“Riots are coming, they are already here, more are on the way, no one doubts it… In moments of shattered glass and fire, [the] riot is… the irruption of a desperate situation, immiseration at its limit, the crisis of a given community or city, of a few hours or days.” Joshua Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot.
After almost two months of continuous protests against the El Khomri bill's proposed labour reforms that would allow bosses to fire workers more easily, strike actions have been stepped up in France. The BBC reports that actions are led by CGT and supported by six other unions, including Force Ouvriere and Unef and have seen oil refineries, nuclear power stations and transport hubs disrupted in the rolling nationwide strike. Yesterday CGT striking members shut off printing presses and distribution, preventing the publication of all French national newspapers, with the exception of leftwing daily L’Humanité. An opinion piece by Nuit Debout leader Philippe Martinez urging the government to withdraw its labour laws, was published in L’Humanité on the same day.
Meanwhile riot police cracked down on protesters in Paris and other cities, with tear gas filling the air.
An excerpt from Riot.Strike.Riot.
("The [Bread] Riot Or half a loaf is better than no bread." From a "collection of wood prints ... used to illustrate stories that warned of involvement in crime and unvirtuous pastimes; indeed any pursuits that was not hard work or church going," via Bristol Radical History Group.)
Among the many places one might commence the story, every one bedeviled by the impossibility of arriving at a true beginning, we might look to Bristol and King’s Lynn in 1347. It is too early, of course. These events are outliers on the scatterplot of events that have made their way into chronicles. Precursors at best. Perhaps better to start in the sixteenth century, where “food riots did not follow a hoary tradition: the earliest were like furry little mammals overshadowed by the great crashing dinosaurs of peasant and dynastic rebellions and enclosure battles.” Or E.P. Thompson’s eighteenth century, undisputed locus classicus. Charles Tilly, at his most capacious, proposes the brackets 1650–1850. John Bohstedt sees a three-century span in which “Our third century, from the 1740s to c.1820, was the golden age of food riots.” Thompson notes these are often identified as “insurrections” or “risings of the poor.” Others following Thompson caution against imposing overly rigid distinctions among types, choosing to recommend instead the approach of “moving away from the compartmentalization of protest. While division of protests into different ‘types’ — food, industrial, political, customary, and so on — may be neater, it obscures our understanding of the very linkages which overarched them.”
I have two telling memories from the 2011 riots.
One: it is the third night of the rioting, and it seems to have spread across London and beyond. Reports from outside the capital are sketchy: for every real incident, another seems to rise out of the froth of internet hoax and media paranoia. They see rioters in every shadow. I am watching Sky News, and trying to get a handle on what’s going on. Throughout the day, the streets seemed thick and tense – full of a special kind of waiting which punctuates riots – now they seem to have exploded. The camera crew are skulking through Battersea, near Clapham Junction station, in the wake of some rioters, lingering over broken windows and trashed commodities. They find an aggrieved-looking white man, professional, a local resident, and put him next to a broken window. He is emblematic of the new London, returned to the Victorian housing stock of its inner suburbs after a generation of flight to its homogenised outer reaches. He looks dazed, and shakes his head. “There were just so many of them,” he says, “I don’t know where they all came from. So many of them.”