Thursday, 18 August 2011

The London Riots

I was glued to the coverage in the way I used to be only on election nights, following the Guardian’s Live blog, flipping over to the BBC, waiting on every new development. The next day I was equally transfixed by the aftermath, the politicians posturing and discourses emerging; on the right it was about parenting, fecklessness and ‘criminality pure and simple’ and on the left it was about the cuts and alienated youth.

Facebook was also aglow with debate raging through the night and into the next morning. One ex-coursemate from my Sociology degree years posted a theory that the panoptican effect of CCTV has been shown for the sham it is. I personally weighed in with the view that it was all connected to Saskia Sassen’s global cities theory which states that key global cities have been shaped by global capital flows and money markets into highly unequal and polarised places. I reasoned that this created underlying tensions which have possibly been exasperated by the financial crisis. The question I pondered was; is it a coincidence that as the money markets meltdown, so a key point in the global financial system burns?

One thing which struck me especially as a particularly opportunistic bit of behaviour (not unlike that shown by many of the looters I must add) was the attempts by some associated with the police to take back what they see as lost ground with some talking heads complaining about how the ‘force’ is now regarded as being hamstrung by human rights considerations and is now more a ‘service’ now neutered and ineffective. What was needed they insinuated was a force unafraid to get out there and crack some skulls as this extract from the August 11th edition of the New York Times shows:

A former senior riot police officer with knowledge of current operations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the most recent riots were allowed to rage, in part, because police officers felt constrained. They operated, the former officer said, in the shadow of the case of a newspaper vendor, Ian Tomlinson, who died after being shoved by a riot officer guarding against protesters at a Group of 20 economic conference in 2009. The police officer, Simon Harwood, will go on trial for manslaughter in October.

I find this whole argument particularly difficult to swallow for a number of reasons. Chiefly the whole notion that police officers cannot tell the difference between reasonable force and what constitutes an illegal action is laughable. If they cannot tell the difference then what hope is there for the rest of us?

More specifically with regard to the Tomlinson case. My reading of the case was that the Officer PC Simon Harwood who was assigned to be in effect ‘in the rear with the gear’ by his own admission became 'bored' and then went walkabout with disastorous effect. This was not disciplined policing and in fact questions had been raised about Harwood's 'aggressive behaviour' long before the G20 protests.

The police are not the only ones using the smoke of the riots as cover for a political agenda as Cameron's attempts at turning the welfare state into a more punative part of the criminal justice system testfies, but the arguement that cases like the Tomlinson case have stopped them doing their job does the police a disservice. I hope that PC Harwood is not representative of the majority of officers who can tell the difference between doing their job and breaking the law.

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