Against Authoritarian Crackdowns

As riots ripped through London and spread out to the old industrial towns of the north, the public was not in the mood for understanding.

Instead, huge numbers of ordinary people- including those hurt by the riots and those whose only knowledge of it comes from news broadcasts- are openly backing some of the most authoritarian ideas this country has ever contemplated.

According to YouGov, only 8% of people have successfully connected the unrest to the government's cuts. A measly 5% of people have recognised the impact of unemployment. A staggering 42% of people blame criminal behaviour, without looking for underlying causes.

Meanwhile, the same poll found quite frankly terrifying support for authoritarian measures: 90% in favour of water cannons, 65% in favour of plastic bullets, 33% in favour of live ammunition and 77% in favour of the use of the army.

The Conservative Party is gearing up to introduce tactics which have worrying parallels with the 1816 riots. In a statement today, David Cameron poured scorn on "phoney concerns about human rights".

Let me be quite clear about this- an authoritarian response to the riots will not help at all. It is important that those taking part in criminal activity are apprehended and punished, but it is also important that these events be responded to with democracy and concern rather than baton rounds and army boots.

Water cannons can be incredibly dangerous. They have also had to be brought in from Northern Ireland- which raises concerns about how stable the situation there will now be- and aren't truly going to be effective in this situation.

Typically, water cannons are used to disperse a crowd which has congregated in one area. If the riots were taking place along Whitehall and the rioters were intent on attacking the Palace of Westminster, then a water cannon would be an effective (albeit dangerous) way of forcing them to leave.

Instead, what we have is a number of riots taking place across both London and the country. The riots are now mostly concerned with looting, and are not specifically targeting any one location over any other.

It would be implausible to deploy water cannons in Croydon, Tottenham, Enfield and so on. If one high street is cleared of looters, they will easily run down passageways and find alternative areas to target before the police are capable of catching up.

Plastic bullets are even more dangerous. Fourteen people in Northern Ireland were killed with them, and 9 of those were teenagers or younger. Many of them were not involved in criminal activity, instead being innocent bystanders.

Given that the main intention of preventing rioting should be to preserve human life, I'm not sure how I can criticise Roger Helmer's demand that rioters be "shot on sight". It is such an immoral and abhorrent prospect that its mere utterance deserves criticism of the highest order.

There are several more concerns I have with the use of either rubber or live ammunition. Firstly, although the riots have been violent, they have thankfully not been characterised by the sort of gun violence which some might've expected given the involvement of certain gangs.

At present, we can be grateful that police officers are not being fired upon. That is probably due to a reluctance to step too far over the line of legality, and the fact that whilst angry most of the rioters aren't actually keen on murder.

If the police start firing at, and potentially killing, the rioters and undoubtedly innocent bystanders, what will the reaction of armed gangs be? We will see entrenched urban warfare, with gun battles between the police and elements of the rioters, which will do more damage to cities and lives and communities than these riots are presently doing.

Secondly, what exactly makes people believe that the police should be trusted with weaponry?

333 people have died in police custody since 1998, with no officers convicted over the deaths.

The shooting of Mark Duggan was the spark which set these riots off. Yet he had not fired his weapon, and in fact the bullet which was lodged inside a police radio was "consistent with being fired from a police gun". The police managed to fire at their own equipment, and yet somehow they're supposed to be trusted with extraordinarily dangerous weapons?

Further authoritarian measures are only going to worsen the feelings being hold towards the police. Even comparatively moderate measures, like curfews or restrictions on BlackBerry Messenger, will be taken as a further slight to ordinary people- young people who have thus far avoided participation in the riots will be punished, whilst rioters are unlikely to pay much heed to a curfew imposed by the police.

What, in my opinion, would be an appropriate response?

Firstly, the government should halt the planned cuts to the police and fire brigade- which it has at present refused to consider.

Not only would this allow emergency services to do their jobs properly without fear of their livelihoods being under threat, but it would act as an important counterbalance to any claims that the government was 'giving in' to the rioters. Police presence has thus far proved successful in discouraging riots in London, even if it is unlikely to work alone.

Secondly, the government should announce a swathe of u-turns on policies towards both young people and disadvantaged communities.

It would be necessary for this to be sold to the public as being beneficial to the communities as a whole, rather than as some kind of sop to the people smashing windows. However, it is vital that the areas affected be given the support they need to rebuild and prevent events such as this happening again.

Not only should EMA and council cuts be reversed, but a new job creation plan should be unveiled. Unemployment is a major issue in the background of these riots. As rioters realise that if they go home and behave there's actually going to be a positive future for them we might see the number of people involved in violence decrease.

It would also, of course, be supremely beneficial to the unemployed individuals who haven't taken part in these riots.

This would stand in contrast to the suggestions that rioters have their homes taken away, and the chorus of right-wing voices demanding benefits be withdrawn from those who have taken part. If people are turned out onto the street and given no legal way of obtaining an income, what can we expect of them except riots?

Thirdly, because the police cannot be everywhere and because of the lack of authority they possess amongst many people, communities should be liaised with. Whilst it won't have had an immediate impact, the words of Pauline Pearce will be playing on the minds of those who were berated by her. The Turkish and Kurdish community did well in preventing rioters from looting their shops.

It's important that this be regulated enough to prevent the EDL or BNP from using this as an opportunity to launch a race war.

However, local communities and respected figures should be assisted in discouraging rioting wherever possible- this doesn't mean through responding to violence in kind, but through leading reach-out programmes during the day to ensure that rioters are made aware of how the rest of the community feels about their actions.

All three of those steps would be positive attempts to bring the rioters under control and would severely reduce the prospect of seeing them again in the near future.

As it is, David Cameron has set the country on a course to chaos- he wants to restrict liberty to an extent Blair could only have dreamed of, and expresses not even the mildest of cares for the economic situation which underlies what London, Manchester, Birmingham and other major cities and towns have witnessed.

I think this puts the lie to the claim that Nick Clegg is putting 'liberal values' at the heart of British government. If these ideas are the result of Liberal Democrats restraining Tory authoritarianism, then what did David Cameron originally intend to use? Tactical nukes?

Cities can be rebuilt, community divisions can be healed. But once liberties are lost and authoritarianism escalates it is extremely difficult to turn back the clock.

We've seen the state has started closing in on anarchists. We know how aggressive the police can be when confronted with peaceful political demonstrations.

If authoritarian responses are condoned now, it will not be long before Stop the War is attacked with water cannons or student protesters are fired upon with plastic bullets.

This authoritarian streak unveiling itself within not just the Right and the general public but also within the Left is deeply worrying, highly dangerous and will undoubtedly be largely ineffective.




Just look at the USA
Posted by tsesarskij (72.28.xx.xx) on Thu 11 Aug 2011 at 18:14 [ Send Message ]
Let the American cycle of escalating violence be a warning to all. Violent (unhappy? hopeless? frustrated? stupid?) law breaking and unruly behaviour meets with a violent police; that has proven to lead to an escalation of violence rather than being a remedy for it. American society is becoming more and more violent as the ever increasing violence on each side meets the same from the other, which kills more than a hundred officers each year. The worst tragedy of it all is that people are unable to see that no escape forward is possible in such a cycle; ordinary people are unable to see beyond their fear, anger, and frustration -- they so passionately believe that violent response will teach 'the bad guys' 'a lesson,' thus making them safer that they keep buying weapons themselves -- the police brass sees violence as its primary mission, and the politicians believe in... oh... well, just look at your own prime minister...
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