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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The London Riots of 2011: Protesting Police Power

Over three nights of rioting in London after the police shooting of a 29-year-old father of four, over 450 people had been arrested and 44 police officers injured. The rioting began on August 6, 2011 when a peaceful march in protest of the police use of lethal force turned violent. According to the Huffington Post, “Hooded and masked youths threw bottles and petrol bombs at police and buildings and vehicles, setting a building, a bus and cars alight.” The source of the violence seems clear, at least with respect to its beginning. Rather than being fueled by greed at that point, anger at a possible abuse of power by the local police seems to have been the motive. To be sure, rioting spread to include the looting of stores by kids and opportunistic adult thieves, but to claim that greed itself was the driving force instigating the riots is to miss the purpose of the initial march and give the London police a pass.

According to the New York Times, “The Daily Telegraph struck a popular chord when it blamed a ‘culture of greed and impunity’ that [the Telegraph] said extended to corporate boardrooms and the government itself.” To be sure, the greed that almost took down the global financial system in September 2008 seems unglued from any feasible normative constraint, including that proffered by Christianity (which formerly could threaten an afterlife literally of fire and brimstone).  Indeed, the Christian virtue of magnificence (i.e., philanthropy on a grand scale) can even perpetuate greed, as being wealthy is a prerequisite— rather than like a camel too big to get through the eye of a needle. Left unanswered by the Telegraph, however, was how or whether the greed in a bank’s boardroom that results in liars’ loans followed by foreclosures differs from the greed of a looter.  The differential treatment by the state government was palpable: bankers get bailouts (and bonuses), while looters get the full force of the law.

In any case, irrespective of any accretions of greed having been adjoined to the violence, residual anger at the police’s use of their power was likely in play as late as the third night, when, according to the deputy Mayor, “disturbing levels of violence were directed at officers again,” including one policeman suffering broken bones and another receiving an eye injury. Were greed the only motive, anger would not have been directed at the police. Rather, the strategy would have simply been to evade them.

Furthermore, lest it be presumed that the anger over the force used by the police was simply a manifestation of selfishness, it could be argued alternatively that the unselfish human motive to stand up to power in the midst of an injustice was involved. This is not to justify the behavior, for the protestors/rioters would have been wiser to wait for the Independent Police Complaints Commission do its work and arrive at a determination; an unsatisfactory answer could then be matched with peaceful protest and an unwillingness to volunteer to help the police, rather than with violence.

At a distance from all the “mayhem,” I suspect that there is more to this story than merely a reaction against one incident (and even the looting).  I would not be surprised if the local police had a pattern of behavior of abuse of power, and that the shooting of the father of four was the last straw. To be sure, the troubled youth culture that partook of the violence and stealing is perhaps just as corrosive as unaccountable police abuse of citizens. Both problems are in need of being addressed in many cities around the world, not just in London. This is not to say that the riots reduce to public policy choices such as spending cuts in services (or to a debate on them). A police culture that does not respect law or citizens is unacceptable in a free society. A police officer who ignores department policy and even law to push a citizen beyond what is right and lawful is just as much of a thug as is the teenager who throws rocks at store windows in order to steal a plasma TV. To be sure, a youth culture of utter disrespect for others is also unacceptable, and it would be good if citizens would stand up to such thugs. Standing above both the police and teenage self-vaunted bullies are the people who sought to march in peace to point to the possible injustice of the initial killing. My point is simply that those people and their message were too quickly forgotten in the public uproar about greed, selfishness and the slow police response.

Therefore, rather than point to greed and selfishness exclusively, I would recommend that the investigation by the IPCC be expanded to look at whether the London police department has a pattern of abuse of citizens. That the department was inadequate in responding to the first riots suggests a culture of incompetence, and such a culture can easily go with an unethical culture. Where there is smoke, there is usually fire too—meaning they may not have only been in the cars and buildings. Riots do not pop up out simply from greed, which is more or less a constant in human nature. Nor do selfish people wake up one day and start rioting because they are suddenly more selfish. Rather, specific injustices fomenting resentment and frustration are much more likely to spark violence (which in turn can enable kids and adults to steal and destroy property even as ends in themselves).

I am not denying that people are greedy. In fact, emphasizing justice, especially in terms of benevolence, can serve as a constraint on greed! Along with actively valuing justice, people can have a low tolerance for injustice when accountability seems compromised or utterly corrupted by power-aggrandizement. Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right even where an injustice is the spark; the initial march could and should have remained peaceful.  Non-violent non-cooperation—including giving a corrupt police force the cold shoulder, actively ignoring police on their beat as outside society—would do more to make the sordid presumption of assumed power transparent.


The Huffington Post, “Questions Over Duggan’s Death as Tension in London Remains High,” August 8, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2011/08/07/questions-over-duggans-de_n_920629.html

The Huffington Post, “London Riots,” August 9, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2011/08/09/london-riots-450-arrested_n_921816.html

Ravi Somaiya, “After Riots, Conflicting Answers as to ‘Why’,” August 13, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/14/world/europe/14looters.html?_r=1&hp