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Two Years On: Has the Left Done Enough to Engage the Voices of the Riots Generation?

05/08/2013 17:57 BST | Updated 05/10/2013 10:12 BST
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On a cold Saturday evening last March, the huge crowd queuing on a damp street corner in Bethnal Green looked like they were waiting in line for a club. Pumping music with African drumming riffs could be heard inside the venue, and outside the crowd of young, ethnically diverse Londoners engaged in lively conversation.

"If they don't let us in soon there's gonna be another riot out here!" Laughter rippled along the queue who were waiting for the premiere of Riots Reframed, an ambitious documentary produced within the communities where England's 2011 riots took place.

The film is a project by Fahim Alam, an Oxford Law graduate from Hackney born to Bangladeshi immigrants parents. Alam spent six weeks in prison on remand and a further six months on an electronic tag after being wrongly accused of hurling bricks at police during rioting in East London.

It follows from the national success of Riot From Wrong, an inspiring documentary made by youth film collective Fully Focused Productions. Frustrated with biased media reporting when the riots broke out, the team went out with their cameras to capture the real story, with impressive results.

Riots Reframed fuses a biting critique of Britain's social and economic deprivation, with powerful spoken word poetry and an urban soundtrack of dubstep and grime. Both the film's content and style speaks directly to the generation of young people most profoundly affected by the dehumanization of London's poorest communities.

Akala, a highly respected hip hop artist who grew up in London, emphasises in the film that we cannot read the riots outside of our current British imperial endeavours. When our young people see Britain's ruling elite looting and pillaging countries of their natural resources - from Iraq to the Congo - how can we criticize them for stealing a pair of trainers?

This young generation was under no illusions about the motivation behind Britain's invasion of Iraq. They refused to believe it was in the name of democracy - an empty word for young people who are completely disenfranchised from the UK's political process.

The sprawling, passionate Q&A that followed the film screening at Riots Reframed (and at the many screenings of Riot From Wrong), demonstrates the rawness of those who have been ignored by the political elite - and the Left - for so long. If rioting is the "voice of the voiceless", this emerging movement is where young people are finding their voice for the first time.

Ken Loach's homage to the post war era - Spirit of '45 - premiered on the same weekend as Riots Reframed. It was followed by a live, interactive Q&A panel, beamed by satellite to 40 sold-out cinemas across the UK. It is a rousing cry of what is possible even in an age of austerity, and attempts to reinvigorate socialist ideas for the 21st century.

However, audiences at Loach's film were noticeably older than the Riots Reframed collaborators, and the film itself has been criticized for its lack of ethnic diversity, instead appearing stuck on a treadmill of nostalgia.

At the Riots Reframed screening, a woman from a radical Left party suggested that everybody in the room join union strikes - she was vigorously booed off the stage. With many young people increasingly finding themselves in privatised and precarious work, the Left's focus on the trade union movement can at times be very alienating to those in workplaces that are notoriously difficult to unionise.

It can also appear to offer the same professional class of "politicians" that young people have grown instinctively to distrust. Political rhetoric, platform grand-standing and outdated slogans and methods do not hold much sway with this media savvy, internet literate generation.

The recent popularity and success of creative 'direct action' groups, including UK Uncut and the Squash Squatting Campaign, could also therefore have much to offer the "riots generation". These are people with skills to shut down major corporations and take over derelict buildings and turn them into hubs of political activity.

However, at a Riot From Wrong screening at squatted anti-cuts project Cuts Café last October, activists criticized the young, inspiring film-makers for "not offering an anti-capitalist critique" in the film.

It is relatively safe for white, middle class, university educated activists to be charged with offences such as aggravated trespass (squatting) and breach of the peace (demonstrating). However, the same charges are read very differently on the criminal record of young, black, working class people who might want to engage in similar tactics.

This experience is perhaps why these two groups have never fully interacted. Yet if the dynamic, creative movement emerging from the riots could work with experienced activists from the organised Left, it could offer a boost of energy so desperately needed as the government increases its attacks on the UK's most vulnerable people.

For example, young people who choose to go to university will now be graduating harboring unprecedented student debts, suffocating them into years of forced labour just to keep their heads below the parapet. By collaborating with activists from the 1980s anti-poll tax movement, these students could mirror their tactics and launch a fresh non-payment campaign for unfeasible student debts.

Passionate but relatively small community organisations - like the Tottenham Rights campaign set up to fight for justice for Mark Duggan - could work more closely with the People's Assembly. A more genuine inclusion of community groups would allow popular, grassroots leadership to flourish within the initiative, previously criticized for its "top-down" approach.

The Left is also in desperate need of cultural renewal. The riots community has an impressive counter-cultural scene to accompany its voices of resistance, and its spoken word poets, hip hop artists, graphic designers, film-makers and performers should play a leading role in shaping a new Left in London and throughout the UK.

Riots are often seen as simply the chaotic symptom of radically unjust societies - however, it is becoming apparent that the riots have acted as the catalyst for a new movement of young people, committed that next time they will "riot better". The riots remain deeply rooted in the consciousness of young people, and there are many people in the UK still searching for both answers and solutions.

It will be a bumpy process for the organised Left to work with this emerging youth movement, and it will require dedicated activists, from both groups, who are willing to listen genuinely and openly to what the other has to offer. We must discuss not just what we are united against, but exactly what we believe we must struggle to achieve.

For it is here that the seeds of a new Left will emerge. Now more than ever we must be truly effective in taking radical, coordinated action, to challenge the capitalist state and bring down this wretched, elitist and unjust government - once and for all.