In April 1981 riots against police brutality by working-class Caribbeans broke out in London, and then swept towns and cities across the UK, quickly becoming a multiracial phenomenon on a massive scale involving black, white, and South Asian youth.
In the riots’ aftermath, members of the Brixton-based Race Today newspaper collective interviewed hundreds of participants anonymously, asking their reasons for rioting, what they did, how they organized, etc. (In this they followed the guidance of one of their mentoring figures, CLR James, for whom radical ethnography in the mode of Marx’s “A Workers’ Inquiry” was fundamental to political knowledge).
Among the stories that came out of those interviews, as collective member and editor Leila Hassan told me recently, was that the spontaneously-organized youth in south London (who had rapidly developed tactical prowess against the police) had been shown how to make molotov cocktails by Italian anarchists squatting in the area. Was this outside agitation? Solidaristic action? Something else?
A lot of complicated things happen in moments of social upheaval, not all of it easily decipherable, when people are in motion. To assign blame for assaults on precinct houses, property destruction, and looting to discrete agents – whether Nazis, Antifa or Cointelpro – is to miss an explanation right in front of us: 400 years of white supremacy, 40 years of neoliberalism, 3 years of Trump, 3 months of COVID 19 and the near economic collapse it has wrought. It would be easy to go on to list the profound institutional failures that have left us with a barely functioning polity.
Yet even with all these factors, we should be cautious of believing that anyone can fully grasp the multiplicity in what is happening in this historic moment. Hundreds of thousands of people in hundreds of cities and towns are on the move, defying both police and national guard, and even forcing (however briefly) the US president into an underground bunker. We are on new ground, and need good questions more than easy answers.