D.I.Y. Justice

12/08/2011 14:38 BST | Updated 11/10/2011 10:12 BST

When David Cameron rolled out his "Big Society" program, which transfers the roles, duties, and power of government organizations to communities, vigilante groups were not what he had in mind. He described the initiative as one that would empower volunteers to take over local institutions like museums and give ordinary people the opportunity to weigh in on issues relating to housing and schools. Critics say his appeal to entrepreneurship masks harsh realities lurking behind the rhetoric--spending cuts that threaten public programs and wage-earning jobs replaced by unpaid voluntary labor. In the wake of the UK's riots, the coalition government's plan to cut the Metropolitan Police budget by 4% this fiscal year and 5% next year, with a loss of 10,000 officers in England and Wales by 2013, has come under fire by Labor and Conservative politicians alike, including London's Tory Mayor Boris Johnson. This week, London's riots offered us a glimpse of what happens when citizens dole out their own form of rough justice--from prosecution to sentencing.

Hackney, Enfield, Southall, and Eltham residents took to the streets to protect themselves against rampant violence and looting. Most memorably, on Monday, a West Indian grandmother stood chastising young thieves at the edge of her Hackney council estate, waving her cane. Turkish shopkeepers in Dalston defended their property from vandals--one young man described how he fended off looters with a five-foot metal pole. Bearing ceremonial daggers, over 700 Sikhs patrolled the streets of Southall on Tuesday and Wednesday after learning that rioters had targeted jewelers in their borough. They focused on protecting Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara, the largest Sikh temple in Europe as well as other places of worship. Anti-rioters known as "The Enfield Boys" became local heroes when they marched down the streets of their North London community, confronting vandals and thieves. Since then, local press has asserted that "The Enfield Boys" support the far-right English Defense League (EDL) and that the white t-shirts they wore as identification signal their racist position. In turn, the anti-rioters feel that they've been misrepresented: their ethnically diverse group merely intended to protect the community in the absence of a robust police presence. In Eltham, the EDL joined a group of 200 locals to chase down looters on Tuesday. However, they also attacked police, hurling bottles and other missiles at officers attempting to restore order.

Speaking on behalf of the Metropolitan Police, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stephen Kavanagh condemned "vigilante" groups, describing shuttering and boarding windows as the correct response to the violence, but anti-rioters claim that vandals and looters only dispersed after they took justice into their own hands. The last time police clashed with London youths, during the protests against education cuts and rising tuition fees, authoritarian crowd containment measures like "kettling" were deemed too hard. Confronted with perpetrators as young as eleven years old, this time the Met has been criticized as too soft on offenders. Even Cameron has come out against police tactics, which included orders to "stand and observe looting." How should a trained and armed police force deal with a guerrilla army of minors? While Cameron asserted: "If you are old enough to commit these crimes, you are old enough to face the punishment," grassroots organizers circulated a petition to ensure that violators' State benefits would be revoked. So far, over 98,000 supporters have signed the document, and the petition's site has crashed twice due to overwhelming support. 100,000 signatures are needed for Parliament to consider the case, and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg already has mentioned that those involved in criminal activity may lose their council housing.

London's riots signal a crisis of authority on all levels--from parenting to governance--and pitting the police against children is as inappropriate as sentencing minors as adults or threatening kids with homelessness. Viewed in light of this week's riots, Cameron's "Big Society" measures, like cuts to children's services--which also support parents--and a reduced police force seem misguided at best. Today, Cameron suggested that he would turn to William J. Bratton, credited for getting New York City's crime under control in the 1990s. This is a departure from the official line mouthed by Clegg, who stated that the coalition government would persist in Met budget cuts, since New York City's police presence only increased under mayor Rudy Giuliani. While the coalition government pursues US-style policing, community militants have taken up the American right to bear arms. If all of this seems illogical for today's Britain, perhaps it's because since last Saturday, the kids have been in charge.