Young People And The 2011 ‘Riots’ In England – Experiences, Explanations And Implications For Youth Work.
Street disturbances such as those which broke out in a number of cities in August are a part of English history – as is the panic that followed. In a well-known book Hooligan: A history of respectable fears, Geoffrey Pearson charts how, over 400 years, there have been repeated panics about criminal behaviour and ‘feral’ or troublesome children and young people. While the scale of events may have taken policymakers and the popular press by surprise, the fact they occurred should not shock us – and certainly didn’t surprise many youthworkers on the ground.
Initial responses to the disturbances were also predictable. On the one hand there were those who wanted to punish rioters severely, on the other those who saw rioters as victims. The language was of moral collapse and broken Britain or of poverty and inequality.
This paper explores some key aspects of what happened, explanations of what may have contributed to the disturbances, and the implications for youth work. As we will see, it is best to avoid notions such ‘broken Britain’ and simplistic linkages to reductions in government expenditure on young people and youth work if we are to find sensible solutions.
The disturbances can be seen as one of the most serious instances of civil unrest in a generation. More than 3,000 people were arrested and five people died. To understand what happened it is necessary to separate out five different but overlapping behaviours in the events of August 6-10th, 2011.
First, there was protest. Born of specific concerns and anger around the shooting by the Metropolitan Police of Mark Duggan close to Tottenham Hale Station on August 4th, a group of around 120 people marched from Broadwater Farm to Tottenham police station – and remained there dissatisfied with the response they received. In particular, there were concerns about the manner of the shooting (and whether ‘race’ played a part); and what was perceived by his family and some local people as a failure by the local police force in keeping them informed of developments. At this early stage fears were expressed by local community leaders that rioting could occur. Protest was present in what then followed, but had various dimensions. The police remained the most significant focus for protest – and this was reflected in some of the chanting etc. directed at them. In particular, experience of police practices such as ‘stop and search’ appears to have been an important motivation for activity.
Second, we find rioting. The first disturbances occurred after the initial protest. However, from the second night on we saw significant numbers of young people taking to the streets in some poorer neighbourhoods in London. While there was some looting, a great deal of the activity was aimed at gaining control of certain areas (often for a short period of time) from the Police and, more generally, ‘sticking two fingers up’ to authority. There was some debate in the midst of things as to whether this activity constituted ‘riot’ – a violent disturbance of the public peace by people assembled for a common purpose. The behaviour was certainly riot in its original sense – dispute and quarrel – and harks back to another possible root of the word, the Latin to roar (rūgīre). One of the new elements was the ability of the ‘rioters’ to organise activities via messaging particularly via BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).
Third, and attracting much media attention, was looting. It was a feature of the disturbances from the first night – but grew in intensity. Much of looting appears opportunistic and to have happened because people elsewhere had shown it could be done. In London, much looting took place in or close to the neighbourhoods where those involved lived (the main exception here being Ealing, although even here there was significant local participation). A contrasting picture emerged in Birmingham and Manchester where people appear to have travelled into the city centre from quite distant neighbourhoods to join in the looting and disturbances. A certain proportion of the looting was organised and targeted.
Fourth, significant damage was done to property and to businesses. Such damage was summed by two images – both of fire destroying buildings – Union Point Tottenham and Reeves Corner, Croydon. At least 100 families were made homeless. A report in the Financial Times suggests that around 48,000 local businesses suffered financial losses as a result of the disturbances. It is thought that the cost of of compensation in London alone could be around £300 million.
Last, there were significant numbers of younger people spectating. The unusual nature of what was happening, the spectacle and excitement, drew many to the areas where action was occurring (or about to occur). With rolling news coverage, they were joined by large numbers of people sitting at home. Spectating – looking on – was an important aspect of what happened. Knowledge that there was an audience for disturbance – and one that spread well beyond the immediate situation – may well encouraged further action. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there appears to have been an element of ‘let’s show them’ in some of the events [7a].
One of the problems when trying to make sense of all this is that much of the focus in coverage has been on looting. To some extent it was ‘news’. The scale of the looting compared to the previous rounds of disturbances was worthy of attention – but it does mean that much of the data we have derives from arrests made around this element.
From this data we can say that most of those arrested were young adults, male and from poor neighbourhoods.
- In an initial analysis of those who came to court in the first week, Alex Singleton (2011) found that 41% of suspects living in one of the top 10% of most deprived places in the country. The data also shows that 66% of neighbourhoods where the accused live got poorer between 2007 and 2010. Very few of those appearing in court had jobs or were students (around 9% in total of the first 1000 cases). The Institute of Public Policy Research (2011) found that in an overwhelming majority of the worst-affected areas, youth unemployment and child poverty were significantly higher than the national average while education attainment was significantly lower.
- When the first thousand cases are examined we find 66% of those who have appeared in court are aged under 25. 17% aged between 11 and 17. A very small number were aged over 30. More than 90% are male.
- Ethnicity and ‘race’ form a further feature that must be addressed. Unlike some of the disturbances in the early 1980s the August events did not, on the whole, pit one ethnic community against another, although there were some exceptions, for example in some aspects of events in Birmingham and Ealing, and implicitly, Eltham. However, many of the poorerneighbourhoods affected have large ‘black’ populations. Ministry of Justice and Home Office analysis showed that 46% of defendants were ‘black’, 42% ‘white’ and 7% ‘Asian’. At one level this could be expected given the nature of the initial incident and protest – and the extent to which ‘stop and search’ has been directed against ‘black’ young people.
If we look at those involved in the rioting and immediate spectating there is some anecdotal evidence (from workers etc.) that a different demographic applies. A larger number appear to have been aged between 11 and 17 (although this needs some careful checking).
A great deal of media attention and political comment has focused on the role of gangs. Here it is probably worth defining what is meant here. Simon Hallsworth and Tara Young have defined a gang as follows:
A relatively durable, predominantly street-based group of young people who see themselves (and are seen by others) as a discernible group for whom crime and violence is integral to the group’s identity.
In London it was said initially that around 25 per cent of those arrested were connected with gangs. This figure has subsequently dropped to 19 per cent (337 suspects from 169 different gangs). Outside London less than 10 per cent were identified as being gang members. Most forces report that gangs did not play a ‘pivotal role’. One of the knock-on effects of this has been an increase in gang activity in prisons. The Chief Inspector of Prisons has reported a significant rise in young people on suicide watch, and that prison service staff ‘were seeing changes in gang activity with some young people joining up despite having no previous involvement. The key motivation appeared to be self-protection as the established prison population turned on newly-arriving inmates’.
The Metropolitan Police have identified just under 200 gangs operating in London – and these are said to be responsible for a fifth of all youth crime. They were found to have around 20 to 30 members. The total youth membership of London gangs is probably no more 2000 according to one report. Around 40 per cent of members are reluctant or occasional affiliates.
Local evidence suggests that gangs were involved in organising some of the targeted robberies of specialist stores e.g. concerned with electronics and sportswear. These robberies have some of the hallmarks of ram-raiding in the 1980s. There is also some anecdotal evidence of members orchestrating disturbances in other locations in order to distract police attention.
One of the significant aspects of the rioting that took place is the way in which groups and gang members from different postcodes and neighbourhoods who are normally antagonistic to each other joined to combat a common foe (the police).
Care needs to be taken around over-emphasising the role of gangs. They are an aspect of the situation – but we need to look well beyond them to appreciate what happened in the August disturbances.
Five main strands have appeared in explanations of why the disturbances happened. It is, however, necessary to issue an initial warning:
- Several things were happening at once – each with different elements – there is no satisfactory single explanation for what occurred.
- Deep-seated economic, social and cultural change combined with flawed policies and approaches concerning young people and marginalised neighbourhoods, and with some initially counter-productive responses, to create an explosive mix.
There are two important aspects to explanations involving policing – one long-term; the other to do with reaction to the events of August 6th-10th.
Long-term policing practices. One of the central elements in what young people involved in the disturbances have said (see below) concerns their long-term experience of policing in the neighbourhoods where they live. Two particular dimensions stand out – what is perceived as the overuse of ‘stop and search’ and ‘stop and account’ (especially with young ‘black’ men), and degree to which young people are criminalised for being together on the street. As an Equality and Human Rights Commission review found, a number of police forces have been using ‘stop and search’ tactics in ways that are disproportionate and possibly discriminatory.
The figures are stark: if you are black, you are at least six times as likely to be stopped and searched by the police in England and Wales as a white person. If you are Asian, you are around twice as likely to be stopped and searched as a white person.
The Commission concluded that the evidence suggests racial stereotyping and discrimination remain significant factors behind the higher rates of stops and searches for black and Asian people than white people.
Alongside ‘stop and search’ there are number of practices and policies that have caused considerable resentment among key groups of young people. For example, dispersal orders (under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003) have been disproportionately used against groups of young people. As one investigation found, dispersal orders can ‘antagonise and alienate young people who frequently feel unfairly stigmatised for being in public places’.
The events of August 6th – 10th provided an opportunity for payback. The failure or inability to mobilize sufficient numbers of police trained to handle street disturbances created the chance to ‘get one over on the police’ (see below).
Reaction to events. A certain amount of criticism has been directed at the way that local police handled the situation surrounding the shooting of Mark Duggan. This included what was seen as a failure to keep the family informed of what was happening, and issuing incorrect information concerning the shooting. Taken together, these may well have inflamed the immediate local situation.
A further area of criticism concerns the failure to scale up and strengthen the police response on the second night of disturbances. In the wake of criticism of the policing of the student demonstrations earlier in the year (especially of kettling [corralling] and the handling of demonstrators and onlookers) care was being taken not to inflame situations. When this was combined with not having enough police on the streets on the second night, the rolling news channel coverage included a lot of material focusing on police retreating or having to stand by while looting and rioting took place. This could have been a factor in generating copy-cat activities the next night. It certainly enraged government ministers who then took the opportunity to present themselves as pushing police services into stronger action and to set out an agenda for reform. Senior police officers and representatives of rank and file police officers reacted angrily – and quite understandably – to this. They argued that operational independence should not be compromised, and that it takes time to scale up and alter the response.
Two things are worth noting here. First, there had been a major and largely unpredicted shift in the direction of the disturbances towards looting – and this required a different tactical response. Second, while messaging was a feature of the earlier student riots and demonstrations, it provided a major tactical headache during the August riots. Messaging facilitated the orchestration of disturbances and criminal activity and the stretching of police responses.
An earlier, stronger police intervention may have reduced the scale of looting – but there has to be some doubt about this. There are lessons to be learnt about the handling of potentially inflammatory incidents; intelligence and the monitoring of messaging etc.; and the range of tactical responses open to officers. Along with this there remains important worries about the use of ‘stop and search, and dispersal orders and similar instruments and practices. This said, there were strong social forces at work which were going to surface as an ‘explosion’ – and will continue to find violent expression unless they are properly addressed.
One of the striking features of recent research is that feelings of happiness (and more concrete indicators of well-being) weaken the wider the differences in rich and poor in a country. In other words, the higher the level of inequality in a society, the more likely its members will be unhappy. This is of special significance for the United Kingdom where the gap between rich and poor is now very similar to Victorian times and is one of the widest in the ‘developed’ world – second only to the US. Children and young people appear to have suffered significantly as a result. Researchers involved in a major UNICEF initiative made a comprehensive assessment of the lives of children and young people in 21 nations of the industrialized world. They issued a ‘Report Card’ to encourage monitoring, to permit comparison, and to stimulate the discussion and development of policies to improve children’s lives. The United Kingdom and the United States find themselves in the bottom third of the rankings for five of the six dimensions reviewed.
With the world banking crisis of 2008, the associated rise in unemployment, and the large-scale cutbacks in public education and welfare from 2010 onwards, economic inequality appears to be growing. Moreover, it is children and young people who have disproportionately borne the burden of this. For example, in 2009 around 2.2 million children lived in absolute poverty. A situation that was further exacerbated by the fact that parenting in the sorts of neighbourhoods we are focusing in here ‘requires more money than it does in less urban areas and low-income parents struggle to meet even basic costs for their children’. Projections produced by the Institute of Fiscal Studies indicate that by 2015 the number of children living in absolute poverty will rise to 3 million.
There are some profound costs to this. As Offer has commented, ‘being low down the scale of absolute income is associated with misery – with shorter lives, bad health, discrimination, poor education, incarceration and other detriments’.
Wrapped up with this is the impact of materialism. As another recent UNICEF research report put it, ‘materialism is thought to be a cause, as well as an effect of negative well-being, and countries that have higher levels of inequality are known to score lower on subjective wellbeing indicators’. Looking at the experience of children in the UK, Sweden and Spain, they concluded:
It seems that children are more likely to thrive where the social context makes it possible for them to have time with family and friends, to get out and about without having to spend money, to feel secure about who they are rather than what they own, and to be empowered to develop resilience to pressures to consume.
At the same time, the possession of ‘status technology’ like particular phones, and the wearing of certain clothing brands play an important part in ‘creating or reinforcing social divisions between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’’). Parents in the UK report feeling under tremendous pressure to buy goods for their children (often against their better judgement). Not unexpectedly, this pressure was most strongly felt in low-income homes. It appears that many families in the UK tend to use ‘the purchase of new material objects (particularly new technology) in an attempt to compensate for relationship problems and social insecurity’.
What the events of early August provided was a short-lived opportunity for some young people both to gain status items (‘get free stuff’) and to ‘get out and about without having to spend money’! However, we should not push the focus on status items too far. A number of those looting were looking for more basic items like food.
A third aspect of discussion of the August disturbances concerns moral collapse – signs of a decline in the ability to tell right from wrong, and to act appropriately. This discourse is not confined to describing the activities of rioters. The widespread abuse of the expenses system by MPs; the endemic invasion of privacy by the UK press, most significantly the News of the World; and the failure of bankers and fund managers within certain parts of the financial system to work to proper standards – and the role this had in creating recession – have all been the focus of public debate and comment. In each case there has been an emphasis upon private gain at the expense of the whole and the use of practices that were either illegal or lacked moral responsibility. The result, it can be argued, has been a significant decline in confidence in the abilities of those in these important sectors – and in their readiness to act for the good of society.
The example of MPs, newspapers, and elements of the financial system set a tone it could be argued. Their actions were cited by some of those involved in the August disturbances as a justification for their activities. However, there has also been comment in the media about shifts in value systems and behaviours amongst those living in poorer and more marginalized neighbourhoods. Part of this has centred around the extent to which people expect, and have become dependent upon, state financial support – and to place responsibility for their situation on others. This is often contrasted with the ways in which those that do work or are prudent with their money are penalized.
Whether this represents a moral collapse is doubtful. There have always been those ready to exploit people and situations with little or no care for the harm it does to others or the morality of their actions. However, with secularization, the growth of competitive individualism, and the decline of key mass membership organizations like unions and political parties, many people have less access to social environments where moral questions and collective responsibility are directly addressed.
There have been changes in the experience and nature of households in poorer areas over the last decade or so – but whether this constitutes social breakdown is also a matter for some debate.
First, there has been a significant reduction in household size and a change in the nature of local populations. This has a number of causes as Rogers and Power comment:
… more elderly people are surviving, but they are living separately from their children; later marriage and childbearing; fewer children per family; more broken marriages and more lone parents; more economic independence for women.
The effects are starker in cities because childless households and lone-parent families are concentrated there. Cities attract young people and new immigrants, but tend to lose established working families. They also retain an elderly, ‘left-behind’ population.
Second, the proportion of dependent children in Great Britain living with a lone parent has almost doubled over the last twenty years (from 14 per cent in 1986 to 24 per cent in 2006. This has a number of important implications for the experiences of children and young people. First, the households they are living in are poorer. Second, there tend to be more problems in parent-child relationships – ‘linked probably to the experience of stress, low morale and depressive mood in both mothers and fathers’. As one overview reported, ‘Children brought up in one-parent families are more likely to take drugs, drop out of school and end up in prison’. Other commentators have drawn attention to the impact of absent fathers and lack of appropriate male role models.
This set of arguments needs handling with care. Over the last 15 years or so there has been a growing amount of evidence that once as children grow older their peer group becomes a far more significant influence than their parent or parents. Parents can have some influence over choice of peer group – but this also becomes limited. Certainly, peer pressure has been reported as an important aspect of young people’s involvement in the ‘riots’ of August 2011. A number have talked about the impact of messaging – of being told about what was happening or about to happen – and being ‘expected to be there’ (see below).
The debate over the impact of all this and the extent to which it fuelled the disturbances has tended to focus on the experiences of ‘black’ young people – partly because ‘65% of black Caribbean children in Britain grow up in a single-parent family’. There has also been a focus on educational underachievement by ‘black’ Caribbean young men. However, a high proportion of white working class children and young people in the sort of neighbourhoods in which the disturbances took place also grow up in one-parent households and underachieve to the same degree at school.
We need to be careful about social breakdown arguments. There may well be particular problems in specific neighbourhoods – and these may well have been exacerbated by growing social polarization and inequality. However, when we take a historical view we have to be cautious about whether there has been a step change. As a recent Young Foundation report on civility put it:
…our research shows that generalisations about declining standards of civility are inaccurate and problematic. While there are flashpoints of incivility, these tend to be contained to certain places or certain times. But in general Britain remains a well-mannered and courteous country. We still compare favourably to other developed nations. Most people still feel like they can trust others and that their neighbourhoods are free from anti-social behaviour.
From the above discussion it is apparent that flawed or debatable government policies (some of which are longstanding may have contributed to the situation. Here I want to highlight four:
First, there has been a failure by governments over the last thirty years to properly address social housing. It has been a low priority area in terms of policy. This has aggravated the problems experienced in many poorer neighbourhoods. While there has been investment in existing stock and general improvements in the condition of houses and flats, very little has been done to increase the number of homes available. With the sort of demographic shifts already outlined, and the inability of many people to get on the home-owning ladder, this has had a major impact – both in terms of the cost of housing (forcing people into the private rented sector) and working to undermine the stability of local neighbourhoods.
Second, there has been a growing and long-run issue around young people’s access to public space. The use of dispersal orders and the like combined with the extent to which young people are discouraged from congregating in commercial areas like shopping malls has been problematic.
[For] many young people, meeting peers in local public spaces constitutes a fundamental aspect of developing their own sense of identity, and provides space in which to forge their independent capacity to manage risk and danger. In the absence of suitable alternative venues, public spaces constitute key resources for young people.
Third, there is the whole area of policy following the banking crisis of 2008 and the extent to which the austerity programme is undermining social cohesion. There is a perception that those at the bottom and middle of the household income scales are paying disproportionately for the failures that occurred. Unfortunately, this isn’t just a question of perception. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies (op. cit.) states,
…the impact of changes to personal tax and benefit policy announced by this coalition government is to increase relative child poverty by 200,000 in both 2015-16 and 2020-21, and to increase relative poverty for working-age adults by 200,000 in 2015– -16 and 400,000 in 2020-21. The reforms are forecast to increase absolute child poverty by 200,000 in 2015-16 and 300,000 in 2020-21, and to increase absolute working-age poverty by 300,000 in 2015—16 and 700,000 in 2020-21.
Fourth, the speed and the way in which decisions were made with regard to cutbacks in government support for young people has resulted in some poor decisions which may well have contributed to the situation. The most obvious areas concern the message sent by abolition of Educational Maintenance Allowances (which was cited by a number of young people as a motivating factor for involvement – see below), and major cuts to summer programmes and to extended schooling (which often provided holiday schemes). This conclusion has been disputed by government ministers, but there is some evidence that summer programmes have provided ‘diversionary’ activity for young people.
Just how strong any of these elements was in the events of early August is a matter for debate and research. We will have a clearer picture of the motivations and rationalisations of those involved in December – thanks to a major study being undertaken by the London School of Economics and the Guardian (funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Open Society Foundations). However, we have some useful starting points. As one presenter (Richard [Beef] Frankland) to a seminar on the August ‘riots’ reported, four themes were repeated in the conversations of those involved in the weeks after the disturbances:
1. Getting one over on the police. The relative powerlessness of the police in the early stages encouraged a number of people to ‘take back the streets’.
2. Peer pressure. Many felt they had to be seen to take part – some quite reluctantly. Interestingly a few young people who were electronically tagged (as a result of early release from detention) and subject to a home detention curfew expressed relief at not being able to be involved.
3. A bit of history. The riots and disturbances offered young people a chance to be part of something significant. They were making history.
This analysis has been subsequently confirmed in its essentials by a study by Gareth Morrell and colleagues for the Cabinet Office. They mentioned three main motivations:
- Something exciting to do: the riots were seen as an exciting event – a day like no other – described in terms of a wild party or “like a rave”. The party atmosphere, adrenaline and hype were seen as encouraging and explaining young people’s involvement by young people themselves and community stakeholders.
- The opportunity to get free stuff: the excitement of the events was also tied up with the thrill of getting “free stuff” – things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to have.
- A chance to get back at police: in Tottenham, the rioting was described as a direct response to the police handling of the shooting of Mark Duggan. Here and elsewhere in London, the Mark Duggan case was also described as the origin of the riots and the way it was handled was seen as an example of a lack of respect by the police that was common in the experience of young black people in some parts of London. Outside London, the rioting was not generally attributed to the Mark Duggan case. However, the attitude and behaviour of the police locally was consistently cited as a trigger outside as well as within London. [37a]
The researchers mention peer pressure – but demote it’s significance to a ‘situational factor’ (probably wrongly when one talks to those working at the time with people involved in the ‘riots’).
We have yet to see what response the government will make. The main reaction thus far has been ‘steady as you go’. There has been no significant pulling back from the planned reductions on expenditure on policing and youth services, for example. There are some indications that central government policy with regard to the latter will continue to move towards a more targeted, welfare/social work model with the focus on combatting ‘dangerous behaviours around teenagers’. They will leave other forms of provision to voluntary organisations and the private sector.
There are major issues with this approach – most significantly that it fails to pay attention to the social context and relationships in which these behaviours occur. We know, for example, that looking to wider social networks, neighbourhood life and general family life pays considerable dividends in terms of raising educational achievement, reducing crime and stimulating economic activity. One of the things that agencies and organisations will need to do is to continue to make this case to government and to funders.
One of the key points to bear in mind however, is the extent to which reaction to the ‘riots’ will skew, or be used as an excuse to keep, policy away from some of the fundamentals. In other words, the focus will be on, for example, changes to curfew arrangements and tougher sentences for gang members. In the two months following the ‘riots’ and disturbances there have been a series of research reports highlighting the long-running and fundamental issues discussed here including growing inequality and poverty; and the lack of employment opportunities for young people and the significant rise in the cost of education post-16. This is where major action is needed – but is unlikely to be forthcoming.
In respect of what is likely to be a more limited policy response there are some obvious lines of development. The general shape of these was sketched out byThe Economist:
The things that might work include both nice and nasty measures, as Mr Cameron should have the common sense to see. Broadly speaking, the cuddly ones should be focused on vulnerable children and the tough ones on miscreant adults. Schools should provide more pre- and after-school care to make up for parental absences. The coalition should press on with its plans to revive vocational education for unacademic pupils: that might help more of them feel they have the prospect of a decent and legal income. More resources should be found for youth work in rough neighbourhoods: teenagers spend a small fraction of their time at school, yet teachers are expected to socialise and discipline as well as educate them.
Just whether the last of these is likely to happen on any scale is a matter of debate. Following the ‘riots’ there were a number of influential voices questioning the impact of youth work. For example, Kit Malthouse, the deputy mayor for policing in London, has argued that tens of millions of pounds have been ‘squandered on youth services’ that have done little to curb juvenile offending. Too many London projects had focused on “entertainment” and “diversion”.
Being clearer about what youth work is and offers; to shape their work appropriately; and to tell people about it.
Youth work was born, and remains fundamentally a part, of civil society. It is, at heart, about relationship and association – connecting and being with others – and the good that can flow from this. Youth work involves:
- Facilitating relationships that allow young people to grow and flourish.
- Creating spaces with the chance to reflect, learn and grow.
- Enabling opportunities for people to freely to join together to organize and take part in groups and activities.
A range of evidence shows that local work with young people continues to offer sanctuary (a space away from the pressures of the school, family and neighbourhood); accessible and enjoyable activity; personal and social development; settings where friendships and relationships grow; and access to local knowledge and to credible role models.
Working for extended schooling
Given that 94 per cent of young people regularly attend school (with most of those not attending in any one year being absent due to illness or ‘family holidays’) it becomes obvious that youth work needs to be an element of schooling. Indeed, many local projects are involved in schools work – and offer a bridge out to local civil society.
In a number of schools the contribution of youth workers and informal educators is recognised – but in many others it is not. One of the unremarked, but fundamental, aspects of schooling in deprived areas is the role that specialist educators like youth workers and learning mentors play in providing a daily reference point and support for young people who have trouble with the schooling system or that are experiencing problems in their home life or social situation. This intervention and support is not generally available over holiday periods – and it is likely that its absence contributed to some of the young people getting involved in the disturbances.
Unfortunately, extended schooling is under significant threat and yet it offers an important lifeline for many children and young people. There were major reductions in budgets during the last financial year and this has impacted on the ability to offer out of school activity – including holiday provision. There currently appears to be a major problem around breakfast clubs. A recent survey of teaching staff by Kelloggs (which runs more than 500 breakfast clubs in partnership with charity ContinYou) found that up to half of them could close because of threats to school budgets.
Local youth work agencies need to look at what they offer and to consider what it offers to schooling. They need to make a stronger case for the benefits to schools of the sort of associational and relational activity that youth work offers. In addition, they need to add their voices to those opposing the current cuts to extended schooling.
Developing, and making the case for streetwork
It is important to make contact with those not in schooling and education – and for those who are unemployed. One of the classic means is streetwork. Unfortunately, it is rarely understood or properly appreciated by policymakers and local managers. It is a long-term, community-based activity that involves building relationships with people who are often very distrustful of professionals.
Some of the most interesting work in the areas affected by the August ‘riots’ was streetwork. There were a number of reports (and some later anecdotal evidence) of the impact of those working around the fringes of gangs, with gang members and with young people on the street. For example, youth workers in a number of areas sought out those they were working with and encouraged them away from involvement. Another feature was the number of workers involved in mediating between young people and the police during the disturbances. There does appear to be a need for additional investment in this area – but it does need approaching carefully.
First, there is the need to distinguish between those agencies who are undertaking significant work and those who have the ability to ‘sell’ their activities but whose work has little real substance.
Second, some of the work is successful precisely because it is not government sponsored or funded, nor subject to the sort of outcome criteria many funders require, Perhaps the most interesting example here is the example of street pastors. Their concern with both the behaviour and soul of those involved with gangs etc. and the approach they take would usually fall foul of the requirements of state funders and commissioners. Yet in a number of respects it is this very orientation that contributes to their success.
Building civil society
Beyond the immediate role of youth workers in relation to disturbances, there is a lot to be done when looking at some of the things that young people are saying about their experiences – and policies that still fail to support the generation of social capital (which is by its nature a ‘universal’ form of intervention). There is ‘extraordinary potential’ in supporting and generating small groups and associations – and growing evidence (in contradiction of talk of Broken Britain) of people rediscovering the power of face-to-face group life. Such activity has, historically, lain at the heart of youth work – and it is necessary for us to explore with young people new forms of group and associational life.
 This briefing was prepared for a Rank Foundation (yarn) network seminar on youth work and the riots held in London at the Royal Festival Hall on October 19th, 2011. It was revised to take into account discussion at the event – and subsequently to take account of new research.
 Stephenson, W. (2011). “Tottenham police ‘could have stopped riots'”. London: BBC. [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14646187. Retrieved 10 October 2011.]
 A number of young people and youth workers participating in a Rank Foundation (yarn) network seminar on the ‘riots’ (October 19, 2011, London) talked about the significance of the experience of ‘stop and search’ in hardening attitudes to policing.
 A timeline of events can be found on the BBC news website [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-10321233. Retrieved 1 October 2011].
 Meikle, J. (2011) ‘Families made homeless by riots will be compensated’,The Guardian August 11. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/11/families-homeless-riots-compensated. Retrieved 1 October 2011].
 Moore, E. (2011). ‘Riots hit retail shares ‘at worst time’’. The Financial Times. 12 August 2011. [http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/a60382c6-c1d2-11e0-bc71-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1We4WbJt5. Retrieved 11 September 2011].Estmates for London were reported by Dodd, V. (2011). ‘Counting the cost’, The Guardian October 25, 2011, p. 14.
[7a] A subsequent report by Gareth Morrell, Sara Scott, Di McNeish and Stephen Webster (2011) prepared for the Cabinet Office has a 4 category typology of involvement: watchers, rioters, looters and the non-involved. They wrongly place protest as a subheading under rioting. (The August Riots in England. Understanding the involvement of young people. London: NatCen. [http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/sites/default/files/resources/The%20August%20Riots%20in%20England%20(pdf,%201mb).pdf. Retrieved November 3,2011])
 Taylor, M. et. al. (2011). ‘England rioters: young, poor and unemployed’.The Guardian. 18 August 2011. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/18/england-rioters-young-poor-unemployed. Retrieved 18 August 2011]. Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) (2011). Exploring the relationship between riot areas and deprivation – an IPPR analysis. London. [http://www.ippr.org/articles/56/7857/exploring-the-relationship-between-riot-areas-and-deprivation–an-ippr-analysis. Retrieved 30 August 2011].
 Travis, A. (2011). ‘UK riots analysis reveals gangs did not play pivotal role’,The Guardian. October 25, 2011. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/oct/24/riots-analysis-gangs-no-pivotal-role?. Retrieved October 25, 2011].
 The Ministry of Justice/Home Office study dealing with gang membership was reported in Travis, A. (2011). ‘UK riots analysis reveals gangs did not play pivotal role’, The Guardian. October 25, 2011. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/oct/24/riots-analysis-gangs-no-pivotal-role?. Retrieved October 25, 2011]. Material concerning prison life is fromCasciani, D. (2011). ‘New gangs forming in jails after riots, watchdog warns’.BBC News. [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-14911174. Retrieved 22 September 2011].
 BBC News (2007). ‘Police identify 169 London gangs’. [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/6383933.stm. Retrieved 20 August 2011].
 Equality and Human Rights Commission (2010). Stop and think – a critical review of the use of stop and search powers in England and Wales. London: Equality and Human Rights Commission. [http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/uploaded_files/raceinbritain/ehrc_stop_and_
search_report.pdf. Accessed October 12, 2011].
 Brewer, M. et. al. (2011). Child and Working-Age Poverty from 2010 to 2020. London: Institute of Fiscal Studies. [http://www.ifs.org.uk/comms/comm121.pdf. Retrieved 11 October 2011].
 Dunnell, K. (2008). Diversity and different experiences in the UK National Statistician’s Annual Article on Society. London: Office of National Statistics. [http://www.statistics.gov.uk/articles/nojournal/NSA_article.pdf]
 The Economist (2011) ‘The black community wrestles with the causes of the riots’. September 3, 2011. [http://www.economist.com/node/21528285Retrieved 5 September 2011]
 See, for example, Sewell, T. (2010). ‘Black boys are too feminised’, The Guardian March 15. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/mar/15/black-boys-too-feminised-fathers. Retrieved October 20, 2011].
 The Economist (2011) ‘The black community wrestles with the causes of the riots’. September 3, 2011. [http://www.economist.com/node/21528285Retrieved 5 September 2011]
 O’Sullivan, C. (2011). Charm Offensive: Cultivating Civility in 21st Century Britain. London: The Young Foundation. [http://www.youngfoundation.org/files/images/CharmOffensive_FINAL.pdf. Retrieved 11 October 2011].
 Lewis, P. (2011). ‘Understanding the England riots from the perspective of those responsible’. The Guardian 10 October 2011. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/oct/10/learning-england-riots-perspective-responsible. Retrieved 10 October 2011]
 Richard (Beef) Frankland, Prospex Youth Services Manager, Presentation to a Rank Foundation (yarn) Network Seminar on ‘youth work and the riots’. held in London at the Royal Festival Hall on October 19th, 2011.
[37a] Gareth Morrell, Sara Scott, Di McNeish and Stephen Webster (2011). The August Riots in England. Understanding the involvement of young people. London: NatCen. Page 5. [http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/sites/default/files/resources/The%20August%20Riots%20in%20England%20(pdf,%201mb).pdf. Retrieved November 3,2011]
 BBC News (2011). England riots: Police could get wider curfew powers. August 16. BBC News. [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14538252. Accessed October 20, 2011]. See, also Ian Duncan Smith trailing an upcoming report to tackle gun and gang crime reported in Wintour, P. (2011). ‘Intervention before birth in problem families’, The Guardian October 21, p.21.
 The Economist (2011). ‘The knees jerk. Both poverty and culture contributed to England’s riots. The response must address both’. 20 August 2011. [http://www.economist.com/node/21526361. Retrieved 21 August 2011].
 Bentham, M. (2011). ‘Millions of pounds wasted in bid to curb youth crime’. London Evening Standard. September 21. [http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23989404-millions-of-pounds-wasted-in-bid-to-curb-youth-crime.do. Retrieved October 20, 2011].
 Spence, J. and Smith, M. K with Frost, S. and Hodgson T. (2011) myplace evaluation – final report. London: Department for Education. [https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/myplace%20Evaluation%20-%20Final%20report.pdf].
 Department for Children, Schools and Families (2009). Statistical Release: Pupil Absence in Schools Autumn Term 2008 and Spring Term 2009.SFR 29/2009. London: Department for Children, Schools and Families. [http://www.education.gov.uk/rsgateway/DB/SFR/s000882/SFR29_2009withTables.pdf. Accessed: March 10, 2011]
 Mahadevan, J. (2011). ‘Pressure on school budgets threatens future of breakfast clubs’. Children and Young People Now. 11 October 2011. [http://www.cypnow.co.uk/Education/article/1097886/pressure-school-budgets-threatens-future-breakfast-clubs/?DCMP=EMC-CONInPractice. Retrieved 11 October 2011.]
Acknowledgement: The picture Riot in Tottenham is by Surian Soosay and is reproduced under a Creative Commons licence – Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) – http://www.flickr.com/photos/ssoosay/6018083181/in/photostream/
How to cite this piece: Smith, M. K. (2011). ‘Young people and the 2011 ‘riots’ in England – experiences, explanations and implications for youth work’. The encycopedia of informal education.[http://www.infed.org/archives/jeffs_and_smith/young_people_youth_work_and_the_
Meetings and discussions continue to take place to launch the Norfolk Community Respondents Initiative and some great plans and ideas are being put in place.
Keep and eye on the new blog http://norfolkcommunityrespondentsinitiative.wordpress.com/
Getting on your bike to look for work, once encouraged by Norman Tebbit and now by Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, has always been a feature of working-class life, yet the perception remains that people living on council estates are both “stuck” in their communities and hostile to incomers. A new book, Moving Histories of Class and Community, debunks these myths while examining the deep attachment to place shown by residents of three Norwich estates.
“The movement to council estates is one of the biggest mass migrations that has taken place,” says Taylor. The poet Paul Farley has compared the building of massive estates on the periphery of British cities, to which millions of former inner-city dwellers moved between the 1920s and 1970s, to the Highland clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries. One way in which people coped with their new surroundings was to form fierce attachments to them, which were broken by further state-assisted migrations into national service or on to work programmes.
Other families were fragmented, in body if not in spirit, by individual members’ emigrations to Australia and Canada; yet even what Taylor terms “micro-migrations” of a few streets, deeply troubled some interviewees. What emerges is a collective sense of tension between the safety and belonging felt by those who have grown up and lived their lives on the three estates and their often precarious circumstances as a result of living there.
Residents are aware that all three estates carry a bad reputation within Norwich, yet on the whole care less about outside perceptions than about maintaining privacy, esteem and respectability as individuals in their local area – qualities Taylor hopes that she and Rogaly have preserved. “One woman we interviewed told us that she really feels [the book] has affirmed what she felt and gave her a voice. To capture something that people knew they felt, but hadn’t put into words before, that is key.”
- Moving Histories of Class and Community: Identity, Place and Belonging in Contemporary England (Identity Studies in the Social Sciences)
- by Ben Rogaly, Becky Taylor
- Buy it from the Guardian bookshop
From The Guardian…One man involved in last month’s disturbances on what motivated him to join the riots. He discusses his experience of police brutality; the effects of a lack of education, opportunities and government investment in his community; and the pressure to acquire luxury consumer goods
The riots, David Cameron told Parliament this week, revealed a ‘deep moral failure’ in British society. It’s an argument echoed by many others, from Melanie Phillips to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The language of morality, and of moral failure, comes easily to the lips of rightwing politicians and pundits, being all too often a means of individualizing social issues, of pinning the blame on some of the weakest in society for the problems caused by public policy, social inequality and economic failure.
The fact that the right has appropriated the language of morality has led many on the left to ignore moral arguments, indeed often to see such arguments as reactionary. That is a fatal mistake. Morality is as important to the left as it is to the right, though for very different reasons. There is no possibility of a political or economic vision of a different society without a moral vision too. Moral arguments lie at the heart of our understanding of social solidarity, and of the distinction between notions of social solidarity and pious rightwing claims of ‘we’re all in it together’. And that is why it also has to be at the heart of our understanding of the riots.
My starting point in thinking about the riots is that, as I put it in my previous post,
The polarisation between the claim that ‘the riots are a response to unemployment and wasted lives’ and the insistence ‘the violence constitutes mere criminality’ makes little sense. There is clearly more to the riots than simple random hooliganism. But that does not mean that the riots, as many have claimed, are protests against disenfranchisement, social exclusion and wasted lives. In fact, it’s precisely because of disenfranchisement, social exclusion and wasted lives that these are not ‘protests’ in any way, but a mixture of incoherent rage, gang thuggery and teenage mayhem. Disengaged not just from the political process (largely because politicians, especially those on the left, have disengaged from them), but also from a sense of the community or the collective, there is a generation (in fact more than a generation) with no focus for their anger and resentment and no reason to fear or feel responsible for the consequences of their actions. That is very different from suggesting that the riots were caused by, a response to, a protest against, unemployment, austerity or the cuts.
There is little doubt that that poverty and joblessness scar large areas of Britain and that the vicious public spending cuts will vastly exacerbate the problem. Tottenham, for instance, is among London’s poorest boroughs, with 54 applicants chasing every registered job vacancy. Britain is less equal, in wages, wealth and life chances, than at any time for a century. A map of the London riots matches almost exactly the map of the most deprived areas in London.
And yet, it is difficult to view the rioters simply as members of an ‘underclass’. ‘Many of the people involved’, the criminologist professor John Pitts suggested, ‘are likely to have been from low-income, high-unemployment estates, and many, if not most, do not have much of a legitimate future’. In fact the rioters appear to be far more socially diverse. Among the first looters who appeared in the courts this week were a graphic designer, a youth social worker, an estate agent, a teaching assistant, a forklift operator, a lifeguard, a chef, a postman, a hairdresser and students. How representative these are of the rioters as a whole remains to be seen. The picture emerging, however, is one of riots in which it was not just the jobless and the poverty stricken who were causing the mayhem.
What the riots revealed was a second kind of poverty that also stalks Britain, that as well as economic poverty there exists moral poverty, too. Television pictures of a group of youths pretending to help a young man injured in the riots while casually, and callously, robbing him were flashed across the world this week, pictures that seemed to express the moral deficit of the rioters. It is striking how little the rioters seemed to care for their own communities and how self-destructive their actions appeared to be.
The question of moral failure is, therefore, central to any discussion of the riots. The trouble with the post-riot debate is that the very politicians who have helped create the moral deficit through their social and economic policies are now looking to blame everyone but themselves for the consequences. In that sense they are as self-regarding and nihilistic as the rioters themselves.
The relentless promotion of the market ideology over the past three decades has helped fragment society, tearing apart social bonds and creating a nation of isolated individuals. In many communities the authority of institutions, from families to trade unions, that once socialized young people and inculcated moral values have been broken. At the same time, the introduction of the market ethos into every area of life from education to health to the arts has helped institute an instrumental ethic in which all that has come to matter is value for money and in which wider social needs and moral issues have been ignored.
Having broken communities and eroded social bonds through the unremitting promotion of the market, politicians responded both by, ironically, expanding the scope of the state and by blaming the poor. Where once families and collective institutions helped define right and wrong, increasingly the state has stepped in to impose such social norms, through everything from citizenship classes for children to parenting courses for adults. As a result, morality has come to be seen not as difficult choices that one has to wrestle with, or as norms that one works through within a collective setting, but as a set of predetermined rules provided as a state hand-out. Morality has ceased to be ours.
At the same time, politicians have increasingly taken to blaming the poor themselves, rather than their social and economic policies, for the breakdown of family life, a lack of social values, a selfish disregard for the needs of others, and a rampant consumerism. The same values that many tolerate among bankers are condemned in the poor and the unemployed. And with condemnation has come repression, from increased CCTV surveillance to punitive workfare rules.
Because the right has appropriated the arguments about moral failure, many on the left have rejected moral arguments altogether. The left talks much about the social and economic impact of neo-liberal policies. But little about its moral impact. Such willful blindness is dangerous. The questions about economic and social poverty, about unemployment and the cuts, are closely related to the questions about moral poverty, about the breakdown of social solidarity and the rise of a nihilistic culture. There can be no challenge to mass unemployment and the imposition of austerity without the restoration of bonds of social solidarity. We cannot, in other words, cannot confront economic poverty if we do not also confront moral poverty. We need to remake our own language of morality, reforge our own moral norms.
Ironically, perhaps, the way forward has been shown by some of those who stood up to the rioters. In many communities, local people patrolled the streets, protected buildings and confronted rioters. They did so largely because the police were unable or unwilling to help. In one sense, such community action helps camouflage the government’s public expenditure cuts, making up for the services the state should be providing. But, in another sense, such action is much more than an ersatz form of Cameron’s Big Society. In taking matters into their own hands, and in accepting responsibility for their own communities, those who stood up to the rioters were taking the first steps towards restoring the moral deficit by recreating the bonds of social solidarity.
What lies behind the riots seen on English streets three weeks ago?
In January ‘09, an IWCA analysis piece entitled ‘Dealing with the renegades’ stated: ‘Amidst all the concern about knife crime and gang culture, it is often tacitly assumed that the perpetrators are representative of alienated working class youth. Not so: what they are more generally representative of is a new -and growing- social formation that has willingly embraced a non-work ethic. It needs to be recognised that these lumpen elements represent a grouping that is quite separate from, and actively hostile to, the interests and well-being of the working class proper.’
It was a piece which provoked controversy, including within the IWCA itself. After all, right-wing commentators delight in denigrating the ‘underclass’: were we not now joining in? Whenever the right, or the liberal left, discuss this matter, there is an underlying assumption that ‘underclass’ and ‘working class’ are two interchangeable terms: the two groupings are one and the same, to be regarded with either pity or loathing depending on one’s orientation. By contrast, the IWCA analysis made clear that not only is the ‘underclass’ not synonymous with or representative of the working class, its instincts and actions are often opposed to the working class (who tend to constitute its primary prey). The term ‘lumpen proletariat’ is not a right-wing canard, but was coined by Karl Marx, who described this grouping as ‘the “dangerous class”’ whose ‘members felt the need of benefiting themselves at the expense of the labouring nation’. Our analysis explicitly distinguished between the working class and what we described as ‘a renegade section of the working class that has learned to embrace the ‘no-work ethic’’.
The riots and looting of three weeks ago mark the emergence of that renegade section onto the national stage. It became newsworthy because its actions have, for the first time, impacted on the middle class, particularly for those who choose to live in areas they like to describe as ‘edgy’. Previously reassured by the deference of Big Issue sellers and the unfailing good manners of street drinkers, the stepping up onto the stage of the militant wing will have caused profound shock.
The riots have been reported as though they were, in the first instance, a spontaneous reaction by the community to the killing of Mark Duggan by the Met. The background is in fact more complicated, and the initial rioting was much less impulsive and more organised than has generally been presented. Understanding this is key to understanding the riots, and the motives, reasoning and disposition of those involved.
A few days prior to the killing (execution?) of Duggan, police raided 25-30 homes on the Pembury estate in Hackney. A whole layer of drug-dealing middle-management were lifted and remanded in custody. This was the result of an eighteen-month ‘Wire’-style operation, so inevitably the remands were all custodial. One of the critical details largely missed by the media is that many of the gangs, who generally spend their leisure time gouging, stabbing and shooting each other, came under one flag for the jaunt. According to Daniel Weston, a youth worker in Brixton, Peckham, Clapham, Tulse Hill and Brixton ”came together and forgot their rivalries.” The Pembury, London Fields and Frampton Park similarly formed a united front in Hackney. The latter was very much an ‘old school riot’, in that they were ‘defending’ ‘their’ estate, as they saw it, from further police encroachment. As was Tottenham old-school, to a large degree led by rioters first, and looters second. Almost all the others inverted that order. Large gangs two hundred-plus strong were moving -or were being directed- from Croydon to Lewisham to Camden and wherever else took their fancy. The police were not the target, but were instead a force to be circumvented.
It was well known on the Pembury that there would be a return of serve after the arrests (shots from pellet guns were fired at caretakers the same day). The scale of the backlash may have been a result of gang leaders in Tottenham and Hackney deciding that the shooting of Duggan (who was a major player, and perhaps tellingly also something of an elusive pimpernel) and mass arrests were all part of the same dance. Prior to the riots the Met were moving against gangs across five London boroughs simultaneously. Though for operational reasons the boroughs have not been identified, it’s safe to assume that Haringey and Hackney are amongst them. So the united front may have come about in response to an escalation made against them by a common enemy, and would have been put together prior to riots in order to maximise impact and drive the message home to both police and politicians that ’leaving sleeping dogs lie’ is generally a wise adage.
Peter Fahy, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester confirmed that rioters in Salford were specifically looking to “get back at police” after a clampdown on them in that area. In Newtown in Birmingham, police claim that they were shot eleven times, from four different guns. While in London, police estimate that of the 1500 arrested in the first week or so, ‘one in four’ were either gang members or ‘affiliates’. In 2007 there were an estimated 170 streets gangs in London, according to Scotland Yard’s Barry Norman. But on Question Time, Tory MP David Davis flagged up a figure of 240 (some of them up to a hundred strong).
The crack battalions of the lumpen class
Perhaps the most important characteristic of the recent riots has been the self-evident differences between these and those of the 1980s, something which is deeply illustrative. In 1985 after Cherry Groce was shot by the Met, ‘Paul’ -a long-term member of south London Anti-Fascist Action- estimates that the make-up of the subsequent Brixton riot “was approximately 90 per cent fighters to just 10 per cent looters.” Ten years later in 1995, in the disturbances after Wayne Douglas was killed, “it was more like 60-40.” Come 2001, after Andrew Kernan was shot down, “looting was the primary motivation, with the fighters already reduced to a tiny minority.” So if we follow the trend, of the 30,000 estimated by police to have played some part in the riots nationally, the politically progressive will at best, have made up no more than the smallest of fractions.
Furthermore, from studying the extensive television footage it is also clear that it was only the organised elements in the gangs who had the necessary authority and swagger to give the impetus to the riots. It was they who picked the shops, put in the windows, and where there was serious money to be made (other than where the vandalism and fire-setting was intended as a diversion) had pre-arranged for vans and cars to be available to make off with the loot. The looters summoned by social media to provide cover were generally patsies, who only followed on in the aftermath, while the former functioned as the crack battalions not just in the riots themselves, but of the lumpen class as a whole. So in that sense the riots were indeed politically motivated, but just not in the way the liberal left would be willing or capable of understanding.
Laughably, in a discussion with Michael Gove on Newsnight Harriet Harman had suggested that at least in part the rioters were incensed by the “tripling of tuition fees”. Cameron has promised to ‘declare war’ on the gangs, but after this show of force and with the Olympics just around the corner, discretion will likely trump valour. On discussion sites in the immediate aftermath, the prescience of the original IWCA article was rewarded with a collective flinch. Refreshingly, Rob Berkeley, a director of Runnymede Trust, a race equality think tank, was honest enough to admit that it is indeed “new phenomenon about which we know very little.”
If this is a ‘new phenomeneon’, where does it come from? That can be answered relatively easily. A pre-condition has been the ending of the full employment of the post-war boom era, with insecure employment and large-scale unemployment becoming the norm over the past thirty years (it is unlikely that unemployment has ever truly fallen below the three million mark of the Thatcher years), and the concomitant destruction of the working class movement that has accompanied it. This has brought about demoralisation, degradation and dependency where once there was pride, strength and independence. In many places it has created a generational culture of worklessness from which it is almost impossible for youngsters, often semi-literate and semi-numerate, to escape. Such a state of affairs would be bad enough in itself, but when the old values of solidarity, community and hard work are not just lost but increasingly replaced by neo-liberal morality –greed, avarice, pathological self regard- it leads to the creation of the sub-set that made their presence felt three weeks ago. Those who attempt to paint these riots ‘red’ –as some kind of political response to the cuts, or youth poverty and hopelessness- misunderstand both their character and how defeated and broken the last thirty years has left our side. These were neo-liberal riots in every sense.
Two years ago the journalist Peter Wilby wrote of the Thatcher revolution:
‘Once, western governments tried to subjugate the working class. The governments of the postwar era, by contrast, tried to pacify it. High wages, good working conditions, decent housing, stable employment, predictable pensions and, crucially, the power of a large state sector to head off deep recession through fiscal intervention delivered the workers’ consent to, even enthusiasm for, a capitalist economy. It also ensured the stable domestic markets that provided the basis for unprecedented economic growth. Thatcher offered what you might call a “third way”. The working class was not to be enslaved or tamed, but abolished. Everyone would become, in their private if not in their working life, a member of the bourgeoisie, owning a house, acquiring debt to improve themselves, trading in shares and bonds. With such financial commitments, they would be reluctant to sacrifice regular income by going on strike. Better still, they would vote Conservative, or at least for an alternative party that accepted, as new Labour did, the broad principles of Thatcherism. The spectre of communism or socialism would be exorcised.’ (New Statesman)
In short, the aim of neo-liberalism was to ensure everyone became a mini-capitalist: we were ‘all middle class now’ as John Prescott told us. Eliminating the working class as a political entity would, in turn, eliminate the threat of socialism. There would be no ‘working class’ any longer: there would be those who had managed to get on board and literally buy into the system (supposedly ranging from anyone with a mortgage up to Roman Abramovich, all forming part of the same strata), and those unfortunates who had not. The latter phenomenon forms the counterpoint of Wilby’s thesis: the working class wasn’t just to go through embourgeoisment at one end, but also lumpenisation at the other, and in all cases were to internalise the same neo-liberal values. While one may feel greater sympathy with the latter grouping (the former are soon to receive a particularly rude shock, as the economic crisis inexorably works itself out), from a tactical point of view once the neo-liberal mindset has been accepted the individual has to be viewed as being in the enemy camp. It was this layer who came to the fore in the riots.
Why not Oxford?
The Labour party has traditionally been happy to foster working class dependence, rather than independence. The Joan of Arc of British socialism, Beatrice Webb, came out against the 1926 General Strike, describing it as “a monstrous irrelevance in the sphere of social reform” and the notion of workers’ control of industry as “an absurd doctrine… a proletarian distemper which had to run its course – and like other distempers, it is well to have it over and done with at the cost of a lengthy convalescence”. It’s an attitude which Labour has never lost towards its constituency: something to be controlled, not controlled by. Gordon Brown’s ‘socialism’ was to remove all restraints on the City of London and use the tax receipts to buy what was left of Labour’s core vote. The notion of any kind of return to full, productive employment was never part of the game.
Labour’s stance towards the worst elements in its domain has usually been to either ignore them, excuse them or co-opt them. One place which saw no trouble in the riots was Oxford. One would think that somewhere like Blackbird Leys –one of the largest housing estates in Europe, and which saw rioting in 1991- would have been a prime candidate for copycat violence, but it never happened. It did happen in Gloucester fifty miles to the west, but not Oxford. Why was this? There may be many reasons, but one thing which is certain is that on Blackbird Leys the worst elements have, over a number of years, been identified and confronted instead of being appeased or pandered to, and this has been solely down to the efforts of Oxford IWCA. In the words of IWCA councillor Stuart Craft:
“Back in 2004 on Blackbird Leys, we proved that working class activists can also set the agenda. By exposing and challenging the authorities policy of containment of crack and heroin dealing – in particular the exploits of a recently arrived yardie gang implicated in at least two murders and two gang rapes on our estate – and by putting into place (or often merely threatening to) our own popular strategies to deal with these problems, we too had the political establishment, police and housing authorities desperate to be seen to address a problem that they had hitherto been happy to pretend didn’t exist. The pressure we brought to bear had a significant impact so that many of the worst elements fled the estate. It seems inconceivable that without the efforts of IWCA activists and residents that the ‘top shops’ area (which sits opposite the yardies’ old base, the Blackbird Leys Community Centre) would not have suffered the same fate as other such areas across the country.” (See ’IWCA calls for clean sweep at community centre bar‘ and ’Management to vacate community centre bar‘ on the Blackbird Leys IWCA website for further background.)
It speaks volumes about the character and nature of these riots that the rioters folded and melted away almost everywhere they encountered any kind of resistance. It is equally significant that these same elements were stopped from reaching critical mass through the promotion of working class first policies on Blackbird Leys. If the first rule of war is to know your enemy, identifying an opponent (the purpose of these articles) is arguably the first rule of politics.
By Sam (NCAG)
According to a well known anecdote, a German officer visited Picasso in his Paris studio during the Second World War. There he saw Guernica and asked Picasso “did you do this?”
Picasso calmly replied: “no You did this!”
Today, when asked “did you do this? did you want this,?” we must respond – NO you did this, this is the true result of your politics.”
– Slavoj Zizek.
A man was killed in London, the next day a 16 year old girl was beated down to the ground by 15 police officers. Then for the next four nights London burned. People stole things, fought between themselves, others and the police, and generally trashed the city they lived in. And there is no doubt that most of the rioters had no political intent in their actions.
While the arguments on Facebook, in the pub, and on the streets was obviously divided and passionate, the arguments in the papers and from the mouths of politicians were all exactly the same formulated phrases.
The politicians answer has the benefit of simplicity. It states that these riots were the result of bad people doing bad things. That there is a class of people who are sad, bad, and nasty to know. These people have to be beaten into line. These people are responsible, the city burns because human nature is bad. But this answer is in no way satisfying. What’s really annoying people is that none of this makes sense. Only a child would expect the answer that “people are doing this because they’re bad.”
If that’s the case we have to ask some questions – why did they start being bad today? Why are we better than them? Are we better than them? If people are bad does it make sense to give certain members of our society guns and call them cops? Also if these people are bad, why have those who are better not managed to improve them yet?
There are so many questions that come from this seemingly simple answer, but the problem is that its completely wrong – people are social, it takes a lot of violence to make people riot.
“When liberty comes with hands dabbled in blood it is hard to shake hands with her.”
– Oscar Wilde
The problem is the fundamental way that we look at these protests. It’s not true to see this as a sudden outbreak of violence in an otherwise peaceful society. Rather this is the most obvious face of the constant violence in society. Not only do the poorest in London live a decade less than the more wealthy, not only do thousands die because of accidents at work that are due to the profit motive, but also alternately the fact that most people have no control over their lives. There ability to pay each months rent is questionable. Their ability to live is dependant on their boss, the police, any number of loan sharks or petty council officials. All of this is an act of violence.
Parents see their children denied educational opportunities, life stolen from them, constant poverty and uncertainty. Those who argue that these poor people are not poor enough- you can just fuck off. Whatever other objections you have – these areas are poor, these people are isolated from society.
If they weren’t rioting there would be something wrong. As long as the power to legislate, to pay and to dominate, is in the hands of a tiny minority, then violence will always happen.
To liberals, who claim to sympathies, to see the people at the bottom and see that they need “help”, to the people who condemn the riots as detracting from the work of making real change – to these people we have a simple message.
For over 100 years we’ve tried things your way, tinkering at the edges. Messing around. Don’t you think that if all society needed was a slight change in the tax regime, a few thousand more council houses, and ethical shopping that we’d have done so already? The real reason you condemn these riots is you don’t want anyone getting your ‘ivory towers’ messy.
What we have seen with these riots is the immune system of our society starting to kick back into action. In the same way as vomiting when you’re ill isn’t pleasant, but is necessary for the process of getting well, so it is with the riots. (If you were to over extended the simile then the clean up crews are like the friend that helps you into bed, nice and every thing but not really part of the solution).
What the ruling elites and all those who are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome are really objecting to is that these riots were effectively society rejecting the civilisation we have built up. The work of western capitalism has been judged and found wanting, and it is this that is the greatest insult to our lords and masters.
Obviously there is much work to be done. Raising money for the normal people who have lost their homes and places of work, explaining what these riots really mean, and building the alternative to all of this.
But there is also reason enough to perhaps smile a little. In some places the riots have found the real enemy. And who knows, maybe somewhere in some mountain range the branch of Al Queda that deals with the UK is shutting up shop, as a year of Tory policies has done much more than any terrorist could ever hope to do.
But most importantly if we can teach the police that every time they murder a man, and beat up a child, London burns, then a small victory at least has been achieved.