The All-Too-Quiet Riot

When the streets are aflame what is worse than a largely ineffectual, baton-happy Metropolitan Police force still reeling from the deaths of Ian Tomlinson and Jean Charles de Menezes? No police force at all.
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“Whoop-whoop! That the sound of da police?”

No, actually, I think you’ll find it isn’t

In a well known phrase, most recently used about the Iraq invasion, it was said that it was possible to support the troops but oppose the war. This demonstrates a conscious differentiation in the public mind between politicians who give the order for war (or invasion) and those on the ground who’s profession it is to obey and fight. And it is that professionally required obedience, and courage, that means that soldiers are generally deemed to be outside of the accusation of culpability.

In light of recent reports on police behaviour - from the deaths of Ian Tomlinson and Jean Charles de Menezes to the recent discovery of News of the World bribery - it has been easy to reverse that support/blame equation and say that you support the law but not the police. And when the Metropolitan Police can, on a bad day, appear to be composed of defensive and belligerent ranks of racist, overtime sniffing, bribe-happy, baton-twirling backhander merchants, you can see the point.

If, for example, you want crowds that include many thinly dressed children corralling into a freezing cold nighttime city centre where they will be refused permission to leave or use the toilet or seek medical attention, who do you call? The Metropolitan Police Extreme Kettling Unit, of course. (I know that isn’t exactly ‘Who you gonna call - Ghostbusters!’ but there are information conveyance issues here.)

So given that The Met in particular seem to have a current standing about as high as, say, Gary Glitter’s estate agent, or Rebekah Wade’s hairdresser, what possible way could they re-establish their worth to the capital?

Well, what if rioting broke out in North London, then East London, then West London and then South London… and the police just didn’t turn up? How would that play out? How would that make you feel about the police?

I’ll bet this: that after only a short while (but still far too long) of watching people’s businesses and homes balloon into flame, shop windows spider-webbed by baseball bats and crowds of violently intended young men taking to the streets, you may have been thinking ‘WHERE ARE THE BLOODY POLICE! GET THE POLICE THERE NOW!

The word seemed to go out: the police are not just taking a step back, they’re not even turning up.

In contrast to the immortal words of KRS-One, who once observed ‘Whoop-whoop! That’s the sound of da police!’, here there was no whoop-whoop, there was no police. Where, I kept thinking, is the whoop-whoop?

Clearly this also occurred to the thieves in the streets who began to notice the distinct lack of whoop-whoop in the area and, in that alarming way that information transmits readily through crowds with a shared purpose (especially when powered by mobile phones), the word seemed to go out: the police are not just taking a step back, they’re not even turning up.

So two days of seeing none of the expected images - i.e., no rioters being twisted in half-nelsons, no Romanic ranks of riot shields advancing forward, no Alsatians seeking forearms, no black Mariah’s nee-nawing to the front - clearly had an accumulative and dual effect. Whereas most people were watching and thinking ‘Where are the police?’, a few others were watching and thinking ‘Great, there’s no police.'

Hence the growth last night (that always difficult to deliver third night of rioting) of gangs on the streets who seemed oddly certain of their chance to burn and loot with impunity.

You could say that expecting a certain kind of amoral, impoverished, under educated working class young male - raised on hourly dip-waves and flood-feeds of consumerist evangelising - to restrain themselves from the chance to opportunistically gorge on everything they’ve been told to want but cannot have… might be a tad unrealistic. Bit like leaving Kerry Katona in charge of a goldfish bowl opaquely filled with cocaine and then expecting to come back from the shops and to not find the bowl upside down on her head like an astronaut’s helmet and with the level of powder greatly diminished - her two eyes, blackened like blown fuses, blinking dustily out of her chalk-white Dover cliff face (her sole reaction, ‘Like, wha?! Wha!’)

You could say that.

The rapid breakdown also threw into sharp relief how much of the order in our society is there through a shared consent to behave well, as most people want and are determined to do. We all get something out of that; we all want to live safely. The people who cannot voluntarily behave that way, or just don’t want to, are precisely why we seek the inhibiting force of a socially imposed order that is well policed.

Dear Met, for the record: children, students, peaceful protesters - leave them alone. Violent destroyers of livelihoods and homes - do not leave them alone.

But that kind of societal expectation of good behaviour needs shoring up and protecting from the corrosive effect of those outside of it, and who have as little expectation of themselves as they seem to think others have of them. (And, hopefully sooner rather than later, those people need bringing inside.)

And yet even when the police did turn up, it was in curiously low numbers and with a strangely passive intent. You felt like saying, wait a minute, you can baton a middle-aged man to the ground when he’s walking away from you with his hands in his pocket and you can kettle children and students for hours on end in the freezing cold, but you can’t take on the people we actually want you to take on?

If there was any reluctance on the part of the police to steam in there because of their increased sense of public vigilance regarding police behaviour during riots, then that was a spectacular misjudgement of public mood and, equally damagingly, of the mood of the looters. Dear Met, for the record: children, students, peaceful protesters - leave them alone. Violent destroyers of livelihoods and homes - do not leave them alone.

Little did they seem to know that they could have signed off water cannons, dogs and rubber bullets on day one with a majority of public support.

Remember the strange days of a few years ago when, in the early stages of the smoking ban, a man unrepentantly lit up a cigarette in a pub in Leamington Spa and it resulted in six riot police officers quickly responding to the publican’s use of a panic-button? Maybe that smoker’s mistake was not torching the whole damn place rather than just the end of a B&H. Think big, yer fool.

So while those Tottenham streets were lined either side with a flickering daisy chain of burning cars, like an improvised landing strip for light aircraft drugs drop… and while people’s possessions (bought and yet-to-be bought, in homes and businesses) crackled away and curled in the flames… and while those not obviously of the mob were violently turned on by the mob - if only one of those guys walking into a shop through its front window had decide to light up a cig while in there, things might have been very different. The panic button might have been more urgently attended too.

There was a real sense of the police letting things play out in the knowledge that they’ll mop up the guilty later with CCTV footage and image-appeals on Crimewatch.

Certainly if this had been a digital-red-button-interactive-special-feature event, I’d take a guess that most of the watching public would have been hammering hard the option for, as they say on Match of the Day, ‘hitting on the break’. That’s what has to happen when you’re on the receiving end of an attack, when all you can do is cave or counter.

The random desire by some people on the streets to take promiscuous thievery to even stranger levels at one point struck a note a little less than the usual pitch black when, at 1.30am in the morning, the BBC solemnly reported that in Clapham looters had ransacked a fancy dress shop. And while that is a clearly a sad loss for the shop owner, it does irresistibly conjure up images of imaginary police chasing down the street half-a-dozen pirates, two clowns, a Las Vegas Elvis, three vampires and a couple of saucy nurses. Add the Benny Hill theme tune to the CCTV and you have a million hits on You Tube.

In fact, there was a real sense of the police letting things play out in the knowledge that they’ll mop up the guilty later with CCTV footage and image-appeals on Crimewatch. The CCTV film may, unusually in this age, not be matched or bettered by filmed witness accounts from the ground.

Citizen journalism here was swiftly severed at the legs by accounts of the rapid theft of cameras and mobile phones if they were produced to record images. Still, some accounts did come out, two of them from Croydon - by Trevor Reeves, owner of the furniture shop turned into an inferno, and Alan McCabe, the manager of a local pub. Both were eloquent in their own way about what they could scarcely believe they were witnessing: Reeves, movingly, expressing both despair and anger at the loss of his long-standing family business; McCabe, talking of ‘the fear they’ve put in people’s hearts’, voice tremulous with barely restrained outrage at the spread of damage he could see and the fear he could sense.

So is this just another case of the Met getting it hopelessly, staggeringly wrong? Or a PR coupe of truly twisted genius - ‘You see, there is something worse than The Metropolitan Police. No Metropolitan Police.’

Treat People Like Scumbags And They'll Act Like Scumbags

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