09 August 2011

Into another abyss...

I'm writing this a bit dazed, frankly, after three nights of terrible and escalating violence on the streets of London, and now Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool. It turns out that, even as stock markets around the world continue to tank, the main story making headlines in the UK hasn't been that. It's been the riots.

The whole thing seems to have got very out of hand almost by accident on Saturday in Tottenham... a peaceful demonstration demanding answers from the police over the death of a local resident, Mark Duggan, earlier in the week was followed by a wave of violence directed against property in the Tottenham area, which the police were slow to respond to. The perpetrators of the violence seem to have discovered two inconvenient truths: (1) looting shops, once you've broken down the shutters/windows/etc. is very easy; (2) with only 1400 police immediately deployable in London (that is a figure from a recent interview with London Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse), the more disturbances there are, the less the police are able to keep order at each one (although reinforcements have been drafted in from other areas). What we've seen on Sunday and now Monday night, with escalating violence over a wider range of target areas, is opportunistic exploitation of thinly stretched police resources.

Some points on this:

Firstly, while the Metropolitan police have tried hard to change the image of a force described as "institutionally racist" in the MacPherson report of 1999, and there has been some progress, it's clearly not enough. A delegation of family and friends who had gone to Tottenham police station after reading in the local newspaper that Duggan died as a result of a police bullet were stonewalled and kept waiting by police for hours; it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that police decided that they weren't worth bothering with because they were black, or working class, or both. The Met's stock is pretty low anyway at the moment after revelations that officers were in cahoots with News International in the phone hacking scandal, and also the absurdly heavy-handed policing of the student demos last November and the Fortnum & Mason occupation this March. As this excellent article from Stafford Scott points out, given the Met's poor record on interfacing with so many citizens, it's hard to be surprised when something like this happens.

But at the same time, none of that excuses looting or violence against shops and other businesses which are employing people in extremely deprived areas. A Lewisham councillor sent out a tweet last night that said something like "please don't riot because our budget is being cut by 30%, which means if you smash Lewisham up we don't have the money to put it back together again". Spot on, that man. This is violence against communities who were already very hard up against it, suffering disproportionately from the ConDem cuts and now suffering a hell of a lot more because people - many of them, it seems, operating in well-organised criminal gangs - decided it would be a good idea to raid high streets and shopping centres for TVs and trainers. Now, Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell are right to point out that our current brand of turbo-capitalism sets a really bad example, and the bankers are engaged in looting of their own, but at the end of the day smashing up working class neighbourhoods does nothing to change society. Political activism (perhaps in the Green Party, the only political party opposing the cuts at present) is the way forward for the people who are losing out from the ConDem cuts.

Thirdly, the cuts aren't purely responsible for this situation because (a) we're only in year 1 of a 4-year cuts programme, and (2) even at pre-2010 staffing levels, the police wouldn't have been able to cope. However, the cost of the clean-up from these riots shows the folly of making deep cuts in police numbers or in other community services. The cuts could end up costing much, much more than we save. Conversely, it may be that by increasing public spending in some areas we can actually *save* money.

Fourthly, people calling for the army to be sent in need to remember Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland in 1972. Personally I have no wish to head towards a "death squad" model of society where people are shot without trial. Tom Watson MP's suggestion that the army be used as backup and escorts for emergency services workers (e.g. protecting firefighters and ambulances, etc., freeing up the police for frontline duties) seems like a good one.

That's all for now. If you are living in London or one of the other affected cities then I hope you are safe and well... all my thoughts are with you.


Van Patten said...

You beat me to the punch again, and I'd echo your sentiments expressed at the end of the article when I say, as a former resident of several parts of London (as I know you are) my thoughts are with those affected, either directly or indirectly by the disorder last night.

1/ I find it absolutely extraordinary that only 1400 Police are deployable in the entire Metropolitan police's area - though if it's the Deputy Mayor saying it, we might need Livingstone in to ask his paymasters if they can 'borrow' some people from the PSB(Public Security Bureau - PR China) or MPS (Ministry of people's Security - Korea DPR) - these guys know how to deal with disorder.... Seriously, more on 'that man' later but there have to be more people than that which can be deployed - if there aren't we need potentially to abolish the Met and reform it root and branch, allowing it to concentrate on protecting the public, rather than becoming some bloated, bureaucratic monolith.

2/ Having had some dealings with the Police in a professional capacity in the past, they can be standoffish. Lest we forget, Macpherson was a catastrophic document, wrongly painting all Police as racists and setting back community relations many years. Those responsible, many of whom are prominent in the Compass movement, and indeed the Green Party, need to take a long hard look at themselves and offer an apology for indirectly allowing this to happen. In terms of the Policing at the 'Anti cuts' march (and this disorder seems unconnected, let me make that clear) I doubt the managers of the BHS, Santander and indeed Fortnum & Mason (all occupied or severely damaged, with Ed Miliband's tacit approval)would say the Police were heavy-handed. When dealing with organised anarchists, we need to crack down hard, or else you simply encourage them to further compromise the rule of law.

3/ I would echo your caution when people call for the 'Army to be sent in' although the lessons from Bloody Sunday appear to have ensured it was for the most part a one -off aberration, caused by amongst other things, deploying a crack regiment (the Paras) instead of a 'normal' infantry unit, which I'd argue would have shown considerably more restraint. Besides which, we're now engaged in two theatres, Libya and Afghanistan with the Chiefs of the Defence Staff saying equipment is on the edge in terms of our ability to continue to operate, so I doubt it's practically possible anyway.

4/Could attack Livingstone but not really in the mood for 'shooting fish in a barrel'. My only observation is that Thank God Johnson was at the helm. Knowing Ken he'd have probably been in Dixons helping himself to a TV and blaming the disturbance on a PM who has been out of office for 21 years.

Ace Mower said...

Outstanding article, Hal, and sage comment from the VP.

Has to be said, arriving at Chelmsford felt akin to escaping a ghost town. London streets drained of vehicules, few fellow pedestrians, deserted trains, twitchy travellers, shops shut or boarded.

Fortunately all required coffee outlets were open as usual.

Essex as glorious sanctuary. The day on which sympathy riots break out in Danbury will be day on which the game will be irrevocably lost.

I did catch the recent Cuts demo in CM from my desk - champion view of Marriage Millers - and the valiant protesters were in fine voice. I was disappointed not to have seen Hal at forefront, throwing out STORE! vogues.

Hal Berstram said...

Ace - great to see you on this board.

Chelmsford seems to have escaped relatively unscathed so far!

Ace Mower said...

Great to be here, Hal. My throughput of linkedin and facebook updates remains derisory, except for occasional breaches of my daughters' data protection rights by uploading camera shots, but I am stepping up my social networking comments currently.

Amusingly enough the geezer in the sarnie shop at the corner of Duke St and the roundabout said that there had been a minor flurry of related public order offences in Essex on Tuesday night in Clacton and Baz, but that these were on the level of nipping into a charity shop and half-inching a 50p paperback rather than the mass looting and insurrection seen in London, Manc, Brum and Wolverhampton.

Chelmsford remains a glorious sanctuary, and seagulls continue to provide a glorious audio backdrop for County Hall.

London has settled right back down following Monday and Tuesday's decidedly anxious and eerie aggro and desolation. All no doubt due to Dave and Boz returning from their hols to Take Charge, and in Boz's case take the heat from distressed punters. The polis tactics of standing by while looting and disorder prevailed was outrageous. I'd have liked to have seen Teresa May at the frontline wielding her kitten heels.

Was at Hackney yesterday and there were a surprising no. Of shops whose windows has either been done in and boarded, or had been pre-emptively boarded and incorporated into the locking & opening up routine. Tidy business for the glazers and DIY shops...