By Biko Agozino

The War on Drugs Done It.

The uprising and the looting that occurred across England recently have renewed calls for zero-tolerance policing and get tough approaches to law and order. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, set the tone when he suggested that police tactics were ineffective and he reportedly threatened to cut off social media and authorize the police to use water cannons and rubber bullets. He blamed the ‘riots’ on hooligans, criminals and badly brought up kids who had no respect for the authorities. This was quickly followed by newspaper opinions suggesting that the police did nothing to stop the disturbances whereas the police protested that they did the best they could in a democracy that prides itself with policing by consent rather than by force. In this chatter, it is easily forgotten that the disturbances were ignited by a police killing of a black man.

In the Global Commission on Drug Policy Report, there is reference to research reports which concluded that more intensive policing of the drugs market leads to increased violence on the streets. The conclusion appears to be supported by the circumstances that sparked the disturbances in England recently. For instance, if the British government was not waging a lost war on drugs, the police may not have assumed automatically that the young black father of four that they executed must have been an armed member of Yardie drug gangs. Rather than push the police into using more force to police the people, a sober reflection on the chain of events would call for more restraint on the powers of the police as a more lasting solution to the problem of unsafe streets: End the war on drugs as many, including police officers, have been demanding.

Paul Gilroy, Professor of Sociology at LSE, prefaced his classic essay, ‘The Myth of Black Criminality’ in the 1982 issue of The Socialist Register, with the view of a top London police officer, who claimed that policing was like a cricket match in which you were expected not just to win but to ‘thrash’ the other side, contrary to the claim of CLR James that cricket is a game of sportsmanship in which you are expected to be nice to the other side even when you win. In the article, Gilroy cautioned left-wing criminologists who thought that they were being realists when they proclaimed that they had discovered something called ‘black criminality’ in official crime statistics and victimization surveys. He warned that such a way of thinking would embolden the police to intensify repressive ‘fire-brigade policing’ and also extend surveillance strategies that were concentrated mainly on black communities through ‘community policing’. In reality there is no such thing as ‘black criminality’ just as there is no such thing as ‘white criminality’ because no crime is committed exclusively by any racial group and no such group is made up entirely of criminals. Yet the police set up Operation Trident exclusively targeting the black community.

The point that Gilroy was making is that the responsibility for abuse of power is not borne exclusively by brutal officials but also by the intellectuals who provide the ideological justification for ‘taking crime seriously at the working class level’ while remaining silent about crimes of the powerful. This was indirectly brought up in the viral internet video clip of a BBC interview with Darcus Howe in which the former moderator of the Devil’s Advocate series of debates on BBC television was accused of being fond of rioting himself after he complained of the harassment of his grandson by the police on numerous occasions. He calmly explained to the female interviewer that there was no need to ‘insult an old West Indian Negro’ and added that he organized peaceful demonstrations in the past for which he was often arrested but acquitted because he broke no law. He called that type of activism an uprising and differentiated it from a riot. The BBC reportedly apologized to Mr. Darcus Howe for the offensive interview but David Cameron is yet to apologize to parents in England for suggesting that only badly brought up children joined the protest. Gilroy could have cited Stuart Hall on Policing the Crisis if only to demonstrate that not all left-wing intellectuals buy into the myth of black criminality.

While blaming the problem on poor parenting, Mr. Cameron promised to consult with a former New York police chief on how to reduce gang crime in London without realizing that even after the reductions in New York, London was still much safer compared to New York and Los Angeles. Before Mr. Cameron rushes off to Uncle Sam for magical solutions that do not exist in volatile American cities, he should do very well to consult someone like Professor Stuart Hall who was warning 25 years ago that Britain was Drifting Into a Law and Order Society with a brand of neo-conservatism that was both authoritarian and populist; relying on a mobilization of ‘nation’, ‘Britishness’, culture and commerce as metaphors for whiteness, wealth, privilege and rank; to construct a society structured in race-class-gender dominance. Cameron should also read Folk Devils and Moral Panics by Professor Stan Cohen, lest he creates more problems in the guise of solutions by, for example, supporting the control-freak sentencing of an eleven year old to nearly two years of detention for being found with a garbage can and sentencing a 12 year old to nearly the same time for taking a chocolate bar during the uprising.

I recommend the Global Report on Drug Policy published recently by world leaders including Richard Branson, Kofi Annan and Professor Cardoso, the eminent sociologist and former president of Brazil, calling for an end to the war on drugs because the war has only succeeded in ruining the lives of poor youth around the world without reducing access to drugs. The youth who looted shops in England may have been indirectly asking for farm subsidies-type of grants to run their own businesses and or be left alone to lawfully sell their little bags of marihuana on the streets of London and create wealth without being harassed by ‘BabyLondon’ forces while we use education to get them to say no to drugs the way we do with tobacco. Rather than look to New York for solutions, Mr. Cameron should look to Amsterdam and ask himself why it is a relatively safer city than New York. Young people are no longer simply looking for jobs, they want to be their own bosses!

Dr. Biko Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Director of Africana Studies, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA.


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