I wrote this article around the time of the London riots when everyone was still pretty sure it was just a bunch of young hooligans taking to the streets to steal stuff. The Economist has since blogged about this feature in the Guardian about the London rioters that has clearly been tempered by the new and growing understanding of the Occupy Movement. Even the Archbishop of Cantebury has gotten into the act.
The Archbishop says:
But when the endemic problems they identified are combined with the impact of massive massive economic hopelessness and the prospect of record levels of youth unemployment, it isn't surprising if we see volatile, chaotic and rootless young people letting off their frustration in the kind of destructive frenzy we witnessed in August.Prior to which, I had said:
Do these protests seek the overthrow of governments? Do they seek democracy and accountability? Perhaps. The immediate need that is being fulfilled for most people in these protests isn’t democracy though. Democracy isn’t a need. Accountability isn’t a need. Hope, however, is.Who would have thought an Anglican Archbishop and a Pagan Greener could have so much in common?
But this isn't a chance for me to say "I told you so". I'm here to talk about something I didn't expect - and perhaps should have, given our knowledge of how the Spring started. It's the role of the police, and the exercise of power in general, that was a major driver in this riot:
Economic issues were important. The cause most often cited for the riots was poverty (86%), but unemployment (79%) and inequality (70%) featured prominently too. Few guessed, though, that this tinder in the box was lit at least as much by the long arm of the law as the invisible hand of the market. Almost three-quarters of interviewees said they had been stopped and searched by the police in the last year; 85% said "policing" was an important or very important cause of the riots. Just 7% believed the police do a good job in their area. (Younge, Guardian)We have been seeing it over and over again in Occupy protests: the police are perceived as the enforcers of the 1%. Let's not consider that fact, let' take the angle of critical theory and simply analyse that statement as a text. Why are so many people in ostensibly free democracies stating that the police are the tools of the elites? Why would a major cause for the London Riots be the invasive and repetitive imposition of police authority on the working classes? The reason in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Libya is clear... but could it be that there has been a general perception of an erosion of personal rights even in the "Western Democracies"?
I'd say that's a pretty safe bet.
And when you hear people like screenwriter Patrick Meighan (The Family Guy) write:
I unlinked my arms voluntarily and informed the LAPD officers that I would go peacefully and cooperatively. I stood as instructed, and then I had my arms wrenched behind my back, and an officer hyperextended my wrists into my inner arms. It was super violent, it hurt really really bad, and he was doing it on purpose. When I involuntarily recoiled from the pain, the LAPD officer threw me face-first to the pavement. He had my hands behind my back, so I landed right on my face. The officer dropped with his knee on my back and ground my face into the pavement. It really, really hurt and my face started bleeding and I was very scared. I begged for mercy and I promised that I was honestly not resisting and would not resist.And when you hear about people like Retired NY Supreme Court Judge Judge Karen Smith:
My hands were then zipcuffed very tightly behind my back, where they turned blue. I am now suffering nerve damage in my right thumb and palm.
Karen Smith was working as a legal observer when she saw a distressed woman pushed to the ground and beaten by an officer, she said.
When she demanded he stopped, the unidentified cop pushed her against a wall and threatened her with arrest.
Luckily, now, the lawyers are coming out. No, I didn't think I'd ever hear myself say that... but bear with me. Police actions have not ceased in their ferocity, I only just today saw several tweets regarding citizen journalist Spencer Mills (@Oakfosho) getting clubbed by a baton today (23.12.2011). Encampments have been destroyed, but something new is coming out of the movement: dissipation has brought new approaches.
The police can fight pitched battles in open squares against hundreds of unarmed protesters. That's something riot squads are trained for. But can they stop the hydra they have created by chasing the protesters from the squares? No. They have simply forced the occupation to adopt more effective tactics in pursuit of the same general strategy.
In this, as in so many events in history, I see one of those glaring "you really should have negotiated at the start" moments. The soft way could have aided the authorities, but they used the hard way, and fanned a spark into a flame.