Keeping the riots in proportion

What these exceptional events mean, and do not mean.

So the riots have continued for a third evening. However, in terms of overall crime figures in the communities directly affected, they are unlikely to be statistically significant. Nationally, the criminality of the riots may register as no more than a blip. 

This is not to be callous about the vile lawlessness of what has happened in Tottenham, Ealing, and elsewhere. The pictures of burned out cars and looted shops are real enough. But one main difference between the current riots and the on-going criminality in urban environments is its concentration under an attentive media glare. Nonetheless, every day in every town, people lose their possessions and their businesses because of casual crime, and this is rarely reported on by the media. 

Whatever the significance of the recent riots, it is not that there has been an explosion of crime. If crime figures are an index of a broken society, then society this month will not be that much more broken than last month, or next month. 

What is important is the nature of the current criminality and the assumptions that it unsettles. For any sensible person living in a city these riots are frightening. Instead of urban crime being a background buzz which, unless one is unlucky, is something which happens to other people, these riots appear to present an immediate and disconcerting threat for two reasons. 

First, one can readily imagine the disorder and attendant violence happening in one's own street or shopping centre: if it can happen in Enfield, it can really happen in any suburb. In an instant, every suburb seems potentially unsafe. 

Second, the fact that these riots even occurred indicates the apparent impotence of the police. There was no one there to stop it happening or to make it go away. This adds a stark sense of further vulnerability to the feeling that public and private places are now inherently unsafe. 

The psychological impact of the riots is that criminality is something which now could happen to you in any part of a city. And these rioters are not the noble protesters who pose for pictures whilst swinging from war memorials; they are instead criminals as likely to beat up a press photographer as a rival gang member. What was somebody else's problem is now a mob that seems willing and able to strike randomly. 

What this in turn will mean is that there will be calls for more policing, and far more police powers. People's fears will need to be allayed by gestures; everyone will need to feel safe again. A liberal approach to law and order will now seem to many as simply inappropriate and misconceived. But there is no good reason to introduce water cannon and rubber bullets. Indeed, in seemingly exceptional times, it is more important to adhere to the rule of law and the normal exercise of police powers.

There may be another riot tonight, or there may be calm. There may be another bout of looting, or there may be preventative police action. But when these riots are over, this new sense of fear may well remain. Society will not have broken, at least not in any objective manner; but people's confidence that things will always be alright for them in their daily urban lives could perhaps be broken instead.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Levi Bellfield, Milly Dowler and the story of men’s violence against women and girls

Before she was so inextricably connected to the phone hacking scandal, Milly Dowler was one of many women maimed and killed by a violent man.

The name Milly Dowler has meant phone hacking since July 2011. The month before that, Levi Bellfield (already imprisoned for the murders of Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange, and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy) had been convicted of killing her, nine years after her death. But almost immediately, she became the centrepiece of Nick Davies’s investigations into Fleet Street “dark arts”, when it was revealed that News of the World journalists had accessed her voicemail during the search for her.

Suddenly her peers were not McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy, but Hugh Grant, Leslie Ash, Sadie Frost, Jude Law. People she could only have known from TV, now her neighbours in newsprint. Victims of a common crime. She had attained a kind of awful fame, and remains much better known than McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy.

There is a reason for that: with Milly Dowler, there was hope of finding her alive. Weeks of it, the awful hope of not knowing, the dull months of probability weighing down, until finally, in September 2002, the body. McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy were attacked in public places and found before they were missed. It is not such an interesting story as the schoolgirl who vanishes from a street in daylight. Once there were some women, who were killed and maimed by a man. The end.

Even now that Bellfield has confessed to kidnapping, raping and killing Milly, it seems that some people would like to tell any story other than the one about the man who kidnaps, rapes, kills and maims girls and women. There is speculation about what could have made him the kind of monster he is. There must be some cause, and maybe that cause is female.

Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton (who worked on the McDonnell and Delagrange murders) has said insinuatingly that Bellfield “dotes on his mother and her on him. It's a troubling relationship.” But it was not Bellfield’s mother who kidnapped, raped, killed and maimed girls and women, of course. He did that, on his own, although he is not the first male killer to be extended the courtesy of blaming his female relatives.

Coverage of the Yorkshire Ripper accused his wife Sonia of driving him to murder. “I think when Sutcliffe attacked his 20 victims, he was attacking his wife 20 times in his head,” said a detective quoted in the Mirror, as if the crimes were not Sutcliffe’s responsibility but Sonia’s for dodging the violence properly due to her. Lady Lucan has been successfully cast by Lucan’s friends as “a nightmare” in order to foster sympathy for him – even though he systematically tried to drive her mad before he tried to kill her, and did kill their children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett. Cherchez la femme. Cherchez la mom.

I know little about Bellfield’s relationship with his mother, but one of his exes spoke about him earlier this year. Jo Colling told how he had terrorised her while they were together, and stalked her after she left. “When I knew he was with another woman and not coming home it was a relief, but now I know what he was capable of, I feel guilty,” she said. “I did get an injunction against him, but it only made him even angrier.”

Colling fears that she could have prevented Bellfield’s murders by going to the police with her suspicions earlier; but since the police couldn’t even protect her, it is hard to see what difference this could have made, besides exposing herself further to Bellfield’s rage. Once there was a woman who was raped, beaten and stalked by the man she lived with. The end. This is a dull story too: Colling’s victimisation is only considered worth telling because the man who victimised her also killed Milly Dowler. Apparently the torture of a woman is only really notable when the man who does it has committed an even more newsworthy crime.

Throughout his engagements with the legal system, Bellfield seems to have contrived to inflate his own importance. Excruciatingly, he withheld his confession to murdering Milly until last year, leaving her family in an agony of unknowing – and then drew the process out even further by implicating an accomplice, who turned out to have nothing at all to do with the crime. He appears to have made the performance into another way to exercise control over women, insisting that he would only speak to female officers about what he did to Milly.

It is good that there are answers for the Dowler family; it is terrible that getting them let Bellfield play at one more round of coercions. And for the rest of us, what does this new information tell us that shouldn’t already be obvious? The story of men’s violence against girls and women is too routine to catch our attention most of the time. One woman killed by a man every 2.9 days in the UK. 88,106 sexual offences in a year.

Once there were some girls and women, who were tortured, stalked, kidnapped, raped, killed and maimed by a man. Dowler, McDonnell, Delagrange, Sheedy, Colling. More, if new investigations lead to new convictions, as police think likely. All those girls and women, all victims of Levi Bellfield, all victims of a common crime that will not end until we pull the pieces together, and realise that the torture, the stalking, the kidnaps, the rapes, the killing and the maiming – all of them are connected by the same vicious logic of gender. Then, and only then, will be able to tell a different story. Then we will have a beginning.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.