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How to respond to the riots?

How to respond to the riots?

As England takes stock of where it finds itself as the riots this week seem to be calming down, there’s a great deal of discussion online about how to best respond the actions.

Should the state take a hard line against the rioters and their families (in the case of minors)? Should the state respond to the underlying social-economic issues? Should there be a balanced response?

Savi Hensman argues that taking the hard line is going to be counter productive:

“To start with, these sanctions are clearly aimed at those on lower incomes: the best-off families whose members were found guilty will not be affected in this way since they do not generally rely on benefits or social housing. And it is does not make sense that someone stealing a pair of trainers in the heat of the moment should be treated worse than those guilty of calculated fraud or brutality in non-riot related circumstances.

And collective punishment goes against the basic principles of justice. Some parents should indeed have taken more responsibility for the behaviour of their children, but others were struggling to cope at the best of times, sometimes dealing with chronic illness or the effects of domestic abuse. Some in social housing work long hours in low paid jobs to make ends meet and cannot afford a childminder to keep an eye on their children during the long school holidays.

What is the fitting punishment for a little boy whose older sibling was out stealing while he cowered at home listening to the frightening sounds outside? The terrorised girlfriend whose partner’s violent temper, which got him into trouble with the police, were all too often taken out on her behind closed doors? Or the mentally ill mother who on bad days can barely cope with getting out of bed, let alone keeping her restless teenagers under control? Harshly punishing whole families is not the best way to improve society.”

More here.

Edward Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard points out that a good response has to balance a number of factors:

My colleague Christopher Stone has argued that there is another lesson about fighting riots to be learned from the incidents in the Paris suburbs in 2005, and the violence that didn’t happen during the Republican National Convention in New York City in 2004. In France, the police initially arrested relatively few people, but sought serious criminal penalties for those they did arrest. The New York Police Department arrested more than 1,000 people and let them go. The New York strategy protected the city; the French strategy wasn’t as effective.

The lesson: Light penalties widely applied and serious penalties applied to a few can both deter unlawful behavior. This is a central conclusion of Gary Becker’s path-breaking economic analysis of crime and punishment. But in the case of riots, it is awfully hard to actually prove wrongdoing and extremely important to clear the streets. Arresting widely and temporarily can be far more effective.

Zoe Williams, along with a number of others, sees an unfulfillable consumeristic drive as the key driver of most of the looting done during the riots:

[T]his is what happens when people don’t have anything, when they have their noses constantly rubbed in stuff they can’t afford, and they have no reason ever to believe that they will be able to afford it. Hiller takes up this idea: “Consumer society relies on your ability to participate in it. So what we recognise as a consumer now was born out of shorter hours, higher wages and the availability of credit. If you’re dealing with a lot of people who don’t have the last two, that contract doesn’t work. They seem to be targeting the stores selling goods they would normally consume. So perhaps they’re rebelling against the system that denies its bounty to them because they can’t afford it.”

The type of goods being looted seems peculiarly relevant: if they were going for bare necessities, I think one might incline towards sympathy. I could be wrong, but I don’t get the impression that we’re looking at people who are hungry. If they were going for more outlandish luxury, hitting Tiffany’s and Gucci, they might seem more political, and thereby more respectable. Their achilles heel was in going for things they demonstrably want.

Elizabeth Drescher, commenting on the plan to cut the rioters off from social media (used to allegedly to coordinate the looting), points out that such a decision would miss the real problem. The looters have a spiritual emptiness that the they are trying to fill. It’s the church’s call to lead them out of that emptiness.

Martin Saunders picks up this theme and writes about what he’s seeing happen when the Church really does engage young people in England and what that teaches us about the right response to the riots:

So what do we “do” about them? Right now, many involved in statutory youth provision are pointing the finger at austerity-era budget cuts, such as the scything attack on local youth services and the ending of the education maintenance allowance. The removal of money is part of the problem, of course, but I believe there’s another side to that coin – that in this society we look to raise not young citizens, but young consumers. They’ve grown up on dreams fed to them by the marketing men (my three- and five-year-olds are proof that it starts early), yet as credit and funding have dried up, they now don’t have the resources to fund the dreams they’ve been sold.

Faith-based youth work has something special, something inherently different to offer them, because it offers something distinctive: transformation. And we in the faith community must not be ashamed of where that transformation comes from: an engagement with young people’s yearning sense of spirituality – something which promises rewards even greater than financial gain.

What do you think? How should the church in England respond? How should the church in the U.S. respond if similar riots were to happen here?


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Rod Gillis

@ Jan Adams “Sweeping up everyone in sight and holding for awhile may satisfy authorities’ need for control momentarily, but basically it renders the notion of freedom under law illegitimate..”

The breach of civil liberties in T.O. during the G20 was horrific. A public inquiry is warranted, but political and monied classes have prevented the same.


Great … we’re supposed to applaud preventive detention policing, such as New York in 2004 or St. Paul, MN in 2008? Sweeping up everyone in sight and holding for awhile may satisfy authorities’ need for control momentarily, but basically it renders the notion of freedom under law illegitimate, as people cannot be charged and there prove to be no “offenses.”

People riot to escape powerlessness and to feel catharsis. If we don’t want them to riot, we have to give them a sense that society recognizes their humanity and values their dignity. That is, we have to respect the dignity of every human being. If we build a society that consistently fails that test, we’ll see periodic riots and other madness.

Jan Adams


All of the articles to which you linked have merit.

If people don’t go to church, then the church has to go to where the people are. I’m not sure how the details would be worked out, but we need to get out of our enclaves, which are slowly emptying anyway, and meet folks where they are.

The silliest idea is to cut off social media. Will the authorities cut off everyone? Just the rioters? What nonsense!

On Thursday, Cameron told British lawmakers that the free flow of information can be used for good, but can also be used for ill.

Who knew? And the free flow of information only began with internet social media? One wonders how rioters of the past got it all together.

June Butler

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