From one side of the spectrum to the other, people have united in their condemnation of the police since the riots began on Saturday night. On the one hand people lament the lack of respect and fear shown by the rioters towards the police and call for an abandonment of “phoney” concerns about human rights in order to bring the strong arm of the law down on the looters. On the other heavy handed police tactics are blamed for enflaming communities with a burning hatred of the police, leading to the sort of violence we have seen on the streets. Let us not forget that the initial spark for the riots was the still unexplained shooting of a young man at the hands of the police in Tottenham on Thursday. In the middle are the hundreds of shop keepers who simply ask “why couldn’t you protect my livelihood?”
Both views are incredibly important when understanding the riots and their effects. The view that the police have inadequately dealt with the situation comes from a disbelief about events that have happened over recent days. Many residents of affected cities have never seen lawlessness on this level or experienced such severe assaults on their communities. In reality the police could never have stopped this. It shows that when enough people decide that the law no longer applies to them, the police, whose main power is in their threats, are powerless. Those who feel impotent in the face of such chaos call for stronger police action such as the use of water cannons and rubber bullets despite constant warnings from top policemen that these methods are dangerous and ineffective in public order situations where crowds are fast moving. These people are also those who we have seen out on the streets to fill the supposed void left by the police and protect their communities. Worryingly a lot of these vigilante groups seem to have links with the far right. The rhetoric is simple; the rioters are out of control and control over them needs to be enforced by any means necessary. The mainstream politician’s refusal to look in depth at the causes of the riots plays in to this psyche. Respect and discipline are the medicines to heal Cameron’s sick society and in the short term this may work as we have seen in London last night but what does it achieve towards the aim of stopping disturbances like this in the future?
During the riots the conduct of many Met police officers has been exemplary. They have faced gruelling 30 hour shifts, seen their colleagues attacked and injured and have been outnumbered and under prepared for the levels of violence they have been expected to deal with. This may indeed justify the view that this is not the right time to cut the police but it does not excuse however their role in enflaming the riots in the first place. No one really knows what happened during the shooting of Mark Duggan, nor the events that supposedly lead to the police attacking a young girl that started the riots in Tottenham. What we do know however is that in areas such as Tottenham there are concerns about the policing of the community. Excessive use of stop and search for example builds up anger especially amongst young men because it is often dehumanising. There are of course crimes in the area that need to be stopped or solved but stop and search criminalises innocent people and possibly does more damage than good. In these areas there is a very real feeling that the police are against sections of the community not working for the good of them. Many will not report a crime to the police because they are seen as the enemy. Operation Trident, the unit that carried out the shooting of Mark Duggan, targets black gun crime but a small proportion of officers working for it are black. Day in day out on the streets there is an “us versus them” culture even amongst those who have nothing to hide.
As an activist I have often seen the police as the enemy. I have been attacked by dogs, subjected to dawn raids and stopped and searched four times in half an hour. Yet this is only on sporadic occasions in my life and at other times I have looked to the police for help and had trust that they will solve or at least look in to crimes that I have been subjected to. If I had experienced the attitude and behaviour of the police that I have at actions and protests on a daily basis for a prolonged amount of time then I may have different views. In this way I have had a glimpse in to how the mindset of the London rioters towards the police has built up over time. In many cases individual officers are not to blame and I’m sure have a healthy relationship with the community they police. However the institution of the police has for a long time not been a friend to deprived communities. Although things have got better since the times when racism was an accepted norm in the police, there is still a long way to go.
It is beyond doubt that many of those on the streets are there to nick stuff not because of any protest or cause. But violence like this doesn’t just happen. There is a huge array of complex social tensions behind the riots but the role and direction of the police in these areas is surely a major one. Throughout the police has been the target, not just in the way of the target. We must start to deconstruct and rebuild the relationship between the police and the communities as one step to preventing anything like this ever happening again.