Let me make one thing clear: I’ve been as frightened by this as everyone else. It’s happened on a small scale in my neighbourhood, in my borough on a much larger scale, and on far too big a scale in my town. I want it to stop – too much petty opportunism and sheer criminality is instilling fear within communities which had until three days ago at least existed under an uneasy truce. But what I don’t agree with is an increase in violence – I’m actually debating with celebrities (some big names) on Twitter right now why water cannon and rubber bullets are wrong. What we need before anything else is perspective. From David Allen Green:
there will be calls for more policing, and far more police powers. People’s fears will need to be allayed by gestures; everyone will need to feel safe again. A liberal approach to law and order will now seem to many as simply inappropriate and misconceived. But there is no good reason to introduce water cannon and rubber bullets. Indeed, in seemingly exceptional times, it is more important to adhere to the rule of law and the normal exercise of police powers.
There may be another riot tonight, or there may be calm. There may be another bout of looting, or there may be preventative police action. But when these riots are over, this new sense of fear may well remain. Society will not have broken, at least not in any objective manner; but people’s confidence that things will always be alright for them in their daily urban lives could perhaps be broken instead.
Water cannon blows people’s eyes out, whether they’re a looter or an innocent bystander, but that’s not even the greater point: it’s impossible to restore law and order by abandoning the rule of law. Our society is predicated upon the presumption of innocence for everyone at all times, unless proven guilty. Using potentially lethal weapons undermines the very fabric of our criminal justice system. The authoritarian left and right however don’t agree and we need to spend time convincing them. Kenan Malik does a great job of looking underneath this crisis:
There is clearly more to the riots than simple random hooliganism. But that does not mean that the riots, as many have claimed, are protests against disenfranchisement, social exclusion and wasted lives. In fact, it’s precisely because of disenfranchisement, social exclusion and wasted lives that these are not ‘protests’ in any meaningful sense, but a mixture of incoherent rage, gang thuggery and teenage mayhem. Disengaged not just from the political process (largely because politicians, especially those on the left, have disengaged from them), there is a generation (in fact more than a generation) with no focus for their anger and resentment, no sense that they can change society and no reason to feel responsible for the consequences of their actions. That is very different from suggesting that the riots were caused by, a response to, or a protest against, unemployment, austerity and the cuts.
Shock, horror, a nuanced look at why this is happening. It’s very easy for all of us at a time like this to lapse into easy left/right generalisations. And the point I highlighted makes far more sense than simply suggesting that there was an easy cause/effect between the cuts agenda and the explosion of violence into London’s (and beyond) streets. But Malik isn’t alone; there’s also the At-Long-Last-I-Have-A-Job-Blog:
The looting that’s engulfing us must become a game-changing moment for our society. Repressing the urges and desires that we have so carefully groomed will not work. We cannot police the problem out of existence. It may well be that in the very short term there must be a robust response because the consequences of this unrest are too devastating for too many of our comrades for it to be simply allowed to run its course. But if we think that crushing this revolt with unprecedented firepower and then carrying on as before will sort the problems out, we are deluded. We have to attack the root causes. We can’t continue to have “good” greed and “bad” greed. We have to regain the cultural understanding that we appear to have lost: that all greed is corrosive. That will require changes in us all, not just in those who are rampaging through our streets.
This is a brilliant, even deeper look at what’s fuelling this seemingly contagious behaviour. We have a society which is indeed now built on the value that greed is good. New Labour built that up to the nth degree, building up the entire economy on the presumption that acquisition for its own sake was a good thing. Crazy levels of debt were built up as people thoughtlessly got things for the sake of getting them. And of course after 2008 we’ve had an equally loud message that it’s possible to get away with unthinkable levels of greed: if you’re a banker you can wreck the entire economy and noone will hold you to account. It seems silly now to think that that message wouldn’t spread out into wider society and have lessons drawn from it. Our values as a whole are utterly fucked up.
I have a few other thoughts:
- Rolling/’breaking’ news is a problematic factor here. There’s more than a little evidence piling up that opportunistic little shits are seeing disorder as it happens and then joining in. I don’t believe in censoring the press in any way, but ‘breaking’ news doesn’t allow for any understanding, and the BBC at least, as a public service broadcaster should think long and hard about its priorities here.
- Twitter has been condemned by the Right as a contributing cause, but that’s as moronic as blaming the telephone for violence in the past. The medium isn’t the problem. It’s also disturbing to hear the Met are planning on trawling through thousands of tweets, looking for people inciting violence. Demonising speech, even inflammatory speech, without being able to determine cause & effect, is dangerous.
- There’s more than a little evidence also that the police allowed certain flashpoints to happen unchecked. There’s either incompetence or appallingly Macchiavellian agendas at play in the middle of this in certain boroughs. This isn’t to say that all the policing throughout this has been bad, but there is the sense that the Met is an even more disordered mess than we’d previously thought. Hopefully today’s effort will be better.
That’s it for now – I don’t have any easy answers. Comments welcome.
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