London riots: Disconnecting Cause and Effect

Graham Bell, 15 August 2011

Categories: London Riots | Police | Politics | BBC News | The Telegraph |

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Footage of the heaviest night of the London riots, Monday 8th August, showed frequent scenes of what were described as a ‘stand-offs’ between police and rioters. In cases where there was no stand-off, police appeared to watch while acts of looting and arson took place.

During both the student protests of November 2010, and the ‘March for the Alternative’ demonstration of March 26th this year, the police were quick to intervene with any disruptions, at times with well-documented violence. Similarly, according to an eye-witness account, when a teenage girl approached the police on the night of the peaceful Tottenham protest on the 6th August, she was ‘set upon’ with batons, setting the precursor for the escalation of the situation.

Why then, when full-scale riots broke out on the Monday night, was the police response so hesitant? They have come under criticism from the government for not reacting to the London riots with enough haste. Reasons for the lack of intervention on this occasion are not clear, but are likely to do with the sheer numbers of the rioters on the night and the threat this posed. It is also likely that, with the world’s media watching, there were instructions from a higher level not to intervene forcefully - after the hacking scandal and the resignations at the top, and with mainstream attention on the Tottenham killing, the Metropolitan Police could do without the bad press.

Despite residents in the affected areas commenting on a lack of police presence, the Metropolitan Police gained great public support during the peak of the riots. Theresa May, David Cameron and Boris Johnson all very quickly expressed their gratitude for the help of the police, and their speeches were repeated continuously on the Monday and Tuesday of the riots. A Facebook page, set up in support of the Metropolitan Police, attracted almost 1 million members.

News coverage during and immediately after the riots was extensively over-simplified; speeches by politicians are played on loop, continuously claiming that there is no deep-seated reason behind the violence, and that the riots are nothing more than “mindless thuggery”. When Ken Livingston appeared on BBC News 24 during the Monday night riots and explored some of the structural issues that may have paved the way for rioting, the presenter interjected: “you sound like you’re campaigning”. However, footage of Boris Johnson in Clapham, publicly reproving anyone who might attempt to contextualise the riots - “it’s time we heard a little bit less about the sociological justifications for what is in my view nothing less than wanton criminality” - was repeatedly televised by the BBC. Indeed most politicians have attempted to avoid discussion of the wider issues at play; to allow such debate is to admit that there are wider, more structural flaws with society.

The right-wing media, like the coalition government, seek to underplay any notion that the cause for the riots is deeply rooted in the political structure. Any interviewee who mentioned the word ‘cuts’ at the time of the riots was dismissed as having a political agenda. But, of course, there is an underlying problem in a society that leads individuals to steal and to fight. Issues such as a lack of parental discipline, and a disregard for authority among the youth, have also been discussed, but the debate has rarely deepened beyond this. Critical consciousness is rarely encouraged by the mainstream news - it’s easier to focus on today than to assess the long-term changes that have taken place, or indeed those that need to take place. It’s likely that the riots will be remembered as an event during which the mindlessness that overcame the masses was countered with commendable policing, rather than a time when the rising inequalities that are still at play rose once again to the surface.

Categories in which this article appears: London Riots | Police | Politics | BBC News | The Telegraph |

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