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The UK riots during the summer were the result of people who perpetually felt outside the law, according the research by The Guardian and London School of Economics and contrary to the government’s assertion that it was solely down to criminals.
One of the starker statistics of the newspaper’s ‘Reading the Riot’ series is that 85% of 270 people who took part in the riots attributed policing as a “significant cause”. Indeed, 75% said that they had been repeatedly stopped and searched but there was also a less tangible general anger towards the lack of respect shown by the police. In other words, for the vast majority of rioters – and perhaps they represent an even larger silent group – law and the state were not about their protection but about their oppression and alienation.
If we take the riots as a series of crimes, then the first instinct is to condemn them. But, in his reading of Hegel, The end of human rights: Critical Legal Thought at the Turn of the Century, Costas Douzinas suggests that crime is in fact a cry for help by the offender. ‘The essence of crime is the criminal’s demand to be recognised and to be respected as a concrete and unique individual against the uniform coercion of the legal system.’ (p277). It is the failure to recognise people as beings who deserve respect and dignity that ultimately pushes them into alienation and then to trangress the law. (I don’t want to say this true of all criminals but certainly this could be said for many of them.) Of course, a thief often steals to meet unfulfilled needs but the law has a tendency to force people to fit into a certain mould. Crime then becomes a way for the individual to have a voice. Given the link between identity and property, it is surely not surprising that many of the crimes were acquisitive in nature (even if they did verge on the bizarre in some cases).
This lack of recognition or respect by the law can be seen clearly in the way that stop and search powers are applied disproportionately to black people and how the whole ‘War on Terror’ discourse has targetted Muslims (and arguably people who look as if they are Muslim). But the Guardian/LSE research shows that race was just one of a number of contributing factors, including poverty, unemployment and lack of education. What they all shared was a general sense of alienation and of not being a ‘part of British society’.
What happened is that whole swathes of the population have been pushed out into the environment (so to speak) of British society. There are a core group of decision-makers and direct beneficiaries at the centre and everyone else around the edges. Perhaps the Occupy movement captures this thought best with the distinction between the 99% and the 1%. (I think it’s probably more than 1% who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo but as a slogan it’s pretty catchy.)
It was interesting that phase 1 of the ‘Reading the Riots’ research was published in the same week as the end of the climate change conference in Durban. One could argue that when the riots happened, like climate change, the environment came back to bite society on the arse. And, like climate change, it wasn’t those in power who were the victims but other parts of the environment.
In the battle against climate change, recycling and renewable energy are seen as the solutions and creating waste the problem. Perhaps the problem that led up to the riots (and other forms of alienation) is that people are treated as waste and not valued as a ‘part of British Society’. When we throw things away, the state (in the form of the local authority) collects it and disposes of it at landfills or buries it. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak. The problem with waste is that it is never cut off from society. Pollutants will still get into the soil and the air and affect us. That’s why the law imposes an obligation on local authorities to provide recycling services. Whilst the analogy isn’t perfect, perhaps this is how the 1% sees the 99%: resources and waste of their money and power.
It was interesting that the David Cameron claimed he used his veto against the plan amend the Lisbon Treaty to solidify closer fiscal union in the Eurozone in the interests of Britain. What he considered British interests was in fact the interests of (not even the whole of) the Conservative Party and its backers and, more debatabely, the City. He even told Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarchozy that the EU and the ECJ do not belong to them, suggesting possible legal action. So, once again, the power elite in Britain sees law as a way to maintain the status quo. The irony, according to many commentators and politicians, is that maybe Britain itself got pushed into the environment.
As I write, there is a possibility that we won’t get through today without London police using plastic bullets on students and protesters. But, of course, being someone pretty immersed in the works of Hegel and Catherine Malabou, I just had to give some thought to the plasticity of those bullets.
By way of a disclaimer, I would like state that I am wholly anti-weapons of any kind, particularly in the hands of people in authority and as instruments of fear, power and security. So plastic bullets and baton rounds are no more justifiable than guns and metal bullets. (When I tweeted on the subject of this post, I found myself in a hole.)
In Hegelian thought, plasticity is the character of the dialectic. Something is plastic if, on the one hand, it gives form (shapes) and, on the other hand, receives form (is shaped). But it also points to the contradiction between resistance and change. One the one hand, something is plastic if it can be moulded (receive form) but, having been moulded, it resists deformation.
Plastic bullets have obviously been shaped, that is unfolded from a universal concept of plastic into something determinant (bullet-shaped). But what is it that they shape? Their purpose, apparently, is to disperse crowds (i.e. protests), or at least, to influence their direction in which the crowd is going (i.e. away from the bullets, police and protected areas). But the protest is arguably more plastic than the bullet. It can be unfolded out of the universal crowd into a determinant group of people and, in response to environmental factors, it can change form, disperse and come together and still be a protest. Indeed, it is has been observed in previous protests that ordinary members of the universal crowd can get caught up in someway with the protest and police have not always been able to distinguish between the two.
But plastic bullets are plastic because their whole raison d’etre is that they resist deformation. Indeed, it is the basis for the fear of pain that they engender. Unfortunately, it is this apparent plasticity that also gives them the capacity to do more than just hurt, which is why there is a concern. They have been known to kill and maim.
There is also a certain plasticity in their function. When they are in the baton round, they are plastic bullets, at least potentially. After they are fired, they become actual bullets. But once they have either hit or missed their target, it is no longer a bullet. Its purpose loses form and dissolves into the universal detritus (waste). But their capacity to resist deformation means that they can be recovered by the police and reused by the bullets either at different protesters or at a different protest. So plastic bullets are, in a sense, reusable and recyclable.
I have to be honest, as a researcher in environmental law, it’s nice to see the police taking their environmental responsibilities seriously. But at what cost? Recycling in general is important for the environment and there is a certain plasticity to it – the continuous formation and deformation and formation. But just as recycling feeds into a culture of consumption, surely plastic bullets, despite claims of responsible use, will make it easier for the police to be more casual in their deployment, knowing that one plastic bullet can be used many more times than a metal bullet. How many times are the police looking to use it? It’s difficult to conceive of British authorities going the way of the Syrians but I don’t really want to finish the sentence.
I saw Channel 4 News’ story this evening about uncollected household rubbish. Living in a borough where wheelie bins have been de rigeur for a number of years now – honestly, I don’t know how we ever managed without them – it shocked me that there are still appear to many councils who collect household waste in the traditional black bin liners. Seeing the mountains of black bags stuffed full with more than a week’s worth of rubbish really did highlight the postcode lottery that appears to exist in household waste collection. At first, I thought it was just an outside of London thing but, no, even Haringey council was affected. I shudder to think what will happen with the public sector cuts.
Of course, the councils do have a good reason for stopping collections when there was heavy snow and ice, in the interests of safety. But I also understand that the situation is made worse by industrial action, with bin mean working to rule. Ok, so they have right to fair employment conditions, but what are they are not happy about? Apparently, they are taking industrial action because they could stand to lose up to £4,000, because the council has a legal obligation to equalise the pay of men and women doing equal work. All of a sudden, this industrial action seems quite chauvinistic – equality’s great but not where out interests are damaged. Now, that really does sound like another country – the past!