Noone can fail to have been shocked by the events that we’ve seen in London and elsewhere this week. And it goes without saying that the actions of those involved are inexcusable. Also, that demoralised, under-resourced police officers are having to struggle to re-establish the public order and safety that all people in our communities deserve. 

David Cameron was wrong however to describe the situation as “plain and simple”; it’s anything but. I hope that when this is done we can reflect and reprioritise prevention and early intervention activities with communities and individuals who have become increasingly disengaged. Yes, wrongdoers should  certainly be punished but we need to look at how to rehabilitate young people who have done wrong. We also need to recognise that disinvestment  in youth and community services may save money in the short term but it can, at least indirectly, lead to exactly the kinds of circumstances we’ve had this week.

I lived in Lambeth for a long time and until recently I was working with the Lambeth Crime Prevention Trust in Brixton, one of the ‘hot spots’. This agency engaged many young people in meaningful leisure and community activities and provided education about being a citizen, avoiding knife crime, resisting peer pressure etc. However, it wasn’t deemed to be a priority service and consequently it lost its funding and closed down in March this year.

Closer to my current home, in Edinburgh the ‘North Edinburgh News’, a community charity based in Pilton which promoted positive views about the disadvantaged areas it covered and was able to provide a whole range of community information and to support networking  also lost its funding and closed in March this year. It would have needed £30K per year to continue.

In no way should we condone the violence and looting. However, we do need to try to understand and consider how we are running our society and what priorities we have within it. As a final point on this really sad blog,  when I saw the scenes from Clapham Junction on Tuesday night I was reminded of Polly Toynbee’s description when she undertook an experiment, flawed of course because she always had the option to go back to her ‘real’ life, of trying to live on the minimum wage in Clapham Park estate. Her overwhelming experience was of feeling excluded from an individualistic, materialistic society where we and others assess our worth based on what we own; the Arding & Hobbs store she described in the following extract subsequently became the Debenham’s store that was ransacked on Monday.  

“Well-worn and familiar tracts of the city devoted to pleasure, art, eating, clothes and shopping disappeared of my map. Why wander down the King’s Road when everything there is denied to you? Oxford Street and Regent Street vanished from my route. So did Clapham Junction and Arding and Hobbs. So did Shaftesbury Avenue, the National Theatre, the Albert Hall and the Barbican. Wherever I walked, everything I passed was out of bounds, things belonging to other people but not to me. No Starbucks sofas beckoned any more, no Borders bookshop, no restaurants, not even the most humble cafe. This is what ‘exclusion’ means, if you ever wondered at this modern wider definition of poverty. It is a large No Entry sign on every modern pleasure. No Entry to the consumer society where the rest of us live. It is a harsh apartheid. Exclusion makes the urban landscape a forbidding place where every brightly lit shop doorway designed to welcome you in to buy, buy, buy is slammed shut to one-third of the population. Shopping for the meanest food staples under rigorous cost-controls is no fun, and it becomes less so every time.”

Toynbee, Polly (2003) Hard Work: Life in Low-Pay Britain London: Bloomsbury Publishing


8 responses to “Riots

  1. Eric, I don’t disagree with anything you’ve written here, but I would add another dimension which goes a little way to explaining the hatred some young people have to the police: The over use of stop-search.

    It was many years ago now I lived in London as a young person (Finsbury park in the late 70’s). In the four years I lived there I lost count of the number of times I was searched. The unspoken pretext of course was looking for drugs, my hippy appearance probably being the cause. This added to a series of other pressures which lead to me leaving London in late 1980, as it turned out not long before the Brixton “uprising” riots of 1981.

    Stop-search is corrosive to police/community – especially young people – relations. It developed in me a real, deep distrust for the police which took a long time to get over. I can easily see how it creates a real hatred in those subjected to it today. When you’re pulled supposedly for a weapons search and the plod ends up finding a bit of weed it just don’t wash.

    I thought we had learned the lesson after Scarman, or in the early 2000’s with the Brixton cannabis experiment, when the police seemed to understand the barrier the cannabis laws were creating to good community relations, but we seem to have forgotten all that now and stop-searches are back.

    Add to that the only way most of these kids can get their hands on the bling they’re told is so desirable is by engaging in the widespread black market drugs trade and we have a recipe for disaster.

    This isn’t the only reason for these riots of course, to a large extent they seem to be organised. But the anger and alienation these kids feel makes them easily lead.

  2. Derek, thanks for this. I agree that there are so many complex and long term factors – individual, structural, economic, political, family – that are contributing to the current mess. Alongside that, there is of course organised crime and short term opportunism. The short term priority must be to stop any more incidents and to reduce public fear and panic. However, to change things in the longer term is going to require some more fundamental shifts in how we work as a society so as not to ‘exclude’ those who don’t conform to norms, driving them to the margins and potentially to criminality. Being ‘tough’ seems to be an operational necessity for the police in the short term – and I wouldn’t want to do their jobs – but if we just descend into the long term strategy of a ‘war on yobs/criminals/any other insulting term people want to use’, things will just get worse. On Newsnight last night Kelvin McKenzie said he wasn’t “interested in understanding”. Unintelligent, shortsighted and not helpful at all. We can’t make things better without trying to understand. I am reminded of a session I ran with some young disadvantaged people when I was at Mentor. We were funded by the Department of Health who wanted feedback from young people about drugs education resources, FRANK etc. After working intensively with these young people over several residential sessions what they told us was that if they were the Government and they wanted to prevent/reduce drug and alcohol problems their number one priority would be to find ways to enable parents to have more quality time with their children. That would require structural changes to support the parents’ behaviour change. In relation to the current events, I’m hearing an awful lot more about blaming ‘failing’ parents for their young people’s behaviour and not enough constructive comment about how to help them to change. That’s certainly something we need.

  3. Why should anyone be shocked, Eric? The pols and the plods cosy up to some US citizen who coincidentally happens to control newspapers, the common people’s money gets thrown at a bunch of overpaid wastrels who masquerade as bankers. None of the above would know the truth if it got up and bit them on the bum.

    MPs stole from us when they fiddled their expenses, including the sainted Cameron who repaid £947.29. He also repaid some further £600 odd in respect of expenses related to his ‘country cottage’. The MPS is corrupt from top to bottom, kills people with apparent impunity, and lies to us. Diamond of Barclays trousers £6.5m bonus while telling us that the time for remorse and apology on the part of bankers is over. Goodwin of RBS finds time to shag a female colleague whilst he is working for us – was this a condition of his employment? The late Met Commissioner accepted health spa hospitality from the dirty digger; Yates bungled a crucial investigation, Dick who replaced him had earlier inexplicably been exonerated for her part in the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, Harwood lied his head off to a Coroner’s Court regarding his unlawful killing of Ian Tomlinson.

    Just for once some of the common people, whom the great and good listed exist to serve, decide that they too would like to benefit from the proceeds of crime on a grand and public scale.

    If you are shocked, you’ve had a sheltered upbringing.

  4. I agree that all the other stuff’s shocking too. But a lot of what’s going on at the moment is actually symptomatic of hopelessness and ultimately more damaging to the perpetrators than anyone else. They will end up worse-off, not better off. And the economic inequalities and political failings and corruption will continue, possible even receiving more support because of the extreme images in the media of seeing ordinary people, not rich people, losing their homes, being physically attacked and even, it seems being killed as they have tried to defend themselves and their property. I have certainly been sheltered from experiences and images like that in the UK until now. Thank goodness for that – and I really hope it finishes soon.

  5. Losing homes and suffering injury or death in defence of self or property is part of drug addiction’s rich tapestry. Don’t be so damned fatalistic about the inevitability of corruption, fraud and theft by the establishment, by so doing you do but play into its hands!

  6. Jacques Cartier

    > King’s Road, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Arding and
    > Hobbs, Shaftesbury Avenue, the National Theatre, the
    > Albert Hall and the Barbican, Starbucks sofas
    > Borders bookshop, restaurants …

    Toynbee makes “loadsmoney”. The “good” places she describes are out-of-bounds for most of the population. She’s paid well to live in cloud-cuckoo land.

  7. Emma Davidson

    Thanks Eric, I enjoyed reading your post. I agree we need to re-prioritise in favour of prevention and early intervention. However, I worry that terms like these are used with little precision or definition. While arguably early intervention is more participative and inclusive in the way it seeks to address social problems, could such approaches not also be more coercive and authoritarian?

    Will prevention and early intervention really face up to the structural inequalities in modern society or will attention be placed upon the failings of individuals and their families?

    Oh, and by the way, what is your take on why the riots have not extended to Scotland? No chance of a Pilton riot?

  8. Emma, I share your concerns about the individualising of problems (and supposed solutions) and indeed the rhetoric of Government at the moment is all about punishing individuals and responsibilising ‘bad’ parents while reducing the deficit in ways that penalise poor people more than the rich remains as an unassailable logical necessity. The problems are complex and longterm and any ‘solutions’ (not even sure if that’s a meaningful word in this context) will be uncertain, difficult and long term. There’s been a lot of discussion about why the riots haven’t spread to Scotland, with some suggestions even that we have better self control or a more balanced, equal society. Rot like that. I think that there is a very big cultural divide between Scotland and England so it would be bizarre, unless orchestrated, for there to be a duplication of what happens south of the border up here. However, I believe that we Scots are very capable of damaging ourselves and our communities in a range of complex ways, maybe internally and more hidden. Note our drug and alcohol problems for example. No simple questions though and no simple answers. And all of this is a gift to the authoritarians, particularly among the Tories.

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