What is the Christian response when utter lawlessness hits our streets?, asks Joseph Kelly

For those of us who use social media regularly, you could be forgiven for thinking that the world is slipping steadily into social chaos. On Wednesday disturbing scenes were posted of a mass shoplifting ‘event’ taking place on London’s Oxford Street, and the phenomenon seems to be spreading. Earlier today (Friday) police had set up a dispersal zone in the centre of Southend-on-Sea after balaclava-clad social media users urged people to “get lit” on the beach.

Southend Chief Supt Waheed Khan warned said: “Anyone coming to Southend planning on causing trouble, please think twice, it won’t be tolerated and you’ll be arrested.”

It follows demands from Home Secretary Suella Braverman yesterday to “hunt down and lock up” those behind the disorder on Oxford Street and central London. Braverman tweeted: “We cannot allow the kind of lawlessness seen in some American cities to come to the streets of the UK. The police have my full backing to do whatever necessary to ensure public order. Those responsible must be hunted down & locked up. I expect nothing less from the @metpoliceuk and have requested a full incident report.”

Many believe that the UK incidents are copycats of the riot that took place in Manhattan’s Union Square Park last Friday when thousands of people descended on the park after Kai Carlo Cenat III, a popular YouTube and Twitch streamer, promised to hand out 300 free Playstation 5 game consoles. The devices normally cost in the region of £500 each.

The incident resulted in 65 arrests (nearly half of them of juveniles); serious injuries to NYPD officers and some of those in the crowd; and damage to food carts, police vehicles and stores.

 Jeffrey Maddrey, the New York Police Department’s chief of department said: “It was uncontrolled. It took us a while to get it under control. And a lot of young people got hurt.

“You had people walking around with shovels, axes and other tools of the construction trade,” he said, adding that others had been lighting fireworks and tossing them toward officers and one another.

Police have said that the influencer will be charged with multiple criminal offences including at least two counts of inciting a riot and unlawful assembly, but the precise reasons for the disturbance and the highly random nature of the violence remain unclear.

Whilst this sort of ritualised disobedience – especially by young people – may seem symptomatic of the current breakdown of social norms, it’s actually nothing new.

Those of us old enough to remember the UK Easter Bank Holiday in 1964 will be able to recount stories of feral gangs of mods and rockers causing very familiar random chaos and destruction on Clacton and Brighton beaches. Few of us would have experienced the actual events, rather we remember the chaos through the newspaper headlines and TV pictures of the day. And here’s the problem – the first incidents on that Bank holiday were relatively minor, and the numbers small. But the media got hold of the story and ran blazing headlines claiming that the Britain we all knew and loved was going up in flames on the beaches of the south coast. Not surprisingly, after everyone – especially the young – had digested the headlines and TV images, hundreds headed straight off to Brighton in search of a punch up. The next day saw hapless police officers trying to contain the random and inexplicable rioting that consumed the town.

Looking back through the archives relating to that weekend, it’s clear that there were three very different perspectives on what happened, and what went wrong – those of the police and magistrates, those of the media and those of the young people themselves. It’s probably fair to say that the police and magistrates had little understanding of the motivations and outlook of the youth of the time; the press (in exaggerating the trouble) was highly culpable in stirring up the disruption, and the young people themselves defended that ‘boredom’ was the reason for the rioting. Ironically this excuse suited the establishment well, and the Mods and Rockers weekend was largely dismissed as symptomatic of the kind of ruffians society was beginning to produce.

No-one at the time asked the obvious question – what was causing the societal collapse that has unleashed the anger of so many young people? Some 60 years on we still haven’t answered that basic question, and our moral panic only seems to be deepening.

That said, we may be justified in thinking that the chaos we’ve seen on our streets over the past week or so is something more serious than just a weekend bust up at the beach. If one looks at the numerous incidents of public rioting that have occurred over the last century or so, there has generally been a specific focus of protest, and profound differences of opinion have often been at the root of the outbreaks of violence. What we are now starting to witness is highly focussed and co-ordinated actions designed not to make any point, but simply to break the social order.

There was a clear sense of this new lawlessness in the words of the boss of the Co-op this week, when he warned that organised shop crime is now out of control. Matt Hood, Co-Op Food’s managing director, said his stores had experienced almost 1,000 incidents of serious shoplifting in the sixth months to June 2023, with some stores being targeted several times in a day. A Freedom of Information request by Co-op has also revealed that police have failed in 71 per cent of reported serious retail crimes, which Mr Hood believes is creating a “freedom to loot” charter for criminals. One only has to look at the many disturbing videos on social media to see that people are now entering all manner of high street stores and brazenly removing large quantities of items unchallenged.

“I have seen some horrific incidents of brazen and violent theft in our stores, where my store colleagues feel scared and threatened,” Mr Hood told The independent.

“I see first-hand how this criminal behaviour also erodes the very fabric of our communities – it’s hard to over-emphasise how important urgent change is … we need the police to play their part. Too often, forces fail to respond to desperate calls by our store teams, and criminals are operating in communities without any fear of consequences.”

Richard Inglis, who runs three Co-op stores in Hampshire, has made the worrying claim that the police are specifically ignoring shoplifting crimes – unless the theft is over £200, there is clear CCTV facial evidence uploaded to the police system and the criminal’s full name is known. (For those who’ve seen the recent TikTok and Twitter videos of people blatantly raiding off-licences, that’s 30 bottles of wine dumped into your rucksack before the store even thinks of ringing the police.)

Such rampant lawlessness presents tough challenges when we consider Catholic responses to crime, and the possible solutions we might offer. The Catechism states that “Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church states (2265). But it adds that “… punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: As far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.”

That may be exercisable when the crime committed is of an obvious and serious nature, and the outcome of any punishment is focussed on redemption and rehabilitation. But where do we go in the case of a relatively minor theft of corporate property, where the punishment is highly likely to be a very damaging imprisonment in an already overloaded, and poorly maintained UK prison system? What is the right remedy?

These days there’s a tendency to play down the aspects of Catholic encyclicals that relate to private property, and the theological and ideological tensions between on the one hand the divine right to ownership of things vs the universal destination of goods. So it’s worth pointing out that Christian tradition has never recognised the right to private property as absolute or untouchable, though this needs to be balanced against respect for one’s neighbour and – by extension – the things that they might hold dear or believe they may need for their wellbeing.

Clearly the rioters and raiders of contemporary social media videos have little regard for the rights of corporate entities to own and sell their goods for profit, nor for the impact that actions of theft may have on those unwittingly affected by their actions – such as store staff and innocent bystanders. As happened in 1964, and on the many other occasions when random riots have broken out, the representatives of the establishment resort invariable to complaints about the inexplicable deterioration in respect for people and property amongst the young. This may be justified, and may even point to the heart of the social disorder problem – the obvious decline in respect for authority. Less obvious is what has driven this reaction, but it may be as simple as ‘people who show respect, command respect’.

One can hardly complain about the collapse of law and order in the world today when so many of those who’ve been appointed as our peers show such flagrant disregard for the values they preach, and that hold a decent society together. The desperately poor and self-centred examples being set by so many in what ought to be positions of respect and influence lead the average citizen to believe that the law no longer has any meaning for them either.

As the bible guides us: The whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Galatians 5:14.

In political terms, it is only when the state respects the citizen, that the the citizen will respect the state.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian