Click for attribution
If you're somewhere else in the world, you might not have any idea about the rioting that occurred last night in London.  Normally my posts are relatively light-hearted and happy, but, when you're an expat sometimes you are privy to being in the middle of local problems.  I wouldn't dare compare how the city handled this to 'what we would have done' back in the States as we have our own issues (uhhh, downgraded by S&P anyone?) but it was certainly interesting to see how the city of London handled rioting and chaos as it swept across the town.  So, here's my perspective, which, could very well be flawed since I'm certainly an outsider but, nevertheless it's valid since I do live here....so here goes.

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.
Click for attribution
Click for attribution
For more photos, head over here.

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...
*I have noted a great deal of racism in this city, from comments made by people to op-ed pieces I've read in the news.
8/8/2011 09:31:30 pm

The thing that really sticks out to me is that this seems to have nothing to do with Mark Duggan anymore...

What do you think of the idea of enforced curfews, as is being suggested?

8/8/2011 09:59:36 pm

Yes, this devolved into criminal opportunism for sure! The peaceful protest over Mark Duggan in no way represents the hooliganism that occurred.

It's probably not a bad idea to have curfews, for a week or two or a pre-determined amount of time, at least until the police have a handle on the situation and have had some time to arrest those responsible. I would be nervous about open-ended curfews, though.

8/8/2011 11:14:08 pm

Hit the nail on the head! G and I could NOT stop talking about how ill prepared the police and city were. And how unresponsive the political leaders were being.

My mind is still blown and trying to understand it all.

8/9/2011 02:24:54 am

<i>which, BY THE WAY, they've used on the Irish...)</i>

The Northern Irish, who are British (ok, or Irish depending on who you talk to) - but the UK nevertheless. At least they weren't water cannoning other countries...

I'm disgusted by the descent into criminality - no excuse even if nothing exists in a vacuum. It's very sad.

RE Martial law - it's my understanding that Parliament has to be recalled before they can implement that.

<i>When the riots began in Tottenham, it appears that the government just dismissed it as 'the dodgy end acting up again</i>

Such a good point! They should have cracked down then at the start. (also, exactly this attitude makes it so easy to whip out the old "Tories don't care about poor people" cliche.)

Just wanted to say that it's interesting to read an infrmed opinion from an outsider-who-is-also-an-insider.

8/9/2011 03:04:09 am

@Melizza -- my mind is blown too...sadly.

@Megan -- I totally agree. NO excuse for the lawlessness that occurred. Thanks for the info on Parliament, I'm still trying to understand how martial law would be invoked here.

8/9/2011 04:02:22 am

Additional thoughts:
I have heard it posited that the police have assumed this tactic because they do not want to be accused of the miscarriages of justice which occurred when the rioting happened in the 1980s. The are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

8/9/2011 04:08:56 am

Saying that the Met were just woefully under prepared. (Sorry about the bitty comments!)

8/9/2011 05:29:45 am

@Megan -- totally understandable and I don't blame them. It's the responsibility of the government to discuss use of force, etc. I totally blame them, not the men and women on the ground working overtime.

8/10/2011 01:24:02 am

What a sad situation for both side. I cry for them all.

The curfew will protect everyone.

Wishing the best for people in London.

8/10/2011 09:01:42 am

I am sorry that you have such a steep learning curve for your time in London. You are spot on, especially with 2 and 3. Brits, and Europeans in general, have a very different attitude about law enforcement. The consent comment isn't just political talk. I'm posting links at my place soon, and will link here. I had the same shock trying to understand the lack of reality in their policing, though my realizations trickled out over a few years on smaller events.
The chasm between British and American views on self defense and law enforcement is vast and since you are fresh to the UK--and I assume not conservative like me-- your post illustrates the chasm well.
Also, I assume that you embedded the Beer for my Horses video. Heh. It didn't embed properly, though. Did you see this, Dale Peterson's Get Away From That political ad when it came out?

8/10/2011 04:51:44 pm

What upsets me as a mother is wondering how many mothers knew that their teenagers were heading out wandering the streets and putting themselves in the vicinity of the trouble? What about the young ages of some of these rioters and looters? And what happened when they wandered home tattered and bloody and with stolen goods under their arm? It's like a whole segment of society has broken down. I feel like a granny saying things like this but I am only in my 30's. It leaves me scared and grateful to have emigrated from the UK 6 years ago. Life might be sleepy here in small town Australia but it feels a hell of a lot safer than the scenes on our tv...

8/10/2011 05:14:44 pm

Oh and I forgot the racism thing. We Americans are so used to hearing how we are racist--or violent, or sexist, or whatnot--that when we move overseas, we expect such issues to be less. The reality is a bit of a shock, no?
VIdeo fixed now. Might have been my computer. I was having issues today.

8/13/2011 11:27:30 pm

This is the first impassioned blog of yours I've read. I find it very interesting to read about what you are experiencing in my home town, while I experience life in the US. I've no doubt we would have some excellent notes to compare!

I can't say I agree with your sentiment but it is interesting to hear the outsider's point of view all the same. Interestingly, your thought process strikes me as inherently American (or how I perceive an American might interpret the situation).

As AHLondon mentioned, Brits and Europeans have a very different attitude towards policing, an attitude that is compounded by a long history of difficult community relations (both because of failings in the police force and because of the difference in public attitudes towards policing more generally). Moreover, the influence of history in Europe is simply incomprehensible to younger nations.

It's funny you use the expression "taking a knife to a gun fight" as that is almost literally the case. Many people are surprised to learn that only special gun forces carry guns in the UK and shootings are a very rare occurrence (compared to the US for example) which goes some way to explain the basis for the peaceful protest following Mark Duggan's shooting in the first place.

A career in the police force is not something someone aspires to in the UK. Police are overworked, underpaid (as are many public-facing public sector employees in the UK), often under educated and generally garner no respect from the public, at times with merit, at times without.

I am the first to admit that I am completely biased with regards to the UK. Still I think in a year or two's time, you'll reflect upon this somewhat differently.

PS Interesting that you feel racism is prevalent in the UK. I can't disagree; racism is inherent in most societies sadly, but I find the US far more racist, and worst still, it strikes me as very covert here.


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