from bad living situations for taking it out on other kids? Are bullies justified to you if they come from terrible homes?

Why do you ask?

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 13, 2011 12:42 AM

Why do you ask? Was it something I wrote?

Paige Listerud | August 13, 2011 5:30 PM

I think Emma Goldman said it best:
"I know that in the past every great political and social change, necessitated violence... Yet it is one thing to employ violence in combat as a means of defence. It is quiet another thing to make a principle of terrorism, to institutionalise it to assign it the most vital place in the social struggle. Such terrorism begets counter-revolution and in turn itself becomes counter-revolutionary."

Not that most of the youths on the streets of Tottenham, Birmingham, Liverpool, etc., are familiar with Emma Goldman. Their actions are more understandable than justifiable. But I fear they have really only sowed seeds for a backlash, a backlash they won't understand any more than they currently realize that immolating businesses in their own neighborhoods, owned by petty bourgeois who are barely making it in this economy, themselves, and who are not in control of the policy-makers in government, would not effectively change the conditions of their lives.

At best, their moment expression of rage might only provide temporary emotional relief against a lifetime of powerlessness.

Instead, I turn to another, darker source for the psychological basis for the attack on their own neighborhoods, Hannibal Lecter:
"He covets. That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? . . . No. We begin by coveting what we see every day."
Hence, the looting of jeans and sneakers, iPods and wedding dresses--things that they see every day and have no legitimate means to acquire. Mind you, I'm not making any moralistic judgement on the rioting youth of London. They don't covet any more than the rest of us. We all covet--and our consumeristic culture encourages our covetousness through advertising. But if we're white, middle class and employed, we've got the means to acquire the things we see every day. Plus, our middle class status gives us a modicum of respect from the police and the more money you make, the more property you own, the more respect the police show you and the more willing they are to protect you. Thus, the connection between Mike Duggan's shooting and the riots that broke out.

Paige Listerud | August 13, 2011 5:35 PM

Sorry, I meant "momentary" rather than "moment."

Paige Listerud | August 13, 2011 8:13 PM

. . . and that's Mark Duggan, not Mike Duggan. Agh.