Tag Archives: rioting

Rioting, prisons and justice

In the aftermath of the UK riots, we’re hearing that about three quarters of the arrested rioters and looters have already been in trouble with the police before. At the moment, the solution of preference is to slap longer sentences on people. But, if these are people who have already been through the prison system, there’s little reason to think another stint inside will change their ways.

A lot comes down to how you understand justice, and what you believe prison is for. If prison exists as punishment only, then it has some function as a deterrent. All the evidence makes clear that deterrents, even extreme ones like the death penalty, flogging, cutting off body parts, do not cause crime to cease. We’ve been locking people up for a long time now, and they still go out and re-offend.

I think to understand why punishment isn’t effective as a deterrent you have to consider why people commit crimes in the first place. On one hand we may have crimes of desperation – theft and violence occurring because people feel (rightly or wrongly) that there are no other alternatives. This feeling of no alternatives will not be challenged by additional risk of punishment. Alternatively, there is an idea I first encountered through Brendan Myers talking about attitudes amongst native Canadians. Crime can be perceived as a breakdown of relationship. Thus the criminal may feel that there are entitled to use and abuse – a might is right attitude for example would lead to this. They may consider themselves superior to others so that they imagine the normal rules are not, or should not be applied to them. They may consider their victims to be inferior, inhuman, irrelevant such that the crime against them does not matter or is justified. This would be true of all hate crime. All of these reasons go with a mindset that will not expect to be caught, and if caught, will not expect to be seriously punished, and if punished, will not necessarily give up the beliefs that underpin the criminal behaviour.

If people commit crime through desperation, social isolation, hopelessness, anger or poverty, punishment won’t fix that. If people do it because they have no respect for anything, locking them up will just reinforce their ideas. And on the other side, putting someone in prison gives nothing back to the victims, there is no redressing of wrongs.

I’m a big believer in getting offenders who have committed smaller offences to do community work that will help them re-engage. This is part of my Druidry, in which justice is a very important idea. Not just any old job that occurs to the powers that be either, but something that will affect them. Cleaning up their own mess, repairing the damage they have caused where possible. I’m also hugely in favour, where appropriate, of sitting offenders down with  their victims and making them face those people as people. That can be tremendously healing for the victim as well.

There are people who are so sick and antisocial in their behaviour that, for everyone else’s safety, they need taking off the streets. Locking them up for a few months or years and then sending them back out won’t fix anything longer term. Prison has to be about re-education. Many prisoners have already fallen through the cracks and have major literacy and maths issues (I know, I have friends who teach in prisons). Many have mental health issues, drug addictions and other problems that need fixing if they are to escape from crime. There is also the issue of violence as learned behaviour. In Strathclyde, I gather, police are tackling violent crime as though it was a contagious disease, taking the stance that people who are normalised to it are more likely to perpetrate it. This makes a lot of sense to me. It means not only tackling gang violence on the streets, but looking at where our young humans learn that bullying pays, violence is fine and he who shouts the loudest and punches the hardest gets to rule the roost. And where do they learn this? At home, all too often.

Domestic abuse is widespread. Children who grow up exposed to not just violence, but disrespect, verbal abuse, emotional, and psychological abuse learn to abuse, and to accept certain kinds of behaviours as normal in their peers and future partners as well. I’m not saying ‘blame the parents’ here either, because abusers do not exist in a vacuum, they exist in the context of cultures and histories, attitudes to women, belief about might and right, and the pernicious belief that if you can claim provocation, violence is ok.

If we want justice, and if we want to tackle criminal behaviour, then locking up offenders is not going to get us either. It is not a solution, just a reaction. It doesn’t prevent crime. If we want to not have rioting and looting, if we want to not have violent gang cultures, then we need to start by looking at the context in which these things happen. I feel very strongly that we need to start paying serious attention to both the direct, and the knock on effects of domestic abuse. Violence begins in the home, all too frequently. If we want to deal with it, we have to figure out how to tackle it there as well.


Rioting

We’ve seen violence, looting, burning and mayhem not only in London, but also Bristol, Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester and Liverpool. “Mindless criminality’ is a phrase that has been offered a few times by way of explanation. Which is no explanation at all. Sat in a quiet corner of the UK, I’m not directly affected, but so many people are, or must be fearful this morning that they too will be caught up. Others, no doubt, are looking at the TV footage and feeling an urge to get their piece.

Civilizations are made up of individuals. They only work so long as enough people co-operate with the systems, institutions, laws and habits that the civilization purports to uphold. In my occasional posts about the idea of quiet revolution, I keep saying that if there are enough people who want a thing, change will happen. But what we’re seeing here isn’t coherent protest or revolution, it’s theft, arson and violence. The homes and property of ordinary people are coming under attack, as the ordinary people themselves. Whatever else is going on here, the people out rioting clearly don’t have much empathy for others or much concern for their communities, or even their own futures.

As a country, we are in financial crisis. Services are being cut all over. Mounting a police response on the scale these riots require, is going to cost a fortune. We are all going to have to pay for that. Damage to homes and businesses is damage to jobs, incomes, communities, futures. Some of us will pay for that more than others, but we will all pay. Part of the problem is that our rioters have no sense of their own involvement, their own relationship with community and state and they probably have no thought for the consequences.

There are a lot of issues underpinning what’s happening here. Loss of hope, lack of opportunity, poverty, lack of work, a materialist culture that stokes demand but can’t pay people to buy what they are told they must have. Lack of social engagement. Widespread isolation. If people feel engaged with each other, if they have meaningful relationships that inspire care and a sense of belonging, they don’t go out and burn each other’s cars. Disenfranchisement is a word that springs to mind.

The people on the streets did not spontaneously wake up at the weekend and decide, out of nowhere, to be destructive and irresponsible. Every single one of them has been through a process, a life, a series of experiences that have brought them to this point and made that action seem like a good idea. That’s something we ignore at our peril. And if the media reporting is much to go by, for every rioter, there are hordes of quieter, but no less angry people. The Metropolitan Police are appealing for people to clear the streets so they can sort out the ‘criminal element’. I fear they are missing the point a bit. Why are all those non-violent folk also on the streets, witnessing but not participating? Why are they taking the risk? What is motivating them? Those interviewed talk about racism, social breakdown, loss of opportunities. The quiet people are angry too. They might not be going to join in the looting spree, but there are a lot of troubled, frustrated people out there empathising with the rioters. They too have been through a series of experiences that have brought them to this point.

Over the weekend, listening to radio reports about the financial crisis, I heard a lot of people questioning the very concepts on which our current, capitalist system is based. We have built a system that is entirely about winners and losers. We’ve gone for competition, not co-operation.  Buy now, pay later. We have an advertising industry that sells us fear, greed, social anxiety and a sense of never being good enough, so that we spend money we don’t have on products we don’t need. We have a government paying a fortune on war that can’t house and care for its poorest people. This is not working.

We need radical change.

Rioting and violence are not answers to social problems, but they are symptoms of despair and alienation. We are not going to make those underlying problems go away just by arresting a few people, labelling the problem as ‘criminality’ and trying to sweep the causes under the collective carpet. I am absolutely opposed to violence. But we have to recognise that what is happening on the streets of our cities, is happening for reasons. Lots of reasons, none of them good. We are all part of this. How we get out of it, I have no idea, but inspired, and inspiring leadership would be very welcome right now, not the language of dismissal or attempts to diminish the wider social issues underpinning this.