Watching the little shits who are causing the riots in London wreck and rob and burn their way through the streets can’t help but make you angry. The urge to give them some of their own medicine – to respond to violence with violence – is almost overwhelming. But it must be resisted.
You won’t often find me agreeing with a Conservative Home Secretary, but one thing Theresa May got right this morning was to reject the idea of rushing to put the army on London’s streets or to escalate things by bringing in “exotic” weaponry like water cannon, baton rounds or tear gas.
The cries on the rolling news channels for “something” that “must be done” are entirely understandable but they are also a seductive distraction from the real issue. Worse, to react by instinct rather than to think things through will have consequences that may last for generations.
Let’s start with the heavy weapons.
This is not a stand-up fight. These kids aren’t looking to take the police on or to occupy territory. They’re hitting and running – using distractions in one area (mostly the fires) to allow them to loot the JJBs and phone shops in another. Water cannon come on big, slow trucks – the chances of having one in the right place at the right time is miniscule. Riot gas relies on the police being able to deploy it in a big crowd that’s standing relatively still. You might give a few kids sore eyes but there isn’t a single location that the police need to clear.
Baton rounds are deadly weapons. They kill people. You don’t want to do that.
These are the wrong tools for the job.
What about the army?
Well, once you put the soldiers on the streets, you have to think about the possible consequences.
When three hundred kids attack a squad of soldiers and the soldiers, trained to fight not trained to keep the peace, shoot someone – someone young (most of these rioters appear to be little more than children), someone who was unarmed, someone whose parents and brothers and sisters turn up weeping on television – the situation will not be calmed. When guns are deployed by the government the people who are causing this violence will not hesitate to use guns in response. There will be escalation. Things could be worse.
And once you put the army on the street, how long do you keep them there?
I grew up in Northern Ireland so I’m sceptical of the idea that the army is a panacea. The application of force, the state proving that is able to call on deeper reservoirs of the capacity to cause violence than the rioters, might provide people in London with a few nights of security but it will lay the seeds for a very different and much more dangerous society in the future.
The people conducting this looting and arson are inspired by greed and malevolence and not a political cause or a desire for social change – that is patently obvious and those arguing otherwise are deluding themselves. But the violence is not happening without context, this is a society that judges people by their material possessions while, at the same time, excluding too many from the opportunities or expectation of achieving a decent standard of living. And around this there is a narrative being constructed to justify these actions – that these are people who have been abandoned, that they have been left with no prospects, no jobs, no education, no hope of a better life and no links to the state that governs them.
I do not believe that this is the whole story (nor that it justifies what has been done – burning other people’s homes does not address those problems) but there is enough truth in it to make it a potentially powerful mythology of victimhood that can be turned into an ideology that preserves anger and isolation not just for decades but for generations.
If we make martyrs we make that narrative of abandonment more believable.
If we take those communities out of the general rule of law and place them under what will effectively be martial law (even if just for the period of the duration of the “crisis”) we take a dangerous step to making that narrative reality and the spiral of exclusion becomes tighter and deeper.
So what do we do?
- We stand together as communities. #riotcleanup demonstrates that community still exists. These people don’t represent a significant proportion of the general public. We stand together and we do what we can to take the streets back from the looters (but we avoid the dangers of vigilantism).
- We give the police the support they need to get this job done (and we are thankful for their courage and for that of fire-fighters and ambulance crews and paramedics).
- When the situation is passed we conduct a proper investigation of what happened in Tottenham and we ensure there is no cover-up.
- We don’t put the people who are caught on probation or in jail and forget about them for six months – we put them to work rebuilding the communities they destroyed and we let those communities decide what work they most need done.
- When this is done, we throw money at the communities where all this started. The simple truth is that people with jobs, with ties to their community, with something to lose, do not destroy the places in which they live. Lots is written about the Northern Irish peace process but the thing that changed the situation there wasn’t the politicians talking but the investment over decades by the British, EU and American governments that created educational opportunities, industries, jobs and a greater sense of hope in communities where it didn’t exist before.
The causes of the violence in London and Leeds and Liverpool and Birmingham are not sudden and they are not simple and they cannot be solved by water cannon or soldiers. You can’t always cut the Gordian knot, sometimes you have to deal with the complexities of the problem and accept that there are no simple solutions.