Monday, August 08, 2011

Police and thieves

I don't really have much to add to the discussion about the riots in various parts of London over the last couple of nights (other than finding them pretty appalling and are the infinitely more costly riots going on in today's financial markets).

But in reading coverage about events in Tottenham, Enfield, Brixton and elsewhere (such as this interesting piece about the role of Blackberry Messaging service in helping to organise the mayhem) I've stumbled more than a few times over a bit of terminology that I hadn't expected and which, because of my interest in the history of policing, intrigues me.

Since when have cops in Britain been referred to as 'the Feds'?

Mark Duggan, whose shooting by police sparked the disturbances, used Blackberry Messenger to send his last message to his girlfriend, Semone Wilson, 29, writing: “The Feds are following me." 

Since the UK is a unitary (and not a federal) state, this doesn't really make sense (not that slang ever really has to), and I'm assuming that it's borrowed from the US. (Transmitted by...what, music? The Wire?)

Having written about another instance of the transfer of policing-related slang from America to Britain in the early twentieth century (i.e., 'the third degree' seems the original article is freely available at the moment, so get it while you can), I'd be interested to know whether anyone who is a bit more hip to what the young people are saying these days might be able to enlighten me.


Francis Sedgemore said...

This recently adopted usage is designed to express the impression that certain aspects of British policing have become controlled by the central state. And to some degree this is true, with the Metropolitan Police, which is there to serve London, having become the UK's de facto FBI. Note that the Met chief is appointed by the Home Secretary, albeit in cooperation with the Mayor of London.

The reform of British policing since the time of the Mad Witch of Grantham has on the one hand sharply reduced the amount of racism within the UK's regional police forces, and on the other centralised policing as a whole under the direction of central government.

Unknown said...

Hi Francis.

Yeah, that centralisation story is a long and interesting one. My colleague Chris Williams has written an interesting summary of that tale.

I'm still wondering, though, about the actual route via which this colloquialism has made it into youth/urban slang. Is it so much a perceived reaction to the centralisation of power (I wonder what vanishingly small percentage of the UK population is aware of Home Office policing policy), or is there an element here of young (or youngish) people in some contexts (and to some extent) viewing their experiences at least in part through an American vernacular.

There is an interesting history of the latter, as my friend Andy Davies has explored in the context of inter-war Glasgow.

Francis Sedgemore said...

One mistake often made by middle-class British observers of inner city turmoil is to underestimate the degree of politicisation among those doing the rioting. It's all mindless thugs and thieves, is the common wisdom. On the contrary, the recent London riots are in part political, and we are talking here about politics at its most visceral.

It is widely known throughout the socio-economic spectrum how the Home Secretary micro-manages policing in Britain. My personal experience of the kind of people who take part in and instigate inner-city riots is one of sharp working class intellects combined with an absence of fear and willingness to have a go, come what may.

Of course there exists an American filter of the kind you describe, and the popularity of television dramas such as The Wire plays a significant role in the evolution of street language on this side of the pond. But the dominant culture and politics are British. Also, as an historian you must be aware that that rioting is central to the Great British Tradition of political reform. Without street violence we would still be living in an age of peasants and gentry.

That violence makes the world go round is an awful truth, but it is one from which we cannot hide.

Unknown said...

Interesting points all.

Though, I must admit, the middle-class tendency I more often encounter is one of romanticising arson and looting as 'resistance'.

And the further back in history, the easier this becomes.

We may, however, move in somewhat different circles, so my perception may be a bit skewed.

Chris Brooke said...

I asked the same question on Twitter, and (in addition to references to US TV shows, etc.) got a response from @alanbenzie who wrote, "we used 'Feds' more than 20 years ago, in Scotland, it's not a new thing". which interested & surprised me.

between-the-lines said...

Your theory is interesting, Francis, but not entirely convincing.

On the other hand, what Chris says does not surprise me.

Americanism has been glamorous at least since WW2 when Yankee soldiers of all colours were "overpaid, oversexed and over here" delighting in the absence of segregationism and colour bar compared to the US and busy seducing local youth with nylons and other luxuries.

Where I live in a remote and conservative rural area, thousands of Yanks were stationed and the perceived shame of unfaithfulness and "miscegenation" is still a visible but taboo subject over 60 years later.

US culture is bewitching and we're inundated with it here in the UK. So much so that people here even believe that they are entitled to a phone call on arrest, which of course they aren't. In America you are, but here we aren't.

Add to this the fact that talking like an African-American from the ghetto and revelling in nostalgie de la boue has been fashionable for years, and that many Caribbeans move around between US, UK and the islands anyway, and it seems most likely to me that "Feds" is quite simply just a trendy term to use to be hip and in with the in-crowd.

There's even a Wikipedia entry containing pejorative reference to the phenomenon:

Unknown said...

Thanks Chris, were I to twitter I could have followed the debate there, so thanks for bringing the results of your query to the less technologically adept of us.

B-T-L: As the son of one of those overpaid and, perhaps (though it was always denied in our family), oversexed yanks and one of those fair daughters of Albion he lured across the ocean, that issue of Americanisation really interests me.

As my article I link to above (and the one by Andy Davies) highlights, the 'Americanisation' issue was alive and well already after the First World War.

I have to say, Francis, that as this goes on, I'm struggling a bit to find the political point of it all.

The word thuggery's been thrown around a bit tonight by the police...but I'd say I have to agree.

Francis Sedgemore said...

John - politics is rarely selfless and noble. Many political causes are at root thuggish.

between-the-lines said...

Politics is very much an extension or a refinement of violence, imo. If you're into Zizek (which I'm not generally, but this makes sense to me) he talks of all the hidden violence in our system.

In past civilisations The Mob was an active factor in politics, and one which had to be appeased, for example by the famous "bread and circuses".

We live in an increasingly tense and dangerous time and it's bound to find outlets.

between-the-lines said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Many political causes are at root thuggish

Indeed they are. And those are the ones I tend to despise and wish to combat. In whichever country and whatever class they emerge.