Law And Order On Either Side Of The Pond

December 30, 2013
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Continuing her look at the special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K., today Maria del Mar focuses on law and order.

I’ve always thought that the relationship between British and American society is more interesting for its differences than its similarities. After spending the summer working in New York, I’ve been mulling over exactly how to articulate these differences. For now at least, law and order seems like a good place to start.

This is mainly due to the fact that one of the things that struck me most during my experience in the states was how big a fan the American establishment is of rules, and how keen most people appeared to be to accept them.  You can stand here but not there. You can’t drink anywhere, unless it’s in a paper bag. You can’t smoke anywhere, period.

This was a far cry from the streets of London, where it wasn’t uncommon to see people getting stoned in parks, everyone bunked the trains if they could get away with it, and coppers were often inclined to turn a blind eye to minor indiscretions like street drinking. In America, everyone seemed to be a lot ‘better’ behaved, the atmosphere was more controlled, and the police presence was very visible.

law and order in the US
The Annual Brooklyn Carnival

Half way through the trip, my experience of New York changed completely when I was invited to go and stay with a Jamaican family in Brooklyn.

My hosts knew everyone in the neighborhood, and made me feel at home in a tight knit community that couldn’t be more different from the sanitized, dirty-yet-weirdly-pristine vibe of touristy Manhattan.

On a normal day, the police presence in these areas of South Brooklyn was less visible. I was lucky enough to be in town in time for the annual Brooklyn carnival, a new-world homage to Caribbean culture, with many of Brooklyn’s millions of Caribbean residents turning out in force to dance, play music and parade through the suburbs on a multitude of colorful floats.

Despite the popular success of this event, it often receives bad press as isolated acts of violence are used to tarnish the wider community with an ‘unruly’ reputation.  In my experience, it was a fun, family affair, everyone was having a good time, and it was much tamer than Notting Hill Carnival, the UK’s London equivalent, which often got pretty rowdy at one point or another.

I was just getting into the vibe and enjoying myself when at 6pm sharp, as if by magic, the plug was pulled. In a heartbeat, the police were out in force. They shut down streets and cut off sidewalks. An army of street cleaners descended in a sudden and coordinated attack that ensured that no one entertained the idea of hanging around and continuing the street party.

law and order in the US
A visible police presence on US streets

I thought of Notting Hill Carnival and the after parties, the pictures of policeman dancing with Caribbean girls, the general sense that the people of West London were going to do what the fuck they wanted on that one day in August, because they always had and it was their right. The story stateside couldn’t be more different.

Despite my questions and bemusement, none of the local revellers seemed surprised by this abrupt ending. “This happens every year,” a girl I got chatting to told me. “Actually, every year they close it down earlier and earlier. They don’t want us out in the streets.”

Our relationship with law and order in England is perhaps enviable compared to the states. The obvious point that cops in America carry guns is backed up by a whole corresponding militant attitude that I haven’t felt from police in the UK, and there’s no denying that certain communities are targeted more heavily than others.

Stop and Search is a huge cause of elevating tensions within the Afro-American and Hispanic communities, though the Yanks call it Stop and Frisk. Same shit as home, but just a little different, right? Wrong. The problem in America feels more severe, and there’s no denying that the age old rift between the disenfranchised and the police was built long before NWA recorded their iconic tune.

It seems to me that what makes the American narrative so different from the British is the extent to which policing is conducted along racial lines. There’s no denying that black and Hispanic communities feel under the watchful eye of the law than their white counterparts, and it seemed little was being done by politicians or the police themselves to address the problem, or even acknowledge it. The land of the free? Yeah, could be. Provided you’re not born on the wrong side of the fence.

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