Justice, the English way

Justice, the English way

Leo Colbert

The August riots in the Courts

The Law of England provides a precise definition of the criminal offence know as “rioting”: i.e. taking part in a riot. But for the non-legal observer a useful working definition of ‘riot’ might be ‘an out of control mob intent on violence against persons or property’. Some observers have referred to a ‘feral mob’ and certainly the suggestion of the wild untamed depths of the human animal is apt. The word ‘riot’ itself first appeared in medieval French (the language of the elite in England for about 300 years after the Norman invasion) with the meaning of violent quarrel and the notion of sudden aggression may explain why it has survived unchanged into modern legal description of impermissible crowd behaviour.

And on the basis of the Law of England, one year after August 6th, 2011, young people keep getting heavy penalties and being sent to jail for the “riots” that first broke out in Tottenham in London on that day. During the nights of the 7th and 8th they spread around the city to some 18 other locations including Oxford Circus in the centre and copycat rioting had begun in 4 other English cities. On the 9th August London was again quiet but further rioting had exploded in some 10 more cities and towns all in England. Instead, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland remained untouched. The description ‘feral mob’ is only partially accurate for these riots were marked not only by arson and violence (5 people died ) but also widespread looting, both opportunistic and well organised.

One year after August 6th, 2011, young people keep getting heavy penalties and being sent to jail for the “riots” that first broke out in Tottenham in London on that day

Parliament was recalled from vacation on 11th August – The Prime Minister’s holiday in Tuscany had to be curtailed – and by 15th of the month over 3000 people had been arrested, the majority very young with a high proportion from the black Afro-Caribbean community. Some 3500 crimes had been committed in London alone. Justice was rapidly applied with the various courts working extended hours to cope with the flood of defendants.

The imperative to deter future looters was no doubt partly behind the speed and severity of legal sanctions but so also was fear at the apparently uncontrollable mobs rampaging freely through the streets.

The sight of Oxford Circus in the hands of rioters strikes at the heart of the English psyche and TV inspired memories of the power of the mob on the street during the ‘Arab Spring’ may have conjured up additional nightmares. The country’s international image was also in jeopardy, the more so with the 2012 Olympic Games on the horizon. For a few days the shiny façade of modern civilisation was torn brutally away and the bourgeois classes caught a glimpse of the ugly substructure. It was not a pleasant sight and a whiff of panic was in the air.

Why did this state of affairs arise? Rioting has a long pedigree in Europe and elsewhere as an outlet for popular resentment and opposition to authority. Usually there has been a clear-cut issue in the mind of the masses, hunger, inter-communal antagonism, the political stirrings of revolution and mass dissatisfaction. However, although the London riots were sparked by a specific issue, unfettered mob behaviour very quickly took over. There were no leaders to negotiate with and, except at the beginning, no demands to be met; there was no agenda, racial, political, environmental or anything else. Any bona fide complaints that may have been in the minds of the ‘socially concerned’ participant were soon submerged in the collective will of ferocious hordes.

The fuse for the explosion was clear enough. On 4 August a police unit investigating gun crime in the black community in Tottenham shot dead a suspected gang member who was apparently armed. On 6 August there was a meeting between the local community and the police at which a warning was given that there could be rioting if the matter was not investigated. Later the same day the community organised a peaceful march of some 120 people to the local police station where they demanded to meet senior officers. This peaceful gathering was joined by a younger and more aggressive crowd some of whom carried weapons. Chaos followed and rapidly spread.

There will be inquiries and inquests but the internal dynamics of these riots will be difficult to identify; eyewitness accounts will vary and the hardcore participants themselves are unlikely to provide reliable information. Riots only happen if conditions are right and the police response is slow as it was at first in August. Yet it is clear that within the general turmoil of those days there was a degree of organisation both by formal gangs and informal ‘friendly groups’ usually with the aim of arson and looting. The nature of the looting and the speed with which it spread across London to specific shops and stores, attest to this. The various ‘directors of operations’ deployed transport and kept in touch with the ubiquitous Blackberry Messenger, mobile phones and social networking services.

It was clearly not only the alienated poor, the underprivileged, who saw an opportunity to profit from theft. A 2nd year university law student was among those accused of ransacking cafes and restaurants in London while an estate agent was found stealing electronic goods.Class=”destra”There was one striking feature. This was mainly a young persons’ riot and over 70% of rioters aged 18 or more who appeared before the courts already had criminal convictions or cautions. Some 25% had more than 10 previous offences and the total number of offences already in the records of those accused was around 16,500 and included theft, drugs, handling stolen goods and violence against persons. Of course it can be argued the police simply rounded up those they recognised – and so far only a small proportion of the rioters have been caught – but this evidence also points to criminal intent rather than only to resentment and social conscience. The extent of opportunistic looting seems to show this also.

But it was clearly not only the alienated poor, the underprivileged, who saw an opportunity to profit from theft. A 2nd year university law student was among those accused of ransacking cafes and restaurants in London while an estate agent was found stealing electronic goods. And what is one to make of the 19 year old daughter of a millionaire businessman, student at a leading university, caught with some £5000 worth of stolen goods (TVs, mobile phones and other digital gear) in her car? In May 2012 she received a two year prison sentence. At the other end of the age scale primary school children were among those attacking and mugging people, a boy of 12 was caught stealing wine and an 11year old girl smashing shop windows.

It is likely that there would have been less opportunistic theft without the presence of well-established hardcore gangs. It seems that there was an informal truce among some of these in order to exploit the situation but it did not last long and fighting broke out among rival groups. Some took time off from drug dealing and used a similar modus operandi in this case with junior members carrying off the goods to older members waiting in nearby cars. Drug dealing is far more lucrative than robbing high street stores but the rioting with its unpredictability probably put a temporary end to the trade. Following in the footsteps of the gangs were informal groups put together for the occasion but with clear intelligence about problem free targets. How otherwise to explain a long line of cars waiting to empty a warehouse in East London of everything from TVs to hairdryers without a policeman in sight?

Gang culture is pervasive in some parts of London and attracts youth, mostly not to hard criminal activity, but to the ‘gangsta’ style, imported from the Caribbean, which is popular across all types of young people no doubt because it offers some sort of ‘street credibility’ along with group defiance of authority and its symbols. The face of authority is predominantly the police often regarded as just another gang by urban youth. However the problem goes further. In recent years the media have focused on questionable police action including apparently mindless handling of routine matters, excessively robust treatment of demonstrators, deaths in police custody and killings such as the one that sparked these riots. Modern urban policing is difficult and it is going too far to claim that the community cannot rely on those who are supposed to protect it. Yet the police image is generally tarnished in the eyes of the public. And the extent to which, earlier in the year, the Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police was revealed to have accepted the hospitality of powerful media men did nothing to help. Like the rest of us London’s youth is entitled to assume the fish rots from the head down.

One factor that must have contributed greatly to events was the absence of coherent community structure. The black community, and to some extent much of the ‘disadvantaged’ white community, often lack the deep-rooted extended family and religious authority to be found among Sikh or Moslem immigrants for example. In August the lack of these anchors of civilisation was exposed. There is no lack of government intervention in areas of poverty and ethnic minorities attract high levels of funding. But a community is not something that can be created by bureaucratic intervention. If anything this can have a dehumanising effect and in any case is unlikely to produce genuine community leadership.

If no one on the streets in August was hungry there was plenty of greed for the ‘good things’ of life if these could be gained by looting high street shops. Designer clothes, electronic goods, fashion shoes, sport shops, alcohol and money seem to have been the main targets. On the one hand there well organised gangs, on the other a range of opportunists, some apparently seeking the social cachet that a night’s looting could give them. Some looters did not bother to hide their faces, seemingly unconcerned at the number of CCTV cameras watching them. Others posed for pictures with stolen goods and posted them on social networking sites. At least one offender was found trying on a garment outside of the looted store and some stolen goods were simply abandoned presumably for lack of demand.

It is certainly tempting to see these riots as partially a manifestation of a society in which all values have been subordinated to commercialisation and the economic process. The ideological leaders of this society are the media in various forms and they set the standards for material goods and social behaviour with a cast of ever- present celebrities to sprinkle dream dust over the goggle-eyed audience. 21st century media celebrities are gods and goddesses incarnate with gaudy glorification of their antics and their bodies for veneration by the masses. Television, websites and glossy magazines are their temples and they have enormous influence. So of course do TV programmes on bankers carving up millions in bonuses and MPs being jailed (or avoiding jail) for bogus expense claims.

If one had to define a subconscious drive among the August rioters it would probably be resentment, resentment at the dead-ends of life, lack of employment and above all lack of hope of employment, a profound realisation that although they may stretch out their arms towards the ‘good life’ as advertised by the media it is unattainable and equality is a meaningless concept against the vast differences in income between the well-off and the rest.

Had they been simply ‘rioters’ in the strict legal sense these mobs might not have touched the sensitive nerve points of English society. But these were rioters among whom there was a role for a collective will, intelligence and tactics backed by BMWs and 21st century communications technology. They could have come straight from the streets of Cairo or Tunis and the comfortable assumption that ‘it couldn’t happen here’ may have begun to erode. The notion that incipient urban problems cannot be cured by pouring in government money or by textbook social theory will give pause for serious thought and traditional attitudes may no longer be a sure guide in the face of this century’s rapidly changing conditions.

Leo Colbert

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