Looting the lot of us

There has been a great deal of discussion about justice and morality after the riots.  The Guardian is performing a great public service by monitoring the sentences being handed down in magistrates courts and Crown courts across the land.  Not surprisingly, one of the most striking features to emerge is the proportion of those who have appeared in court so far who come from deprived neighbourhoods.

A Liverpool University urban planning lecturer, Alex Singleton, who analysed the Guardian’s data found that the majority of people who have appeared in court live in poor neighbourhoods, with 41% of suspects living in one of the top 10% of most deprived places in the country. The data also shows that 66% of neighbourhoods where the accused live got poorer between 2007 and 2010. Singleton said:

Rioting is deplorable. However, if events such as this are to be mitigated in the future, the prevailing conditions and constraints affecting people living in areas must form part of the discussion. A ‘broken society’ happens somewhere, and geography matters.

Researchers found that in almost all of the worst-affected areas, youth unemployment and child poverty were significantly higher than the national average while education attainment was significantly lower.

While poverty is no excuse for criminality, it places additional pressure on families not only to make ends meet but also to spend time together … The political debate is likely to rage on for some time but there is also an urgent need to understand what is happening in communities where violence flared.

Then there’s the matter of  justice with regard to the sentencing – the default tendency to prison sentences or refusal of bail, even for those with no previous convictions, where, in normal circumstances, this would be unthinkable.   According to data collected by The Guardian so far, 66% of those who have appeared in court are aged under 25 – with 17% aged between 11 and 17. Only a very small number were aged over 30. More than 90% are male. More than two-thirds of those in the Guardian’s data set were remanded in prison, with 39% being passed to crown courts for trial or sentencing.  Zoe Williams highlighted one of the saddest examples of what  the rush to get tough means:

Michael Alvin Watson, whose face was undulated with tumours. His body and feet were in the same condition. “But I won’t ask him to remove his clothes,” his counsel sensitively declared. His alleged crime – to which he pleaded not guilty – was riot-related: he was accused of poking his hand through a broken window and stealing cigarettes of “unknown value”, but there was no suggestion he’d broken the window, or been part of the crowd that had looted the shop. His tumours were undiagnosed. He was in the middle of a course of drugs to gird his strength, at the end of which doctors would be able to do more exploratory work. He was homeless. I’m not sure what the medical term is: the layman’s term is “completely fucked”. He was refused bail.

She concluded:

This is what it looks like when processes are changed in a panic: not just a bunch of arrogant scofflaws, astonished to find society finally standing up to them; but also a luckless brigade, dealt yet more terrible luck, serving more time on remand than they would ever normally be sentenced to on conviction. This is what we’re talking about, when we talk about getting tough.

Failed by the System, as Young Deacon suggests:

I can’t justify the burning
Of buildings and businesses
That sort of attitude there
Is inexcusable 
But what niggles on my mind
As I’m looking and the cinders is
This what the future holds?
We’re branded alot
As rioters, looters
Murderers, yobs
Knifers, shooters
Depicted as the worst
On your news and computers
But like it or not
The youth are the future 
So it’s all well and good
What you’re saying
Sitting in the comfort of your chair 
And complaining
Stretching your index
And passing the blame and
You’re doing a good job
If that’s the part that you’re playing
Everybody’s fast to judge
But who you judging?
No one wants to take
Responsibility or nothing
But let’s be real
Where’s the ones that raised us?
It’s the same individuals
That wanna hate us
We follow your example
So let me break it down
We ask why were at war
You show us how to raid a town
We ask the police
Why crime rates aren’t at the minimal
They turn around a cuff us
Telling us that were the criminals
The system is —-
So who do we look up to
It’s a youth club
That a youth should run to
But when the government cuts
The government funds
And increases police power
Why don’t they just shoot us?
‘Cause if I’m honest
We’re the real victims
born and bought up
In a messed up system
Got a nerve if you’re asking
Why we aint got jobs
When this whole empire
Is built on what we robbed
Just look at the crown jewels
You think that they were ever in our soil?
You think we’d still be in Iraq
If there was never oil?
You’re focused on a issue
But you don’t know what the issue is
We were raised
By a generation of hypocrites 
When you’re rolling in the mud
And you look up in the mirror
Can you blame your reflection?
Or do you see it clearer?
So please don’t give up 
And please don’t fear us
The futures on my mind
You could call it new era
Don’t give up on the kids
They’re in need of support
Better role models
Not leaders at war
It takes a whole community
To raise a single child
So please think twice 
Before you blame him ‘cause he’s wild
If only he had that
Little bit of guidance
Maybe he wouldn’t be 
Running from the sirens
Maybe he wouldn’t be
Adding to the violence
And maybe he wouldn’t be
Out in the riots
We’re crying to be heard
And we’ve finally got a voice
But then again the media
Will always be biased
So don’t feed on their lies
And see the bigger picture
We all need to unite
And build a better future
– Young Deacon, ‘Failed by the System’

Nick Cohen summed things up in The Observer at the weekend:

The story is the same across Britain. Of the 1,375 alleged rioters who had appeared in court by Friday lunchtime, magistrates had remanded about 60% into custody when normally they would imprison 10%. Many who pleaded guilty in the hope of the traditional lenient sentence lost their illusions when the courts imprisoned them. By the end of the police investigation, the National Association of Probation Officers estimates that the criminal justice system will have processed 3,300 defendants and jailed 1,700, leaving the prisons with only 200 empty places.

So the jails are nearly full to overflowing (in some cases with people like the two stupid Cheshire lads who posted Facebook pages calling for a riot that never happened).  Cohen highlights the precedence for this kind of class justice – and warns of the dangers:

Nervous governors know that one riot in one jail will take out the system’s spare capacity. Britain has not seen mass arrests and mass incarceration on this scale since the miners’ strike of 1984-85. […]

If they read more history, ministers would notice one glaring change, however. The mass arrests of the miners’ strike of the 1980s occurred against a background of economic decline in Scotland, Wales and the north of England. But not all of Britain was suffering. As in the 1930s, a majority of the population saw real incomes rise.

The Conservatives of the Thatcher era could say that they were leading Britain to prosperity. Their successors cannot say the same. Today’s violence has come early in a long period of economic decline. Most of the cuts, which will destroy youth services in the inner cities, have yet to bite.

One million young people are on the dole already and their numbers will only grow. Those in low-paid work face continuous attacks on their living standards.

The looting was, it should go without saying, deplorable.  But, as Naomi Klein argued in Looting with the lights on, an article for The Nation republished in The Guardian, we have all been looted by a different class of looter that gets off scot-free:

England’s riots are not political, or so we keep hearing. They are just about lawless kids taking advantage of a situation to take what isn’t theirs. And British society, Cameron tells us, abhors that kind of behaviour.

This is said in all seriousness. As if the massive bank bailouts never happened, followed by the defiant record bonuses. Followed by the emergency G8 and G20 meetings, when the leaders decided, collectively, not to do anything to punish the bankers for any of this, nor to do anything serious to prevent a similar crisis from happening again. Instead they would all go home to their respective countries and force sacrifices on the most vulnerable. They would do this by firing public sector workers, scapegoating teachers, closing libraries, upping tuition fees, rolling back union contracts, creating rush privatisations of public assets and decreasing pensions – mix the cocktail for where you live. And who is on television lecturing about the need to give up these “entitlements”? The bankers and hedge-fund managers, of course.

This is the global saqueo, a time of great taking. Fuelled by a pathological sense of entitlement, this looting has all been done with the lights on, as if there was nothing at all to hide.

Curiously, while the left fails to develop a serious analysis of the events or develop alternative strategies, commentators on the right are beginning to question whether free market capitalism really works.  Julian Colman in The Observer wrote that

In a recent article that immediately went viral – “I’m starting to think that the left might actually be right” – [Charles] Moore [Telegraph columnist] suggested that the “free market” which has dominated the economy for the past three decades in fact accords freedom only to a super-rich mobile elite, able to shift its resources at will to maximise its interests. Meanwhile, the constraints and disciplines of the market condemn the rest of us to a hard slog in increasingly insecure circumstances.

In his piece for The Telegraph, Moore wrote:

It has taken me more than 30 years as a journalist to ask myself this question, but this week I find that I must: is the Left right after all? You see, one of the great arguments of the Left is that what the Right calls “the free market” is actually a set-up. […]

When the banks that look after our money take it away, lose it and then, because of government guarantee, are not punished themselves, something much worse happens. It turns out – as the Left always claims – that a system purporting to advance the many has been perverted in order to enrich the few. The global banking system is an adventure playground for the participants, complete with spongy, health-and-safety approved flooring so that they bounce when they fall off. The role of the rest of us is simply to pay.

There’s a danger here: the last time right-wing thinkers came out against free market capitalism and big business the outcome was fascism across Europe and the Nazi takeover in Germany.

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3 thoughts on “Looting the lot of us

  1. Our free market capitalism is of the ‘boom and bust’ variety – it’s been booming and busting since the South Sea Bubble melt down of the 1720’s and will do so again. And again. It doesn’t work, unless you are very rich indeed and can weather the periods of ‘bust’ then start raking it in during the boom time again. But most people go to the wall in times of economic depression. Our system doesn’t work and people will revolt against an unjust system. Some thick people might take temporary refuge in nationalism but to what end? What does nationalism solve: nothing. In the new holocaust they won’t be dragging us to the gas chambers, they’ll just leave us penniless and homeless and watch us slowly starve to death – the end result will be the same. The Nazis are already here I fear.

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