Back when I lived in Nigeria it was fun on slow afternoons to browse the news reports online. A lot of them were unintentionally amusing (see here, for example), but some gave an idea as to the regularity with which vigilante mob-justice is seen in the country. It was not uncommon for a newspaper report into some alleged crime to end with words to the effect of:
A mob formed, and the miscreant was beaten to a pulp.
Lest you think I am exaggerating, consider this report:
A police corporal, Olufemi Ajayi, was yesterday set ablaze in Ayete, Ibarapa North Local Government Area of Oyo State, by an irate mob, after he allegedly shot and killed a commercial driver at a checkpoint.
Ajayi, who is attached to Igboora Police Station, allegedly shot the victim, Mr. Emiola Kolade, after a minor argument.
Kolade died in a hospital in Igboora.
An eyewitness, Alhaji Salau Adele, said: “It all started at one of the many illegal checkpoints on Idere-Ayete road, when the corporal flagged down the driver and demanded a bribe. The driver gave him N100, but the policeman said the money was too small and refused to accept it.
“This led to an argument between the two. We heard a gunshot later and the driver was found injured on the ground. The policeman tried to escape, but he was caught.”
It was learnt that the policeman was beaten and set ablaze by the mob.
Let me take a step back from Nigeria for a minute. Back in early November I wrote a post on the matter of Swedish policemen resigning by the lorryload in which I wondered to whom Hillary Clinton would turn to enforce the law in American cities should she be elected (now a redundant question, thankfully). In the comments underneath “Duffy” made the following remark, which hitherto had never occurred to me:
Here’s what many people often seem to forget. Police are there to protect us from criminals. But they are also there to protect the criminals from mob justice.
When I thought about this comment later on, I realised that in the absence of a justice system that is seen to be working, the mob steps in. Then last week I came across this article:
We have often suggested that, if we wish to know what is coming politically, socially, and economically in jurisdictions such as the EU and US, we might have a look at countries like Argentina and Venezuela, as they are in a similar state of near-collapse (for the very same reasons as the EU and US) but are a bit further along in the historical pattern.
Such a bellwether was seen in Argentina recently. Although the event in question is a very minor one, it is an illustration of the social tipping point—the manner in which a government loses control over its people.
Briefly, the events were as follows: Two men on a motorbike cruised a posh neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, seeking opportunities for purse-snatching. The pillion rider dismounted and snatched a purse from a woman. Bystanders saw the act, ran down the thief before he could re-mount the motorbike, and knocked him to the ground. Other onlookers (very possibly fed up with street crime caused by economic hardships) joined in. In a fury, they beat the thief senseless.
A policewoman managed to calm the group and handcuff the thief. Twenty minutes later, police assistance and an ambulance arrived.
Furious neighbours complained bitterly that the police had protected the thief but are generally doing little to protect law-abiding citizens.
It’s not quite Nigeria, but it’s heading in that direction. The entire article is worth reading, particularly its description of the 6-point process which leads to such incidents occurring.
Around the same time we had this comment thread at Mr Worstall’s in relation to the UK:
The State’s “legal protection” benefits the middle classes and prosperous working classes far more than the wealthiest.
In the absence of a State the wealthiest could easily afford to hire whatever protection they needed – they did, after all, do this for centuries and even millennia before “States” started to appear with their “legal protection”.
Police forces are relatively modern. Under Good Queen Bess, for example, if you were wealthy your only chance of getting around London without being set upon by pickpockets and cutpurses was to surround yourself with an armed retinue. State protection came in maybe under Robert Peel but it’s not the wealthy who benefit most from it. The very rich still have bodyguards. The police drink tea in their huge office buildings.
The rich would sort out their own guards if the State left the scene. It’s the low income communities which most benefit from the Rule of Law. Bring in effectively policing to a pit village in Durham and kick out disruptive children from schools and those who want to get on in life have a chance. Take the State away and a local strongman and his gang will take over.
In my experience of a few years living in a village with lots of City fat-cats, they get better policing because they hire private security instead of relying on the public sector police who exist primarily to protect criminals from their victims.
My point in all of this, in case you were wondering, is that for policing to work a critical mass of ordinary, law-abiding people across both the middle classes and working classes must see them as being on their side against the criminals. Not necessarily on their side per se, just on their side against the criminals. It doesn’t really matter what the rich think, they can hire their own security and/or lobby government to have the police look after their interests as first priority. It is the masses that need to be kept on side.
Clearly this has failed in Nigeria. It has failed in Argentina, and the results in either case weren’t pretty. When London descended into rioting in 2011, the police stood by idly as property got trashed and businesses destroyed. When I saw this happening I wondered who the police were actually serving, because it sure as hell wasn’t the ordinary citizen. The comments at Tim Worstall’s, although perhaps not representative of Britain as a whole, suggests there is some disagreement as to whom the police actually serve. If this attitude is reflected in the broader population there could be trouble brewing.
It’s worth keeping this in mind when looking at the United States, too. Over the past few years there has been an increase in rioting: firstly that connected with the shooting of black folk by policemen, later the election of Donald Trump, and more recently people with unpopular opinions speaking at universities. More and more often the police are standing by idly as property gets destroyed and people’s lives put at risk.
If the police in Britain and the USA want to remain relevant, they had better make up their minds whose side they are on and inform the law-abiding masses of their decision, preferably via demonstration rather than empty speeches. The criminals might want to urge them to get on with it, because the mob is probably closer than they think.