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Reflecting on the riots

Like many of you, I spend a lot of my time arguing, advising and generally agitating about the problem of urban deprivation and the potential for urban renewal.

And I suspect many of you share my frustration at how these issues are addressed by most of the mainstream media. It usually takes a civil disturbance or an individual tragedy for the problems to be aired, and only then in the most simplistic and sensationalist way.

Complex factors and simple facts are subsumed by sweeping generalisations. Newspaper headlines transform deprived areas into ‘wastelands’ and ‘ghettoes’. Struggling communities are depicted as a seething and disconnected ‘underclass’. The criminal activity of a minority is presented as the local norm in places that are somehow different, other, separated from the rest of us.

Any attempt to understand the problems facing hard-pressed households is twisted by armchair pundits into a crusade by the PC brigade – that mystical but seemingly all-powerful force – to excuse and explain away criminality.

For those of us concerned about urban deprivation and renewal, the disturbances that occurred first in the Tottenham area, and then in other parts of the capital and the country, pose an opportunity and a threat at the same time.

The opportunity is that the problem of deprivation, including the impact of cuts to services which are basically invisible to better-off people, will be aired and discussed. The daily frustrations experienced by people in their interactions with potential employers and public services, including the police, can be exposed and sorted out.

That’s not to say that deprivation caused all or most of what occurred. The idea that living in poverty can function as a guilt-free invitation and standing excuse for criminality infuriates millions of hard-pressed families, community leaders and local activists.

As Councillor Steve Reed, the Labour leader of Lambeth, put it after surveying the damage in his borough, for some people ‘It wasn’t about social issues, it was an opportunity to go on the rob’.

The problem remains that there are large numbers of young people with little structure, few prospects and still less hope in their lives. The fact that so many of those apparently involved in the copycat disturbances were teenagers should make us think.

During the long boom of economic prosperity, many young people were under-qualified and disconnected from the job market, and some were living totally unstructured lives. Today, when highly qualified graduates are fighting for entry-level jobs, they’re being left further and further behind.

The disturbances can’t be sociologically excused, or even worse celebrated as some kind of proto-socialist insurgency against the establishment. But they should create a debate about how to help these young boys and girls to help themselves.

The threat is that the debate about urban deprivation and renewal will be ill-informed, partial and riddled with all kinds of spoken and unspoken prejudices and assumptions.

The contours of that debate are well-established. It’s not our problem. It’s theirs – the chavs, the scallies, the gangsters, the scroungers. Take away their benefits, let them starve, stick them in jail, throw away the key.

The debate is coming. Those of us interested in a progressive, unifying response to the riots will need to be articulate and loud to shape it.

I tweeted (as @metlines) about the need for a progressive, unifying debate, on Sunday afternoon. I quickly received this reply from a well-known blogger and commentator:

What is a progressive response to Tottenham? Sending the little dears on holiday to Barbados? Or throw money? Do tell!

I suspect he was exaggerating for effect, and simplifying to meet the character limit of Twitter.

Nonetheless, the debate which this kind of response invites is exactly the one which we need to resist. The right accuses the left of namby-pamby liberalism, the left accuses the right of crowd-pleasing authoritarianism. On and on they go. Politicians and commentators bellowing clichés at each other.

Away from this echo chamber of democratic dysfunction, everybody else just wants to feel safer at night. And the people who live in the poorest places worst hit by the violence want the chance to talk and lead the response.

Just as there are thugs who will turn a protest into a riot, so there are people who will turn a riot into a political campaign. And we know that deprived areas make a very tempting battle ground for political wars to be waged.

The first thing we need to do is understand what happened. Nobody does yet, despite the confident assertions swirling around Twitter that the riots can be attributed to inequality / immorality / police clampdowns / police cuts / capitalism / consumerism / criminal families / family breakdown / feral children / fear of children and so on and so on.

How about we stop making reality fit our dissertations, and ask the people living in the areas affected by the riots what they think?

As I finish writing this, the sounds of my neighbours’ kids playing on the estate mingle with the screech of sirens and the thudding whir of the police helicopter.

By Tuesday afternoon, most of London felt calmer, if still edgy. After a traumatic Monday night, thousands had came out to sweep up, to check on their neighbours and to perform small but poignant acts of solidarity and, for want of a better word, love for their city.

To understand if the events of the past few days were a freakish outburst or the start of a recurrent pattern, we need to talk and to listen, and to put aside assumptions.

The first assumption we need to reject is that people living in deprived areas are part of the problem.

I’ve worked with activists and public servants in some of the places affected by the disturbances. I can imagine their trauma at the prospect of years of hard work being wiped away in a few days of lunacy.

But I can easily imagine their determination to make good the damage, make phone calls to the parents of those involved (a formal police interrogation will be nothing compared to some of the conversations going right now), and start a clamour for rebuilding and reconnecting.

Neither punitive prison sentences nor top-down government programmes can address the root causes of the disturbances. Nor can the residents of the areas affected, by themselves, but they need to be at the centre of the debate about how to respond.

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Kevin Lloyd
Kevin Lloyd
12 years ago

Its a very good challenge and I agree about the risks of assertions about causality. What I do think is becoming increasingly apparent is that there were some significant differences between different areas. We also don’t yet know the full sprectrum of those involved but the early data from the magistrates courts hearings is illuminating about the fact that some of the people at least were quite removed from the stereotypes being portrayed in the media. So its right for us to take some time on the analysis.

In the immediate term the main emphasis is rightly on restoring order and stability, precisely to reassure and protect communities. The first plank of the progressive response has to be about how that is done and should in my view include:

– emphasising the vital importance of treating this as very serious but civilian disorder. It is not paramilitary. It should be addressed through civilian policing and that is a principle of vital importance to all of us. If we depart from it we will all live to regret its loss in the future

– whatever the temptations we must avoid vigilante action. A founding principle of a civilised society is that we do not take the law into our own hands. Cleaning up the streets and giving the community the ability to voice its revulsion are welcome developments; buying baseball bats on e-bay and the braggadocio shown by some in Eltham last night is not

– there is an opportunity to show that restorative justice can play a role as well as punitive action. There will be massive pressure to outbid others in terms of the severity of the sanctions being imposed. Progressives will need to hold firm in the light of that pressure.

Andrew Poulton
Andrew Poulton
12 years ago

Excellent piece John. I think this line and others like it of – “it’s not social, it’s just thieving” or as the PM has just said, “it’s not poverty, it’s culture” needs to be challenged. The motivation to thieve this openly and viciously has emerged from a social construct. The ‘culture’ the PM talks of has fomented in an environment of poverty (among other things). It certainly hasn’t come from wealth. I’m concerned that the political messages from the top are not acknowledging this and seem more concerned with placating the tabloids.

In our line of work, we are going to need to work out how we better connect these communities to their economies. This will be made a lot harder if people refuse to acknowledge the role of economic disadvantage and equality in all this.

Garry Haywood (@_garrilla)
Garry Haywood (@_garrilla)
12 years ago

Excellent piece John, as ever.

My head is all over the place with this issue as I struggle to find clarity among the many issues. The place I’m really struggling at the moment is how to respond to the anger from the affected communities.

The mainstream voice in the communities affected is fuelled with anger. Of course it is, something terrible and catastrophic is happening to them. But something terrible and catastrophic has been happening to them for a long while in which this anger is subsumed in apathy. Why do the areas in which these incidents happened also have the lowest voter turn out? Siding with these communities now when they are angry but judging them when they were apathetic seems problematic when everyone is rushing back to ‘normality.’ I just can’t get away from the connection between these events and normality.

mike blaney
mike blaney
12 years ago

Hi All
This is a very interesting debate. I think that a starting point for dealing with ‘angry’ communities might be to consider addressing the development of an economic model of communities where we are all consumers. Listen to some of what is being said about taking away their benefits, taking away their subsidised housing, making their parents take responsibility for parenting (presumably by attending a parenting class) or being compelled through court actions to attend some sort of state sponsored education programme, (education as punishment – that’s a novel idea).
Some of the things I have found most dispiriting lately is the aggressive response from citizens who should be better informed. The flog them hang them, send them to Afghanistan, Africa anywhere but here, response has stunned me.

In Manchester the truth of what has been built, is the statement from a local councillor ‘we don’t like what they have done, we will not let thugs destroy ‘our’ city’. Which makes the point about insiders and outsiders.

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