UK riots: Missing the bigger picture

August 15, 2011 5:42 am Published by Leave your thoughts

It has been over a week since we witnessed scenes of ‘shock and awe’ on the streets of Britain. This time flames and man-made destruction laid waste to sections of one of the world’s most affluent cities, rather than the usual situation where the ‘shock and awe’ is something used to devastate the cities of ‘rogue’ nations.

Akin to the days that followed the 9/11 or 7/7 tragedies, both the public and national media have been baying for the blood of those responsible, their anger palpable. Yet, as was the case post 9/11, there has been scant root-cause analysis. All explanations focus on the present state of affairs- ‘feral youths’ and ‘hooligans’ out to destroy society and bite the hand that (supposedly) feeds them. Few focus retrospectively and examine how events have been unfolding to reach a critical point that required only a spark to ignite the mound of dynamite that had slowly been building up over a period of years- isolated communities on the fringes of society, for years preached at by government yet at the same time ignored, feeling that they have little chance to aspire to anything approaching levels of prosperity visible in boroughs only a few miles away. Local Brixton resident Lionel Owusu put it this way: ”We absolutely condemn the violence but you have to look at the causes – causes are not excuses. People have got nothing and would rather be top of the criminal world than bottom of society. You have to address their education and aspirations.”

The anger of local residents and business owners, furious at the damage done to their livelihoods and to the reputation of their communities, is perfectly understandable. Such a reaction is human. However, a large proportion of the vitriol is emanates from those not personally affected by the riots, yet who feel affronted.

In an emergency Commons debate on 11th August, one after another, the ‘hang em and flog em’ brigade of Tory MPs demanded greater police powers and creative new ways of dealing with rioters. Plastic bullets, water cannons and even the army were mentioned, as if force alone were the only way to keep people in line these days. Old Tory MP Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) wanted to see Wembley stadium turned into a detention centre to hold rioters, citing an idea used by US police 40 years ago. Aside from the resemblance of this idea to General Pinochet’s use of the’Estadio Nacional’ in 1973, I doubt that any right minded person, with even a basic knowledge of history, would invoke the use of American police tactics from the early 70s. Andrea Leadsom (Northamptonshire South) wants rioters sprayed with coloured ink, so they can be later easily apprehended by police, presumably it will be even easier to nab anyone blinded by ink. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) was turned on by the idea by tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets.

None of these individuals, nor their (mostly) wealthy supporters, have been physically or financially affected by the damage and I doubt that many have even lived in, let alone visited, the boroughs of Tottenham, Lewisham or Brixton. Yet it is possible that they have been affected emotionally. The mere concept of an underclass with little to lose rampaging for several days through London and other major cities is an affront to their capitalist sensitivities and their beliefs that each should know their place- ‘How dare the poor riot? Have they no shame? Surely they understand we must all tighten our belts to weather the economic crisis. Come now, fiddling expenses and bailing out banks with billions of pounds of public money is one thing, but at least we never smash things up with our own hands’

Labour backbenchers questioned the counterproductive nature of drastically cutting police budgets. The Head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Sir Hugh Orde, made the point that less money equals fewer officers on the streets- generally not a sensible idea in view of the fact that the Con-Dem austerity measures will further deprive Britain’s poorest communities making future social disorder more likely.

At the end of last week, Labour leader Ed Milliband gave a surprisingly rational analysis of the situation by pointing to the role of socioeconomic inequalities in the recipe that lead to cooking up the riots. He condemned a society that had lost its moral compass, criticising not just the criminality of the underclass but also that of the ruling class. He alluded to MPs who dishonestly claimed public money in expenses and mentioned the bankers who had even more. Ed Milliband’s appeal for a public inquiry and his warning that ”knee-jerk reactions often don’t work,” demonstrate a more mature understanding of the situation than that shown by some of his Tory colleagues.

Calls to see those convicted of rioting evicted from their council houses, an idea supported by Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, and an e-petition calling for convicted rioters to lose all benefits may give short term satisfaction to the Sun and Mail reading law and order brigade, yet such ideas will not solve the heart of the problem and will only invite future problems. Though it may sound a little over-simplified, people with decent jobs, aspirations of a decent future who feel valued generally do not tend to run amok. Not only do they realise the counterproductive nature of doing so but, they are also more willing to show respect to others as it is shown to them. Further impoverishing these individuals will lead to them having even less to lose and more misdirected anger to throw at symbols of prosperity such as shops and other local businesses.

What appears to have been totally bypassed by the involuntary knee jerk reactions of those calling for imprisonment is the issue of space. Britain’s prison population, one of the highest in Europe, reached a record 85,931. Prison capacity in the UK is at present, a little over 88,000. Whilst some would see more public money spent on building new prisons, that same money could be used for community regeneration schemes that give people a sense of purpose and are aimed to keep them out of prison.

Those sent to cramped prisons risk receiving the wrong kind of ‘community education’ as they will inevitably mix with a hard core criminal element (including bankers and expenses fiddling MPs), for whom prison should be reserved, emerging even more marginalised by society and with even fewer job prospects. It is no surprise that the US, which has more of its people incarcerated than any other country, close to 1% of the total population, can also boast a very high rate of reoffending.

However, a serious matter risks being overshadowed by analysis of the causes of the riots. That matter is the cause of Mark Duggan’s death. To date details of his death are sketchy yet speculation is rife. Soon after his shooting, there was mention that he may have fired at police. Then the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has stated that Mark did not fire at police. There is also no evidence that he intended to act in a violent manner. Many questions remain. Why, for example, has the driver of the cab in which Mr Duggan was travelling not been publically asked his version of events? For the sake of the reputation of the Metropolitan Police and in order to allow Mark’s family closure, answers must be forthcoming. A combination of increased animosity towards a police force perceived as unaccountable and towards a government intent at further increasing the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ will only lead to history repeating itself. Next time, however, the situation may be worse and not only confined to a few London suburbs.


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This post was written by Tomasz Pierscionek

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