A Starbucks following the London Riots in 2011
A Starbucks following the London Riots in 2011

On the third day of riots in London I learned an interesting fact – that police in Britain have never been allowed the resources common to other countries in quelling civil disturbances.  Glued to the news I saw the same scene repeated over and over. A thin blue dotted line of police spread across a street watching rioters who moved forward with no regard whatsoever for the presence of the officers. As the rioters came forward the officers retreated leaving cars, and property to their fate.  I wondered why the police were not using tear gas or calling  in reinforcements and charging the looters.  Then the Daily Telegraph mentioned in passing that the British style of policing was based on the respect the community is meant to hold for police.  The police are supposed to reason with the rioters or intimidate by their mere presence.  I suppose also that in a country with a history of relatively few guns, the British have developed a  different view of appropriate force.  There is also a long and complicated chain of command. It took the Prime Minister himself to order more police onto the streets of London.

In light of the clear determination of the rioters to loot and burn, this policy of restraint made no sense to me and I was inclined to be suspicious of its veracity until it was confirmed by MPs.  Many of them in the first day or two condemned the looters but then added that British policing style was one that comfortably excluded the brutality of other nations. I suppose they were thinking about Syria, Libya  — and the United States.  They also stated that Britain’s reputation would suffer if the police used force – not deadly force mind you – just force, including perhaps force in numbers.  I suddenly pictured a succession of former British cabinets  smugly watching television footage of American streets filled with smoke as US police made arrests.  If this was the thinking at the top, no wonder the London police retreated before the property damage and violence billowing down the high streets.  And no wonder so many were hurt.  The result for all the world to see was a domino effect of looters taking control of streets in one London community after another then rapidly spreading to other cities as other riot ready gangs saw that they could act with impunity.  Now that’s what I call reputation damage and many British people agreed. Someone wrote to the newspaper that had the scenes of British cities in flames occurred in another country, the British government would have recognized the rioters as the legitimate rulers!

At the risk of sounding like a barbarian I decided to ask the staff in the local mobile phone shop to explain this cultural phenomenon of gentlemanly policing. After telling me how one of the other stores in their chain had been looted and contrasting the steel shutters of their competitor across the street with their “large windows”  they explained with a smile that “the British liked to think of themselves as civilized.” Putting water cannon on the streets would hurt their self image that Britain was “above all that.” Then we all cheered when a van packed with police officers appeared. I sensed that public opinion was turning and indeed on the street and in shops literally every conversation was about the riots and  why the government should take a more hard line approach.

By the end of the day the public had indeed sent a strong message to the Prime Minister who ordered a reversal of the policy. I hope a factor in the decision was another interesting piece of news I learned.  Apparently, while water cannon have never been used on the “mainland” as the British call the Wales-England-Scotland part of the UK, they have been in frequent use in Northern Ireland.  The disgrace in using force to suppress Irish riots while exercising utmost restraint in English ones was expressed by a former British army officer who had served in Northern Ireland.  He demanded to know why water cannon were acceptable against the Irish but not when an   “Englishmen steps out of line.”  His point was magnificently reinforced by the further press revelation that there is not one single water cannon on the mainland – they are all in Northern Ireland.

With the Prime Minister, backed up by the opposition, vowing to restore order “by any means necessary” it would appear that Britain has taken a step towards a more aggressive national persona – at least in matters of policing.  As far as I am concerned, the test will come on May 1, 2012. The first of May is when London braces for the annual anti capitalist demonstration/riots which are also generally marked by police being outnumbered by people smashing windows with impunity in the banking district – yes I said the banking district. The recent rioters in London appeared to be mostly people of color. The rioters in the business district are majority white.  So I will be watching how long this policy holds and for whom.

Image Credit: Thomas Dutour

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One thought on “The Thin Blue Dotted Line: Riots in a Civilized Country

  1. Great post! I to didn’t quite understand why immediate action wasn’t taken by officers until a friend from England explained to me. You pretty much summarized it here:

    “After telling me how one of the other stores in their chain had been looted and contrasting the steel shutters of their competitor across the street with their “large windows” they explained with a smile that “the British liked to think of themselves as civilized.” Putting water cannon on the streets would hurt their self image that Britain was “above all that.”

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