Why the police are in a state of impotence

The British authorities’ confused and fearful response to the recent urban rioting has exposed the crisis of state authority today.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics UK

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If, as we have been warned in recent years, Britain is becoming an all-powerful ‘police state’, then how come the police could be reduced to such an apparent state of impotence and confusion for days by a few hundred rioters?

The media called the trouble in London from Saturday to Monday nights ‘the worst riots in living memory’. That might be true in terms of the financial damage done by looting and arson. In terms of the fury of the rioters and the fierceness of the clashes with police so far, however, this outburst of disorder does not match the riots of the 1980s. Yet somehow a police force with more men in uniform and sophisticated riot gear than ever before, facing a less organised and less violent opposition than in the past, spent several days looking, in the words of one former Metropolitan Police commander, ‘impotent’.

There have been lazy parallels drawn between the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985 and the wave of mini-riots that began nearby in Tottenham at the weekend. But for some of us, it is the contrast in the policing that is more striking (and not only because my comrades and I in the Revolutionary Communist Party (deceased) were accused by hysterical police commanders of inciting the London riots of 26 years ago).

Back then the police acted as the frontline of a state at war with sections of its own population, determined to hold the line at all costs in an all-out battle for control. By contrast, this week the police have more often looked as if they don’t even know where the line might be and are fearful of crossing it. They have allowed people to run riot. Even when they confronted looters, the abiding images were of officers waving their sticks around in the air like boys trying to appear tough without risking a real confrontation. As the man said, they looked ‘impotent’.

Prime minister David Cameron came back early from holiday to announce that no fewer than 16,000 police officers would be on the streets of London on Tuesday night – an extraordinary deployment, more suited to coping with an earthquake or a full-scale invasion than some looting and burning of local shops in Croydon and Enfield. Yet numbers are not everything. It does not matter how many uniforms you send out, if they are uncertain of what to do and lack the authority to do it. Those calling for the army to be deployed in British cities might note that the presence of thousands of Allied troops did not manage to bring peace to Iraq or Afghanistan, despite being allowed to shoot troublemakers rather more freely than they would be in London or Birmingham.

Recent events look less like an Eighties-style ‘uprising’ from below than a collapse of authority from the top down. The authorities have left a power vacuum that invited anybody with a brick or a shopping trolley to come and have a go. On Saturday police left people free to loot shopping centres in north London, supposedly while the Force focused on dealing with the riot in Tottenham. Yet as residents pointed out, they did nothing to stop the burning down of shops and flats there, either. Over the days that followed there were many complaints from angry shopkeepers of the Met standing back while their premises were robbed and fired.

So what did the police think they were doing while this was going on? One Met commander gave a revealing interview to Sky News, explaining that the policing of communities had changed a lot since the riots of 25 or 30 years ago. This time, he said, ‘we’re standing next to these people watching them cry because their businesses have been destroyed. We’re going to work with the partners in that local community to make sure we help them rebuild Tottenham. That’s what policing is all about.’ Call me old-fashioned, but that sounds more like a professional therapist or town planner than a police chief faced with civil disorder.

The flabby police response gave the green light to the would-be looters and assorted toerags to come out and play. Indeed, the way the police then toured other areas of London telling shops to shut up early because trouble was coming – by implication making clear that they could not protect the properties – may well have put the idea of a little looting in some people’s heads. In these circumstances there was surely no great mystery as to why the riots spread so fast. There was nothing to stop them. The police were sounding the retreat before battle had even commenced.

This retreat was all the more remarkable because the authorities have not been facing much opposition by historical standards. The modern British state, we might recall, managed to contain a war in Northern Ireland for 25 years, fight a civil war against 100,000 striking miners and their supporters, and put down full-scale community unrest in the inner cities of the 1980s. Yet this time the authorities appeared lost when faced with sporadic thieving and arson by comparative handfuls of people with no cause to fight for and little in common beyond their taste in sportswear and electrical goods.

This impotent response cannot be reduced, as some have suggested, to the fear that individual police officers now feel about being prosecuted if they infringe a suspect’s human rights. The spinelessness has come from the very top. Nor can the failure of politicians and police chiefs to make any coherent response to the Tottenham outbreak be put down to them all being on holiday. Even when they rushed back they had not a clue what to say for the best, beyond Tory home secretary Teresa May’s platitudinous condemnation of those ‘doing criminal activities’. For all the promise of ‘robust policing’, the only threat the authorities were really making was of robust videoing of looters to facilitate later prosecutions. A call to arms it was not.

To illustrate the internal collapse of state authority these events represent, it might be worth briefly revisiting the story of the response to the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985. As the recent trouble began with a protest against the police shooting of a black man in Tottenham, so the 1985 unrest was a sparked by the death of a black woman, Cynthia Jarrett, during a police raid on her home. Back then, however, few in authority were surprised by the riot that ensued. The police were already effectively at war with black communities in the inner cities; a week earlier another black woman had been shot during a police raid in Brixton, sparking a riot.

Hundreds of riot cops were sent onto the Broadwater Farm estate to pre-empt the protests that the authorities expected after the death of Mrs Jarrett. This invasion inevitably sparked the trouble. In the fierce fighting that followed, furious residents who had had enough of police racism attacked the riot police with a shotgun, machetes and petrol bombs in a battle unprecedented on modern British streets. The riot left PC Keith Blakelock dead and more than 200 other policemen injured.

The response of the state to this violent community uprising was swift and ruthless. An army of riot police occupied the estate – and not to stand around looking tough for the cameras. Looking back at what I wrote and published at the time in the RCP’s newspaper, the next step, the numbers of arrests and raids they made on that one housing estate seem all the more remarkable.Over five days the Farm was taken over by more than 9,000 police officers – almost half of all the police in London at the time. They raided one home in every four on the estate, often with armed units confronting people on their own doorsteps, and arrested 362 people – a tenth of the entire population of the estate, and a huge proportion of all the black youth on the Farm.

Although white residents on Broadwater Farm were also caught up in the offensive, the police made no bones about the racist character of their war on the predominantly-black estate. One young man we interviewed at the time told of the experience of being arrested and interrogated by police: ‘They said “You’re white so don’t be a nigger-lover because it’s the niggers we want. If you give us the names of the niggers we will remember you’re white and we’ll let you go”.’ The police held boys and young men for days at a time without sleep, food or access to solicitors, trying to force them to give information and confessions. This process ended up with the framing of three men for the murder of PC Blakelock in 1987 – their convictions were later thrown out as the Appeal Court was forced to concede that police had cooked up what little evidence they had presented at the trial.

At the time, however, no such doubts disturbed the united front of police chiefs, government ministers and the media against the inner-city community. Metropolitan Police chief Sir Kenneth Newman announced that he would not hesitate to use plastic bullets and CS gas on the streets of the capital if there was any further trouble: ‘I wish to put all people of London on notice’, Newman said as if he was issuing a parking ticket, ‘that I will not shrink from such a decision should I believe it a practical option for restoring peace and preventing crime and injury’. As Newman also said, in terms that might lead to calls for him to be referred for counselling today, ‘there is a psychological hang-up in this country about the use of force by the police. I have fewer hang-ups than most.’ His threat to use plastic bullets and CS gas against ‘all people of London’, that would surely have caused Ms May to have kittens, was immediately and forcefully backed by the Tory home secretary of the day, Douglas Hurd.

The contrast in the state’s response then and now is partly explained by the different political contexts in which the riots took place. In 1985 the authorities were battle hardened by an era of class war and civil and international conflict, from the South Atlantic to Northern Ireland and from the mining villages to the inner-city estates. The British state was hanging on to the last vestiges of its traditional authority by enforcing the old politics of race and class. That helped to explain why, in the final years of the Cold War, the police tried to blame the left for inciting the violence in London. Newspapers ran mad stories about Soviet agents infiltrating Broadwater Farm. The local police commander accused RCP agitators of being behind the 1985 Brixton riots, and Met Police chief Newman agreed that ‘Trotskyist’ groups such as ours had incited the violence on Broadwater Farm a week later. The top cops knew their enemies even if they got their facts wrong. As we said at the time, the black community needed no incitement from us or anybody else to resist police racism.

The traditional authority and values of the state have collapsed over the past 25 years as surely as have the old left and its other former enemies. The Met has gone through years of self-flagellation over its ‘institutionalised racism’, and has instead fallen back on trying to use official anti-racism to look good today. This time there have been no riot vans racing through the streets with officers beating their sticks on the sides shouting ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger – out, out out!’, as I saw during the riots in Moss Side, Manchester in 1981.

The policing authorities have suffered a loss of nerve and an identity crisis, no longer sure whether they are supposed to be a Force or, in the new language, a Service. They have found it is not that easy to turn from their new focus on psycho-babble, PR and management-speak to acting as an old-fashioned body of armed men upholding public order. Last year’s student protests showed that the Met was no longer used to dealing even with such theatrical displays of unrest. Hence the police spent the first few days of the current trouble looking more fearful that forceful, as if they wanted to ‘kettle’ shadows. Meanwhile the jumpy authorities took the embarrassing step of cancelling an England football match, as if the looters were somehow going to invade Wembley Stadium and pinch the players’ sportswear.

Against this background even the authorities’ belated attempts to ‘fight back’ (as if there was a real enemy to fight) and appear in control have given off mixed messages. The appearance of armoured cars on London streets on Monday night looked as if it might have been more to protect police officers than to defeat and arrest the rioters. Similarly the new enthusiasm in many places for deploying water cannons gives a telling insight into the state of mind today; these are defensive weapons that say, not surrender or else, but go away and leave us alone.

The first anti-racist campaign that I joined during the time of the 1981 riots had the outrageous demand ‘Police off our streets’. The slightly idealistic idea was not that there should be anarchy, but that people should take control of their own areas. At times over the past few days it seemed as if that slogan might have become a reality in parts of London. Not because communities had taken control, however, but because the police had simply withdrawn like departing Roman legions, leaving behind a power vacuum for anybody to walk into. Little wonder that residents of parts of London were reported to be taking the defence of local streets into their own hands.

The left was not behind the 1985 riots, of course. But we did make clear that we defended the black community of Broadwater Farm against the police occupation, and would not be distracted from that by the looting and arson that had been a sideshow to the confrontation between the people and the state. I feel no such sense of solidarity towards the nihilistic rioters of 2011, who almost make the rioters of yesteryear look like political idealists by comparison and whose ‘programme’ is summed up by one of those infamous Blackberry messages reported on the news, calling for others to join in the London looting for ‘pure terror and havoc and free stuff’.

These riots began for no deep reason, and so they can end just as readily, and mean little or nothing in the greater scheme of things. They will leave behind only some blackened buildings – and the crumbling hulk of the state’s burnt-out authority.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

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Topics Politics UK


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