Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Feds: The English riots and the limits of governing through crime

Its been much debated whether the August 2011 English riots should be characterized as politics or crime. The absence of a clear political narrative is cited by many of those supporting the latter. But some aspects of the narrative such as it was, suggests that the politics of the riots was about the politics of crime (or as this blog would put it, governing through crime). For example, one phrase many of the rioters seemed to have shared was calling the London metropolitan police "feds" , a term apparently drawn from television dramas ((according to Jon Henley's reporting in the Guardian). It is not likely that rioters confused the English police for US federal law enforcement (no matter how often they show up on British tv), nor that they are making a claim about policy transfer. Talk about the "feds" seems to be a way of referencing American style governing through crime with its degrading policing and harsh punishment of young lower class and especially lower class minority men. Indeed the most impressive change in British life over the last generation, perhaps more consequential than the housing boom that for a while reshaped many former industrial towns, was the doubling of Britain's incarceration rate during the long rule of the previous Labour government.

Consider also what has become one of the iconic sound bytes of the riots for Britain's tabloids one youth in an interview with the BBC (although I cannot find the actual BBC story) said "'What are they gonna do? Give me an Asbo? I'll live with that.' While that has been taken by some (read Damien Gayle's assessment in the Mail Online) to suggest the insufficiency of criminal sanctions, it also suggests something much more damning (and less counter-intuitive given the significant increases in punishment over the 1990s) i.e., that chronic overuse of criminal justice as a ready made tool for addressing social insecurity under Neo-liberal economic assumptions has led to collapse of both deterrence and legitimacy. Tony Blair's signature governing through crime initiative, one that summed up his ambition to be simultaneously tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime (in this case anti-social behavior) now stands for a pervasive sense of disrespect of both the governed and the governors.

Actions speak louder than words and can be readily interpreted. Police, all over, but especially in England, are a symbol for law itself. Whatever other motives last month's looting and riotous behavior had, it was clearly intended to embarrass the police (the "feds") already on the defensive after the phone hacking scandal and various failures to anticipate disorders associated with student fee protests. The police clearly understood that the rioting was mostly aimed at them and responded in kind. In Damien Gayle's summary for the mailonline:

Police took revenge on dozens of riot looters last night as they kicked in their front doors and hauled them into the street.

Riot officers armed with battering rams descended on a string of properties as they looked for pay back over the chaos that swept the country.

The officers collared one suspect at a home in Brixton after receiving a tip off that he had been involved in the disturbances.

The August 2011 riots followed by a decade a more contained but alarming riot that broke out under Tony Blair in the norther English town of Bradford in July of 2001 (thanks to the Guardian's history links you can read Martin Wainright's reporting from 2001 here). Those riots had a disturbing racial edge that was apparently not dominant last month (although some reports of cross racial attacks mix with reports that the rioters were drawn from all races and cultures) but one can also read the growing contempt for government authority as such.

Arrests climbed to more than 40 as detectives followed up hours of video film showing rioters - mostly young Asians making little or no attempt to disguise themselves - torching cars and hurling missiles at riot police.

In a separate operation, police scoured an outlying estate for a gang of 20 white skinheads, some described as 13 or younger, who ransacked an Asian restaurant and Asian-owned garage in the quiet suburb of Greengates late on Sunday.

Tony Blair and his Home Secretary David Blunkett insisted that the lawlessness was no more than crime to be dealt with by tougher law enforcement means.

Tony Blair condemned the rioting as "thuggery" and said protesters attacking the police had ended up "destroying their own community".
In a statement on the disturbances, Mr Blair endorsed the view of the home secretary, David Blunkett, that the trouble was a "law and order issue", and his spokesman confirmed that the government was prepared to consider permitting police to use water cannons.

A decade later and with British policy options restricted by the escalating costs of mass imprisonment political leadership seems trapped in a rhetorical enclosure that resists any attempt to escape the crime policies and politics that have failed for a whole generation.


Kevin Karpiak said...


I have to say your analysis, especially because in pointing out that the "politics/not politics" media framing actually fails to capture the stakes of the events. We've been having a similar discussion over on the Anthropoliteia blog (

What makes me pause, though, is the "importation of American-style criminal justice." There's a theory of globalization there--and of criminal justice as object--that I'm not sure there's been enough research on to make such claims. Would you care to develop them, or do you do so elsewhere?

Tim said...

Well, this beats the "aggravated shopping" approach (bizarrely reiterated by Colin Sumner on CrimeTalk), but I think you're stretching it a bit to claim that the use of the word 'Feds' has any strong implications: English youth have been using American slang terms for the fuzz/pigs/cops since at least the 50s.

On the generalization of the american prison model, you might want to look at Nicola Lacey's 'The Prisoners' Dilemma, or recent stuff by Louis Wacquant (there's a video of a lecture he gave on the French riots which is interesing. I'll tweet it if I find it again). It seems that even if the Brits have made some moves in that direction, there's still a long way to go.

Kevin Karpiak said...


Thanks for the suggestions, but the problem is that I don't buy the argument form Wacquant either. Especially because I know from my own research (and others) on French policing that he's wrong. You can't really talk about the French importing an American model, or if you one does, in some complicated sense, I'd like that complicated sense spelled out a bit more.

I was just wondering out loud if the argument works better in the British case, with which I'm less familiar.