‘If they was to just crack a few ‘eads, that’d be the end of it.’
This comment was made by an elderly man to his wife as they passed me in the streets leading off Walthamstow High Street last week, while I was walking home with my 17 month old daughter. It is one of a long list of soundbites from the past few days. Like the man sitting at the back of a number 48 bus discussing perceived responsibility (parental and otherwise) for the riots, and punishment, saying ‘if you’re man enough to be there, if you’re man enough to do the looting, then you’re man enough to take a beating for it’. Or the two girls, getting drunk on looted wine, who told the BBC ‘we’re just showing the rich people we can do what we want’.
There was a survey on Guardian online last week, asking readers whether they thought dishing out a six month sentence to a 23 year old student with no previous convictions, for stealing bottles of water from a supermarket in Brixton during the riots, was reasonable or not. Sorry Guardian but you need an extra box to tick as well as ‘yes’ or ‘no’: ‘that depends’. Depends on whether he kicked the shop window in first, depends on whether he was lobbing bricks at police outside in the street – and depends whether someone with a string of previous offenses is going to get significantly more. Let’s leave aside the argument that it will cost several thousand pounds to keep him in prison (and that, according to some, prison does not necessarily ‘reform’ an individual anyway and may even create repeat offenders) – against the argument that not awarding harsh sentences does little to deter similar riots/looting from taking place in the future, and thus bears a potentially huge financial cost, not to mention the loss of properties, livelihoods, lives. But quite frankly, if we are going to embark on a moral crusade, we should also make sure the same harsh sentencing (which I’ve got nothing against in itself) is going to be applied at the other end of the social scale. In 2009, MPs were found to have claimed millions in what were at best dubious expense claims, at worst outright theft – yet the majority just received a slap on the hand and were told to pay the money back. This is not to excuse rioters and looters in the least – just to say that sentencing needs to reflect the seriousness of the crime, across the board.
Tellingly, the most prominent piece of graffiti scrawled across boards surrounding a burnt out building in Tottenham, now being demolished, reads: ‘Looted by bankers’.
Photos © Rudolf Abraham. No unauthorized use.