Tuesday, August 16, 2011

England's Green and Pleasant Land

I drove down to Kentucky this weekend for a relative's birthday, so I heard a lot more corporate-media news on the radio than I usually do. There were several references to the London riots, of course, and I was struck (though not surprised) by the spin that the newscasters usually took: the rioters were just a bunch of bored kids who'd had too long a summer. Not a word about the ongoing police violence that killed 333 people between 1998 and 2010 without a single police officer being convicted, or about the peaceful protests about this and other issues that were ignored. Richard Seymour linked to a photo of the gun that killed Mark Duggan, and as he said, "That gun is a beast. It's designed to decimate flesh. Police use these weapons on citizens. The idea that they haven't got enough weapons or powers is fueled by a juvenile revenge fantasy, not reality."

RWA1, of course, rose to the occasion with rants about the decline of the social contract and a link to this Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by Theodore Dalrymple:
The youth of Britain have long placed a de facto curfew on the old, who in most places would no more think of venturing forth after dark than would peasants in Bram Stoker's Transylvania. Indeed, well before the riots last week, respectable persons would not venture into the centers of most British cities or towns on Friday and Saturday nights, for fear—and in the certainty—of encountering drunken and aggressive youngsters.
And so on. This is disturbing, all right, and indicates serious problems with English society. But I can't help wondering how to square Dalrymple's account with the facts of 333 people killed in police custody. (One hundred of that number were killed between April 2004 and March 2005. Which, I suppose, is the tip of the iceberg, with more people beaten or otherwise injured by the police but who didn't die. And then there are the times when the police are the rioters.) Dalrymple doesn't even mention Mark Duggan; nor does he mention that the police initially lied about the circumstances, claiming falsely that Duggan shot first (the bullet they produced as evidence turned out to be a police bullet). There can be numerous explanations for this situation -- maybe the police prefer to dodge the mobs of hooligans and only assault isolated individuals they can safely gang up on. But anyone who wants to explain or understand what has happened in England in the past weeks is going to have to take the whole picture into account, instead of playing the old geezer chasing the kids off his lawn. The social contract (for which the Right has no use anyway) in England was already shredded, by the Tories and New Labour, long before this summer's riots. Quoth Dalrymple:
The reason for this is clear: The young unemployed Britons not only have the wrong attitude to work, for example regarding fixed hours as a form of oppression, but they are also dramatically badly educated. Within six months of arrival in the country, the average young Pole speaks better, more cultivated English than they do.
The rest of the piece is more of the same. Maybe English education has always been terrible; obviously Dalrymple sees education as a process of domestication for youth, preparing them for "fixed hours" and other regimentation. That is certainly how conservatives in the US see it. But again, not a word about police violence or other forms of repression that have always been part of English life.

I also wonder how long English youth have been terrorizing the English old. Dalrymple claims it's "long," which might mean "since last week," or "since the Norman invasion," or any number of points between. Alexander Cockburn commented on this kind of nostalgia at Counterpunch over the weekend, quoting first from the writer Gavin Mortimer:
In October 1940 Winston Churchill ordered the arrest and conviction of six London firemen caught looting from a burned-out shop to be hushed up by Herbert Morrison, his Home Secretary. The Prime Minister feared that if the story was made public it would further dishearten Londoners struggling to cope with the daily bombardments…

The looting was often carried out by gangs of children organized by a Fagin figure; he would send them into bombed-out houses the morning after a raid with orders to target coins from gas meters and display cases containing First World War medals. In April 1941 Lambeth juvenile court dealt with 42 children in one day, from teenage girls caught stripping clothes from dead bodies to a seven-year-old boy who had stolen five shillings from the gas meter of a damaged house. In total, juvenile crime accounted for 48 per cent of all arrests in the nine months between September 1940 and May 1941 and there were 4,584 cases of looting.
So much for the romance of the Blitz. Cockburn goes on to point out that
The riots in London last week started in Tottenham in an area with the highest unemployment in London, in response to the police shooting a young black man, in a country where black people are 26 times more likely to stopped and searched by the cops than whites. Stop-and-searches are allowed under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, introduced to deal with football hooligans. It allows police to search anyone in a designated area without specific grounds for suspicion. Use of Section 60 has risen more than 300 per cent between 2005 and last year. In 1997/98 there were 7,970 stop-and-searches, increasing to 53,250 in 2007/08 and 149,955 in 2008/09. Between 2005/06 and 2008/09 the number of Section 60 searches of black people rose by more than 650 per cent.
Again, it's hard to square this with Dalyrmple's account of drunken, aggressive youth controlling the streets. The kindest thing I can say is that it must be oversimple. But maybe it's only white youth who are the problem?

The best commentary I've seen on the riots has been at Lenin's Tomb. He does his own satire of certain mainstream reactions:
I remember a time when a copper could clip a young fellow round the ear and send him on his way. I remember a time when the most violent thing in the charts was the Foxtrot, when nuns rode to morning service on bicycles, while mist rose from the countryside. And I remember when rioters had some respect, and some principles. Not like today's mob. ... The decent working class values of old - hard graft, family, community, and a good kick up the arse - have been replaced by the values of the Carphone Warehouse. 'Greed is good' is the slogan upon which these feral yobs have been raised. They are Thatcherites. That is why they should have their benefits taken away, and they should be reported to the police, conscripted, and deported. It never did me any harm... (Contd, p. 94, and ad infinitum).
His post on "The competing common senses of the riots" is worth a read, as is his comment on a Tory historian's attempt to clear space on the frontiers of old-fashioned English racism, and on reports of racist vigilantism in Enfield. (Brit racism in high places is nothing new, of course.)

I had some entertaining exchanges on Facebook under some linked articles about the riots, with people who accused anyone who disagreed with them of supporting riots and looting. I kept hammering back: I don't support rioting, but I don't support state violence either. They clearly are just fine with repressive reaction, I suppose because they don't imagine that the boot might ever come down on their necks. But that's not really the issue, is it? Part of ethics (it seems to me) is that you condemn wrongness even when it doesn't directly affect you. Too many people are just fine with police violence, even random execution-style slayings like the one that killed Mark Duggan.