Sunday, September 18, 2011

Challenging the Frame: London's riots

Facing criticism for cutting police budgets, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to get tough on gang members and others he said were at the heart of recent riots and indicative of a breakdown in social norms in Britain.  Mr. Cameron has long argued that some young people have no sense of responsibility to society and little discipline in their lives, and that attitude has helped engender the riots, a narrative that many Britons were agreeing to this week.                                                                                      Wall Street Journal 

And Labour's response?  
 "Meanwhile, Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, has urged the government to "think again" about police cuts, in the wake of rioting and disorder across English cities."

It appears there is a mainstream consensus on gangs in the UK, not unlike that in the US. Both major British political parties see a largely black underclass as spawning gangs and lacking discipline.  Taking his cue from US super-cop William Bratton, the issue has been framed as a breakdown in law and order due to lax morals among you-know-who.  Labour, ostensibly the opposition, meekly echoed the conservative perspective. 

The UK/US formula to answer riots and gangs boils down to "more cops, more prisons."  What research tells us is that this gets us .....more gangs!  And stronger, more organized, more criminal gangs. There is some evidence this is already happening as in the US, Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere. We need to be protected from violent offenders, but as a strategy to undermine gangs, mass incarceration is wrong, wrong, wrong. Cameron is putting the UK at serious risk.

But I'm sure the Prime Minister is not going to allow research to get in the way of a strong dose of stereotypes, and he'll surely stir in a spot of racialized demonization to boot.  So let's leave to one side the fact that the London rioters were not all black and underclass. There is deep alienation  among many white and black youth which triggered rioting after one too many incidents of police abuse.  But what is of interest to us here is the popularity of the right wing frame of a breakdown in law and order.  An "undisciplined and irresponsible" frame is widely held even by residents in poor black communities.  The media not only reports on this frame, but accepts and embellishes it. It becomes "common sense." 

How would we construct an alternate frame?  How can we tell a story of the riots that has a different message than one that leads inexorably to "crackdown?"  One thing I know, it doesn't begin by excusing violence.  A shop keeper who has lost his store is angry and wants to find a villain to blame. We need to have empathy for the victims of violence in any counter narrative and redirect their anger.

We have to realize that a new story, an alternative frame, however,  will not win everyone over.  Sadly, the right wing story line of  the need for sterner punishment is accepted by a large portion of public opinion, like those Tea Party supporters that cheered Gov. Perry's recored of executions.  Our immediate task is not to win over hard core law and order folk, but to provide a convincing story line that becomes "common sense" for three groups: 1. those liberals who strongly disagree with the right wing frame; 2. those in the center who may accept some of the "breakdown" frame, but not all of it; and 3. those on the streets and communities most affected, particularly non-white youth, even gangs.  A successful story, a "deep narrative," will make sense to all three groups. 

Our choice of words to describe what is happening in London is crucial. Some on the left may call the riots a "revolt" and, yes,  in part it is that.  "Revolt" helps us to realize that the central institutions of our society are not seen as legitimate by large segments of society.  But to frame the riots solely as "revolts" fails to recognize that the actions of youth are also destructive to their own communities and to themselves.  Gangs, as I've said are "organized nihilism."  Their rebellion is misplaced.

Richard Sennet and Saskia Sassen frame the discussion with the words "the cuts" and compare the Tea Party agenda with Cameron's Thrasher-emulating policies to devastate social services. This gets us part of the way there.  But it simultaneously avoids the issue of violence with the only answer left to us  is to elect Labour, whose limp response you've read above.  A successful frame has to challenge Labour and non-right wing parties and force a debate within them. 

So I need to put up or shut up, right? How would I tell the story?  Here's how I'd spin it:

"Things are getting worse for everyone except the very rich and powerful. What is happening in London is an old story, not a new one.  When conditions are deplorable in the poorest communities,   youth lash out and sadly they often harm their own. A better model for young people would be the "Arab Spring" where youth channeled their rage at their corrupt leaders and brutal police. Everywhere people are fed up with politicians and their rich friends who prosper while we suffer.  What is called for today are broad social movements, not violence, as the path to a more just society.

What we need are not more police and prisons but more jobs and less corruption. Police are surely part of the answer, but they are also part of the problem, particularly in non-white communities.   Those who commit acts of violence or arson need to be punished.  But we also should insist their rehabilitation includes rebuilding their neglected communities.

We need  leaders who will stand up to the super-rich and their right wing spokesmen. We need policies which will unite broad sectors of society, including youth and even those attracted to gangs.  If we had more jobs and fewer wars we wouldn't need so many prisons and police and then we'd have fewer gangs and riots."

So,  I've spoken and saved my soul. What do you think?  We need to become better at reframing the law and order perspective that sadly holds such broad appeal.