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.