“The noises of destruction, flying all around…”

August 9, 2011

Over the past three days, two different types of rioting has been going on. The first, and far more serious, looting has been the smashing, looting and burning of scores of businesses across London. The second type is people pilfering these events and projecting onto them their own particular prejudices and causes. This has happened on both left and right, but particularly the left.

What these riots have done is show just how authoritarian the instincts of some of the British public can be. This is not just from the “usual suspects”: even supposedly bleeding-heart Liberal Democrats like Simon Hughes and Evan Harris have advocated the use of water cannon and sending in the army respectively. We’ve even had a contribution from Roger Helmer, everyone’s favourite Tory MEP. When he’s not arguing that homophobia doesn’t exist, or that women are responsible for their own rape, he’s tweeting this:

Because, of course, the only proper response to mindless violence is more mindless violence.

None of these options seems particularly wise. I’ve written before about why using water cannon would be a dangerous and bad move, whilst David Allen Green has a good post on why the army should not be called in: they do not have the relevant training, and it didn’t exactly work out in Northern Ireland (Bloody Sunday, anyone?). The solution now seems to be that we’ll arm police with plastic bullets. They are “non-fatal”, apparently, but using them just doesn’t seem sensible. One stray bullet and we’ll have riots for another week at least.

We also have a large section of the left which seems perfectly happy to drop any notion of personal responsibility and go instead for political points-scoring and anti-cuts rhetoric. Ken Livingstone has been one of the more egregious examples of this, especially on Newsnight yesterday.

Much of the response has blamed these riots on cuts or poverty. These explanations don’t quite stack up with the available evidence. The Guardian has reported that many of these rioters are organising on Blackberrys. Rioters who can afford Blackberrys doesn’t sound like the urban poor rising up to me. Not in a country where people are starting to turn of fridges because they cannot afford the electricity.

Also, the cuts haven’t happened yet, so it’s not as if these protests were about service provision specifically. There’s been a lot of looting but nothing about Sure Start, Youth Centres or Citizens Advice Bureaus.

From the reports that have been coming in, it seems that there are three kinds of people participating in the riots, so it’s slightly more complicated than is suggested at first sight.

The first, and by far the smallest, group are the only ones to whom you could ascribe any “political” motivation. It includes people like this:

[H]ere’s a sad truth, expressed by a Londoner when asked by a television reporter: Is rioting the correct way to express your discontent?

“Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”

The TV reporter from Britain’s ITV had no response. So the young man pressed his advantage. “Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard,  more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”

Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere.

Concerns over police tactics, for instance, was an issue even before Mark Duggan was shot in what is becoming ever-muddier circumstances. It may perhaps have started over that, but what has followed has shown that, at root, most of these rioters aren’t “political”.

Others will argue otherwise. Adam Ramsay for instance wrote that these riots were political because “every act is a political act”.

I disagree. If everything is political, then nothing is political. The aims of the majority of rioters were not political.

Compare this violence to the rioting that started during the student fees protest in November. Then, the smashing up of Millbank and only contained to that one building. Which was at least relevant on a fees protest, as it was the  Conservative Party HQ, even if the violence itself was unjustified.

Contrast this to the rioting that has happened over the past few days. It’s not establishment buildings that have been targeted, but businesses. Even small family businesses, such as House of Reeves in Croydon. The shop was owned by the same family for five generations, survived two world wars, but did not survive a gang of out-of-control youngsters.

This brings us to the second group of rioters: violent thugs. I don’t know if “mindless” is the right word. How do you describe people who will help an injured, dazed teenager to his feet and then steal from his bag?

If “mindless” is not the word, perhaps “endemic” is. Evil maybe.

What seems to be happening is that violence that is generally confined to a few no-go areas around the city has spilled out across London and elsewhere. Probably because people can – the police are in many cases not able to stop them, and this only gives them motivation to continue.

The third, and final category, is people who want free stuff. I hope you’ve all seen by now the pictures of people who’ve been looting for, er, Tesco Value Basmati Rice, or tweeting about how they won’t get caught for stealing tracksuits, because they’re pathetically amusing. Some people seem to have used the opportunity to go and do a spot of opportunistic stealing. As was said yesterday by a friend, “Young people in the Arab Spring fought for freedom, democracy and the right to self determination. Our young people loot and destroy for Ipads and Blackberrys.”

So the roots of the riots were not political. Some of the responses are not political either. I have been greatly heartened by, and do not want to politicise, the amount of people who went out with brooms to reclaim their city:

or who served tea to police on riot shields:

This was not political; this was people just being nice and caring for others.

Part of the response, however, has to be political. Riots do not happen in a vacuum. There are obviously myriad social problems to address, and countless ways in which they can be tackled.

The best left-wing soundbite on crime remains Tony Blair’s “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”. We can focus on the causes of crime soon enough in the months and years ahead. For now, let’s concentrate on ridding the cities of rioters and cleaning up the mess they’ve left. Only then can we focus on how to rebuild them.

The horribly depressing case of Ian Tomlinson

August 10, 2010

“Everyone knows that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. But no one accepts the implications of this, everyone takes it for granted that the law, such as it is, will be respected, and feels a sense of outrage when it is not.” – George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn

Ian Tomlinson was a newspaper seller trying to make his way home through the G20 protests on April 1st, 2009. Then this happened:

Ian Tomlinson was not involved with the G20 protests. When Harwood pushed him over, he was walking away from the police officers with his hands in his pockets, not a threat to anyone. Two weeks ago, on July 22nd, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided not to prosecute police officer Simon Harwood with any offence connected with the death of Ian Tomlinson. This is despite the fact that they acknowledge that his actions could be unlawful:

Whilst the officer was entitled to require Mr Tomlinson to move out of Royal Exchange, there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of proving that his actions were disproportionate and unjustified.

Having concluded that the officer’s actions could constitute an assault, the CPS then considered the possible criminal charges.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this whole sorry episode is that I’m not surprised in the least at this. A prosecution seemed as remote as me being able to speak Swedish fluently at some point in the future. Admittedly, this might say more about my cynicism then the British justice system. I would love there to be a chance for a jury to decide on the actual cause of Ian Tomlinson’s death, but it’s impossible to argue against the grim logic of the CPS when they argue not to prosecute for Unlawful Act Manslaughter:

In order to proceed with this charge [of unlawful act manslaughter], the CPS would have to prove a causal link between the alleged assault on Mr Tomlinson and his death.

On that issue, the medical experts were and remain fundamentally divided. Dr Patel’s opinion is that Mr Tomlinson’s death was “consistent with natural causes” and that the cause of death was “coronary artery disease”. The opinion of Dr Cary and Dr Shorrock is that Mr Tomlinson’s death was the result of abdominal haemorrhage (internal bleeding) caused by blunt force trauma to the abdomen.

A conflict between medical experts inevitably makes a prosecution very difficult, but the CPS proceeded on the basis that such a conflict need not automatically mean that a prosecution must fail. For that reason, we explored at some length the possibility of proceeding without relying on the evidence of Dr Patel. However, we were ultimately driven to conclude that, as the sole medical expert who conducted the first post mortem, Dr Patel would have to be called at trial as a prosecution witness as to the primary facts. His evidence would be that there was no internal rupture and that the fluid consisted of blood stained ascites and not blood alone. Even leaving out of account the stark disagreement between him and the other experts as to the cause of death, the CPS concluded that the evidence of those primary facts undermined the basis upon which the other experts reached their conclusions about the cause of death. As a result, the CPS would simply not be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that there was a causal link between Mr Tomlinson’s death and the alleged assault upon him. 

That being the case, there is no realistic prospect of a conviction for unlawful act manslaughter.

The CPS are probably right, but that Freddie Patel, given his track record, was appointed to conduct the first post mortem unsupervised makes me incredibly angry. At the time he was appointed to the case by the coroner, he was already under investigation by the GMC “for a series of allegedly botched postmortem examinations between 2002 and 2004” (the latest Private Eye, p27). George Monbiot has more:

He is facing a disciplinary hearing before the General Medical Council for alleged incompetence in 26 cases.

This isn’t the first run-in he has had with the council. In 1999 he was reprimanded by the GMC for speaking to reporters about the death of a man in police custody that he was investigating, and making an unsupported allegation against him. It looked like an unwarranted attempt to help the police out of a tricky situation.

Patel decided that Tomlinson died naturally. But he found three litres of fluid in Tomlinson’s abdominal cavity. His notes initially suggest that this was blood. He disposed of the fluid. Then he changed his notes to suggest that it wasn’t blood but something else. Two subsequent postmortems, conducted by far more eminent pathologists, both concluded that Tomlinson died of internal bleeding consistent with his body hitting the pavement.

We don’t yet know why Patel was chosen to conduct the first autopsy, but it is widely believed he was recommended to the coroner by the City of London police. The police have refused to comment. Why could a jury not have been allowed to decide which autopsy, and which pathologists, it trusted?

Why indeed. The sucker punch of all this is that, because the CPS waited a year before annoucing they could not charge PC Harwood with manslaughter, they cannot now charge him with assault, because too much time has elapsed. Assault charges have to be filed within six months of the incident. As Private Eye says:

The detailed file recommending a manslaughter prosecution from the IPCC was sent to the Cps on 4 August (2009), some four months after the death – and two months before the deadline.

This is hardly the first case of probable police misconduct, and wasn’t the last either, as we shall see. I do apologise for linking to this article, because it’s incredibly depressing, but it’s one that ought to be read. It is about a film from nine years ago, about the 1000 deaths in police custody over the previous three decades; only one officer has ever been convicted as a result of these deaths. It includes incidents like these:

In December 1995 Wayne Douglas was arrested for suspected burglary. He collapsed and died while detained at Brixton police station. In March 1996 Gambian asylum seeker Ibrahima Sey was forced to the ground, sprayed repeatedly with CS gas, and then held face down for 15 minutes. When he went totally limp and stopped breathing, an ambulance was called. He was dead by the time they reached the hospital.

More recently, I came across this incident via the excellent Jack of Kent – who has also blogged on the Ian Tomlinson case.

One officer was later found guilty of assault. It seems that:

The court heard claims the ex-soldier, who had drunk about nine pints of beer, had interfered with a paramedic who was trying to treat a woman and racially abused an Asian doorman.

But this hardly merits the brutal reaction from these police officers.

Of course, the vast majority of police officers perform their tough jobs impeccably. But why should this mean that the hot-headed minority seem to be above the law? The Ian Tomlinson case is merely the well-publicised tip of the iceberg. Please try and persuade your MP to sign the Early Day Motion calling for an inquest into his death.

The hunt for Raoul Moat did not take place

July 17, 2010

I apologise for another post highlighting my libertarian side in the same week, but how can I resist when censorship has been in the news again?

Obviously the Facebook group glorifying Raoul Moat is disgusting, but can we force Facebook to remove it? On “Question Time” we had that strident advocate of “aspirational socialism” Andy Burnham, who uttered the immortal phrase:

I’m not in favour of censorship, but…

I’m afraid I missed the rest of Burnham’s utterance because I spent the next couple of minutes crying into my copy of On Liberty.

Why did so many people join this Facebook group? The numbers might not be as high as the 18,000 reported to have joined, because many seem to have joined in order to criticise others who have actually joined to glorify Moat. In any case, it’s a big enough number – somewhere in the thousands – to be concerned.

A common view seems to be that they’re just stupid. “This shows there’s a lot of thickos in Britain today”, railed Kelvin McKenzie on “This Week”, blissfully unaware of the part the newspaper he used to edit probably played in that process.

But did these people really join just because they were stupid? The quintessentially stupid person, certainly by the definitions on dictionary.com, is Dougal McGuire from Father Ted.

There isn’t a bad bone in Dougal’s body, but there can be no doubt that he’s stupid. He has this childlike misunderstanding and dunderheaded view of the world. You’d think he was being deliberately obtuse, but he’s not – he’s just stupid.

But here’s the rub – Dougal McGuire would never join a Facebook group praising a murderer. Because that’s just not on. The people joining the Facebook group have failed the “Father Dougal test”. It’s not simply stupidity that is causing this small outpouring of support for Raoul Moat. In fact, it’s more insidious than that.

What could it be then? Perhaps George Galloway had a point on “Question Time”, when he talked about it being part of a groundswell of white, working-class rage. But let’s go straight to the horse’s mouth. This is what Siobhan O’Dowd, the ‘founder’ of the group, said in a radio interview (as reported by the Daily Telegraph):

Just hours before the page was withdrawn, Ms O’Dowd had launched a rambling defence of her views.

In a radio interview she told listeners: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Legends get talked about and he’s being talked about so in my eyes he’s a legend.

“I think he’s a legend for keeping them [the police] on their toes. I think it’s funny how he hid. It’s not just me who thinks this.”

These sorts of comments have been echoed elsewhere (see the 8th and 9th paragraphs). Raoul Moat has become a “legend” – the solitary man with a shotgun evading the law, he’s become like Omar Little of “The Wire” to a small section of the white working-class.

Perhaps another factor in the group’s popularity is that Moat gained notoriety because of his murders. A number of studies have shown that, nowadays, an increasing amount of people are seeking merely “fame” and “celebrity” as opposed to achieving anything good or tangible. By his despicable actions Moat managed to transfix the British media for the best part of a week, which amounts to a great deal of notoriety in anyone’s book.

Those watching and reading the media coverage of the manhunt for Raoul Moat, right up to that final standoff in Rothbury where he eventually shot himself, could be forgiven for thinking that this was all a game, and not “real” somehow. I’m sure many people reading this were also watching the 24-hour news coverage of that final standoff – I did, for a few minutes. Some wanted to get closer to the action. It wasn’t just Paul Gasgoine who travelled to Rothbury, pint and chicken in tow. Apparently some people took deckchairs and stayed to watch the denouement. Even those people weren’t getting as close to the action as some members of the press. Martin Robbins has collected some of the best examples of this, in an excellent article which should be read in conjunction with a reply by Fleet Street Blues. For the purposes of the point I am making, pay attention to question three. I won’t quote the whole thing, but here’s part of it:

The picture below shows an officer holding a taser pointed at Raoul Moat while his gaze is distracted towards a photographer. It provides a stark illustration of the profound ways in which the media (and those they incite) can interfere with a police operation. The officers here don’t look pleased, as you would expect, yet this picture has been repeated endlessly through-out the news without a single presenter stopping to pause and wonder just what the hell the photographer thought he was doing in such a sensitive position, putting lives at risk and for what?

Jean Baudrillard wrote three essays collected in a book entitled “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place”. Without wishing to subject you to lots of postmodernist babble, part of his argument was [and here I’m going to quote Wikipedia, bad scholar that I am]:

Baudrillard argues that the style of warfare used in the Gulf War was so far removed from previous standards of warfare that it existed more as images on RADAR and TV screens than as actual hand-to-hand combat, that most of the decisions in the war were based on perceived intelligence coming from maps, images, and news, than from actual seen-with-the-eye intelligence (Baudrillard 2001, 29-30).

Hence the absurd title of this blog post. Did the hunt for Raoul Moat take place? Or was it, to paraphrase Wikipedia, “so far removed from previous manhunts that it existed more as images on newspaper stands and TV screens than as an actual search?” Obviously the hunt did take place, but there seemed a surreal quality to it. It all seemed just a game. The ending was like the culmination of a film, as Barbara Ellen put it, more like “Death Wish” or “Die Hard” than an actual police investigation.

How the media report incidents such as Raoul Moat’s shooting and investigation needs to be reviewed quickly. This clip from Charlie Brooker’s “Newswipe”, and this article from Johann Hari summarise the problems with how the current style of reporting often spawns copycat attacks and turns protagonists into “nihilistic pin-up boys”. The “Newswipe” video is below:

In conclusion, what seems to be happening is this:

People increasingly seeking “fame” over any other tangible achievement + news coverage giving lots of publicity to murders = thousands of people joining a Facebook group in praise of Raoul Moat.

David Cameron seems too intent on calling for censorship, condemning the Facebook group and sweeping this whole affair under the carpet. Yet the attitudes from the public and the reporting styles of the media that spawned this group cannot, and should not, be so easily forgotten.


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