Hysteria follows anarchy
I have held off writing about the wave of rioting and looting that hit London and some other English towns and cities early last week partly because I was busy (work, Ramadan and an overhanging article on ME) and partly because I did not feel I knew enough about the situation to write anything of value — I do not live near where any of the major violence took place, I did not witness any of it, I do not have strong connections to the communities involved, and so could not write much that has not already been said by others. Croydon was my home town until 2001; I used to go to London Road a lot, and I was quite shocked that there had been so much destruction there when there was no protest motive and the people whose property was damaged could not possibly have done anything to offend, let alone oppress, the attackers. I read an edited version of this blog post in the Guardian on Friday, by someone who had witnessed the looting in Walworth in south London, which demolishes a lot of the generalisations peddled in the media, particularly that it was mostly carried out by young black men (when in fact it was really carried out by people of all races and both sexes). What I want to comment on here is the public reaction to the incidents, which have been characterised by knee-jerk responses and naive stock solutions such as bringing back national service. We are in danger of trampling over justice and civil liberties just as when terrorism was the issue, and one clear injustice has already been done.
The naive solutions include national service, shutting down “social media”, evicing council tenants who have been involved or whose dependants have been involved, and harsh sentences for relatively minor contributions to the disorder. To deal with the matter of national service first: we have an entirely volunteer army in this country, and apart from the period of the mid-20th century when there were two major wars, we have no tradition of compulsory military service. Somehow, society managed to maintain order (and an empire) for centuries before the necessity of a major war in 1914 made compulsory service the only option. In western Europe, many countries have abolished it in the last twenty years or so; only Switzerland, Spain and Austria retain compulsory military service, and not all men participate (in Spain there is a lottery, while in Austria there are options for conscientious objection that are liberally granted). Military service is mostly found in third-world countries, many of which have recent experience of military dictatorships and which have far worse problems with violent crime than we do here (most of South America, for example). As for the discipline it supposedly instilled, we might remember that only men were conscripted and people of both sexes were involved in the recent rioting.
As for the matter of conscripting rioters, looters or other delinquents into the armed forces, this is likely to rapidly lead to a breakdown of discipline in the army rather than instil discipline into the conscripts. It would lead to conflict between the voluntarily enlisted soldiers and the conscripts, particularly as the former might fear that their positions were unsafe. If such people were sent to Afghanistan or Pakistan, it would be a disaster on the world stage as our hoodlums might rob and attack locals and perhaps British and allied forces’ supplies as well. It might even lead to outright war crimes. It should be avoided at all costs.
Regarding shutting down social media such as Twitter and Facebook, it is likely that other media besides these were used to co-ordinate attacks and attract participants, including text messaging. I find it inconceivable that everyone involved had Blackberries or used BlackBerry Messaging given the diversity of the British smartphone market (and this is assuming that most people even had smartphones). Furthermore, the same media, including SMS, were no doubt being used by innocent people nearby to keep in touch with friends and relatives, to call for help, to arrange relief to those in danger, and to simply report what was going on. I saw some tweets during the violence in north London from a disabled woman asking what chemists were open and unaffected, since she needed to obtain medication. For such a measure to be effective, it would have to cut off all mobile communications, and that would endanger innocent people particularly now that phone boxes are being closed as most people have mobile phones (and even if they were not, the boxes would likely be vandalised anyway; you can make a mobile call or send a text message hiding in a secluded place, which can be much safer than using a phone box in the middle of a street when there is a riot going on).
Third, there has been pressure to evict council tenants who have been involved or whose children have, and it was reported that Wandsworth council served an eviction notice on a tenant whose son participated in looting in the Clapham Junction area. The final decision will rest with a judge, so it might be hoped that the decision will be made once the public anger at the rioting has died down somewhat. No details have been made public about the family, except that it is a mother and son who have been threatened and nobody is suggesting that the woman is involved. On one hand, I fully support evicting people who have been making their neighbours’ lives a misery, or who have been involved in persistent criminality or using their council house or flat (and it probably is a flat) for criminal purposes such as storing stolen goods or drugs, and if the tenant allows it to go on, there is a case for evicting them. If one of their children, unknown to them, commits a crime, that should not be grounds for eviction, because it is not the fault of the head of the family but of that individual. Particularly as in this case, many people appear to have joined in the looting on the spur of the moment, it would be unfair to treat first-time offenders, let alone their families, the same way as those who cause a nuisance or a danger to their neighbours.
Finally, we come to the sentencing of people involved. It appears that political pressure is being applied to imprison anyone found guilty of any involvement, and to remand in custody anyone charged with it. I do not dispute that anyone who led people to loot, who used violence, started fires or stole substantial amounts of property should go to prison, but yesterday the papers reported that someone who had stolen a six-pack case of water from a shop that had already been broken into received a six-month sentence, and Greater Manchester Police gloated on Twitter (the tweet was subsequently removed, but it is preserved here) that a mother of two was jailed for five months for accepting looted shorts, despite not having been involved in any violence. These sentences are, of course, ludicrously out of proportion to the offences committed and highly likely to be reduced on appeal. People involved in peripheral, non-violent looting offences should not be judged as if they were responsible for the whole episode or as if they were part of a joint enterprise; their offences should be judged for what they are. Blogger Matthew Taylor suggests harsh community penalties for those involved, such that we see “hundreds of people in hi-visibility jackets being forced to spend every minute of their leisure time improving the communities they have attacked, and facing the prospect of doing the same for the next year”. He also picks apart the rationale behind the six-month sentence and finds that it does not comply with sentencing guidelines, specifically being the most serious sentence for the least serious category of theft. (There is a letter in today’s Guardian that notes that a woman who kept someone she had brought into the country as a slave in her house in London got the same sentence; violent crimes, including those which cause serious injury, commonly receive that long a sentence, or less.)
As for the reasons behind it, I think there were different groups that took part for different reasons. At the time I sent out a tweet that said to “stop saying London is burning; it isn’t. A few scumbags are going on the rampage”, but the roll-call of people prosecuted for looting reveals that not all of them were “scumbags” but were sometimes well-educated and employed and seemed to have solid careers ahead of them and had not been in trouble with the law before; some of their families turned them in. I strongly suspect that the violence in Tottenham and Manchester was organised by local gangs to avenge the killing of Mark Duggan, who was closely connected to criminal gangs in both areas, and that some were enraged by “yet another” killing of a black man by the police, perhaps assuming that any investigation would be a cover-up that would vindicate the police. (The police have actually shot armed white people dead, such as a lawyer who was shot dead in Chelsea, a very gentrified area of west London, in 2008 after firing indiscriminately at neighbours and police.)
As for the others, some of them may have been motivated by over-excitement, the opportunity to “cause a bit of chaos” or get their hands on something they couldn’t afford. In some cases, they stole things they did not even want (such as a plasma TV), for reasons they later could not explain. Some commentators, such as Peter Oborne and Pankaj Mishra, have noted that some among the higher echelons of society very recently thought nothing of dishonestly billing the taxpayer for various luxuries, and that ordinary people cannot really be expected to respect the law when their leaders, and the wealthy in society, apparently do not. I do not think this explains, let alone justifies, destroying one’s neighbours’ property, but it might explain why some people helped themselves to property from shops others had already broken into, perhaps assuming that looting a chain-store was a victimless crime.
I also suspect that many people think nicking a little bit here and there, particularly if from a large organisation that will not notice the difference, is not significant and if you can get away with it, go ahead, and this may have been reinforced by the scandals of MP’s expenses and bankers’ bonuses but was already present (and may have been behind the MPs’ behaviour that caused the scandal). What happened here was that people got carried away and thought they could get away with stealing more expensive items, and did not consider that they would get picked up on CCTV or that their families would object to having expensive stolen property in their homes. Still, if we are to punish all those guilty of non-violent thefts during last week’s violence with prison, we should reconsider our general attitude to theft, otherwise we are guilty of hypocrisy as they were only doing what a lot of people would do if they thought they could get away with it, and probably have done.
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