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Discovering disorder: young people and delinquency
Discovering disorder: young people and delinquency

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3.5.1 Police powers

For Hall et al., this invention was a way of displacing genuine social and political tensions onto a folk devil. Attention could be deflected from the deepening crises. Society would be protected – not by overcoming divisions – but by ‘cracking down’ on young black men on the nation’s streets. Getting tough on mugging created new police powers, brought about ‘exemplary’ sentences for those found guilty of robbery (mugging was never a crime in a legal definition), and exposed young black men to a programme of systematic harassment by police officers (under what became known as the ‘sus’ law: the right of police officers to stop anyone that they suspected might have committed a crime or be intending to commit a crime). The ‘suspicious person’ powers derived from Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 and became a major point of conflict between the police and the black community in Britain (especially in London: see Whitfield, 2004). It was eventually abolished in the early 1980s (following the Scarman Report’s recommendation of the need for more integrative ‘community policing’) but re-emerged in a new guise as the power to ‘stop and search’. The new power continued to be deployed in an ethnically discriminatory way (what in the USA is known – and condemned – as ‘racial profiling’). Whitfield indicates that:

Ministry of Justice figures published in October 2007 reveal that black and Asian people are more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts. This is especially the case in London where, in 2005/06, black people were more than seven times more likely to be searched than whites. Outside London, they are 4.8 per cent more likely to be searched.

(Whitfield, 2009)

For Hall et al., ‘mugging’ helped the politically dominant groups in Britain to move attention from social divisions and political conflict onto a group of folk devils, and to argue that society needed to be protected through tougher policing and a generally stronger state. In ‘cracking down’ on crime and violence, particularly among young black men, the state (seen by Hall et al. to be representing the most powerful groups and interests in society) became a ‘primary definer’ of disorder. The media then took their cue from government, police and judges – for instance, in the use of the term ‘mugging’ – and extended the primary definitions further, giving them a popular ring. In this view, the deep-seated causes of social conflict, chiefly inequality, were obscured and the issue was turned into a legal and moral struggle against what was defined as ‘mindless violence’. Hall and his colleagues described this as the creation of a ‘law and order society’ in which those defined as the enemies of the nation would be rooted out and subjected to increasingly harsh treatment. The analysis they presented has proved to be both very powerful (the book was reissued on its thirty-fifth anniversary in 2013) and very controversial. Debates about it continue that address its account of the British political situation, the relationship between institutions of social control and the mass media, and its view of the situation of young black men in Britain (see, for example, Jewkes (2004) and the special issue of the journal Crime, Media, Culture published in April 2008 (Clarke, 2008)).

Perhaps the most interesting question that emerges from the Hall et al. study is whether we are still ‘policing the crisis’: deflecting attention away from economic crises, social divisions and political conflict by focusing too much on the deviant behaviour of young people and the need to impose a ‘law and order society’ (Clarke, 2008). Following the English riots of August 2011, it was possible to trace very different views: between those who denounced the ‘pure criminality’ of the rioters; those who sought to explain rioting in terms of the social and economic conditions facing young people (young men, in particular); and those who suggested that the reaction to the riots was also a displacement of larger social, economic and political crises onto a problem of crime. For this last group, policing the crisis remained an important point of reference.