Thursday, April 10, 2014 

PC Keith Blakelock: a question of conscience.

As they are wont to do when it comes to their own, various MPs have questioned the decision to prosecute former deputy speaker Nigel Evans following his acquittal today on charges of sexual abuse.  As the latest in a series of high profile figures to be found not guilty, it certainly does merit asking whether a jury is ever likely to favour the word of a member of the public over that of a celebrity when the alleged offence happened years previous, there were no other witnesses and also no forensic evidence.

Apart from local Tottenham MP David Lammy though, it seems no other politician commented on the acquittal yesterday of Nicky Jacobs on the charge of murdering PC Keith Blakelock during the riots on Broadwater Farm in 1985.  This was despite the case against Jacobs being even more farcical and ridiculous than any so far brought against a figure in the public eye.

The evidence against Jacobs, if it can even be described as such, amounted to accounts by witnesses known to have lied in the past, and two pieces of circumstantial.  Dealing with the latter first, it was found Jacobs had written a poem/rap which celebrated Blakelock's murder at the time he was serving a prison sentence for affray.  While providing an insight into the fact Jacobs was not the most pleasant of men at the time, there is nothing in it to suggest he had any insider knowledge of the killing; indeed, it refers to "chop[ping] him on the leg" and "chopping him all over".  While Blakelock's injuries were extensive and the result of a frenzied, brutal attack by multiple individuals, he was not stabbed all over his body, as his uniform with applied tape showing the puncture wounds proves.  Similarly desperate was the evidence given by a police officer who told the court Jacobs had said on being arrested in 2000, "fuck off, I was one of them who killed PC Blakelock".  The officer did not at the time report this to any superior, only coming forward in 2012.

Absurd as the above is, it somehow gets even more so.  The irony in the case was that two of the witnesses, given the false names John Brown and Rhodes Levin, have both admitted they took part in the attack on Blakelock.  The Met however made the decision to only go after the "stabbers" rather than the "kickers", enlisting the latter and ensuring they had immunity from prosecution.  As understandable as this is, it brings into sharp relief the continued use of joint enterprise to prosecute those who were present at the time of a murder but otherwise had no involvement.  Their accounts were further undermined by how they were paid lump sums of £5,000 and £2,500 back in the 90s despite their evidence not being tested at the time.  As Stafford Scott also points out, in July of last year Levin was found to have 63 bags of cocaine and heroin in his possession.  Rather than a custodial sentence, he received 12 months community service.  Brown also did himself no favours when he said to police in 93 that he couldn't tell the difference between black men, a view he told the court he "more or less" still held.

Remarkably, it got still worse for the prosecution.  Brown's cousin, a man known only as Q, also gave evidence that Jacobs was one of those who stabbed Blakelock.  While none of the three could agree on the weapon used, the others at least gave a plausible version of events.  Q by comparison claimed that earlier on the day of Blakelock's murder there had been two Rolls-Royces on the estate, from which black men had passed what looked sawn-off shotguns, and also got the location of the murder wrong.  The jury were so flummoxed they asked the judge if Q could have Korsakoff's syndrome, a condition brought on by chronic alcohol abuse where sufferers invent false memories to fill the gaps.  A long term heroin addict as well as an alcoholic, it didn't seem any less plausible than Q's own evidence.

To no one's surprise, the jury took just four hours to find Jacobs not guilty.  He wasn't released yesterday however, as almost all those acquitted of the most serious offences are on the same day; the officers needed to fill out the paperwork had already gone home.  Cock-up or conspiracy, it just underlines how it seems different standards were in operation for this case.  The Crown Prosecution Service has given the OK to flimsy trials in the past, but this must rank as one of the weakest in recent times, such was the obvious unreliability of the witnesses and the clutching at straws of the rap/poem.  Often it can be said in the CPS's defence that there was just enough evidence for the case to be put before a jury and to let them decide, as there was for instance in the case of Ian Tomlinson, despite the CPS at first deciding not to prosecute PC Simon Harwood. In this instance it seems more likely that the pressure from the police to find someone, anyone guilty of a murder that has cast such a long shadow over both the Met and Tottenham was too great for them to refuse and say there just wasn't a reasonable chance of a jury convicting.

Failing new witnesses coming forward who aren't tainted by having lied in the past, it seems increasingly unlikely that Blakelock's murderers will now be brought to justice.  As relations between the Met and the community in Tottenham never fully recovered and have since been further damaged by the shooting of Mark Duggan, any chance of such a development must also be extremely low.  Quite apart from giving Keith Blakelock's family justice, the obvious reason as to why it would benefit all sides if new witnesses were found is it would help to put a traumatic event firmly in the past.  Blakelock's murder still hangs over Broadwater Farm, tainting the estate and the men who were caught up in the police investigation.  The only way to lift that stigma is for the real killer(s) to be found.  The Met won't manage it, so it's up to those with a conscience to do the right thing.  The sooner, the better. 

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Friday, August 12, 2011 

Not quite apropos of nothing.

I think we should shut Louise Mensch down.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011 

The tone is set and the blame game truly begins.

When you're in politics, it's a fairly dangerous game to start blaming the police. Not only are they almost certainly more popular than you are, even in the aftermath of the worst breakdown of law and order in the capital in recent memory, they're also the last people you want to get on the wrong side of. Jacqui Smith succeeded in annoying them so much they marched on parliament. Anyone remember what happened to her?

It's curious then that both David Cameron and Theresa May did just that in today's recall of parliament, later joined in their certainty by clapping seals on the backbenches. Just as bizarre is that it makes a libertarian lefty like myself, not exactly a noted cheerleader for our fearless feds, want to defend them. Even if we take at face value the apparent admittance by the Met that they treated the rioting which broke out on Saturday in Tottenham initially as a public order issue rather than a criminal one, there was perfectly good reasoning behind that: heavy-handed tactics that night would have almost certainly made the situation worse. Their real error was the failure to acknowledge the protest by Mark Duggan's friends and family quickly enough at a senior level.

Even when the copycat violence broke out on Sunday, it still wasn't clear or predictable that pockets of the capital would the next night be in flames. As I somewhat argued two days ago and John B sets out in more detail, the main failure was that the police simply couldn't keep up, nor did they properly understood quite what was happening. Considering few of the rest of us did either until the day after, this is hardly something they can be pilloried for. It also saw something probably unprecedented in terms of rioting, rather than political protest: the use of BlackBerry Messenger and texts (The use of Twitter and Facebook seems to have been pretty negligible as an organisational tool, as both are more or less wide open, although they were a few "inciting" through both) to publicise the targets, in some cases only a matter of minutes before they were then hit. At best the police had a couple of hours notice, and that was if someone bothered to forward the plans onto them. The riots in France back in 2005, the most similar recent outbreak of unrest to our own few days of looting also went "viral" but certainly didn't involve such flash-mobbing.

As the police were so overstretched and without major back-up, the decision in most cases not to intervene in the looting, while undeniably perplexing to the public, was a fairly sound one. There's bravery and preventing disorder, and then there's the distinct possibility of getting beaten to death by a group which outnumbers you by at least about 5 to 1. The efficacy of water cannon and tear gas against such mobile groups who aren't intent on reaching any particular area or repeatedly charging and attacking the police is also fairly negligible. 6,000 officers, normally more than enough to contain even a fairly prolonged outbreak of disorder, simply couldn't take back control. They couldn't however have possibly known things would get as bad as they would. Hindsight, as always, is a wonderful thing.

It's also ever so slightly rich for politicians, always so keen to express their admiration for the bravery of the police to then speak out of the other side of their mouth a matter of minutes later. Both May and Cameron were still on holiday on Monday; those who were doing their best in unbelievably difficult circumstances were out on the streets. Not that either of the former have been out on them much since: May even slinked away from Boris Johnson when he was heckled in Clapham. Since then the government, realising it appears to be on a hiding for nothing, has keep as low a profile as possible. Not a single government minister could find the time to appear on any of the major news programmes tonight, including Question Time, where the affable David Davis had to instead make the "brokeback" coalition's case.

Then again, it's probably best they don't try and defend the measures outlined by Cameron which are meant to stop a recurrence of the violence. Police already have powers similar to ones demanding individuals uncover their faces, and in any case it's rather difficult for a couple of beat coppers to deal with a whole group of people with masks on, let alone when they're already smashing windows. It also begins to defy belief when the ravings of right-wing backbenchers, suggesting the police spray rioters with indelible liquid making them easier to identify later are treated seriously; discarding or burning clothes is something those showered would never think of doing. Just to make things even more surreal, comfort was given to those who called for the army to be brought in, while social networking could also be temporarily shut down in such circumstances, something that certainly wouldn't cause further unnecessary panic or hinder the spread of reliable information on what was happening, as some police forces attempted to provide in real time this week.

Ed Miliband's statement was well considered on the whole, and a few lonely souls did suggest this wasn't just amorality run amok, but the tone does seem to have been set. 16 weeks in prison for a 21-year-old who said to police that he'd "smash you if you took your uniform off", an empty threat if there ever was one and something which he might have got a caution or a fine for at worst in normal circumstances seems ridiculously over-the-top even after this week's events. Pie boy got six weeks for assault, later reduced to four. If being a twat in public is going to get you four months inside, at least let's be consistent.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011 

Between the armchair generals and the stereotype sociologist.

I've been trying to think of somewhat mocking comparisons between the flood of comment on the riots we're now up to our neck in (and which I'm going to do the equivalent of pissing in, polluting while adding to it) and likewise exhibits in popular culture. At the one extreme, some of the response looks the equivalent pulling a Wooley, the SWAT team member at the beginning of the original Dawn of the Dead. While one of the very slight failings of the film is that it's never clear quite why a SWAT team is going after a gang of criminals when flesh-eating zombies are shambling everywhere, Wooley also isn't too bothered by this chain of events. For him it's the fact that "these low lifes" are living in these "big ass fancy hotels" which are "better than what he has". "You ain't gonna talk 'em out of here, you gotta blow 'em out! Blow their asses!"

At the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the Eric Idle sociologist from the Hells Grannies sketch in Monty Python, so intent on giving his prescription of exactly why these "senile delinquents" have "rejected contemporary society" that he doesn't notice they've opened up a manhole in front of him. Being hoist by your own petard is though a universal danger: as always, pretty much everyone is explaining, rationalising, or rather saying they warned about this all along and it all happily fits their previous prejudices. Hell, I've done it the last couple of days. Melanie Phillips (and others) then think it's all down to absent fathers; Max Hastings in the Mail puts the onus on years of "liberal dogma"; Shaun Bailey says it's all down to responsibility (lack of) and a sense of entitlement, although only the sense of entitlement amongst a certain section; Seumas Milne sticks it all on greed and the rapaciousness of those at the top of society; and the Guardian's leader comment, which has been getting more shrill day by day, fingers both everything and nothing. No change there then.

It is though the ultimate way to play safe. And in truth, all of these explanations have something in them, (with the exception of Max "Hitler" Hastings doing the bidding of Paul Dacre), while also being fairly easy to knock down. Absent parents can have a major impact; they also, as Phillip Larkin will always remind us, fuck us up. Those preaching the virtues of the nuclear family ought to read Hayley Matthews' account of the riots in Salford, where parents with their kids in child seats in the back of cars screamed up and filled their boots (literally) with loot. It would be equally naive to dismiss the fact that in certain cases children are being brought up, either by single parents or not who aren't taught right from wrong, and have had everything given to them on a plate, whether by the state or trust fund, who feel aggrieved that they can't have everything right this instant. Again though, Matthews' account makes clear that certain authority figures do either make those who've taken part think twice, or at least temporarily ashamed of their actions: they might not fear the police, but seeing her dog collar alarmed and troubled them. If their parents had turned up, it's fair to say a good proportion of those taking part would have been shocked and despite what some have also pointed towards, been given at the least a sock round the ear.

The accounts then by those outside the usual commentariat are the ones which most often strike home or point out things those inside their own bubble haven't broached. Kevin Sampson makes the excellent point that it's incredibly easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment, as many who've been on protests that have turned violent or nasty can also testify. These might not have been marches, but they also weren't highly organised actions, even if on the surface some of them look that way: opportunism by those along for the ride most definitely happened in numerous places. Those caught so far and being processed through the system look to have been the stragglers or those stupid (or brazen) enough to go unmasked, the ones who stole a couple of bottles of alcohol, shirts or who were in the shops when the mob had moved on. The shame and regret will have hit many of these later, as it will the parents disgusted to find their spoils, not knowing whether to risk turning over their offspring considering the exceptional penalties bound to be passed.

You also know there's a real reason to be worried when the inestimable FlyingRodent is concerned. His point that at the centre of what's happened are the petty criminals among the young, the ones normally involved in minor drug-dealing and causing occasional havoc in shopping centres is a sound one; some of those among them were smart enough to see an opening in London after the riot in Tottenham for larceny on a grander scale than what they're normally up to, and the bonus was that with the summer holidays they had gangs of otherwise bored acquaintances who could both help distract the police and who also then joined in. This was then copied by non-related but similar groupings in the other big cities, and err, Gloucester and a few other minor towns. Into the mix also came a good few adults, as we're also discovering. This isn't to deny that some of the rioting had a political undercurrent, and also that many of these youths, especially the ones on the outside looking in, don't see a future, feeling completely disconnected from their wider communities. Others though almost certainly knew and were friendly with those they came to steal from. Some just hate the police and other figures in authority, for both good and completely and utterly wrong reasons.

David Cameron's reaching for the illness definition is but an echo of Tony Blair's similar statements following the murder of James Bulger. Certain sections of our society do have very deep seated problems, but broken or sick? Some people are just thuggish pricks, as has been demonstrated to the world by the mugging of Asyraf Haziq, being ostensibly helped up only to have his backpack rifled through. They have unfortunately though always been with us, as have gangs of out of control teenagers, and no amount of lectures on morality or responsibility will have an instant impact, or get through to all of them.

However bad things were in London on Monday or elsewhere yesterday, this is not going to become a regular occurrence. There also, so far, doesn't seem to be any instant recourse to further legislation, although we still have the rest of the summer recess once parliament has had its say tomorrow to get through, and then the party conferences, where crackdowns could yet become the order of the day. What we are going to have though is intensified fear of and stigmatisation of teenagers, especially those who go about in hoods, thanks to the efforts of a tiny number of their peers and the foolishness of those who do know better in general. The hope has to be that the current mood soon lifts, and that those calling for the giving of a "free hand" to the police find themselves quickly back in the minority. The middle line between Wooley and the stereotype sociologist is the best place to remain until then.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2011 

Fear and media overreaction has to be followed by reflection.

It's difficult to reach a conclusion other than it's going to be a bad day when it opens with Eamonn Holmes on Sky News essentially asking Kit Malthouse why the army aren't on the streets shooting people. When it ends with Kelvin MacKenzie on Newsnight, taking part in quite possibly the least enlightening debate in history also suggesting squaddies should be out fragging the underclass, even if only with rubber bullets, you know that one low has inexorably led to another.

Overreaction to what were unprecedented scenes last night across London was always likely. For the news networks rather than the usual suspects our febrile press to be the main culprits is still something to be surprised by. It's continuing even now, with what are likely to be events completely unconnected to the rioting reported as if they are further evidence of a situation still out of control. This hysterical atmosphere, not helped admittedly by the rise of social networks where rumour and invention are immediately reported and spread as fact, is undoubtedly scaring people who have absolutely no reason whatsoever to be frightened. I'm well outside London and away from the main flashpoints in the other major cities, and yet through word of mouth it was today spreading around that a major local supermarket had been set on fire, almost needless to say when it had not been. Likewise, every major town around the area except for ours was apparently facing down similar outbreaks of lawlessness, again it turned out completely erroneously.

This in turn has resulted in London essentially shutting down tonight and many businesses boarding their windows up, when it looks as if such desperate measures, although precautionary, were completely unnecessary. The violence in Manchester does look to have been serious, although even there it appears to have been localised to the main city centre, rather than in multiple areas. While it is indeed better to be safe than sorry, it always seemed likely that what happened last night was an aberration, a once in a generation outbreak of lawlessness perpetuated by the disaffected, those with a grievance and those simply out to take advantage. Like Sunny I might yet eat these words, but with the combination of the massive police presence, parents refusing to let their children out and the general sense of anger and outrage at what happened it was doubtful there would be a repeat performance. It could just be that it's a lull, and that at the weekend it could start up again, but even then you suspect the numbers of police out will be similar.

The police, having been caught out like everyone else are coming in for criticism which is unbelievably short-sighted and lacking in both humility and candour. Any police force in any major city in any democracy would have struggled to deal with the ultra-localised groups of rioters that were out yesterday, moving quickly both on public transport and in cars. They were stretched to the absolute limit, and knew full well that if they had intervened directly in the looting when they were so often so vastly outnumbered that not only did they risk making things even worse, if that's possible, they would be risking their lives for the sake of a few plasma televisions and shop windows. It requires tens of officers, organised and trained in dealing with mobs, to be able to stop such organised thieving, not the few who were being deployed in restrictive full riot gear. As hard as it is to for the shop owners and others to see their businesses being smashed and in some cases burned while the police stood off and watched, risking exacerbating things would have not helped anyone.

Similarly, those asking why water cannon and tear gas weren't made available or used to break up the looting are confusing their use against protests which often have one specific focal point, where demonstrators are usually attacking the police or trying to get somewhere, and the fast-moving attacks on property seen last night. Even if you soaked and hit/gassed a few of those taking part, the majority would manage to slink away quickly. Moreover, it wasn't just looters who were out last night; there were large numbers of onlookers, as the police themselves said, who risked getting caught up in it. Using the threat of baton rounds could arguably have been effective, which is why they were authorised for use today if they were needed, which they thankfully haven't been. Even then the problems are obvious: the last thing we need or want is the routine use of such crowd control methods, as could easily follow as a result. As has hopefully been demonstrated, the biggest deterrent is not just a temporary major police presence, but also the opprobrium of the community at large bearing down on those who felt temporarily empowered or free from the fear of the consequences of their actions.

The one thing the Met could be criticised for is their overly cautious approach today, urging businesses to close early and recommending the cancellation of tomorrow's England friendly, which if the general calm continues may look daft later. They have at least, unlike the politicians, been urging calm. Urging calm, unlike telling people not to panic which tends to have the opposite effect, seems uniquely British. David Cameron merely gave the impression through his Downing Street statement not of resolve, but of someone thoroughly pissed off that he'd had to come back from Tuscany to deal with the proles finally realising their lives are going to get worse and keep on getting worse. All of the Tories seemed perturbed that despite their predictions rioting had broken out; weren't the inner cities a problem that had been solved, or which could be left to fester without what happened there spreading to their own heartlands? They certainly hadn't bargained on anything like this impeding or questioning the imposition of austerity, which has still yet to properly kick in.

This isn't to suggest that this can be traced directly back to government policy, or excused or explained in such a simple way. It's apparent that some of the rioting, especially outside London, seems to have been conducted by the local hoodlums who the police regularly find themselves dealing with, who shouldn't be given even the slightest benefit of a political explanation for their actions. Some of what we've seen has though had its roots in the hopelessness which many are beginning to feel and which the latest economic figures and market crashes have brought home to them: that we're in a hole and regardless of which of the main three political parties is in power power, all are wedded to policies which are going to hit the most vulnerable the hardest.

As Kenan Malik has stated, there doesn't have to be contradiction between the competing claims that this is sheer criminality and that it has a root cause in social exclusion and wasted lives: those taking part are responding in the only way they know how to, which also has the benefit of grabbing attention whilst giving them the feeling of striking back through the acquisition of goods. The one message that has filtered down to them is that you should take what you can. They've followed it. Now the politicians have to find a way of reassuring an outraged middle class without further attacking and antagonising those they've all but abandoned. After the clean up must come the inquest.

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Monday, August 08, 2011 

London's theirs, if only for tonight.

It's more than safe to say now that what happened on Saturday night in Tottenham has very little to no relationship with the violence and looting taking place across London tonight. It was however obviously the trigger: whether it was originally anger at the unexplained death of Mark Duggan at the hands of the police which then, somehow, motivated the hundreds if not thousands of youths to target their own or nearby communities, or seeing the police completely incapable of taking control of the situation which has subsequently emboldened them to go out and take advantage we're not going to get anything approaching a straight answer to.

Equally clear is that this is now on such a scale that anyone who attempts to provide a socio-economic explanation, or suggest spending cuts have had some impact, as reasonable and possibly based in fact as such points are, is going to be pilloried. Ken Livingstone's various appearances across networks tonight were not the best idea, even if he was mostly saying things that would normally win him support, although he was filling a vacuum which the government was refusing to fill. The Daily Mail, finally seeing some concrete evidence that the youth of today, however tiny a proportion, are completely out of control and aware of their rights but not their responsibilities (as Shaun Bailey et al have been arguing) is already running a piece attacking "left-wing cynics" for blaming the government. This is only going to grow over the next few days, especially as the politicians return and will have to respond, quite necessarily, when media and public pressure will be massive in what will almost certainly be the strongest possible terms.

This isn't to suggest that some of the rioting hasn't been motivated, not only by the rumours swirling around following the shooting of Mark Duggan, some of which suggested he had been laying on the ground prior to being handcuffed when he was shot, but also by discontent at continuing harassment from the police which will have only been felt all the more keenly during the school holidays. Nothing though can justify the completely indiscriminate self-defeating stupidity of so much of what has happened both yesterday and tonight, the targeting not of police, which could at least be easily understood if not condoned, but of everyday small businesses providing a service to the very people who have now seemingly inexplicably turned on them.

I say seemingly as there is no bigger misnomer than the term "mindless violence", especially in this context. Those carrying out the looting are not doing it out of sheer bloodymindedness, or for no particular reason. While some of the attacks have been on soft targets, much of it has been focused on particular businesses, whether it be sportswear, mobile phone or electrical goods shops. And while there is poverty, and economic hardship, most of those taking whatever they can almost certainly already have close approximations of the stuff they're carting off. Normally you might suggest that this is just more evidence of the cold, hard reality of consumerism and materialism, inculcated into those with little into always, perhaps reasonably, wanting more than they've got. This though is wanton, unabashed thieving simply because those doing it can. It's as simple, and as brutal as that.

The reckoning to come in the months and years after this is going to be equally harsh. As tomorrow's Guardian editorial states, screamed at in the comments by those looking for political advantage, the riots in the 1980s led to improvements in policing and also politics. The various reports in the aftermath fingered the discrimination which contributed massively to the rising of young black youth. This time round, not only is it clear that despite the ravings of some that those committing the violence are from different racial backgrounds (whom I'm not going to link to, you can guess who though), the Met has cleaned up its act considerably. True, there can always be improvements, and the numbers of black and Asian men being stopped and searched is still massively disproportionate when set against the proportion they make up of the population, not to mention the police's recent track record in at best misleading the public about the deaths of those at their hands and at worst outright lying initially about what had happened, but it's naive and wrong to put any responsibility on their shoulders for what's took place over the last 48 hours.

At a stroke it's fair to bet that the remaining leanings towards liberalism both on prison and crime policy will be neutered. Almost any power the police suggest they need, regardless of its efficacy, will be at least temporarily given the go-ahead. Stop and search powers have already been extended, and will probably remain so for some time to come. Those whose actions, however slightly, were influenced by discontent at their lot have almost certainly doomed not just themselves but their entire peer group to the kind of treatment that will constrict their everyday life for years. And this time there will almost certainly be very little that can be done to stop the worst excesses which will inevitably follow as a result, especially when numerous people's livelihoods, if not lives, have been ruined thanks to their enormous irresponsibility.

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