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This Mob Justice Has to Stop

By Tim Hardy

This is mob justice and it has to stop.

People are angry, frightened, confused – it is not surprising that strong, authoritarian gestures seem appealing.

Whatever one thinks of the British police – a subject to which I will return – you cannot deny that as people they have been under unimaginable pressure in recent days, working in frightening and dangerous circumstances. It is perfectly understandable that individual officers will feel triumphant when another person is sentenced. But this does not excuse the crowing tone of such messages. This is neither professional nor reassuring. Quite the opposite. This has the air of a lynch mob.

There is no excuse for the violence of recent events that have left five dead and over a hundred families homeless and brought terror to our streets. That goes without saying. Those attempting to understand it are not condoning it nor are those who are concerned that it is being used to excuse dangerously anti-democratic responses.

The Prime Minister is reported to be impressed by the swift sentencing of all-night courts and asking why justice cannot always be served so quickly. The answer is simple: this is not justice.

Sentencing has been uniformly harsh. One person sentenced to 10 weeks in prison for swearing at police officers,  another to four months in youth custody for ranting and swearing, another to six months in prison for stealing £3.50 worth of mineral water a sentence calmer minds have judged “expensive and unnecessary”. These are sentences that no reasonable person, whatever their politics, however angry and fearful, could ever regard as just.

While the coalition threaten an end to human rights as though the fundamentals of our civil society were just so much administrative red tape getting in the way, the police have been busy in the media painting the demands for justice over the killing of Ian Tomlinson as a form of perverse political correctness holding them back. In effect, they are demanding that they be allowed to be above the law.

There are already reports of legal observers being beaten up by police. Footage from Manchester appears to show police forgetting their training and overstepping the mark. However much some may want to understand and pardon such behaviour, we cannot forget that the spark that ignited the original rioting was the death of another young black man at police hands and that the first instinct of the IPCC was yet again to lie to the press about the incident in a pattern that is wearily familiar.

Given that the police clearly lost control of the streets, it is understandable that many might think they need greater powers and to use more extreme measures.

Given that the police have routinely abused their existing powers, it is understandable that many might be frightened by this.

The IPCC are not fit for purpose. Nobody is watching the police.

The recent phone hacking scandal has exposed alarming links between corrupt police officers, a corrupt press and corrupt politicians all of whom look after one another in a freemasonry of vested interests. We live in dangerous times lorded over by a feral elite where the moral decay of society is as bad at the top as it is at the bottom. We have a socialism of the rich that demands the poorest and most vulnerable in society pay for the folly and greed of the most wealthy while rabid neo-liberals use a crisis of their own making to further their own poisonous agenda.

Like looters taking advantage of fear and anger on the streets, David Cameron and his housing minister Grant Shapps are eagerly supporting the eviction of families of those who have participated in the riots.

Even if you genuinely believe that this is somehow going to make parents more responsible for their children, if you punish an entire family, you’re also punishing blameless siblings too. That is unacceptable.

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, Gandhi said, and this is an even more brutal form of vengeance than that.

If you cannot see what is wrong with collective punishment of families then there is something profoundly wrong with your moral compass.

I’d rather see our society grow stronger from this, not more fragmented. It is a fundamental tenet of justice that people should be punished proportionally. To fix the damage to our society – a damage that predates the riots – those who are found guilty should be made to do community service so that they learn the value of respecting their neighbourhoods rather than sent to our already over-crowded jails.

Was there anyone who failed to be moved when the Norwegian Prime Minister responded to the actions of Anders Breivik by calling for more humanity and more understanding?

However revolting their actions, those who looted and burned are as much our young people as those who were the victims.

We cannot replace one opportunist mob with another. This needs to be a time for calm and compassion, for conversation and questioning. Neither the right nor the left can afford to let themselves be blinded by prejudice and anger. Our instinctive responses are inadequate. History is full of dark warnings of what happens when a broken society attempts to use brute force rather than understanding to enforce stability and cohesion.

[Update: Greater Manchester Police have subsequently deleted their tweet and apologised for it, stating "Thanks to all for feedback messages - all your comments have been noted. You are right, it is not our place to comment on sentences."]

[Update: 19 August 2011:

“Ursula Nevin did not go into Manchester city centre,” [Judge Andrew Gilbart QC] said. “We regard it as wrong in principle that she was subject to a custodial sentence.
“She must pay some sentence because she knew where the goods had come from.
“Seventy-five hours of unpaid work appears to be the appropriate figure bearing in mind the guilty plea.”

Judge Andrew Gilbart as he over-ruled the sentence.]

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8 thoughts on “This Mob Justice Has to Stop

  1. John says:

    What do you feel is wrong with the sentences? While I agree that evicting the parents from social housing is wrong, maximum sentences all round seems perfectly appropriate here. These are people who have chosen to engage in looting and rioting, with no underlying justification. Unless you’re seriously suggesting that you’d react differently to someone that burned your house down based on whether they were “disengaged” or not. As for the woman who accepted stolen goods, where did she think they came from?

    • Thanks for your comment John. I’m glad that you agree that the evictions are wrong.

      I’m not suggesting for a moment that their circumstances should mitigate sentences but nor do I think that the length of sentences is appropriate and those whose legal training makes them more qualified than me to comment agree.

      More importantly, I worry that these sentences – and the gloating tone of many when they are announced – form part of a broader narrative that refuses to consider that there are social causes of the unrest. To flatly state like Cameron that it is about “criminality” gets us nowhere.

      To attempt to understand is not to condone.

      To refuse to attempt to understand is almost criminally negligent.

      As I said above, jail sentences, while they appeal to a collective urge to punish, are expensive and unhelpful. Community service – while far from perfect – would be far more likely to help connect those involved in the looting to the neighbourhoods they have damaged.

      See for example: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/nov/04/jail-less-effective-community-service

      My question is simple. Do we want to see more riots or are we willing to try and understand why they happened and having identified the causes to try to fix what is wrong with our society?

      There are both pragmatic and moral reasons for wanting the latter, whatever one’s politics.

      I fear that out of anger we are being tempted down a path that will make things far worse.

    • Ten weeks for swearing? And you’re happy to pay approx. £1,000 a week for this? And if sentences can be meted out like that, what the hell are all those MPs who screwed the taxpayers purse still doing in work? If you or I attempted to earn an undeclared £20 extra a week, we would be prosecuted – if only for tax avoidance. The problem is, justice is not seen to be done if you’re rich or ‘know’ certain people or interests. That leads to a total breakdown in law & order…what you are in effect saying is that because MPs and banks did it on the QT and lied about it all with far more malice aforethought than the rioters – not to mention the fact they are ‘decent’ and ‘honourable’! – it’s okay. But that is turning the presuppositions of criminal responsibility that underpins our criminal justice system on their head. The mens rea, or mental element, is where the proportion of criminal guilt is determined – therefore, the fact that an ‘apology’ and returning of some illegally claimed money seems acceptable because they’re MPs is merely an extension of the old prejudice that ‘poor’ equals ‘less worthy’ of decent treatment, mutual respect, or the rule of law. THAT is the problem, and there won’t be enough jails to put everyone in if it continues.

      • John says:

        That’s a very dishonest comment, full of falsehoods, assumption and misdirection. The only way to know what would happen if you or I attempted to earn an extra £20/week would be to do so. Though having actually worked in the tax office, the simple answer is that you’d probably get hit for the extra tax, and nothing more. As you say, the major element in most offences is the “mens rea”, and in all the above-mentioned cases, those convicted knew damn well they were getting into a riot, so it’s difficult to argue convincingly that they weren’t aware that what they were doing was wrong. As for MPs and expenses, that’s misdirection – it’s of no relevance to what’s going on right now (FWIW, the conduct was evidently not acceptable, since some of the more heavily implicated MPs lost their seats, and some were jailed for false accounting). The real problem is the people in the echo chambers on either end of the political spectrum – the folk on the raving right who think the looters should be rounded up and shot, and the folk on the loony left who insist on rationalizing what was blatant criminality. We’re not going to find a social cause, because there simply isn’t one. (Nothing says “I’m being repressed” quite like breaking into JD Sports, right?)

        So answer me this: What’s the difference between those breaking into the shops to loot them during the riot, and someone breaking into the shops to loot them, say, a week before?

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  3. Brilliant post. I completely agree with you, especially about doing community service. For those who stole very small things and did not get involved in any violence, community service seems the best option to me. Make them fix the communities they damaged. Putting them in jail will only make the situation worse; it will make people more angry, more disenfranchised and when they come out, what jobs will be available to those with a criminal record? These sentences are undeniably making the situation worse, not better.

    • Thank you. Luckily it seems the appeal judges are more level headed and less susceptible to political pressure than those originally handing out sentences.

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