Retrospective on the Riots

Since the London riots began in Tottenham on Saturday the 6th a clear distinction has emerged between a legitimate protest – a common expression of anger at poverty and political alienation – and the actions of a criminal element who took advantage of the chaos to enrichment themselves. I am concerned that amongst all the head shaking and tut-tutting that has been going on in the media a series of changes are being suggested that would not only make our society more restrictive but also risk making any future riots much worse.

The nation is collectively asking its police force and elected officials “what went wrong and what can we learn to prevent this from happening again?” Some feel that it is simply a lack of visible policing brought about by government cuts or an overreliance on CCTV; ten thousand extra police officers where on the streets of London on night of Tuesday the 9th and their presence was easily noticed. This might have been the main factor in putting an end to the escalation of the violence, but if it was, these numbers are clearly unsustainable and place huge demands on police forces outside London. There is a concern that changes to police practice are necessary to prevent rioting flaring up again. From what I have read in the news and on twitter and garnered from public opinion through conversations with friends and colleagues, I believe there are serious flaws in the changes the public is demanding and the logic that has been used to arrive at these conclusions.

A recent You Gov poll revealed some frightening statistics about the public’s support for change to police procedure. 90% of those polled supported the use of water cannons against rioters, 84% thought the use of mounted police would be appropriate, 82% thought a curfews should be imposed, 78% thought tear gas should be used, 77% approved of the army being sent in, 72% thought the police should be armed with tasers and 65% supported the use of plastic bullets. The most frightening statistics was the revelation that 33% of those polled support use of live ammunition against rioters. This means that one third of the public support the execution of at least some of those involved in the disturbance, as in such a situation deaths would be inevitable. As if another Bloody Sunday is what is needed to enforce the law, completely ignoring the fact that violent military state repression usually leads to extreme disenchanment with the government and increasingly violent uprisings.

Many feel that the lack of consequences for the initial acts of rioting and looting is what caused it to spread. I have heard a lot of endorsements for giving police license to ‘crack some heads’, and all that was needed to restore order was for the authorities to turn a blind eye to police brutality. At the root of this is the simplistic belief of a dividing line between right and wrong and that if you receive a beating from a police officer you must have done something to deserve it. The same applies to those who support the use of water cannons. There is a black and white view that if someone is hurt by a water cannon (even a bystander) that they must be a dangerous criminal. Aside from the implications for innocent people in the wrong place at the wrong time, beating down the angry, alienated and disaffected members of society will only foster greater resentment, perpetuate marginalisation and encourage those effected to rise up stronger and with more violence.

I take serious issue with the belief that the problem with the police in this country is that they are not violent enough. The notion that a system of fear, beatings, and aggressive repression is the best way to keep the populace in line is backed up by the immortal phrase ‘if you have done nothing wrong then you have nothing to fear,’ which only translates to ‘if you are white and middle class you have nothing to fear’. This view goes hand-in-hand with the wide spread but unspoken opinion that our society is not cruel enough to the poor, and that if we were stricter and more repressive then rioting would be less likely. The logic behind this is clearly flawed.

Last year’s G20 protests are frequently brought up this context, where a man died through police action at a legitimate protest – a man who was not even part of the protest but a passer-by. Apologists for police brutality seem to claim that it was wrong and detrimental to public order to investigate the cause of this death. Another pillar to this argument is the view that society has given too many rights to criminals, which has crippled police action. In the context of recent events, where the police shot and killed a man who it has emerged did not fire at them, this seems unlikely. Also if it is true that we are too liberal in giving away rights then this casts serious ideological doubt on the variety of western democracy we are attempting to export to authoritarian countries like China and North Korea. Proponents of heavy handed policing inadvertently relay express praise for the way the Chinese security services dealt with the Tiananmen Square Massacre. I personally have taken immense pride that our police force exercises much more restraint than police forces in authoritarian countries, and indeed those in other western countries like Greece or America where violent uprisings are much more common.

We need to learn important lessons from this but we must not lose what make us one of the freest and most peaceful societies on earth, with a police force respected throughout the world for their calm and restraint. It is these characteristics which have kept our cities relatively disturbance-free until recently and have prevented greater loss of life. In closing I would like to add a quick note to those who deny that there are larger forces at work in this issue and believe there is nothing more to this than opportunistic criminality. To suggest that there is not a socio-economic root to the riots is to suggest something very dark about the nature of humanity and to imply that for a few days we were suffering from a mass outbreak of sociopathy. This is also is a spurious claim.

Blogging while London burns

As I write this Londoners are knuckling under for a third night of rioting and looting. The full details of the weekend's disturbances are already plastered across the news and I won’t waste time repeating them here. I will add that as a resident of Tottenham living a few hundred yards from where a police car was burnt and a supporter of recent student demonstrations, rioting against the oppressive establishment is a lot less romantic when it is going on in your postcode.

To be frank it was a frightening experience. I spent the majority of Saturday night endlessly refreshing the #tottenham hash tag on twitter to see how close the violence was to my house. Police helicopters circled the neighbourhood constantly and I become convinced that every creak in the house was the beginning of a home invasion.

Now with a little perspective and calm I can see that there were two main issues at play on Saturday night in northeast London; a legitimate protest on the part of an angry community who felt downtrodden and persecuted, and the beginning of a citywide crime wave that the police failed to deter, contain or even hamper.

The moment Saturday's events boiled over is alleged to have been when a sixteen year old girl, at a protest outside Tottenham High Road police station, was hit by a police officer. This spilled over into the destruction of property and widespread looting. The scale and ferocity of the events hint at the deep social tension associated with the high level of poverty in the area. The residents of Tottenham, particular the Afro-Caribbean community feel disenfranchised by society, their political voice muzzled and victimised by the police, especially through Operation Trident's attempts to tackle gun crime in the area. Many residents, particularly the young and unemployed, feel alienated from society and that the police have used stop and search powers excessively against them.

People in neighbouring communities (particularly the more affluent Crouch End, Islington, and Enfield areas) are concerned by how the police allowed a peaceful protest to get so dramatically out of hand. They are also concerned as to how so many police resources where consumed in a single area that looting went on unchecked half a mile away in the Tottenham Hale retail park. Undeniable the police handed the situation badly but I do have to add on a personal level that I am extremely grateful the riot and especially the burning of buildings was kept away from my street. I am grateful that the police kept me safe but also angry that so much damage to property and persons took place. Clearly mistakes where made.

The looting that has taken place is more than the “opportunistic criminality” that police authorities have dubbed it. Looting is an expression of anger at poverty. Personally I would love a new Mac Book but comfortable in my middle-class status, I would not steal one regardless of how easily I thought it was to get away with. I cannot understand what is like to spend your life seeing others with games consoles, computers and new trainers yet never being able to afford them myself. In the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn “can a man who is warm understand one who is freezing?”

Those who have cannot understand the desires of those who have not; it is quit simply not a problem I have ever had to deal with. Also of note is the fact that no bookshops were targeted. This is not a comment on the intelligence of the people of Tottenham but more a reflection of the desires of the people who live there to possess the same consumer goods as their neighbours in Highgate and Crouch End. It must be very difficult for the poor in London to be pressed up against their rich neighbours who have so much and be constantly reminded of what they lack. Consumer status symbols are an inherent part of our lives and lacking these symbols places you at great social disadvantage. I can understand why people would take advantage of the general lawlessness to attain what they cannot through conventional means.

Personally I cannot support rioting and looting as a form of protest, mainly because the general public (rightly or wrongly) will see injured police officers and burnt out buildings and these powerful images will overshadow any points about over policing and poverty in the area. David Cameron and Boris Johnson would do well to spend what available money they have tackling the massive inequalities that exist between neighbouring areas in London. Tottenham is badly in need of some urban development.

What is also needed is a discussion of the role the police had to play in the riots. Many questions will be asked about how the police allowed a legitimate peaceful protest to go so horribly awry. Should there be a review of the police’s use of deadly force? Are current police tactics too heavy handed? Should the police be given discretionary powers to prematurely arrest rioters? These are questions for when the riots have died down. One thing is for certain, these riots are not over yet and that real social change is necessary to deal with the deep problems caused by such poverty adjacent to such wealth.