We are all vigilantes now

There will be many feelings a week on from the start of the riots. Anger that large numbers of people feel so detached from society that they feel the need to loot and commit arson. Surprise that, for one night at least, the police appeared to have lost control of our streets. Exasperation that areas of London that are already deprived – Tottenham, Peckham, Hackney and Woolwich – will now be further stigmatised by the riots, and will now have to overcome that stigma to attract investment.

Commenting on this kind of social unrest is, as always, a minefield for politicians. For Labour, raising concerns over government policies that may encourage more people to join such rioting can be misinterpreted as sympathy for criminals.

Equally, as the Government is realising, it is difficult to simultaneously take credit for restoring peace on the streets, praise the police, and  ignore their warnings that cutting police numbers will make future disorder more likely. While both the police and politicians were recently dealt a blow by the phone hacking scandal, the police retain a bedrock of public trust which politicians have completely lost, possibly for ever.

But there are clearly some questions for the police to answer. Locally, as late as the early evening of the Monday (August 8th) the police said that they did not expect any trouble in Woolwich – with hindsight, not a good call as a few hours later there was serious unrest in the town centre. There clearly are questions about the shooting of Mark Duggan earlier this month, and the way the police communicated with his family and friends afterwards.

But a priest who worked in and around Brixton in the early 80s told me yesterday that compared to the systematic prejudice many police officers showed then, today’s Met is light years away.

Preventing such trouble happening again is not just a matter of police tactics, the deterrent effects of tough sentencing, or re-opening youth clubs – and certainly not hot air from politicians.

What is needed is watchfulness – in effect a “new vigilantism”. For every young person who did riot or loot this week, there were hundreds who did not. They were being watched out for by family and friends. In many cases, those who would otherwise have joined the rioters had been kept off that path some time ago by the vigilance of their mother, father, teachers, or friends, who instilled a sense of responsibility at an early age.

The term “vigilante” (derived from the Latin for “to be watchful for”) has a bad press, particularly on the Left. It conjures up images of self-appointed community guardians, more interested in pursuing their own, often extremist, ideology than protecting all members of the community from harm.

It is high time that the term vigilante is re-appropriated, and its derivation remembered. The real heroes of the last week – those who have watched out for each other, and defended their neighbour’s property without taking the law in to their own hands – are kinds of “vigilantes”, even though they may not recognise or even like the term.

In Greenwich, the problems were concentrated in Woolwich and the Charlton retail area on Monday night. In Woolwich, Wilkinson’s, the Wetherspoons pub and a shop near M&S on Powis Street were all burnt out, though the fires attracted surprisingly little media coverage, other than recycled YouTube footage, as camera crews were not in Woolwich on Monday night and there has been no trouble there since.

Locally, there has been no trouble in Blackheath  and Westcombe Park thankfully, other than a few shops looted in Blackheath Village. The shops at the Royal Standard escaped trouble.

The only serious trouble in Greenwich since Monday night has been from so-called “vigilantes”, whose actions show how much that term has strayed from its proper meaning. On Tuesday, tensions were increased in Eltham by the arrival of outsiders from the odious English Defence League to “defend the community”. Shortly afterwards, people were being filmed attacking bus passengers because of the colour of their skin (with friends like these, who needs enemies?).

To term these people vigilantes – “watchful ones” – is as absurd as saying that the looters of Monday night had been vigilantes as they were “watching out” for things to steal from shop windows. Just like the looters, the EDL only seemed to be keeping a watch out for trouble to create, not calm down.

I have been in Woolwich several times since the riots and a better kind of watchfulness – or vigilantism if you like – is very apparent. The streets were all cleaned up the morning after the trouble, with buses and traffic running normally (only Wellington Street remains closed).

The hoardings outside the burnt-out Wetherspoons have become a kind of community message board, whose messages are ones of hope. There is a good spirit in the town, which will not let a few mindless idiots threaten its future.

Police say there have been more than 40 arrests in the borough so far and most of those charged are over 18. So this was clearly not a rebellion by young people objecting to the abolition of EMA, or high youth unemployment. Many people are angry about these things, but they had the good sense to realise that looting and arson is not the right way to make their point. They watched in despair, and did not join in.

Nor is race a factor – not only were those arrested from a range of backgrounds, but many of the victims are people – often from ethnic minorities – who run small businesses that have been looted or burnt.

Self-appointed “Vigilantes” like the English defence League see the recent trouble as an opportunity to peddle their own agenda, and hold one ethnic group responsible for the trouble. They are anything but vigilant.

We should all be vigilantes now: watching out for each other, our friends and neighbours, and vigilant against both the rioters and those who wish to provoke more trouble.

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