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The Cumbria death was quickly superseded by riot-response news.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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  1. #1 JP 19 Aug 11

    Jody, while I agree with your denunciation of police killings and the collective punishment of alleged rioters’ families, you once again over egg the pudding in a way will make it much harder for you to influence the public.
    Here are a couple of examples that I noticed. First, let’s agree that the sentences for the Facebook inciters were extreme and the cost of such long jail sentences could be better spent elsewhere. However, it is ludicrous for you to say that incitement should only be an offence if it actually leads to a crime. Otherwise we would be giving free rein to the BNP and their ilk to incite racial hatred. Moreover do you not see the blatant irony when you want to be protected from Facebook-inspired potential harassment, but don't extend that to the people of Warrington from Facebook-inspired potential looting? If we followed your logic then the anti-Jody facebook pages would be perfectly justifiiable as (correct me if I’m wrong) no one has so far locked you up.
    Secondly, we can say that water cannon would not have helped the situation and more intelligent policing would be better. However, when you use the term ‘unpeople’ to describe how you imagine the state sees rioters in Northern Ireland you immediately undermine your previous rational points. For one thing, would you rather the police stood back there and allowed sectarian mobs to torch each other’s communities?
    So please don’t join those hysterical crowds you condemn in this article. Otherwise you’ll keep getting yourself blocked out from the mainstream media where you could preach to more than just the New Internationalist-reading converted.

  2. #2 RichardL 19 Aug 11

    This is a useful, maybe important contribution to the debate. One could also point to the millions (billions?) squandered annually on Britain's colonial adventures in Asia and Africa while youth clubs and community policing initiatives and other social services in Britain are unaffordable.

    I have the following specific points:

    1)’But the truth is, this post-riot crackdown had our support from the start...’
    ’...the dehumanising language we used to condemn the rioters.’

    You can't be serious! Speak for yourself if you are.

    2) As has been pointed out elsewhere messrs. Cameron and Johnson are both former members of the Bullingdon Club.

    3) Throwing families out of their homes when one of their number has been accused of riotous behaviour strikes me as an exact parallel of Israel's house demolitions of homes of families of suicide bombers (who are never informed previously of their relative's intentions).

  3. #3 Robin Tudge 19 Aug 11

    Chucking families out of homes for what one member purportedly did is really quite North Korean, where whole families get banged up. North Korea's social structure is also geared around the risk assessment of who is most loyal and who is most likely to be 'anti-revolutionary'. Funnily enough, as we have postcode gangs, so New Labour sought to introduce pre-emptive social intervention partly based on postcode, possibly taking their cue from the insurance industry which very much gauges its assessment of risk on where you live.
    Did you know the Lubyanka, the KBG's HQ, was formerly the chief office for Tsar Insurance?

  4. #4 Clive Mann 20 Aug 11

    Spot on. Ejection of tenants from council properties and removal of their benefits because a child has been 'involved' in rioting/looting is utterly cruel, stupid & self-defeating.Surely it does not require a huge IQ to see the utter folly of this!

  5. #5 THZ1138 20 Aug 11

    ’Dehumanising language we used to condemn the rioters.’

    Let's be clear on this, the people looting electrical and sports shop, shooting at the police, burning people out of their homes, pulling passers by off their scooters, mowing down those protecting their communities, kicking pensioner to death... they weren't noble revolutionaries or a voiceless force seeking political change. Mark Duggan or the repression of global capitalism were not at the forefront of the minds of those who mugged and robbed Mohammad Asyraf Haziq. So what kind of language would you like us to described these people?

    Also, you complain of a Facebook page that you claim incited hatred and violence against yourself but then equally you tweeted ’Be inspired by the scenes in #tottenham, and rise up in your own neighbourhood. 100 people in every area = the way we can beat the feds.’ and quote radio stations ’CALLER ON BBC LONDON RADIO: ’We should never burn homes and local businesses. We should burn down #Tottenham Police Station.’ Coudl you explain the distinction between one being acceptable and the other not? (and for record I think both are wrong).

    You write extensively about people having a voice and expressing it through rioting, and yet you equally don't like people having a voice and expressing an opinion?

    Is it not reasonable that, just as you wish others to be held accountable, that you be accountable yourself as a ’political activist’ who choses to stand in the spotlight? Is it not demonising and dehumanising to dismiss those ordinary people who express anger and revulsion at opportunist violence as ’inner-fascists’?

    Are they not allowed to have a voice? What about equality for them?

  6. #6 Jill Elliot 01 Sep 11

    Now we know what this government's real agenda is, rule by the rich and privileged for the rich and privileged; no one else matters.

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About the author

Jody McIntyre a New Internationalist contributor

Jody McIntyre is a writer, poet, political activist and founder of The Equality Movement. He blogs at Life on Wheels.

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