Be young and shut up

A blog about student activism.

Why Cameron’s response will not help

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PR Policy – why rubber bullets and water cannons are the wrong cure

This is a guest post by Chris Jones. Chris is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, researching the representation of mental health in drama. He’d describe his political views as libertarian socialist, and tweets as @lostheskald.

Yesterday, as rioting spread across the midlands, and before David Cameron announced that baton rounds had been authorised for use in public order situations for the first time, I posted this Facebook status:

I hate what’s happening in this country. Communities being torn apart, people terrified in their homes, livelihoods lost. I just can’t see how more draconian policing will help. I kind of wish that a quick fix like that could keep people safe, but it’s pretty clear that it won’t, that things will just escalate. Really nuanced responses are needed, and I don’t think this government has the will or the talent to develop or implement them.”

Today’s statement from the Prime Minister shows that I was, sadly, correct.

To accept the need for new police powers in the face of riots, we would have to accept that this is the worst rioting that has been seen in the UK, ever. However, although the speed with which trouble has spread to other cities is arguably new, the impact of the rioting is certainly no worse than those which occurred in the 1980s. Margret Thatcher did not see the need for the use of these tactics in response to the Toxeth or Brixton riots, or the miners’ strike, or the Poll Tax riots.

In fact, the kind of disturbances that have been seen are not ones which would be easily controlled with the use of rubber bullets and water cannon. Small, mobile groups of people looting shops would be hard to hit with baton rounds, especially by officers with little experience of their use in a ‘live’ public order situation, and it would hardly be a consolation to shopkeepers if their electrical goods were destroyed having been doused with water, rather than having been looted.

If the situation doesn’t warrant escalatory tactics from the police, and the tactics which have been authorised are ill-suited to dealing with the situations developing, then what’s the purpose of Cameron’s announcement? I’d argue that it follows directly from the Coalition government’s other policies, which consist of tough talk, posturing, and a refusal to examine events from any angle which may conflict with a tabloid newspaper’s editorial line. ‘Rubber bullets’ and ‘water cannon’ sound nice and brutal and, in combination with Cameron’s comment that ‘we will not let any phoney concerns about human rights get in the way of the publication of these pictures and arrest of these individuals’, will calm the braying of Middle England for the blood of urban youth.

The language of retributive justice is combined with angry brush-offs towards any suggestion that there are causes behind this more complex than the existence of a ‘criminal underclass’. Boris Johnson’s comment of ‘It’s time that people who are engaged in looting and violence stopped hearing economic and social justifications’ shows this inability to address causes – to him, riots are caused by people saying that policies are increasing tensions, rather than those policies themselves.

However, David Cameron did manage to accidentally pinpoint one of the key causes of the rioting during his speech today:

It is a complete lack of responsibility in parts of our society, people allowed to feel the world owes them something, that their rights outweigh their responsibilities and their actions do not have consequences.

A lack of regard for others has been the key element in economic and social policy since at least 1979, and Cameron’s comments could just as easily apply to members of the global financial sector as to urban rioters – banks demand that countries spend money offsetting their losses rather than proving for their citizens, then complain when these policies leave members of the public without the money to spend which could revive the economy. However, despite a few throwaway comments, this government has done nothing to tackle these issues, refused to take responsibility for the consequences of policies which set citizen against citizen, and which encourage those who are well off to blame those at the bottom of society for any and every misfortune.

When students protested in the winter, there was nothing but condemnation and patronisation. But when even young people from a broadly middle-class background demonstrated enough anger with the political situation to break out into rioting, it was clear that trouble would flare in poorer communities, and likely that this trouble would be far worse. What is happening now is horrifying, and the nation is in collective shock that events like this can still happen in our cities. In these situations it is understandable that some are calling for draconian measures, for meeting violence from the rioters with violence from the police, for leaving people convicted of rioting homeless and without access to the NHS. However, as with the riots, just because we can understand some of what leads to thoughts and actions does not mean that we should give in to them.

In situations such as this, we need leadership that is thoughtful and considered, that realises that all the people involved in the disturbances, those burning buildings and those who have lost everything, are citizens of this country. Punish those convicted of crimes, support those who have suffered losses, and do everything to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. Not just that it doesn’t happen again tonight, or tomorrow night, but that the tensions which have led to this point are addressed. We need leadership and analysis – and punishment, sure – but also support, real investment in people as human beings rather than economic units or ‘pockets of sickness’. What we are being served is an authoritarian’s wet dream by a Prime Minister unable to take his own advice.


Written by CakeCakeCakeCakeCake

August 10, 2011 at 6:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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