“The seed of revolution is repression” – Woodrow Wilson
Following serious civil disturbances in England, High Commissioner Ian Hughes, in his blog post, raises a key but critical question about policing conflict in a democracy. He asks: “How does government balance policing with consent against public safety? When violence occurs how should government restore calm quickly without provoking further violence with a heavy-handed reaction”?
Last week Britain experienced serious civil disturbances. Demonstrations in Tottenham following a shooting incident involving police spread across the capital and to major English cities, evolving from legitimate protest to opportunistic looting that damaged homes and businesses. Tragically, looters killed two people in London and three in Birmingham.
This week, there’s been speculation about what happened and a fascinating debate, much of it on Facebook, about what to expect from Police during riots. Was last week’s unrest legitimate dissent or criminal exploitation for personal gain? Was Britain lurching towards revolution or were criminal gangs on the rampage? Were police repressive thugs or a thin blue line holding back dark forces of anarchy?
Many comments demanded more effective police action to arrest looters. Some complained that the “me” generation and consumerism were at the root of the violence. Others pointed to the desperation of unemployment and the indignity of poverty.
Whatever the cause, Britain’s experience asks questions about how policing conflict in a democracy. How does government balance policing with consent against public safety? When violence occurs how should government restore calm quickly without provoking further violence with a heavy-handed reaction?
There is no ideal solution. Each situation is unique and needs to be dealt with on its merits. It is important to distinguish between free speech and public demonstrations of dissent on the one hand and public protection from criminal attacks on the other. Last week started as the first but it quickly became the second.
Public attention has switched from controlling violence to prosecuting law breakers. It is important in a democracy that justice is not only done, but seen to be done. More than 1000 accused have appeared in court charged with theft, criminal damage etc. Magistrates sat through the night so that those who set fire to buildings and stole property were dealt with quickly as well as fairly and within the law. Did they get it right all the time? I’m not able to tell, but Appeals Courts will review verdicts and sentences if they are challenged.
Transparency is crucial. The public need to know what is being done to manage the situation. Government has an obligation to provide prompt, accurate information to the media. And Parliament has an obligation to debate the issues openly and constructively so as to heal a national trauma.
Many countries have been watching developments closely and asking what they tell us about modern Britain. I think that there is an important lesson here for us all. As Woodrow Wilson once said, “The seed of revolution is repression”. It is not the fact of public disturbance that undermines democracy, but how it is dealt with.
If authority deals with unrest coolly and openly, frustration can vent and calm can return. An aggressive response often sets the scene for wider conflagration: look at what happened in Egypt and is happening in Syria and Libya.
These are serious questions. But getting them right is essential to underpin public peace and citizen safety in any democracy. And I’m sure that the lessons learned in London will be followed carefully by police everywhere, including here in Sierra Leone.
By Ian Hughes, British High Commissioner, Freetown
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