UK's Crackdown on Rioters Raises Race and Human Rights Concerns

David Cameron is taking 'zero tolerance' to an unprecedented new level

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On Friday a (somewhat) satirical opinion piece in the Telegraph joked about how the U.S. would respond to similar riots as those in London. The article said that "A leading Republican presidential contender would have advocated martial law and the summary execution of everyone wearing a hoodie." While such a brutal response seems fantastic, the actual response by British politicians, to many, is itself turning jarring in its severity. Currently, with the support of Prime Minister David Cameron, plans are underway to cut benefits and evict even the families of rioters and looters from their homes, the Guardian reports. The Conservative Wandsworth council announced on Friday that it had served the first eviction notice -- to the mother of an 18-year-old boy accused of violent disorder and attempted theft. The teenager has not yet been convicted. And other authorities may soon be following suit.

U.K. politicians have expressed their desire to present a "united front" in suppressing the riots, but such actions are so extreme that the joint efforts may be withering. To many Liberals, things have gone too far. In an editorial for The Observer, Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrats deputy leader, acknowledged that he "made public appeals for people to get off the streets" and said "publicly that the police should be allowed to use water cannon and curfews." Nonetheless, he wrote:

We must be careful with punishments for young people with no criminal record; for some of those of school age or with no work and no prospects, short custodial sentences could be no deterrent. A community which has so far offered them little may equally treat its judgments with little respect... We should be careful not to rush into knee-jerk solutions, including over-hasty moves to change the social contract and approaches to sentences which may have the reverse effect to that intended.

The Liberal Democrats welfare leader Jenny Willot also told Guardian that she was "very worried" about moves to cut benefits for those involved in the riots, when the same punishment would not apply to others who had committed equally serious offenses. And political commentator Will Hutton in The Observer called the "emergent consensus" that "there was not even a higher political or social purpose behind what happened" an "abysmal new social low."

A triumphant conservative right who dominate our national discourse – even while incredibly insisting that the country is in thrall to liberal dogma – believe that what has happened is validation of all it believes. There should be a crackdown that includes curfew and water cannon, say some from this perspective. Prison must be uncompromisingly tough with no early release or bail. A 100,000-strong e-petition is calling for convicted looters to lose their benefits. All of this is understandable; already five people have died in the looting.... [But] We should not hurt ourselves more than the looters have by moving to a vengeful police state and creating a new, more bitter class of dispossessed.

As many in the U.K. attempt to inject issues of social justice into the riot discourse, race is another issue likewise garnering attention. Last night, historian and television commenter David Starkey said on BBC2 that the riots were the result of "black culture" and that whites involved in the disturbances "have become black," the Independent reports.

Mr Starkey said the civil disturbances had realised Enoch Powell's prediction in 1968 that mass immigration in Britain would lead to "rivers of blood"... [he] also said the Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, an "archetypal successful black man", sounded "white"; and that Jamaican patois had left "so many of us" feeling England was "literally a foreign country".

Of course, many were quick to dismiss Starkey's comments, for example, a television presenter tweeted: "Has he finally lost it?" But to dismiss his comments as such may be ignoring actual tensions. The Independent notes that Nick Griffin, MEP for the British National Party, said on Twitter that he was "wondering whether to make David Starkey an honorary Gold Member for his Newsnight appearance." And Starkey is not the first person to bring up race in such a fashion. Last week, in an editorial for The Telegraph, David Green wrote that the reason the police lost control in the riots was because they must now be so sensitive to race that it impairs their ability to do their jobs.

But what should we make of another theory, that the police handled the rioters with kid gloves because they were paralysed by fear of being called racist?... Since the Macpherson report of 1999 the police have been hyper-sensitive about race.

In another Telegraph editorial, Katherine Birbalsingh noted that "no one would say what colour Mark Duggan was. No one would say the unsayable, that the rioters were, I suspect on the whole, black.... When I saw the photo [of Duggan], it confirmed what I knew instinctively: black youths once again have set London alight." In light of such commentary, it seems a stretch to say that Starkey has "lost it," if he is saying what others are, to varying degrees of course, insinuating.

Meanwhile, Guardian reports that a man and a teenager have recently been charged with the murder of three Muslim men who were hit by a car while protecting shops in Birmingham during the riots. The calamity and loss in London is no doubt difficult to imagine. But with regards to race and social justice, the response to the riots, for many, is something of its own tragedy.

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