London’s Postmodern Riots

As a former resident of Winchmore Hill I am well familiar the surrounding areas of north London—Wood Green, Ponders End, Enfield…—affected by three successive nights of rioting and looting which has now spread to other parts of the capital. Burglaries, car thefts and vandalism started being a problem in our N21 neighborhood two decades ago, but the Hobbesian mayhem of the past few days would have been scarcely imaginable back then outside the hellish confines of Tottenham’s Broadwater Farm estate.

Three key aspects of London’s three successive nights of rioting are missing in the mainstream media coverage: race, the striking indifference of most onlookers to the chaos around them, and the equally striking inability or unwillingness of the police to impose and maintain order.

The unrest started following a protest over the fatal shooting by police of an armed 29-year-old career criminal of Afro-Caribbean origin, Mark Duggan, last Thursday. A crowd of three hundred, overwhelmingly West Indian, gathered outside the Tottenham police station on the High Road demanding “justice.” This protest soon escalated into a riot, with masked “youths” armed with petrol bombs, metal bars and baseball bats going on a rampage.

While carefully edited out of most media reports, the identity and mindset of the “youths” is clear from The Guardian’s account from the scene. Lingering near the burnt-out shell of a betting shop on Tottenham High Road, they were evasive about their role in the disorder; but when asked about the police, known in the gang slang as “the Feds,” they expressed nothing but contempt.

“They’re annoying, nagging,” said one. Scrunching up his sweatshirt to hide his neck tattoo, his friend added: “You know hot food? You know when you eat it and then it hurts when you go to the toilet? That’s the Feds.” … “We hit the jackpot! We hit the belly!” said one teenager, who tacitly admitted he had participated in Saturday’s disturbances but would say little except: “The moral of the story is ‘f… the Feds’.” … Young black people felt they were treated differently by the police, being stopped and searched on a “constant” basis. And, he added, he couldn’t find a job: “Even if you do, it’s on the minimum wage.” A friend of his, who gave his name as Rozay—the name emblazoned into the side of his neck—agreed: “the police do treat young black people with shocking disrespect … labelling us like we’re nothing.”

The squeamishness of the mainstream media regarding the identity of the rioters—on August 9 the NPR London correspondent endearingly referred to them as “lads” and “kids”—is reminiscent of the MSM insistence on referring to Muslim rioters in France in 2005 as “angry youths.” The BBC Politbureau’s somewhat contradictory line was articulated in a report on August 7: Yes, the young black men had plenty of reason to feel aggravated; but no, race was not an important factor in the riots which were really a form of a cry for help:

“The police never talk to us, they ignore us, they don’t think we’re human in this area,” [Jake Manu] said. “We get pulled over all the time like criminals. If you’re wearing a black hood, [if] you’re a black man, they pull you over for no reason… I’m not happy about the rioting, but I think it was necessary so that the people will know what’s going on in this community and they’ll learn from that.” … Youth worker Michelle Jackson, 43, said … racial tensions between police and local youths had underpinned events. “I knew the person that was shot, he’s a really nice guy, and they’re making him out to be some kind of gangster involved in guns and all that kind of stuff… The way the police treat black people is like we’re nothing, they handle us really like we’re nothing. They speak to the young people like they’re nothing… The only reason why people did what they did is because this is the only way we’re going to get heard,” she said. She said it was not just black people rioting, but people from all nationalities and ages.

Ms. Jackson’s remarkable ability to discern nationalities of mostly hooded looters and her claim that the “youths” were not necessarily young went unchallenged by the BBC. Its predictable leftist narrative of victimhood and marginalization was countered by the equally predictable and no less absurd claim that “the spread of riots into other areas of London is exclusively a function of economics, not racial tension.”

This is nonsense. The root of the problem is cultural and spiritual. Author Philip Womack hit the nail on the head in his blog on August 9. It is a pity that the novelist J. G. Ballard is not alive to consider the riots, Womack says. His novels concerned the intellectual and psychological malaises that festered in modern life:

[I]n his last, the ominously titled Kingdom Come, a shopping centre became the focus of violence; in High Rise, memorably, residents became feral and savage. These riots in London have a far deeper, more sinister significance, though. They are much more frightening than J G Ballard’s explorations of the psyche. When reading his novels we always knew that in our reality, in our world of ethics and morality and the rule of law, the consciences of the majority would never allow those things to happen. Crucially, though, whilst we remained civilised—there is no knowing what might happen in a war zone, or a devastated future. But those things are far away—were far away. What Ballard pointed up was just how thin the civilising layer is: but it’s what makes us civilised. We are a hair’s breadth away from beating each other over the head with rocks, but most of us can keep it firmly in place. The scary thing is that this is a layer that is completely absent from these rioters.

Womack sees as no less disturbing the tendency of most passers-by witnessing the pandemonium of the past few days not to become engaged in stopping the violence, but to record the action, as if they too were participants in making a cultural artifact: “I imagine that most of the teenagers doing the rioting believed that they were somehow heroic, people from music videos or other distorted and strange versions of reality. I imagine also that these looters and rioters will be eagerly watching each other on their mobile phones, convinced that what they have done is somehow fictionalised through its very recording.”

The detachment from reality and community, as it happens, is not the preserve of black looters and their videotaping white observers. It extends to the police. Made morbidly hyper-sensitive about “race relations,” British policemen prefer to remain on the sidelines when members of a “minority” break the law—even if other minorities (e.g. Turkish shopkeepers) are suffering the consequences. This is the consequence of a thirty-year-old mindset epitomized by Lord Scarman’s 1981 report on the Brixton riots of 1981 (“There is widespread agreement that the composition of our police forces must reflect the make-up of the society they serve”) and the 1999 Macpherson report following which the British government set a recruitment target for ethnic minorities of 8 per cent. In fact, according to David Green’s commentary in The  Daily Telegraph, Scarman’s key notion was profoundly wrong:

The police have never been representative of the social or ethnic breakdown of society. Police officers are people who have been chosen because they deserve to wear the uniform, not because of their ethnic status. They are individuals who deserve to be part of a profession that upholds the law without favour or affection, malice or ill-will. So long as that remains true, then every officer is entitled to respect, whether black or white, male or female. The legitimacy of the police has nothing to do with the racial composition of the force. It has to do with impartial enforcement of the law.

Instead of upholding such impartiality, in 2002 police leaders published a “hate-crime manual” which scornfully dismissed the notion of impartial justice. “Colour blind” (in quotation marks to signify its implausibility) policing was defined as

… policing that purports to treat everyone in the same way. Such an approach is flawed and unjust. It fails to take account of the fact that different people have different reactions and different needs. Failure to recognise and understand these means failure to deliver services appropriate to needs and an inability to protect people irrespective of their background… Anyone who is unable to behave in a non-discriminatory and unprejudiced manner must expect disciplinary action. There is no place in the police service for those who will not uphold and protect the human rights of others.”

Dr. Green, director of Civitas, concludes that in this kind of atmosphere it is not surprising that officers in charge of a riot think it safer to wait for orders from the top rather than use their discretion to protect the public without fear or favor. Even so, he concludes, there has been an inexcusable failure of police leadership in the first few days of these riots:

Being reluctant to use force can be admirable. But when events have got out of control, the fullest use of police powers is justified. The present generation of police leaders gained promotion by mastering the art of talking about “issues around” racism or bearing down on hate crime “going forward”. Learning the management buzz words of the last few years has not produced leaders able to command men in a riot. The injuries sustained by officers show that we have plenty of men and women prepared to be brave when needed, but they are lions led by donkeys who listened a bit too intently to the sociology lectures about “hate crime” at Bramshill police college.

The problem with today’s Britain is that donkeys are in charge not only at Bramshill but also at Westminster and at No. 10, Downing Street. If and when ordinary Britons feel compelled to resort to more robust tools than BlackBerryss and Nokias when faced with a looting mob, the lions may have a chance once again.

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