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London Riots: Anarchy, poverty, politics? Check all and then some.

Spent the last hours watching the reports flood in on the London Riots that are fast becoming the UK Riots, should things continue on.  As the first-gen Canadian child of a Brit, I have a special place in my heart for London and the UK.  My great-grandfather fought in WWI for Britain.  My voice slants into a British accent upon contact with my family, as if it were tucked away within my DNA, waiting to be triggered.

Watching London burn is heartbreaking.  It’s also terrifying, because as much as American and Canadian media want to diminish coverage, they should be paying close attention.  This is what’s coming very soon.  The foundations of human behaviour that breed riots will always be there, a stack of kindling looking for a spark.  It is the sociopolitical factors that are fuelling the fires within the citizens of the world, and the Conservative governments people have shortsightedly supported in North America and London will only worsen matters.

Collective behaviour theories: a brief discussion of how riots evolve

Collective behaviour theory seeks to understand precisely that: how we behave as groups – collectively – and why we do so.  Despite the numerous articles on the subject, no one theory seems to be accepted as the be-all, end-all answer to riots, panics, and lynch mob mentality.  I first examined collective behaviour as a course in my Crime & Deviance program, and it was by far one of the most fascinating and also frustrating topics I studied.

For those wanting a review of all of the key theories, you can start with this wiki-link that outlines most in brief, and this article, which goes into greater detail and covers more theories, including one of my personal preferred explanations, threshold theory.  As threshold theory serves as a strong basis for the riots in London, given the facts, I’ll focus on it.

Threshold theory argues that within each of us is a personal threshold that dictates if and when we will engage in a form of collective behaviour.  For some, the threshold is zero – meaning these people will engage in the action without anyone else starting things up.  These are the instigators of a group.  Some possess relatively low thresholds – for example, if two people begin to tip a car over and break windows, some may be duly motivated to join in and continue the behaviour. Some possibly have a 100% threshold – they will never act, unless the entire population is also acting.

Thresholds are theorized to be based upon a cost-risk analysis of sorts, making collective behaviour rational by this theory.  If someone is a criminal with history who cannot find a job and is starving, he will have no threshold to stealing food because the risk (arrest) does not sway him.  Someone who is wealthy and respected in the community will not steal food without a great deal of motivation, because she has a lot to lose and fear if caught.

But this isn’t the whole story, in my mind, because it fails to account for those who feel genuine shame after the group disperses, or who do suffer great costs for the behaviour later that could and should have been predicted.  This is where we dash in emergent-norm theory.  Put as simplistically as possible:  the group becomes a new entity, an almost society in which norms ’emerge’ that may be the opposite of usual personal norms.  It allows for ‘good’ people to be drawn in over time through pressure of the group; ‘disobedience’ becomes the ‘new normal’ and people inherently prefer to blend in or belong.

London Riots: theory applied

I’ve wrestled with explaining this on Twitter tonight, but basically, we have two unique groups within the rioters, who may be partially spurred by the same political and socioeconomic factors, but have a very different inherent set of norms and beliefs that come to the table.  We have instigators, and we have the general masses who have merged in and joined the looting and destruction, to varying degrees.

In threshold theory, the instigators are people already prone to riots.  The groups noted as organizing on Blackberry Messenger (BBM) and social media? The ones who dropped flyers like this?

These are the zero threshold people.  They would riot as long as possible, no matter what the crowd did in response.  Their motivations at present moment:  to screw with the government, with societal structure and the law.  Anarchy is their flavour of Kool-Aid.  How they became anarchists with such low thresholds for the behaviour that they would not only organize, but lay in wait for opportune settings like the killing of Mark Duggan, one can wager many guesses.  I’m going to go with a sense of disenfranchisement, hopelessness about the future, lack of connection with the law and government and being harassed for the sheer crime of being young/of a minority background.

Surprised?  Why?  Blaming youth has been a prime strategy of moral panics for decades now; for a thorough examination, locate the book Blaming Children by Bernard Schissel.  Youth crime has overall been on the decline in Canada – crime in general has also been declining – but from the media and government, you would never know it.  They are scapegoat du jour, the ‘asshole punks’ who steal things and ‘are up to no good’ on the street corner.  In London, that has never been more apparent:  youth centres were cut to save money, and peaceful protests went ignored by government and media alike.  The city was ripe for the anarchy-minded, just waiting for that match to meet the kindling.

In an eerily prophetic article on July 29th in the Guardian, the warning signs are laid out:

Others worry that a perfect storm of unemployment, the withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance and a squeeze on programmes to help disadvantaged youths could bring more than just a rise in crime figures and result in a “lost generation”.
“The young people in Tottenham, they are not so much a community within a community, they are a community beyond the community, with their own rules, their own codes, their own hierarchy,” said Symeon Brown, 22, who helped run a campaign to prevent the cuts in Haringey. “How do you create a ghetto? By taking away the very services that people depend upon to live, to better themselves.”
Professor John Pitts, who has researched gang behaviour for more than 40 years, says the “annihilation” of youth services, coupled with academies likely to favour middle-class students over disadvantaged children, could further disconnect young people from society and result in more entrenched gangs.
“Services are not just being taken away from young people, they are being taken from poor young people,” he said.
“At a simple level that could mean an increase in antisocial behaviour and vandalism. In the longer term, if you withdraw state protection then there will be ever greater reliance on the groupings that emerge in that vacuum.”

 

But that’s not even the whole story.  Check out this article from the Guardian, outlining numerous other protests within the last year, and noting that since 1998 there have been over 300 deaths in police custody, with not a single officer charged for any of them of course, and the Mark Duggan incident becomes the clear straw breaking the proverbial camel’s back.

The protesting began peacefully outside a police station, demanding answers over Duggan’s death.  Insert a few instigators who are angry in general at the police, shake with impoverished people who have little to lose and emotions running high, and serve over fiery police cars and broken windows.

The riots would be over by now, if the instigators were apprehended or felt dissuaded enough to hide away, waiting for their next prime moment to strike.  The trouble is, with all of the anger, poverty and desperation felt by so many, the threshold lowers and people who may have never imagined looting are suddenly joining the masses.  The fact that some are looting diapers and basmati rice of all things speaks volumes.  Some are more enterprising and seeking items of value to sell later to survive.  Some are just acting because, as emergent-norm theory predicts, when thievery becomes normalized in a group, they figure, “Why not?” and start grabbing their own TV or sneakers.

Wait, you ask:  are you justifying these horrible actions?  No, absolutely not.  There are plenty of horrified Londoners who are sitting home, with no intentions whatsoever of looting.  There is always a choice to make in group behaviour, although it is admittedly harder in a throng of people all doing the opposite of what is normally done.  But we cannot excuse government, police and societal culpability.  Police stopping and searching people – youth in particular – of race and in certain areas breeds contempt and a lack of respect and insulted dignity.  Cutting programs aimed at engaging troubled youth or assisting impoverished youth in obtaining education that may hoist them out of their dreary cirumstances has a price, and London’s paying it.

Then again, those looting and protesting are not hurting the government or the structures that have created such a chasm between the haves and have-nots.  Breaking into people’s homes and cars is disgusting and not remotely justifiable.  All these people have done is further divide a people that now, more than ever, should be collectively resisting the government’s failures.  For all of the genuine and understandable rage behind the actions of many over the last three days, they are accomplishing nothing for their cause.

Well, neither did peaceful protest, sadly.  In an amazing and insightful blog posting from Laurie Penny, she quotes a telling NBC report:

“Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”

“Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”

Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere ‘’’

So what is the solution?  How do we prevent this?  How do we punish the guilty?  These are the questions ringing out on Twitter tonight.  I have no simple answers; there are none.  In almost two centuries, sociologists have yet to agree on a theory of collective behaviour itself.  But I do know this:  more of the same is coming.  And even if governments were to back up and desperately attempt to curb off the angst, it would be far too little too late to defuse the ticking time bombs.  Our instigators are well-organized and waiting to strike, and there will always be people with too little to lose to resist.  Such is the way of our capitalist system of purchased democracy.

Further Reading:

A very detailed and academic look at Threshold theory
An article about the Mark Duggan shooting, which spurred initial protests that evolved rapidly.
Google map showing locations of all verified riot activity
Amazing moment by moment coverage of the rioting Monday (flip back for past rioting)
An article detailing how the youth ‘had nothing to lose’ – bringing it back to threshold theory…

UPDATED:
A powerful blog from a past resident of Croydon, that asks a key question: why aren’t we giving the looters and rioters a voice?

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A Survey For Canada…

I’d like to ask Canadians of all shapes and sizes the following questions.  You see, I’m having trouble reconciling the country I live in at the moment, and perhaps the answers will provide insight.  You’ll help, won’t you?  You know, because Canadians are known world-wide as friendly and helpful?

1.  If your son or daughter cheated in a scholarship contest for school – to the point of breaking the law – would you still be proud of his achievement?  Or would you chastise him for his lack of honesty?

2.  If your spouse said, “All of our combined money will be kept in one account, and only I can dictate how it’s spent – and you have no right to see the statements ever again,” would you be okay with this?  Would you be okay if he bought houses, cars and boats on your dime, mostly, completely disregarding things you need like clothing, medications and improvements to the house you actually reside in?

3.  Ladies only: If your father, husband and brother decided that, regardless of your wishes, you did not need access to birth control or abortion services, because marriage should, after all, be about procreation, would you be nonchalant about this?

4.  If your boss decided that he would cut funding to every department except his son’s, then rewarded his son for having the ability to make strong presentations, would you find this fair?  Or would you be pissed off?

5. If you noticed flagrant violations of policy at work, but every time you approached your superiors, you were suspended from work for attempting to speak up while the transgressors were given promotions, would you find this fair?

6.  If hospitals began triaging cases not on need, but on gross annual income, how would you feel, sitting in an ER with your impoverished father who’s living on a pension, after being told this?

7.  You receive a past due notice from the university your child is attending, indicating none of his tuition has been paid and he has been kicked out of his program.  When you ask him what happened to the $14K you gave him for school this year (because you have saved hard for years for this child to have an education), he says, “I went to Cuba, bought a car, saw the UFC – $800 seats, Mom and Dad! – and then, you know, I had to help out my buddies,” do you shrug and say, “Oh well, it was your money”?  Or do you lose your temper, especially because you’re legally on the hook, since he’s 17?

8.  If your sister was facing 67 criminal charges for which you knew she was guilty, would you be proud?  Would you encourage her to hang out with other criminals?

These seem like pretty crazy scenarios, I grant you, but I’m truly curious.  Most people I know, parents and non-parents of all political persuasions, would be unimpressed with all of these situations.  It’s logical to assume that none of these situations would seem fair or pleasant, nor would most parents (I should hope!) reward the behaviour of the children described above.

So why did you elect a Conservative majority last night?

The Harper Conservatives are guilty of all of the above, or have indicated they will do all of the above, if given half a chance – a ‘mandate’, as they like to call it, although, as with Rob Ford, 40% does not a majority of support make.  But 40% of you elected a party with these principles at its core.

I’m flabbergasted.  I’m embarrassed.  I’m fearful for the rights I currently enjoy as a citizen, let alone a bisexual, childfree female.

Harper’s MPs are encouraging the religious right to continue to push for control of MY uterus.  Harper himself thinks I should have no right to fund the party I care about.  Of course he thinks this: only his party is backed by the rich; he doesn’t need public subsidies, like the Greens do.  Harper thinks the Canada Health Act – the very thing Obama has been pointing to as he’s worked for a more universal health care system across the border – should be scrapped.  Health care shouldn’t be a Federal bother, you see; he also thinks we should pay for it privately.  Have none of you seen what’s been going on for decades in the States?

Harper is a criminal, and his government was the first to be found in contempt of Parliament – a first among the DOZENS of Commonwealth nations and their collective political history – for hiding what he wants to do with the tax money YOU have paid into running this country.  He wants to take away your rights to see the proverbial bank statement; now that he isn’t castrated by holding a minority, he can do just that.

The saddest thing is, I’d say 25% of Harper voters last night did so just because they are ‘sick of elections’.  Meanwhile, people are dying for a chance to have a right to vote in the first place, a vote that is actually counted.  These countries are shaking their heads at you, today, as am I. Harper’s refusal to cooperate with other parties has finally paid off for him; he’s manipulated you into no longer giving a damn who runs things, as long as no one troubles you with the details.

25% of the remaining voters are ‘punishing’ Dalton McGuinty in Ontario or are afraid of the NDP 20 years later.  Ontario, do you not remember Mike Harris?  Why do you think McGuinty has raised the taxes he has?  He’s been cleaning up the disaster Harris left us, between the megacity merge, downloaded items onto the municipal budget that forced David Miller into difficult decisions, and never mind dramatic rises in tuition and a disregard for health care and the poor.  Harper wants to download even more items onto the provincial dwindling coffers; if you think he will somehow save you taxes and money, think again, because the provinces will simply increase their share of the invoice.  That $400 health tax – which, by the way, many Canadians only pay a partial amount of, as it’s scaled to income – is going to seem like pennies four years from now. All because you fear a man who was always Liberal at heart (hell, look at the riding he’s holding right now in Toronto, Ontario!).

Selfish, foolish fallacy has befallen our once great country.  When the piper comes calling in four years, remember this:  rebuilding rubble carries a far greater price than simple renovations, and either way, we pay the bill.

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What Harper Wants You To Forget About (Besides Going Out To Vote)

So, the Twitterverse (and the comments page for said article) is furiously rebuffing the Globe and Mail this morning (also affectionately known now as ‘Globe and Fail’ and ‘Old and Male’), after their editorial team endorsed Stephen Harper for the 41st Federal Election in Canada.  No matter what party you support – hell, even if you are a Con lover – this editorial is an embarrassment to journalism.  Why’s that, you ask?

Because the Globe wants you to vote him in based strictly on economics, and actually speaks positively of his character(!).  It also spends the first part of the editorial pointing out Harper’s transgressions and labelling them ‘petty’.  I’m pretty sure Harper’s Goverment paid for and possibly scripted this drivel, being as it’s ripped from Con debate rhetoric.

Here’s a few of my favourite parts:

We are nearing the end of an unremarkable and disappointing election campaign, marked by petty scandals, policy convergences and a dearth of serious debate. Canadians deserved better. We were not presented with an opportunity to vote for something bigger and bolder, nor has there been an honest recognition of the most critical issues that lie ahead: a volatile economy, ballooning public debts and the unwieldy future of our health-care system.

Already, we have a contradiction in terms:  there was no opportunity to vote for something bigger and better, and yet, the Globe condemns spending and expansion because of our economy.  Well, we can’t have it both ways – nor can the Globe deny that spending money on bigger jails – a strategy proven a huge failure in the United States and unnecessary as crime rates drop, no matter what moral panic the media are perpetuating this week – is a form of spending and expansion.

As for ‘petty’… well, we’ll return to that in a moment.

The challenges facing our next federal government do not end there, of course. The next House of Commons must find new ways to protect Parliament, the heart of our democracy. It needs to reform its troubled equalization program without straining national unity. Relations with the U.S. are at a critical juncture. Any thickening of the border threatens to punish all Canadians, while negotiations over perimeter security have implications for national sovereignty and economic security. Wars in Libya and Afghanistan, climate change, Canada’s role in the world, the rapid and exciting change of the country’s ethnic and cultural makeup – the list is great, as is the need for strong leadership in Ottawa.

I agree with all of these priorities.  Shall we examine Harper’s contributions thus far?

Democracy:  The first Prime Minister in our history found in contempt of Parliament, Harper limits media questions to five per meeting.  Harper also forces his backbenchers to always vote in line.  Harper campaigned on transparency and fewer appointments to Senate, yet has made the most appointments in history, killed the Freedom to Information Act swiftly and quietly, prorogued government to avoid democratic processes which include coalitions (yep, they’re very legal; Harper even tried to use one to his advantage against the Liberals)…  Oh, and did I mention his wealthy party attempting to castrate smaller parties – thereby hampering democracy – by removing the stipend each party gets from the government per vote received during an election?  That’s right; Harper’s Goverment (because it’s not our country’s government, anymore; just check the papers) feels that I do not have the right to dictate that a whopping $2 and change of MY taxes go to the party I have chosen to represent ME.  And then, we have those pesky police investigations showing that the Cons violated election spending laws in a previous go-round – essentially buying the election, as proven and upheld in the Appeals Court.  Hmm….

Equalization:  Harper’s leaked booklet o’ troublesome quotes makes many references to health care and how Harper would much rather privatize the whole she-bang and wash his hands of helping the province.  I sure hope all of you middle-class Con voters have a way to pay hundreds of thousands in medical bills on your own, should cancer strike you or your loved ones.  I doubt equalization will go well in his hands; his funds get allocated to his ridings and the rest be damned.

Canada’s Role in the World:  Harper is the sole reason that for the first time ever, Canada is not on the UN Security Council.  Why?  His foreign policies.  Peacekeeping, good-hearted Canada is no longer trusted by the UN.  We also have been condemned for our environmental policies, and Harper wants to kill funding to Planned Parenthood for another first – hindering their care overseas – because of abortions.  Does it feel American up in here?

Only Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party have shown the leadership, the bullheadedness (let’s call it what it is) and the discipline this country needs. He has built the Conservatives into arguably the only truly national party, and during his five years in office has demonstrated strength of character, resolve and a desire to reform. Canadians take Mr. Harper’s successful stewardship of the economy for granted, which is high praise. He has not been the scary character portrayed by the opposition; with some exceptions, his government has been moderate and pragmatic.

Mr. Harper could achieve a great deal more if he would relax his grip on Parliament, its independent officers and the flow of information, and instead bring his disciplined approach to bear on the great challenges at hand. That is the great strike against the Conservatives: a disrespect for Parliament, the abuse of prorogation, the repeated attempts (including during this campaign) to stanch debate and free expression. It is a disappointing failing in a leader who previously emerged from a populist movement that fought so valiantly for democratic reforms.

So, all of those principles you cared so much about in the opening of this piece no longer matter when making an endorsement?  Oh, and by the way, the only party with consistent ratings across the country, province by province, is NDP.  Oops!  I smell a Bev Oda-style ‘Not’ striking out parts of this original editorial and replacing them.  I smell an original ‘no endorsement’ editorial changed by the big bosses.  In fact, this reeks of the same spin, blackmail and lies used on Bob Rae’s NDP goverment in Ontario – as documented, hilariously enough, by The Globe and Mail.

His idea of reform has been for the worse, not the better – unless you’re rich, white, male and/or big business.

The biggest lie of all:  Harper did not save this economy at all; policies in our banking industry and those established by the surplus-holding Liberals did.  Harper has run a worse deficit than Mulrooney.

What else has Harper done?  Taken from numerous resources, including ShitHarperDid.com:

  • Broke his promise to ‘never tax income trusts’
  • Set a law for fixed election dates then broke it when it suited him politically
  • Attempted to buy Chuck Cadman’s vote while the man was dying and vulnerable, no less
  • He has a manual on how to undermine Parliament debates and process.  No, really
  • Prorogued government to avoid judgment on his party’s actions in Parliament – essentially avoiding democractic process
  • Reduced Federal Meat Inspectors, leading to the deaths of 20 people in the Maple Leaf scandal due to impossible work conditions for remaining inspectors
  • Has appointed three ministers who have intentionally misled Parliament (Oda, Clements, Mackay)
  • Found in contempt 3 times – this bears repeating as it’s a first in our country’s history
  • Spent $1.2 Billion on the G20, and is facing allegations of spending on his buddy’s Muskoka riding with funds specifically deisgnated for other purposes, as noted by the Auditor General
  • Arrested over 1000 people that weekend, the majority of those charages being dropped, and facing numerous complaints of police brutality and unlawful imprisonment conditions and rights breaches
  • Frugal spending apparently means spending $100 Million between elections promoting your party
  • Hid information about Afghan detainees and lost our access to Camp Mirage, which led to increased costs for that war effort
  • Appointed two senators who had 67 forged invoices falsely claiming tax rebates for election expenses
  • Has staff being investigated by police for 3 separate case files
  • Defunding any organization that questions pro-Israel agenda
  • Cut funding to arts, women’s rights orgs (Planned Parenthood, etc), human rights & democracy orgs (KAIROS, Rights & democracy)
  • Cut statscan
  • Cut funding to science and research (Human Genome Project, CPRN)
  • Has attacked: Parliamentary budget Office, Elections Canada, RCMP Public Complaints Commission, and Linda Keen, head of Canadian Nuclear regulatory Agency

I’m sorry, but I defy any Con supporter to come up with a list this awful about any previous Prime Minister of ANY party, Cons included.

This is not the Canada we’ve always known.  This is a Canada that Harper has been holding hostage under the falsified demon of the economy – something he’s made worse, ultimately, by running us from surplus into massive deficit.  None of his big-ticket spending plans will benefit Canada financially in the long run, nor will they help Canadians where they need it most.  Harper is not our financial saviour; he will be our demise, with Flaherty at the reins.

Do I believe any party has a perfect approach or platform?  No, not at all.  But I do know that of all the parties, Harper’s does not have the core values that have long distinguished Canada from its contemporaries at heart.  He has only the interests of his backers and his back pockets in mind.

Voting for Harper is a slap in the face to the democracy you are exercising on May 2nd.  Hell, his people have tried to steal a ballot box of advance votes (by a group that is least likely to support him)!  If none of the other parties appeal to you, but democracy does, abstain.  Things will only get worse from here under Harper.  At least your voice will still be heard under, oh, any other party.

I fear for my country.  I hope it wakes up on May 2nd.  Unplug from Harper’s matrix, before we’re too far down the rabbit hole to see the light again.

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