From Tottenham to Baltimore, policing crises have been sparked by rising inequality

A policeman stands in front of a burnt-out building after the 2011 Tottenham riots. Image: Getty.

West Baltimore, 8.39 am April 12: Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, stood on the street talking with friends. Police officers approached on bicycles and made “eye contact” with Gray, who then attempted to leave. The police chased him and video footage shot on neighbours’ mobile phones shows police holding Gray face-down on the pavement. One witness described how an officer pressed a knee into Gray’s neck as he was handcuffed, while another bent his legs upwards: “They had him folded up like he was a crab or a piece of origami”.

By the time the police van arrived with Gray at the Western District police station some 45 minutes later “he could not talk and he could not breathe”, according to a police officer quoted in the Baltimore Sun report. It was only then that police called medics who transferred him to hospital. Doctors determined that Gray had three fractured vertebrae and a damaged larynx, his spinal cord 80 per cent severed at his neck. Gray died of his injuries a week later on April 19.


“No Justice, No Peace” has echoed through the streets as thousands of people have protested Gray’s death. Protest marches on April 25 and walk-outs of students on April 27 were followed by what some call rioting, others unrest or rebellion. Officials and mainstream news coverage have decried property destruction, including burning of police cars, and theft.

 It is telling that there is no comprehensive data on homicides by police in the US

Baltimore’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, declared that “violence will not be tolerated” and the governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, called city residents “lawless gangs of thugs roaming the streets” before declaring a state of emergency, suspending habeas corpus, implementing a 10pm curfew, and deploying National Guard troops.

Crisis over policing

Gray’s death at the hands of the police was the latest to provoke protest. Natalie Finegar, the deputy district public defender said that it was a “daily occurrence” for her clients to describe some sort of mishandling by the police. These range from “jump outs” where officers spring from patrol cars and shake down a suspect, to serious assaults. The city of Baltimore has paid out more than $5.7m in undue force lawsuits between 2008 and 2011.

According to Baltimore resident Kane Mayfield the conflict has:

been mis-characterised pretty much by mainstream sensationalists who come down here to soak up the angel dust of civil unrest and sell it to white America. It’s fun. I get it. You know? Look at them. Black rage. It’s nice.

But property destruction is not equivalent to death – particularly in a context where so many black people are killed and harmed by police with near impunity. It is telling that there is no comprehensive data on homicides by police in the US. A partial snapshot from recent FBI data reveals a white police officer killed a black person in a “justifiable homicide” about twice a week between 2005-2012.

Mothers from around the country protest against police brutality in Washington DC. Image: Getty.

The protests communicate a crisis over policing in the United States. A cycle of renewed dissent against state racial violence has become increasingly visible since July 2013, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. “Black Lives Matter”, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”, “I Can’t Breathe” and “Shut It Down” have become protest slogans after the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City.

Stop-and-search

Across the Atlantic, “No Justice, No Peace“ was also the cry of protesters gathered to hear a verdict of "lawful killing” in the case of the police shooting of Mark Duggan in London, 2011.

Duggan’s death sparked the most extensive riots in recent British history. As with recent events in the US, the English summer riots of 2011 raised serious concerns about policing within inner-city communities. The findings of the 2011 Guardian-LSE research project, Reading the Riots: Investigating England’s summer of disorder, suggested that the riots were motivated by a sense of “poverty, injustice and a visceral hatred of the police”. Some 73 per cent of people they interviewed said they had been stopped and searched by the police at least once in the previous year.

Time and again, anger over perceived misuse of “stop-and-search” has been one of the causes of rioting in Britain. In 1981, riots in Brixton sparked three months of rioting by black, Asian and white youths across most of the country’s inner-cities. The Brixton uprising was triggered by Operation Swamp 81, which saw the police employ ancient vagrancy legislation, called “sus laws” (suspected person) laws’, in a mass stop-and-search operation.

The Scarman Report into the causes of the 1981 riots stated that the black population of Brixton had been subject to “disproportionate and indiscriminate” policing. Sus laws were repealed yet stop-and-search substantially increased.

Fifty years since the civil rights movement, austerity and welfare retrenchment has created even deeper divides.

An estimated 1m stop and searches are carried out in the UK each year and in 2009-2010, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission: “Black people were stopped 23.5 times more frequently than white people and Asian people 4.5 times more frequently.

In 2014, a revised code of conduct on stop-and-search was introduced; recent figures show a 12 per cent reduction, but more radical reform is required.

Race to the bottom

Stop-and-search is a day-to-day expression of violent relationships between police and communities. People interviewed by StopWatch detail the enduring stigma created by these policing practices. Police harassment of black citizens communicates authoritative messages about the place of ethnic minorities in society.

Racial discrimination intersects with other inequalities: poverty, rising economic inequality (between the richest and the poorest and between ethnic groups), joblessness (in 2012 the unemployment rate for black youths in the UK was 55.9 per cent, double that of their white peers), high levels of incarceration, inadequate housing, unequal access to education and healthcare.

Fifty years since the civil rights movement and the ostensible end of state-sanctioned discrimination, austerity and welfare retrenchment has created even deeper divides. A recent special issue of Feminist Review on the politics of austerity details the multiple ways in which “divides of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and class” are intensifying. The UK and US are relying on the same forms of policing to resolve the resulting economic and political conflicts. Racial and economic inequality fuelled the riots in London 2011 and the same thing has sparked the unrest we see in Baltimore and other US cities today.

The Conversation

Imogen Tyler is Senior Lecturer at Lancaster University.
Jenna Loyd is Assistant professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.