Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A healthy reaction

This is the good news - that people are banding together to protect their own property and environs. Note, though, that one shop owner reports police telling defenders that they should not bring their weapons onto the street. They were "entitled" to defend themselves [only] inside their premises.

We also note the report about the Bengali community in Whitechapel, further into East London, which fended off a mob of looters. Rioters who had targeted shops on Commercial Road arrived in the area as prayers were finishing at the East London Mosque on Monday evening. It was feared they were trying to break into the mosque and the nearby Islamic Bank of Britain, but they were driven away by a large crowd of Muslim worshippers.

"Within about 10 minutes there were 1,500 people on the street, not just Asians but also Somalis", says Muhammad Ali, 27 – cited in the report. "We were at a chicken shop, finishing our fast when we saw the looters. Some had bandanas over their faces". According to Sam Miah, 26, the riot police were unsure what to do. "They saw our brothers from the mosque and we said we could handle the situation".

And all this lends another dimension to an already complex situation – although one has to approve in principle the idea that people should take charge of their own communities and their own safety. One then sees the police uncertainty when confronted with the idea.

There is an interesting contrast here, between this self-help response, and outsiders calling for the Army to be called in, and/or for draconian measures to be taken by the police. Arguably, one alternative response might be to revert to the style of policing we see in the fictional Westerns, where the Sheriff swears-in a posse of deputies to deal with a threat.

The merit of such an option is that it formalises (and legitimises) community action – allowing people to take part in the protection of their property without fear of intervention by the police. In effect, it reinforces the idea that a community problem might best be dealt-with by the community. The best police response might be to invite and organise a community response – and then back it up.

Furthermore, this should be a first, rather than last resort. Not least, this then recognises that a breakdown of law and order is not a police problem, per se, but a community problem, of which the police are part. This re-establishes links and communal responsibility, positioning the police as part of the community response and not as an occupying power.

Here, I fall out with Charles Moore and his injunction that "a Tory PM must always deliver peace and order". I would sooner have it that the responsibility goes where it belongs - not to a plump old Etonian, but to individuals and the communities in which they live.

It is they who should be empowered and encouraged to take responsibility for their own safety and security, with the assistance of the police. Such security is not within the capability of a prime minister to deliver, and nor should a national politician be entrusted with that task.

On the other hand, there is a problem with some of the more draconian responses suggested. Initial action might be successful in suppressing violence, but at the risk of alienating still further sections of the community that already feel oppressed or excluded.

It must always be remembered that a communities must then be policed after riots, when fewer resources are routinely available. Thus, solutions should, perhaps, be looked at in the round. What might work in the short term might be less attractive if it stores up trouble for the future and makes longer-term solutions more difficult.