Politics & Law

Riots and respect

Jonathan Simon

In another move that confirms its stature as the most innovative newspaper and news website in the English language world, the Guardian has been collaborating with a team of London School of Economics social scientists, headed up by (friend and) criminologist Tim Newburn, in an extraordinary qualitative study of participants from this past summers riots in London and a few other UK cities (read the series, Reading the Riots).

The study confirms that at its core the rioting was a response to long term resentment over police tactics, particularly stop and search and above all the routine disrespect that lower class urban youth experience in their interactions with police. Most newspapers would have felt it sufficient to let right and left wing experts and pundits tell us what the riots meant. Asking rioters why is considered hopelessly naive if not perverse; as their behavior must be punished by silencing even beyond legal sanctions. But as Newburn brilliantly summarizes it (read his column in the Guardian here):

Indeed, we should listen because they have something important to tell us about policing in modern Britain. The concepts that young people – young rioters – referred to most frequently in relation to policing were “justice” and “respect.” Their focus was on what they perceived to be a lack of each. Police officers – by no means all, but enough – target them, are rude, and sometimes bully them, they said. Much of what these young people talk about is, for them, just the daily grind of their interactions with “the feds”. It is the sense that every time they are out on the streets, they face the prospect of being stopped, challenged and, from time to time, abused.

Newburn notes that the shared anger at the police among lower class urban youth stands in contrast to the “general public” which expresses confidence in the police in standard national crime surveys. Tellingly, however, this sentiment cuts across the behavioral divide that many assume away in their presumptions about such youth. While rioters were predominantly from this group they included many youth who are not part of a gang or criminal life style, they hold jobs, go to school, and operate inside Britain’s increasingly exclusionary economy. It doesn’t matter to the “Feds” who police them based on demography (and all too often race above all) rather than on the “reasonable suspicion”celebrated by law.

Needless to say this is all of vastly more than academic interest to those of us in the US. We have very much the same long term deficit of respect accumulating among our urban youth and very much the same policing logic as Victor Rios documents in his great book on policing and urban youth, Punished (I don’t think this is a case of policy transfer so much as independent paths to the same bad practices, but read Newburn’s book with Trevor Jones on Policy Transfer).

The Occupy Wall Street protests have documented that the police have plenty of disrespect to pass around, despite decades of training (or at least talk about) in community policing, even to the predominantly middle class young adults that have made up its stalwarts. With the economy very likely in the pits, global warming doing its thing, and Obama and a Republican opponent locked in a campaign for the 5 percent of white suburban voters that are still undecided in July, it could be a long hot summer.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

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Comments to "Riots and respect":
    • Anthony St. John

      The root cause is our failed university culture, throughout the world, that marginalizes the needs of humanity in favor of perpetuating their Ivory Tower way of life, and their subservience to the power of money.

      Worst Case Scenario: College Sports Need a Government Intervention, see Bloomberg, Albert R. Hunt, Dec. 11, 2011

      [Report abuse]

    • Joe McFarley

      I don’t necessarily disagree with anything that has been written in this article. However, the tone of the article feels wrong. In comparison to other places around the world, Britain treats its youth well. They have opportunity and free public education until 16. They live in a clean cities with a strong rule of law. It is true that some police officers disrespect youth and don’t treat minorities with the same respect as whites. But this cannot be used as an excuse for riots or even underachivement! Everyone has disadvantages in this world, and if we were to rank youth around the world based on advantages, youth in London would be some of the most advantaged kids on Earth! Police need to change, but youth need to be held to account. In school, all youth need to be held to high standards. For life, adults around them need to hold them to high standards of moral conduct. If there is a riot, the rioters need to be punished. Legitimizing rioters with legitimate grievances only hinders society from achieving true equality.

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