By last week, the need to write about police brutality was once again starting to overwhelm me. Despite all the attention over the last year, these incidents are still happening and in some cases are becoming more common. Then, this past weekend, the issue burst forth with a fury – London’s burning, and a young black man shot dead by cops provided the spark.

Stories about police violence have been rolling in from everywhere lately. Locally, the officer under scrutiny in the case of Po La Hay was found not-guilty. With this verdict, the judge issued a scathing statement directed at the officers involved for non-cooperation with the investigation. In Toronto, a mentally challenged man died in custody after being tackled on Bloor Street. In Chicago, shooting by police have reached epidemic proportions with 43 so far this year (as many as last year in total, mostly black). And in New Orleans, a group of officers were just convicted for shootings and a coverup which took place in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In London, once again, the victim was young and dark-skinned. What began as a peaceful protest against this shooting and others has now led into three days of rioting, spreading across London and now into neighbouring cities. Like clockwork, Britain’s tensions seem to lead to explosions of rage in the first year of every decade, and it seems they still haven’t learned the lessons needed to prevent them.

Police forces across the world are beginning to deal with questions of legitimacy. The more cops get caught breaking the law without being punished, the more populations doubt both. And the more people feel personally threatened, the more they’ll respond with hostility. This is the kind of climate in which the British government just tried to “pacify” the population with large numbers of cops.

If your city were being torn apart by Canucks fans, would you summon a horde of Bruins fans to stop them? If militant vegetarians were looting shops and setting cars alight, would you throw bacon at them? So why, when the people of a city are outraged at the cops, is an aggressive show of force by police so often sought as the answer? These tactics only tend to antagonize crowds, and it seems that’s exactly what happened.

I’ve seen a lot of “action” over the years, and if there’s one pattern I’ve noticed it’s the relationship between rioting and riot police. When cops take a “hands-off” approach, protests go fairly smoothly – even if people showed up with the expressed intention of starting a riot. On the other hand, even avowed pacifists loose their patience pretty quickly while watching friends and comrades tackled and stomped for no apparent reason. Once the sense of police as “our protectors” disappears, they become simply another group of people, albeit a very organized, armed and often hostile group. When this happens, people are far more likely to respond in kind – with hostility and violence of their own.

If it wasn’t obvious from the number of these cases that involve people with coloured skin or mental disabilities, we are not all equal before the law (or its enforcers). The issues of racism and bigotry involved here are very well documented in academia (and government reports), but virtually taboo in the media. Morally, this is mighty ugly, but it has practical downsides as well – when an entire community feels targeted by police, they begin to view cops like an occupying army (because that’s exactly what they are). People lose trust, they stop “snitching” or cooperating and scatter when they hear sirens. This helps cement the community’s reputation as a haven for crime. If persecution persists, people may even start physically resisting. Chicago, as well as other cities, have reported a rise in assaults on officers in recent years.

The shock and befuddlement which accompanies “fighting back” is thoroughly predictable and more than a bit clichéd. In our society, it’s tantamount to sacrilege. Much like the response when occupying troops are hit in Afghanistan or Iraq – there’s no shortage of condescending commentary. “How dare they…” and “…but, they’re on your side…” come first, followed by a long string of insults. A journalist can say whatever they want about people in these situations (“cowards”, “thugs” etc) without any evidence whatsoever – as long as it isn’t positive. A chorus of ignorant and emotional responses follow, in which readers and listeners parrot these lines and offer their pronouncements about what life is “really like” for people far less privileged than themselves, and how easily they could solve all their problems if they were as “clever” and “motivated” as rich white suburbanites.

If there’s one thing that the media has gotten right about these riots, it’s the many vague references to “underlying tensions”. Social problems like poverty and racism cannot be expected to simmer indefinitely simply because those in power don’t feel like dealing with them. They can’t be solved with bullets, beatings or jail time, but they can get much worse if that’s tried. People, in general, don’t respond well to threats and intimidation – sooner or later, hatred and rage conquer fear.

Maintaining our social structure with violence means maintaining a social structure of violence. And that will never be sustainable.

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