…and what they’re scared of is the public deciding that, since the police service they pay for isn’t up to the job, they better do it themselves:
… the broom-wielders of Clapham have not been the only manifestation of the big society spawned by this lawlessness. In north London, Turkish Kurds wielding pieces of hosepipe and baseball bats saw off would-be raiders and trashers. In Southall, to the west, it was Sikhs who turned out en masse to defend their threatened businesses. And in Eltham, to the south-east, none other than Millwall fans mounted the community defence, in the name of Eltham and England. Let down by the police, they all said in their different ways, they would not shrink from doing the job themselves.
Well, that’s OK, right, Mary? ‘Big Society’, and all that…?
Which might not be quite as reassuringly Big Society as it seems.
Oh. Now, which of those three groups gave you the most pause, I wonder?
I know which one got the attention of the senior members of the police, after all:
Britain’s most senior police officer yesterday warned that Right-wing extremists could ‘hijack’ vigilante patrols protecting against looters.
Nothing to worry about if the Turks and the Sikhs tool up, though?
Acting Metropolitan Police Commissioner Tim Godwin…
… singled out the English Defence League and the British National Party as two organisations who might exploit the situation.
Well, of course he did. What’s a Bramshill-educated man to do, after all?
Funny how they could mobilise in force for this, though, isn’t it?
Hundreds of police officers descended on a London suburb last night to disperse about 60 men who claimed to be protecting shops and businesses there for a second night.
The men, apparently supporters of the extreme-right English Defence League, gathered in a pedestrianised square in Eltham drinking cans of beer and chanting ‘We love you England’.
It’s a wonder they weren’t all nicked for breach of the peace for that alone…
Politicians wasted no time in hurling themselves on this fast-moving bandwagon:
Eltham MP Clive Efford, a shadow home office spokesman said: ‘The English Defence League just want to put a sinister racial twist on this.
‘All these police resources for what? To deal with the English Defence League? That’s appalling. These police officers could be used elsewhere, protecting communities across London, but they have got to be in here to deal with these drunken yobs who have decided to come to Eltham and cause racial tension.
Well, yes, indeed, Clive, they could – and should – have been dealing with the rioters and looters.
So why did they stand by when Croydon burned and turn up en masse when a few drunken ex-football hooligans took to the streets conspicuously not burning or looting anything?
And then we have Zoe Williams on the desirability of ‘vigilantism’ in the wake of the police’s evident powerlessness:
It’s not very enjoyable now, but in the coming weeks it might seem piquant that so soon after unveiling its “big society” the government is discussing whether to blast it with water cannons or fire rubber bullets at it.
Not all of it, Zoe, not by a long chalk…
Different constituencies favour different technologies so that, broadly, I blame BlackBerrys for the riots, Twitter for the facetious remarks about the riots (as well as the sudden tweets that sent a chill down your spine but turned out to be untrue), and Facebook for the rest. The spontaneous outbreaks of social responsibility – the above-named brooms of Clapham Junction, the young couple making tea on a riot shield – that all feels extremely heartening and spirit of the blitz.
You know there’s a ‘but’ coming, don’t you?
On closer inspection, people are furious: one of the women with a broom had made herself a vest that said “looters are scum”; Liz Pilgrim, an Ealing businesswoman, called the rioters “feral rats” on the BBC. It’s not exactly Dad’s Army, but then, the blitz spirit was probably two parts pulling together, one part hating Germans. Pure co-operation is a bit boring; co-operation with an undertow of rage is probably more productive. The very act of co-operating is as much a statement of repudiating violence as it is a statement of wanting to clear up the mess it has left.
People are ‘repudiating violence’, Zoe! Doesn’t that make you happy?
Well, of course not:
But this segues very easily into vigilantism, as the Today programme reported from Enfield and Eltham on Tuesday night, where scores of men – hundreds in Eltham – had gathered to “defend” the town. Some were calling themselves the Enfield Defence League, and it’s hard to think the resonance was accidental.
Make up your mind, love, are they knuckle-dragging Neanderthals, or intellectual wordsmiths?
In Eltham, there seemed to be quite a lot of variance in perspective: the crowd thought they were there to help the police out, and police thought they were there to control the crowd, even – if you look at this video – to kettle them, if only a smidge.
Makes you wonder why they didn’t act to kettle the rioters, doesn’t it?
While the looters themselves ran a broad church, racially, there has been a significant, and racially determined, difference in the way vigilantism is perceived, so that Turkish shop keepers, defending their premises in Kingsland Road (including one who chased looters off with a doner knife) are broadly perceived as doing an honourable thing. The men defending a Sikh temple in Southall are, likewise, admirable: I’m not trying to distance myself with the third person, I admire them. I admire the three men in Birmingham who were killed by a car, defending their homes.
Here comes that other ‘but’…
When it’s a large group of Millwall supporters, in a pub all day, talking about doing the police’s job for them, it creates the impression that they’re spoiling for a fight, opportunistically – using the chaos to bust into a racial confrontation that they normally wouldn’t be permitted, in a metaphorical echo of the looters they’re determined to stop.
Brown vigilantes good, white vigilantes bad.
Only white people have ulterior motives lurking beneath their defensive stance, you see…
The Manchester shopkeepers, interviewed anonymously, also on Today, were more disturbing, talking not of protection but of revenge, assembling evidence for the execution of their own justice. The point here is that everyone from “feral rat” lady to the Enfield Defence League is on the same spectrum: they vary in the impression they give, from seeking order to seeking chaos, but they all doubt the ability of the state to defend their safety – and they are all, therefore, tacitly outside the control of the state.
There’s the money shot. There’s the thing that the likes of Zoe and Mary and Dim Tim fear.
That people might be outside the control of the state…
They may use this new community spirit to tidy up their streets, where previously they would have left it to the council, or they may use it to hunt down the people who smashed their windows where previously they would have left it to the police: either way, it would be a very blase politician who was reassured by this sight.
Don’t worry your pretty little head, Zoe. The politicians, like elk scenting the first whiff of a forest fire, are only too aware of what this means.
Big society might look like people on the streets with brooms or doner knives; but that’s not what functional society looks like.
Are you sure? We’ve just seen your ‘functional society’ after all; it means homes and businesses and cars burned, and shops looted, and the police standing back and doing nothing.
So forgive us if we start to think that maybe it’s not all that functional….