The rioting that has taken place across London over the last few nights, and now seems to be spreading to other major English cities, makes me deeply worried and extremely sad. As fires rage, missiles rain down and the police try to restore order to our streets, I think about the damage being done to our communities and the work that will need to be done when the violence stops.
Theresa May described the violence as ‘sheer criminality’ and of course it is. A significant proportion of the shops that have been looted have been selling desirable consumer goods such as electrical equipment, mobile phones and sportswear. It suggests some of what’s happening has more to do with criminal opportunism than the killing of Mark Duggan on Thursday. Meanwhile former London Mayor Ken Livingstone last night seemed to put the blame for the riots firmly at the door of the Coalition government, claiming there was a direct link between the violence and public spending cuts. In a blatant (and rather unsavoury) bit of electioneering, Mr Livingston made reference to the 7,000 extra policemen he had put on the street, that were now being cut.
But I cannot yet begin to consider the causes of the violence (and I think we should be careful not to conflate the events in Tottenham that sparked the first signs of violence with other rioting). I am still reeling from the simple fact it is happening in my home town.
We are seeing the stark evidence that in 21st Century England there are significant numbers of (mostly) young men who are so disaffected that they take to the streets in this way. We have allowed this to happen. All of us.
We have accepted their alienation from society.
We have ignored the frustration and discontent.
We have overlooked the divisions within our communities.
We have failed to notice the people who feel they have so little to lose that they take to the streets to riot and loot.
The riots are as much a judgment on those of us who look on at what is happening for allowing this situation to have arisen as it is on the perpetrators of the violence. I am not condoning the violence or suggesting that we are as guilty as the rioters. What I mean is the deep disconnection from society that we see today is an indictment on all of us and the society we have created (or stood back and allowed to happen). We must all take responsibility for addressing these problems.
We have of course seen this before. I was in primary school when riots swept through our cities in the early 1980s. I remember how the events stuck for so long in the memory – both within the affected communities and for those looking on. Brixton was for a long time associated with the rioting and it’s taken generations to overcome the stigmatising labels. One only has to look at how quickly the media trotted out lines about the Broadwater Farm Estate’s past when violence erupted in Tottenham. That was in 1985, but it took just a few minutes of press coverage for the years to be rolled back and 25 years of rebuilding the community to be swept aside in people’s minds.
Where do we go from here?
Clearly, when the violence is over, there will be a huge amount of work needed to rebuild the affected communities. Streets will be cleaned and properties rebuilt. Businesses will, for the most part (we hope), eventually return to normal. As ever, the physical restoration is far more straightforward than the social regeneration.
We must ensure that our young people never believe that their best prospect is to take to the streets in violence. No one should ever need to feel that they have so little to lose that rioting is a good option.
And whilst I think Ken Livingstone is wrong to blame the violence on the coalition’s spending cuts, there are questions about their impact on the rebuilding work that will need to take place. We will need youth workers, community centres, community development workers and enterprise to engage young people and offer them a more meaningful alternative. These things are all under severe strain with the impact of the cuts kicking in, but we cannot afford not to invest in them.
The cost of unforeseen crises is always met immediately by government. Whether it’s famine in East Africa, Eurozone bailouts or extra policing for civil disturbance, the money is always found. And that’s one of the problems with politics and public policy – there is no problem justifying the costs of cleaning up after a problem, but investing in preventing it is far less politically palatable.
I’m reminded of the excellent French film, La Haine, which follows young people in a Parisian housing estate in the aftermath of a riot following the shooting of a youth by police. In the film an old man tells a story about a man who leaps from the top of the Eiffel Tower. On his way down, the story goes, the man keeps telling himself, “So far, so good… so far, so good…” It’s not how you fall that matters, but how you land.
How will we land?