Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Riots, searching for a narrative

I think a lot of what people want to do when an event occurs is search for a narrative. There has to be a reason for why things happen, and usually its going to be a reason that fits the political sensibilities of the person watching. I was reading an article suggesting that the reason Japan capitulated in world war 2 was the Soviet Union declaring war, rather than the nuclear bomb. The two events happened very close together, so that its rather difficult to piece them apart, but for a long time now the narrative has been entirely about the nuclear bombs, because it suits lots of people for it to be that way.

When the riots started, I'm reasonably confident in saying that they were about the police response. The Met has a history of lying to save its own officers when they do wrong- with Jean Menezes there was a whole host of mistruths let out by the Met as the story emerged, until finally the real story was that a man had been shot dead for doing pretty much nothing at all. To date, no real justice has been brought there. The same happened with Ian Tomlinson, and the same may have happened with Mark Duggan. Certainly the impression people may well have had was that IS what happened, and facts can easily get distorted very quickly. I know this is a terrible lefty thing for me to say, but the police being friendly with the community it serves is really vital, and things like the prevalence of stop and search have made populations criminalised, so that there is general dislike of the police.

However, there is again no doubt in my mind that the majority of the people causing trouble right now do not give a fuck about Mark Duggan. They might have hazy justifications in their heads based on a general dislike of the police, but criminals often do have justification. Because that what we've seen, criminals taking advantage of a situation, and then, when they've seen that they've been able to get away with it, a string of other criminals doing the same. Now perhaps some of those looting are not "career criminals", but they have a disrespect for their community enough that they are willing to steal and burn, causing damage and risk of death (and it seems like a miracle that there are no reported deaths in all that happened last night). They deserve to be caught and charged precisely for their crimes (no, they don't deserve to be hung or shot, silly people on facebook/twitter. We live in a civilised country, and we shall remind everyone of this).

I think its worth giving the police a bit of praise at this point. We don't fire rubber bullets, we don't use tear gas and water cannons. We had the riot police, who are not used to these kind of disturbances, dealing with the disturbances the best they could. They clearly failed, but to those watching news reports on tv, loudly calling for the police to just arrest looters rather than just watch.

1)The police are outnumbered. Yes, a stick and a shield and good training will get you some of the way, but if you turn a crowd against you you are going to make things to much worse.
2)Arresting people isn't the end of the problem. You have to actually get them to the cells, which I suspect is a tall order when the full force is deployed across the city!

I am going to go ahead and say that the police may need assistance from the armed forces, if tonight reflects last night. They were outnumbered and under resourced last night, because the looters were highly mobile and reasonably well organised. I hope that the response isn't going to get more violent, because I worry about escalation. I hope that we can deal with these problems in a way that makes our nation look good, because we could really use that right now.

And yes, it is worth thinking about the root causes. These people didn't have an attitude which thinks stealing is fine, which thinks burning and hurting is good, from nowhere. They are a product of our society, and we need to think about whether we can make it so less of these people are produced. I honestly don't know the character of the majority of the people involved last night. My instinct says these are likely to be impoverished kids who have been socialised into gangs and a lack of respect for social norms, but I could well be wrong in this. After all, apparently they were using fricking blackberries to organise themselves! I don't know what produces this kind of attitude where looting is just fine, provided you think you can get away with it. Maybe its mob mentality, maybe its just inevitable, but I do think we need to look at it. The answer isn't just harsher police tactics, or more police, because there will always be more of these people than the police if we just focus on fixing the symptoms.

Of course all this is my narrative, my feelings from having watched London erupt. I could be dead wrong on every point. I suspect we won't have real answers for a long time- I worry we might never get them. It was a fucked up night last night, and it may well be another one tonight. It felt different, and disturbing, to incidents like this in the past. Here's hoping we can work out how to stop it happening again.

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