New Internationalist

Our response to the riots is knee-jerk and oppressive


Picture by bobaliciouslondon under a CC licence.

There’s nothing like a riot to bring out peoples’ inner-fascist. Within two days, some were calling for the army to be deployed in the streets. In fact, a spokesman for the police later revealed that David Cameron had to be talked out of doing just that. There were cries of ‘lock the animals up,’ ‘shoot them all’ and, even, ‘Lock Up Jody McIntyre,’ as one shrill Facebook group was titled (before being shut down for inciting hatred and violence against an individual).

The government applied a ‘shock and awe’ treatment that worked to perfection. Images of burning fires melted away all illusions of nuance. Voices of reason were drowned out by blood-thirsty crowds denouncing the ‘chavs’ and the underclass. The entire gamut of public opinion was united in condemnation. Anyone asking why children had resorted to looting was quickly ridiculed and accused of supporting the destruction.

So, now matters have calmed somewhat, what will be the outcome of our rhetoric of revenge? Astoundingly, an online petition calling for convicted rioters to lose all benefits, as well as council housing, has received more than 200,000 signatures. This means the family of a twelve-year-old boy, who joined in when he saw his friends helping themselves to material goods he couldn’t afford, could be made homeless. His mother could lose the small amount of money necessary to get by, because her son took a ‘wrong turn’. Such barbaric measures should be unequivocally denounced, but, on the advice of the Prime Minister, British courts have been told to ‘disregard normal sentencing procedures’.

The Metropolitan Police, already reeling from the death of Smiley Culture and the widely-reported complicity in the phone-hacking scandal, have emerged confident and emboldened. On Tuesday evening, another man met his end in police custody. Dale Burns, a man in his 20s described by local residents as ‘dedicated, hardworking and a good dad,’ died after being shot with a Taser multiple times during a routine arrest in Barrow.  Not a single officer is likely to be held to account for any of these deaths.

The Cumbria death was quickly superseded by riot-response news. We learnt that Cameron has approved the use of water cannons (previously reserved for the ‘unpeople’ of Northern Ireland) and the power to enforce a curfew (usually reserved for our armed forces in the countries we occupy). As the number of people dying at hands of the police continues to rise, we are expected to be thankful for their increased powers, and the risk of unaccountability they bring.

And now we are witnessing the ‘robust fight back’ we all demanded and cheered. Wandsworth Council have begun eviction proceedings against the mother of a boy who has appeared in court, but has yet to be charged, in connection with the riots. Other councils have pledged plans to follow suit. David Cameron supported the move, saying that families ‘will have to find housing in the private sector and that will be tougher for them. But they should have thought about that before they started burgling.’ These are the words of a man who has never experienced poverty, and expresses nothing but contempt for those who do. There is a term for this kind of response in international law, and that is ‘collective punishment’ (not that the British government has ever shown much interest in abiding by international law).

We’re more used to seeing oppressive regimes in other part of the world use methods like these. Police have said they hacked into Blackberry messenger networks, and considered closing down Twitter. But in the most shocking case yet, two men were sentenced to four years in prison each, for encouraging rioters via their Facebook accounts – the only catch being that the rioting never actually happened. A pre-crime of Orwellian proportions.

It’s too easy to simply blame the government. We could say they are over-reacting and cry crocodile tears for the thousands of young people whose lives will be destroyed in courts and prisons. We can analyse why the riots happened, examine the causes, understand the motives. But the truth is, this post-riot crackdown had our support from the start, and words of sympathy now are too little, too late.

Instead, we should be thinking about the dehumanising language we used to condemn the rioters. If we allow our narrative to be driven by fear rather than reason, then, as unemployment rises and services are cut, more rioting on the streets of England will be the inevitable result.


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