Last night saw the Metropolitan Police boost their numbers and organising themselves tactically a lot better. As soon as ‘rioters’ decided that there would be repercussions to their behaviour London suddenly went almost quiet (despite numerous rumours otherwise). No water cannon was needed, no rubber bullets or (as many are still demanding) a shoot-to-kill policy. That pattern was clearly not repeated across the country, but who could have expected that the same problems would crop up in places like Gloucester? I’ll admit I have no idea what the policing was like last night in Manchester or Birmingham (and I’d like someone who genuinely knows more to educate me) – were they on the back foot? Under resourced? Badly organised? But even those things weren’t true, how can we still be talking about severely violent sanctions against (largely) kids? I’m fully aware of the violence they’ve been perpetrating, of the fires they’ve started and the lives they’ve ruined, but how can anyone who calls themselves ‘liberal’ (which to me means someone who doesn’t resort to knee-jerk solutions to deep rooted problems) imagine that increasing the levels of violence will fix anything?
There is another sensation you feel watching these pictures, and it is one with which we are becoming increasingly familiar, especially in 2011, the year the news refused to stop. It is impotence.
The most unsettling reports have been of policemen standing back, apparently powerless to stop people as they smash and burn and steal. It’s deeply unnerving to see those we expect to protect us incapable and in retreat. Read the comment threads and Twitter feeds, with their demands that “this must stop”, or even for looters to be “shot on sight”, and you see the signs of impotent rage, the desperate desire for somebody to do something.
I get it. To those of you who’ve been angry at me for damning you for your ‘illiberal’ stance on this disorder, I do get it. Seeing neighbourhoods you love getting trashed for no good reason while the authorities appear for any reason not to be able to stop it by means we’d prefer is of course going to push you beyond limits you thought you had. If I’d had my building burnt down in the last few days I’d probably feel the same. Our police can’t cure disorder as we’d like, in the same way that they and politicians don’t stop the bankers who destroyed our economy. Why should we bother sticking with the traditional ways of solving problems when it feels like they don’t work? Freedland adds:
And while the revulsion at the looting has been widespread and bipartisan – with plenty of liberals admitting to “coming over all Daily Mail” at the ugliness of the vandalism – that sense of the impotence of politics is widespread, too. One aspect of the phone-hacking scandal that went deep was its revelation that those we might think exert authority – police and politicians – were in fact supine before an unelected media corporation. The sheer power of News Corp contrasted with the craven behaviour of those we elect or entrust to look out for us.
Even if few years have brought the news congestion of 2011, there has been trouble before, with 1981 an obvious precedent. But in previous periods of instability the assumption was that if only political power was in different hands, or if key institutions like the police modified their behaviour, things would be better. Now what small glimmers of optimism there are come from pockets of communal action, like the collective clean-ups that started in London . Democratic institutions themselves are seen as weak or broken.
He’s right. We have a society where there are no meaningful consequences for bad behaviour. Break the economy and get your bonuses increased. Steal from a JD Sports and watch the Met let you get away red handed. Meanwhile our elected leaders let Rupert Murdoch and his ilk get away with outrageous abuses of corporate power, our courts throw the book at genuine protesters, when the police nearly kill them, and we’re left with the feeling that only by taking harsh steps can we redress this imbalance.
I still don’t agree. Calling in the army to shoot civilians didn’t work too well in Northern Ireland. Using a water cannon (I hear the UK only has 6), against fast-moving targets who’ll just slip off to another target well ahead of the police is pointless (and that’s without taking into consideration the morality of it). Higher numbers of police using better tactics won’t stop this disorder instantaneously – after all we have moronic behaviour like this to contend with – but London has tentatively shown it may at least stop further outbreaks of mass violence. But where do we go from there? Moral leadership would help, but good luck finding that in Westminster or Lambeth Palace. Dave Hill says:
it has long been far from clear that the tactic has had any benefit in terms of reducing knife and other violent crime against young people, which have risen under Boris. At the same time it is regarded by mature and intelligent adults to have had a very bad influence on the relationship between young Londoners and the police. The post-riot debate should not fixate on the quantity of police resources, but the effectiveness – or disastrous lack of it – with which they have used.
But there’s no call for this. We could put the last few days in perspective and ask who these kids are and why they might feel the need to behave like this (even illogical behaviour doesn’t come from a vacuum). Instead there’s just a call (now from the idiot PM) for greater weaponry. Just soundbiting everything that’s happened as ‘mindless criminality’ (which make no mistake has happened, but it doesn’t remotely explain everything) doesn’t allow any opportunity to consider our society’s values and how healthy they might be. Graeme Archer adds:
these riots aren’t spontaneous, but the result of years of incubation. We have de-civilised boroughs like Hackney. This is dis-civilisation. This is what happens when middle-class liberals suspend judgment, for fear of causing offence.
I’ve seen just that in my borough – the authorities refusing to intervene in a responsible, normal way against bad behaviour for fear of being called ‘intolerant’ or ‘racist’, but this just adds to the problem of troublemakers not seeing consequences for objectively bad behaviour. That message really has been received and understood. Instead politics is now all about the state saying it’s not interested in solving community problems; it’s about withdrawing money and opportunity from communities which need it the most, and crushing dissent. The next time this problem comes up in a big way (and if we don’t start being a bit more grown up it sure will), expect it to end far worse than this, and for our disconnect from one another to get completely out of hand. It doesn’t have to be that way.
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