As the violence in London spreads across the city (and out from the cover of darkness) it is easy to forget how it all started. A peaceful protest of about 200 people at the police shooting of Mark Duggan - and the subsequent lack of communication from the Met and the IPCC with his family - swelled as the police refused to speak to anyone from the protest. Watching it unfold on the BBC, I heard community leaders saying that they were not surprised that something like this had happened, that the lack of police engagement with the community had led to a huge amount of underlying frustration, and that police were still perceived as the enemy in many quarters. The police station on Tottenham High Road was described as being, "like a castle" in the community. As The Guardian reports;
While the police claim that they are engaging sufficiently with communities, and that the perpetrators of violence were not representative of these communities, on Saturday night the people rioting were the community. Since then, media claims that the riots have become a more widespread excuse for looting and violence may or may not have more credence - it's impossible to say.
The police don't have a good track record of non-confrontational engagement. Responding to criticisms of insufficient policing of an earlier march, the student protest on 24th November 2010 was kettled and charged by officers on horseback after the looting of an empty police van left conspicuously unprotected along the march route. A protester I met later that evening was very clear that, "We were set up". Beyond protests, the police team in Cambridge established to "engage" the street life community only succeeded in harassing and arresting more of them for sleeping rough, if members of that community and the volunteers who worked most closely with them are to be believed.
Is this confrontational approach an inevitable element of policing? If the police exist to maintain law and order, it is certainly simpler to do this with the threat of force and punishment than with reasoned argument and inspiring altruism. Even more so against the back-drop of 20% cuts, as Paul Deller of the Metropolitan Police Federation explains,
it is the so-called "soft" services like youth clubs and initiatives that help keep young people out of trouble...which nationally the Education Select Committee says have been cut more than any other.
Maybe the police aren't doing a terrible job. At the time of writing there have been no deaths as a result of the riots, and tragedies during protests such as the death of Ian Tomlinson are fortunately incomparable to the pre-constabulary era Peterloo or St. George's Fields Massacres. And yet there are better ways of engaging, rather than simply dealing with, people from the other side of a conflict. Perhaps David Cameron could learn something from the community charities which survive his cuts about peace building without preparing for war. Because asking people who are justifiably angry not to become violent when confronted with aggressive policing is ridiculous. And then to call them "mindless" is hugely insulting.