The Ph.D. on which I'm working studies developing countries (International Development), and, during the course of that study, you spend a great deal of time examining conflict, how it arises, how it subsides, the root causes etc. Conflict in many developing countries is rampant as instability is always an undercurrent and tensions between factions are often high.
Sometimes it arises due to xenophobia, other times due to power balances, often it involves natural resources and almost always it is due to one group feeling disenfranchised by another infused with some measure of corruption. Further to that, in most conflict/riots/uprisings - those who take to the streets are the unemployed youth, generally between 15 and 25.
Taking that perspective and extrapolating it to London, it was not surprising to me that something like this occurred here. In any large, multicultural city where racism exists*, where there are pockets of youths in gangs with no viable employment, and tensions are prevalent, there is always a significant chance that large scale violence could occur. (Hello, Rodney King riots in Los Angeles...)
All it takes is a tipping point, and for the riots in London, it was the shooting of Mark Duggan three days ago by the police in Tottenham, a neighborhood in the north of London known for its high unemployment rate (said to be the highest in London and 8th highest in the UK), significant gang activity and substantial ethnic diversity. Further, riots against the police occurred in Tottenham in the mid-80s, fueling the animosity for law enforcement that contributed to the recent chaos.
So, given all of the aforementioned background, here are my observations about all of this:
1) Knowing that rioting in London can, and will occur, (since it did in Tottenham in 1985 and given what I just explained about the components that contribute to conflict), why was there not a riot plan, complete with escalation response? For example, if looting begins to occur, X is how we will respond. If shops are set on fire, Y is how we will respond. Preparedness is the key to reaction in scenarios such as these and it seemed as though the police were hopelessly under-prepared for such an event. And if I'm wrong in assuming there wasn't a riot plan (entirely the case since I'm not privy to the government goings on....), it at least appeared on the surface that this was a 'make it up as you go along scenario', not a well-coordinated response.
2) Water cannons anyone? I was absolutely appalled at the Home Secretary's response to the use of water cannons (which, BY THE WAY, they've used on the Irish...) " “I don’t think anybody wants to see water cannon used on the streets of Britain because we have a different attitude to the culture of policing here. We police by consent and it depends on that trust between the police and the public.”
You know what the public expect of the police? Maintenance of law and order. We TRUST the police to do their jobs. You know what's not maintaining law and order? Police standing on the sidelines watching people loot because they were either too afraid of using force (due to the recent criticism from the student riots) or not backed up by enough power to actually stop the looting/rioting because all they had were batons and shields. Honestly folks, that's like taking a knife to a gun fight. Here's an article in the Telegraph discussing the police response for a more local perspective.
Please don't take this as a criticism of individual officers putting themselves out there, in harm's way, trying to do what they can. I'm not saying that. What I am saying is that they were not given the resources or power to respond appropriately to the situation. I am sure these men and women did the best they could with what they had but were hindered by the municipality and lack of resources.
All that said, apparently there aren't any water cannons in England anyways, they're all over in Northern Ireland. So much for that 'different attitude' to the culture of policing.
3) The lack of comprehension of the gravity of the situation early on, was, in my opinion, a direct contribution to the spread of the rioting. When the riots began in Tottenham, it appears that the government just dismissed it as 'the dodgy end acting up again'. The Mayor didn't come home, the Prime Minister stayed in Tuscany until day 3 of the riots. No one took it seriously and no one thought it would spread. Had London properly quelled the rioting in Tottenham and put the full force of the law into ensuring that it was well understood that taking to the streets and looting was going to be punished severely, it's likely that the riots would not have spread. Obviously, we can't know that for certain, but that has been my experience in the past when observing rising conflicts.
4) The question of martial law is an interesting one, and I tweeted last night that it might be an appropriate response. One person on Twitter asked me if I even knew what it was (uh, yes, I have studied conflicts and conflict response, not to mention living in New Orleans which had martial law invoked (technically a state of emergency that brought into force martial law) because the police could not handle the aftermath of Katrina. In the Katrina situation, there was a LOT of police corruption which resulted in martial as well as many other mitigating factors, but still, it's happened and I DO, in fact, understand it. Thank you very much.)
The reason I talked about it on Twitter was because I felt that the police were very disempowered. They didn't have the appropriate tools to quell the rioting or looting, the chaos was spreading across the city AND to other cities (Birmingham and Liverpool) -- everything was escalating. When the municipal law enforcement isn't empowered, AND the conflict is escalating, that usually indicates it's time to escalate the response as well.
Sure, I recognize that martial law is an extreme response -- the suspension of a constitution should not be taken lightly. On the other hand, if the police cannot handle the conflict, is there an alternative? I'm not necessarily saying martial law should have been invoked last night, but what if it needed to be?
In asking around, my understanding is that the Queen is who has the power to make the call on martial law. If this is in fact the case (I couldn't find it on google...), then it seems a bit archaic to have an aging monarch, with little pulse on the day to day lives of the ordinary citizen, be in charge of constitutional suspension and the invocation of martial law. So, if the riots were to continue for weeks on end, is it the reality that the Queen makes the final call? Honestly, this needs to be a wake up call for London. London, as a large international city, a financial powerhouse, and host of the 2012 Olympics, needs to start truly preparing for the worst that could happen, and hope that it never does.
On a lighter note, here's how we settle this nonsense in Texas (tongue in cheek of course) courtesy of the great Willie Nelson...