London – Yesterday, August 8, I was watching live looting footage — some of it from districts near mine or where friends were hunkered down behind locked doors — with appalled fascination, when the 1992 L.A. riots came to mind. It was not because here in London we have had anything like the savage assault on Reginald Denny or the gun battles between cops and street gangs. It was the reports from shopping districts where stores were in flames and the police nowhere to be found. It reminded me of that first day or so of the L.A. riots, when LAPD chief Daryl Gates allegedly held his officers back and allowed South Central to burn, just to show propertied Angelenos how much they needed him and his men.
Given the cuts in police budgets planned by the Cameron government (which has “ring-fenced” or increased money for foreign aid, climate-change prevention, and Britain’s grossly inefficient health service), anyone could be forgiven for wondering whether the Metropolitan Police’s leadership was allowing neighborhoods to burn to make an economic point.
If that was the plan, it was a foolish idea. The Cameron administration is dominated by liberal young men from privileged backgrounds or the media-marketing elite. They would never live in the kind of neighborhoods that bore the brunt of the violence, and who are unlikely to empathize with the white-working-class and immigrant shopkeepers whose stores were trashed and burned. Law and order has not been a Coalition priority, as should have been obvious from Cameron’s notorious “hug a hoodie” campaign before the election, in which he called for more understanding of the alienated youths who make urban life a misery for the old and the weak.
But in any case, it has since become clear that London’s Metropolitan Police was doing its feeble best considering its inadequate equipment, training, and public-order doctrine, not to mention its poor leadership by politically correct apparatchiks. It was unprepared to counter the planned looting, which had been organized using mobile phones and social networks — though this has happened before in London, as well as in foreign cities hosting G12 and G20 summits. Worse, it foolishly assumed that sending small numbers of riot police — or rather police in riot gear — would intimidate looters into giving up and going home.
Instead, in some places, gangs of 30 or more hooded teens sent the cops scurrying in retreat. In other areas, the police stood their ground and bravely took the bricks and rocks hurled in their direction, but did not — perhaps could not — stop or disperse the youths setting fire to stores and sometimes the homes above them. They seemed to be waiting for the rioters to exhaust themselves and go home — which took many hours and much destruction. It was only where there were police horses and dogs — and there were too few equine and canine units to be in every riot area at once — that looters were driven off or arrested in significant numbers.
As usual, the Met did not equip its officers with baton rounds or tear gas or water cannon or any of the non-lethal riot-control technologies in standard use around the world. This was because, as its leaders subsequently said, with the support of the home secretary, the use of such weapons would represent an unacceptable escalation. It would signal a loss of control — as if burning department stores did not. It was telling that there were injuries among the police but none among the rioters. “The way we police in Britain is not through use of water cannon,” claimed Home Secretary Theresa May. “The way we police in Britain is through consent of communities.”