11 August 2011

Civil violence in the UK: three steps to understanding the ‘mindless criminal’

This is a fascinating blog from Jaideep Gupte, one of my IDS colleagues, on the riots that in the UK these past few days. It provides an interesting perspective, drawing on empirical research from around the world on poverty and conflict under the MICROCON programme. I have reproduced the first few paragraphs from the MICRCON blog. The rest is to be found here:

"Last weekend, twitter and various internet blogs lit up: London was under attack. Television news repeatedly showed bewildering scenes of riotous mobs on the rampage, shops being looted and buildings on fire. As the violence spread from Tottenham to several neighbourhoods across the city, ‘copy-cat criminality’[1] and mob frenzy were blamed for the continued violence. However, as public order in other cities, including Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool, also broke down, it became harder to pin the violence on mindless criminality alone.

The BBC hosted a lively exchange between Edwina Currie (former Conservative MP) and West Indian columnist Darcus Howe.[2] Currie de-linked the present spate of civil violence in London from the violent rioting in Brixton in 1981, arguing that while deep-rooted racism was almost a ‘respectable’ trait in the 1980s, this was not the case now. And that youth violence today, regardless of race, is fuelled by a disconnect with society in general. In a hypothetical scenario she painted, a youth would turn to violence just to have ‘the trainers that Mum won’t buy me’ and through a lack of respect for private property, that is, not recognising the distinction between ‘what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours and I don’t touch it’. In response, Howe pointed out that young Black men continue to be a disenfranchised cohort, who are stereotyped by the police through their stop-and-search powers. Howe also indirectly questioned why that mother would not (or could not) buy running shoes for her son, or what meaning the concept of private property had for someone who had none.

These views characterise an important debate in understanding civil violence: whether it is perpetrated by mindless criminality, or whether there is a more structured anatomy of a riot. So how are we to understand the London riots? Here is a 3-step approach to understanding the ‘mindless criminal’"


Awuor Ponge said...

I must say that I am really impressed with Jaideep Gupte’s attempted explanation of the London riots (shouldn’t we just refer to them as UK riots as they have spread to all the other major cities as well?) and why they should not simply be viewed as acts of mindless criminality.

Three things strike me from the debate advanced by Gupte, namely:

- The act of looting, as much as the loot itself, is of value to the looter – it symbolises defiance, identity and even (perversely) ability.

- While the riots need to be understood in the wider contexts of social, political and economic inequality, it also needs to be recognised that there is a certain structure to these acts of violence.

- Black young adults (16-24 years) are four times as likely to be in prison under sentence, than White young adults, and almost eight times as likely as Asian young adults.

With regard to the looting and the loot being symbols of defiance and identity, I’m tempted to draw a similarity with the Japan Tsunami (even though the contexts are different), when there was a power blackout while customers were inside a departmental store, all the customers simply returned the commodities they intended to buy, back to the shelves and left the stores empty handed (and mind you, some didn’t even have something to eat at home). Now, what does this tell us about the moral fabric of the two societies? What has happened to the UK youth that has not happened to the Japanese youth? Funnily enough, the youth were going for non-basics like trainers and cigarettes, surely?

Although still, I’m in agreement with him that civil violence can occur in societies which we consider to be ‘modern and progressive’. It appears that there is something dramatically wrong with the UK system that only needed a trigger, and the shooting provided the opportunity. I also remember back home in my country Kenya, the underlying cause of the post-election violence that left over 1, 300 dead and over 300, 000 homeless was not the stolen election – the election was just a trigger, but there were deeply entrenched inequalities and historical injustices that were ‘covered underneath’ and only waiting for time to erupt.

The above brings me to the question of what caused the initial protest before the actual shooting? Is the issue of tripling of the university fee the main cause of the protest or this is just but a manifestation of deeply entrenched inequalities and disenfranchisement? What are these policy issues that have entrenched these inequalities and disenfranchisement? Is education just one of the critical issues? Legislators have also raised issues with the cut on police budget by the coalition government of David Cameron. If the fee could not have been tripled, was the violence still going to be there or even at a later time? If there were no cuts to the police budget, could the police have effectively contained the violence before it spread to other cities? These are begging questions that need critical analysis.

Awuor Ponge said...

The second issue that Jaideep Gupte addresses is that while the riots need to be understood in the wider contexts of social, political and economic inequality, it also needs to be recognised that there is a certain structure to these acts of violence. Can the riots be said to be molded on any specific pattern? Admitted, understanding these riots presupposes a clear understanding of the social, political and economic inequalities in the UK; but is it possible to discern a definite pattern of youth protest in this global village drawing from the Arab revolution, spreading to the emerging Caucasian revolution and ultimately to the Negroid revolution? The youth are definitely speaking, and they are speaking in a language that they know the forces of conservatism can best listen to. Maybe time will be the best judge!

In his final analysis, Gupte gives us shocking statistics, one being that Black young adults (16-24 years) are four times as likely to be in prison under sentence, than White young adults, and almost eight times as likely as Asian young adults. Now, what does this tell us about the act of the police officer in shooting the black boy? Was racism a motivating factor? And what is the message the youth are sending to the world? Are they driven by such stereotypes? Certainly, No! The youth are identifying with one of them purely in terms of the youth factor without regard to race. Again, as has been said time and again, there are dichotomies of factors that catalyse protest the world over: Youth against old; progression against conservatism; equality against inequality; justice against injustice. The list could be endless; but drawing from Gupte’s debate, the main cause of the UK riots is not the shooting, but the deeply entrenched inequalities and the need to fight to challenge the system. It found ready subscription in the youth who are looking for identify in the midst of facelessness that the system has put on them. This was even exacerbated by PM David Cameron’s statement that by involving in the violence, they were wrecking their own lives. Admitted true as the statement may be, you don’t hit your child with a hammer as punishment because she has burnt herself in a cooker; you rush her to the hospital instead and warn her later. The high-handedness with which PM Cameron and the police have reacted to the riots should therefore, be condemned in the strongest terms possible.