Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, asks why the British response to the recent riots has been so authoritarian, when the opposite approach has been proven to work better:
Equally sparse as full consideration of the causes of the violence has been any serious attempt to ask how we should treat those who participated in it. Many are deeply unsympathetic characters that it is easy to want removed from sight, but if we want to prevent future problems we need to be guided by reason, not rage. Norway effectively abolished incarceration as a punishment and reconceived prisons instead as rehabilitation centres built on principles of human rights, and rates of reoffending are a third of the UK’s. Again, it can be an example to us.
Most people in Britain are not lawless rioters, and the crowds who turned out on cleanups are probably more representative of the majority. But we have clearly allowed significant alienation to develop in our society and it is in all our interests to address the causes of it. We need reason and a rigorous scientific approach to diagnose the immediate and underlying causes of violence. We need the courage to be rational and not vengeful in eliminating those causes: inequality, poor urban environments, underemployment. We need empathy and humanity to deal with those people who are the symptom of our problems in a way that will rehabilitate rather than further victimise them. A society that will brutalise and neglect, then discipline and punish those that it has made brutish and negligent is not one in which any person can live happily and safely for long.
Britain however has deeply authoritarian attitudes built into its social fabric, the extent of which has shocked me in the post-riots desperation to condemn first and ask questions never. Copson’s argument is completely logical and sound, yet the British public is disproportionately happy with disproportionately harsh sentencing. Cameron knows it, is taking advantage of it, and indeed it’s hardly surprising that he should, as Naomi Klein points out:
But the people committing night-time robbery sure as hell know that their elites have been committing daytime robbery. Saqueos are contagious. The Tories are right when they say the rioting is not about the cuts. But it has a great deal to do with what those cuts represent: being cut off. Locked away in a ballooning underclass with the few escape routes previously offered – a union job, a good affordable education – being rapidly sealed off. The cuts are a message. They are saying to whole sectors of society: you are stuck where you are, much like the migrants and refugees we turn away at our increasingly fortressed borders.
Cameron’s response to the riots is to make this locking-out literal: evictions from public housing, threats to cut off communication tools and outrageous jail terms (five months to a woman for receiving a stolen pair of shorts). The message is once again being sent: disappear, and do it quietly.
There is a desperate need to change our attitudes to those who have been economically neglected, but as John Pilger points out, that narrative simply isn’t on the table:
As MPs lined up to bay their class bigotry and hypocrisy in parliament, barely a handful spoke this truth. Not one of the heirs to Edmund Burke’s 18th-century rants against “mob rule” by a “swinish multitude” referred to previous rebellions in Brixton, Tottenham and Toxteth in the 1980s, when Lord Scarman reported that “complex political, social and economic factors” had caused a “disposition towards violent protest” and recommended urgent remedial action. Instead, Labour and Liberal bravehearts called for water cannon and everything draconian. Among them was the Labour MP Hazel Blears. Remember her notorious expenses? None made the obvious connection between the greatest inequality since records began, a police force that routinely abuses a section of the population and kills with impunity, and a permanent state of colonial warfare with an arms trade to match: the apogee of violence.
We haven’t quite become a Tea Party nation, but our attitudes have similarly been shaped by the right wing media over the last generation to believe overwhelmingly that these people are somehow different – ‘feral’ some have said. We don’t need to look at any political, social or economic factors – this, we’re told, is down to a different type of human being – one not like the rest of us. Of course this dehumanisation suits both the tabloid press and right wing politicians (by which I include New Labour), but until we’re prepared to challenge this entirely false narrative as a nation, and reject a judicial paradigm which is clearly failing, this problem isn’t going to go away; it’ll get much worse.
The discussion about the days of rioting in England is continuing, amidst polarisation the likes of which I’ve never experienced in discussing politics before. Here we have Dr David Starkey – noted historian and frequent pain the ass – arguing about the riots being down to black ‘culture’ (read: ‘people’). I’ve always detested this man. Always. And after these exchanges on the BBC’s ‘Newsnight’ I can confirm I think even less of him now. Try this initial quote:
David Starkey: There has been a profound cultural change. I’ve just been re-reading Enoch Powell, the rivers of blood speech. His prophesy was absolutely right in one sense; the Tiber didn’t foam with blood, but flames lambent wrapped around Tottenham and wrapped around Clapham. But it wasn’t intercommunal violence. This is where he was completely wrong.
What’s happened is that a substantial section of the chavs that your wrote about have become black. The whites have become black.
A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture has become the fashion. And black and white, boy and girl operate in this language together.
This language which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois, that’s been intruded in England. And this is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.
Newsnight Interviewer: In that speech Enoch Powell talked about in 15 or 20 years time, the black man having the whip hand over the white man.
David Starkey: That’s not true. What’s happened is that black culture, this is the enormously important thing: it’s not skin colour, it’s cultural.
His final line is a neat side-step from saying black ‘skin colour’ doesn’t legitimise racist attitudes like his, but black ‘culture’ does. Riight. So black culture is gangster culture, which is the ’cause’ of the rioting? As Owen Jones points out he directly equates black culture with criminality! What a moronic way to try to legitimise racism! How many lies and misrepresentations can one man make in one sitting? Since when has there ever been a single, homogenous, black cultural entity? Since when is hip hop or rap a uniquely destructive cultural form? This man presents himself as an intellectual, yet doesn’t have any means of directly linking subcultural attitudes to skin colour to the violence which took place. Seumas Milne reflects on mainstream attitudes which very much did link into the violence, and strangely enough they have nothing to do whatsoever with race, sorry, ‘culture’:
Politicians and media talking heads counter that none of that has anything to do with sociopathic teenagers smashing shop windows to walk off with plasma TVs and trainers. But where exactly did the rioters get the idea that there is no higher value than acquiring individual wealth, or that branded goods are the route to identity and self-respect?
While bankers have publicly looted the country’s wealth and got away with it, it’s not hard to see why those who are locked out of the gravy train might think they were entitled to help themselves to a mobile phone. Some of the rioters make the connection explicitly. “The politicians say that we loot and rob, they are the original gangsters,” one told a reporter.Another explained to the BBC: “We’re showing the rich people we can do what we want.”
Most have no stake in a society which has shut them out or an economic model which has now run into the sand. It’s already become clear that divided Britain is in no state to absorb the austerity now being administered because three decades of neoliberal capitalism have already shattered so many social bonds of work and community.
What we’re now seeing across the cities of England is the reflection of a society run on greed – and a poisonous failure of politics and social solidarity. There is now a danger that rioting might feed into ethnic conflict.
So maybe it’s not ‘gangsta culture’ responsible at all, or (more significantly) the concept of ‘gangster’ needs to be seen in a much broader context than it already is. Helen Dexter looks into the causes of violence, and finds far more varied (and difficult) answers than simply blaming it on race:
Richards in Fighting for the Rain Forest (1996) talks of ‘excluded intellectuals’: educated youths with few if any opportunities, or youths who feel they have been denied the education they deserve. A young, educated population with few opportunities has played a significant role not only in Sierra Leone and Liberia but also the Arab Spring and recent protests in Greece and Spain. Richards’ work suggests that it is not poverty per se that provokes violence but rather relative deprivation, the perception that your situation is deteriorating in contrast to others around you.
In Modern Hatreds (2001) Kaufman writes about the power of narratives, history and myths in producing and legitimizing violence. In the Balkans those trying to provoke violence told stories about historic conflicts between peoples, telling a particular version of history that served their purpose. Commentators bought into these stories, re-telling them, reinforcing them and in stressing the ethnic origins of those involved – created the very ethnic war they claimed to be observing. Tottenham has conflict narratives aplenty. There is a history of police racism to draw on. Race is a much simpler narrative for the press and politicians to draw on than the more complex class and social exclusion.
Not all conditions have to be complex though. It is not a coincidence that these riots are happening during the summer holidays. An ex-community worker in Northern Ireland once commented that street violence was noticeably worse in Belfast during the school summer holidays. She discovered the power of ‘bouncy castle diplomacy’ – give the kids something fun to do and they tend not to throw bricks at each other. Never under-estimate the power of boredom.
So, are the riots in London to do with social exclusion and deprivation? Absolutely. Norman Tebitt had a point though when in 1981 he told an audience in Blackpool that although his Dad had been unemployed in the 1930s he hadn’t rioted. Certain structural conditions seem to make violence more likely but they don’t make violence inevitable; clearly agency is involved. However where violence does not make sense agents are unlikely to choose it.
Violence is also rarely if ever spontaneous: it is a reaction, it needs a spark. The surest way to make violence appear an appropriate course of action is to have suffered violence against you, either directly or indirectly – the shooting of Mark Duggan, the suicide of a Tunisian street vendor, a history of domestic violence.
One of the most ingrained and comforting misperceptions in politics is that humans are naturally prone to violence. We’re not. Most people find violence very difficult to do. Understanding the processes by which violence becomes a viable choice of action is not as much fun as declaring how awful it all is or heralding the overthrow of the government and rise of the underclass. It might help to stop it, though. Along the way we might also learn that our violence is not so different to theirs.
Strangely enough you can see much of this in Paul Lewis’ firsthand account of the riots. Maybe if our elected representatives read Dexter’s analysis and Lewis’ account, they’d choose more helpful options than collective punishment, political sentencing and threatening to restrict free speech for all. Kicking entire families out of council accommodation for any connection whatsoever with the four days of rioting is absurd, as is cutting off their benefits – how can this bring those who feel they’re at the fringes of society back into the fold? And whilst using rubber bullets and water cannon might make certain elements in society feel safer, they don’t just themselves undermine the rule of law, they miss the point entirely. As Seumas Milne said on Twitter today:
@BillyGottaJob Yes, agree about greed culture, underpinned by a capitalism that shreds communities, fuels inequality and delivers crisis
We have instead to start looking at the values upon which our society is based – our neoliberal capitalist project (note: I’m not knocking capitalism itself) is shredding communities and is fuelling inequality. What sort of society do we live in, where we say we should aspire to unhinged levels of materialism as a precondition to partaking in civil society, and then make it impossible for a sizeable number to join in? Charlie Brooker’s right when he adds:
If preventing further looting is our aim, then as well as addressing the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, I’d take a long hard look at MTV Cribs and similar TV shows that routinely confuse human achievement with the mindless acquisition of gaudy bling bullshit. The media heaves with propaganda promoting sensation and consumption above all else.
Jon Snow looks even deeper – at the gap between wealth and the law:
There is a sense in Britain too of a widening gap in both wealth and law – that there is a that there is one law for the elite and one for the poor. Take the MPs’ and Peers’ expenses scandal. A tiny handful of the expenses abusers have gone to jail. The vast majority have been allowed to pay stuff back or retreat to the political undergrowth. How many of the looters will be allowed to bring their plasma screens and running shoes back in return for their freedom? And yet it is the very unpunished abuse of the state by its elected and unelected elite which many argue is part of the landscape that the recent riots played out across.
We are told over sixteen-hundred rioters and looters have been arrested. Hundreds have been charged, some have already been punished – many cases are still in train.
Many have pointed to the reality that an even smaller handful of bankers have faced the law even than those politicians who have been prosecuted. No British banker is in jail for what happened in 2008. And as financial upheaval cascades before us all over again, almost no serious measures have been taken to stop the same people from doing it to the people all over again.
I’m not an academic. I’m not a famous historian. But even I can easily conclude from the evidence that we have at least two Britains (and on multiple levels), moving ever faster apart from each other, and simply making unfounded connections between race and criminality doesn’t hold the agencies responsible for increasing our society’s inequality to account. These riots have legitimised the latent authoritarianism present during New Labour like never before, threatening to make conversations about the inequalities central to early 21st century British life impossible. Anyone who suggests kicking rioters out on the streets (yet conveniently not other criminals) is a bad idea is being labelled as soft and weak, whilst a government hell bent on instituting unimaginable cuts misrepresents liberal attitudes to get away with blaming the disadvantaged for their disadvantage. Until/unless a new generation of politicians comes to the fore, eager more to do the right thing than retain indefinite power for its own sake, we’re screwed. The answers to the tough questions which need to be asked won’t come overnight – they may not even be possible within an electoral cycle, but since when did that mean they weren’t desirable?
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.
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.