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.