Covering Tottenham

An article by Jason N. Parkinson and Jess Hurd, No Refuge Between Bricks and Batons, on the DART website gives a real insight into what it was like to be there (and why I’m glad I wasn’t.)  Don’t miss the link to Jason’s video on the Guardian site, and also Jess’s pictures which I mentioned a couple of days ago in my piece about why I wasn’t there. The Guardian also ran a piece about covering the events on Tuesday, London riots: photographers targeted by looters, by Lisa O’Carroll and Caroline Davies.

Our Prime Minister, spurred on by mad Liberal Democrat MP for Wells Tessa Munt, is calling for the press and TV to hand over their images to the police. Neil Young in Keeping photographers and reporters safe in riots on the Up To Speed Journalism site clearly makes the case both on the grounds of the safety of journalists but perhaps more importantly on the safety of democracy for keeping to the procedures established by parliament in the 1984 Police & Criminal Evidence Act, (PACE) which defined our pictures and reports as “special procedure material” which to access police need to go to court and show is necessary for a specific case involving a serious crime.  It truly is a valuable defence of a free society against our becoming a police state.

Usually I try to stick more or less to photography, but I’m finding much of the political comment about these events sickening. I’m not condoning what happened, certainly not in favour of lawlessness on our streets. But I think it is important to try and understand why it happened, and in particular why it happened now. The most interesting interview of all those I saw was by Darcus Howe on the BBC, notable not just for what he said and his attitude, but also for the ‘establishment’ response from the interviewer, which you can see dissected on a YouTube clip by Cenk Uygur from ‘The Young Turks, ‘the largest online news show in the world.’

These are not the first riots (or insurrections) we have seen in the UK. It’s a matter of record that they have all occurred when the Conservatives are in power and at a time when cuts were being made. Academic research confirms that such policies increase the chances of various events of this type, so ignore the writers and politicians who deny any such link. They are ignorant or lying or in some cases both.

Perhaps the most stupid comment I’ve read was that these events can’t be linked to the cuts, because government spending has actually gone up in the past year. Statistically it is inept, as the overall figure hides the cuts that have already been made because of extra spending in other areas, but surely even these commentators should have noticed the protests that have already taken place. Most important for the current events have been those over the loss of EMA from September for 16-18 year olds in full-time schooling, and over the increases in university fees. The protests at the end of last year were full of young people – and importantly in the earlier demonstrations they were subject to kettling, charges by police horses and often fairly random violence by some police.

I’ve photographed protest on the streets for many years, and in particular worked on the streets of Tottenham, Brixton, Peckham and most of the other areas of London that have been in the news. For what it’s worth (and certainly it’s worth rather more than the ignorant opinions of many of our MPs) the underlying issue is one of justice, or rather injustice.

The flashpoint this time appears to have been riot police attacking a 15 year old girl who asked them questions about justice outside a police station in Tottenham and was answered with batons. Behind that was the shooting of a man in a taxi, who we now know had not fired a shot – as police at the time told the press. Behind that were many, many deaths in police stations, in prisons, in a protest, in a police panic over terrorism and more; hundreds if not thousands of deaths where police and our legal establishment have hidden the truth, stretched out investigation for years and finally failed to deliver justice.

Of course that isn’t all. There are companies who pressure employees to work in hazardous situations or without proper equipment or training, leading to injury and death at work, with seldom any justice. Bankers who have been bailed out by the taxpayers and gone on to get bonuses greater than most of us earn in a lifetime. Property developers with doubtful deals and links to politicians. People getting honours who deserve jail.

Or looking at the other side of things. Silly prosecutions against peaceful protesters – such as those involved in the UK Uncut occupation of Fortnum & Mason. Protesters who get sentences out of all proportion to their minor offences – and now the same thing happening in courts to rioters, with magistrates using remand in custody for minor offences, as well as some ridiculous sentences.

People should be fined, or imprisoned or given appropriate jail sentences on the basis of what crime they have actually committed, not because courts want to make a statement.  There have been some serious crimes – such as the burning of shops – and these deserve serious punishment, but most of the arrests have been for much more minor offences. Young people, particularly when drunk and led on by others in the heat of the moment often do pretty stupid things (like setting fire to cacti) and we should not be over-hard on them.  Justice and not revenge needs to be the basis of how people are dealt with – and what is happening at the moment is likely simply to increase people’s feeling that they live under an unjust system, and to increase the likelihood of another Tottenham.

No Justice, No Peace is a popular chant at some protests, and one which I think we need to take seriously.

These are views that have very much been influenced by the events that I’ve photographed over the past years and the people that I’ve met doing so.   Tomorrow I’ll get back to the photography.

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