27 August 2011

Talking tough on riots may have unintended consequences.

Perhaps over the last few weeks I have become mesmerised by the press coverage of the Riots.
First we got the dramatic footage of the fires and broken windows, Kids in hoods hurling stones, police in riot gear. They we had the tsunami – a relentless tide of opinion and comment.
The remarkable thing about this was that we did not know the details, none of us did. We did not know who had done what and what their motivation or circumstances might be, but this stopped no one. Having an opinion mattered, and opinion filled the 24/7 news services and the press.
The riots were frightening for many people- for very good reason. They take away the comfortable assurance that all is well, and show us just how easy it is for order to break down. For many people it was important to try and understand why things had gone wrong and to work out how re-occurrence might be prevented. For others, with a different view of what people are, there was a desire for punishment and justice. Without the benefit of facts the only thing people could do was to fall back onto their prejudices, their deep seated beliefs about the nature of the world.
Earlier this summer I stood on the spot of the last public hangings in Scotland, in the theatrical space of Edinburgh’s  Grassmarket. It was easy to imagine the crowds that would have gathered for these spectacle, and the way in which the demand for “justice” can bring out some of the cruellest instincts of our species.
I do not know what David Cameron believes. I find it impossible to see beyond the face that he presents, but these riots, at a time when country after country is experiencing unrest must have been deeply alarming for him. He will have known that he had a duty above all else to be seen to make it stop. He had to make a response, a choice, and I think he fell back on what will have felt most comfortable to him. He spoke to those instincts that we see floating to the surface each year at the Conservative party conference.
The right wing press claim to speak for the people they aim to influence. He reflected back the messages that the right wing tabloid press were giving and legitimised their demands for tough justice.  We have seen over the last weeks the way in which this has been translated into ways that the courts have handled individual cases, which does already seem to many people un balanced and unwise.
The court of appeal is already dealing with the flood of referrals, undoing some of the less acceptable sentences which have been given.
This is good. The justice system knows that it is important that there should not be long term damage to the legal system as a result of justice at a time of panic.
What finally got me back to my keyboard, blogging again, was this article – Tough Luck for the Luckless, by Zoe Williams – which gives us some deeply uncomfortable pictures of some of the very  vulnerable people who are now appearing in our courts. She shows us a young man with Schizophrenia  and a homeless young man covered in untreated tumours, both caught up at the very edges of the unrest, both jailed. These are people who need the care of a decent society and certainly should never be directed to the prisons for the tiny offences they are said to have committed.
Zoe is angry. So am I. I want to say - not in my name, this is not the kind of justice I want to see.  I hope that someone showed David Cameron Zoe Williams article and that he has the opportunity to reflect on some of the unintended consequences of calling for tough justice.