Riots, responsibility and rebuilding

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?



22 thoughts on “Riots, responsibility and rebuilding

  1. Toby – agree. But i the meantime, this needs to stop. The state doesn’t have the resources to secure our streets (without resort to the sort of nasty brutality we could do without – be it curfews, tear gas, whatever else provides cover for being seen to take a "robust stance"). We don’t need new laws and policing approaches to simply put a lid on it by force. Communities need to act quickly to reclaim their streets tonight. Turn out in numbers peacefully to bear witness and take away the space to smash and destroy. If my 70-odd year old mum can do it in Palestine to protect local farmers from settlers intent on destruction during the harvest, there is no reason communities can’t do the same. Not sure what happened in Dalston and East Ham last night, and wouldn’t advocate picking up sticks, its not needed. But seems that getting numbers on the streets can stop this dead in its tracks.

  2. Hi Mattthanks for your comments. that was my thought on sunday…but then i heard the Police saying yesterday that people were getting in the way of their efforts to contain the violence. I would worry about disregarding their advice (to stay home), even for positive reasons…..particularly as they may (increasingly) take the view that anyone on the streets is a criminal (however absurd that may be). i would be nervous about advocating taking to the streets in case people were caught up in the violence.but….i do think it’s the right thing to do. i just think we need to prepare the ground for that sort of action first.

  3. Toby – agree absolutely with your concerns. But a few hundred gawkers milling around and taking pictures of the mess is one thing. Proper organised community action is another. If we wait for it to burn out or be suppressed we will fail ourselves. Sunday it seemed sporadic enough for it not to be a City wide issue. Last night was very bad. We either leave it to the state and live with the disempowerment and distrust (and further destruction) that will breed or look at how we can sort it out ourselves. This is a critical time for people who want to make a difference – its not about twitter organised clean-ups or e-petitions. Its about ordinary people turning out in sufficient numbers to reclaim their streets and saying enough is enough, go home.

  4. The thing for me as I watched in horror last night was that this doesn’t happen in the UK. Yes we have had riots but not this level of unrest and the looting. I feel I’m watching another country far away that we often blame for abusing its people and therefore they can expect no better. But I’m not, its my country, where I’ve worked with communities and young people all my professional life. I’ve challenged their thoughts on this kind of behaviour and helped with their aspirations. I’ve given them a platform and held their hands till they find their feet to do it for themselves. I look at what has happened and think that both them and me are out on the scrap heap. Both their young passion and drive for life and my experience seems not to be wanted anymore by this land we are suppose to all value, love and respect. Its a sad time!

  5. @Matt – i think that’s right. I hope people seize the initiative to reclaim the streets and communities. i just hope they do it in a measured way that keeps them safe.@equinova2010 – i agree entirely and that’s what’s depressing me so much. the response of local people, government and the police in the next few day and weeks will determine the prospects for our communities for the next generation.

  6. All I have heard this morning is Teresa May pooping up on vearious news network sqawking out the phrase "sheer criminality" like some deranged parrot.Whilst the looting and damage is completely inexcusable the problems we are seeing are a direct result of lack of police funding and a growing disaffacted youth who don’t see any jobs on the horizon and feel they have nothing to lose by smashing the place up.I can see this going on for a while

  7. More rabbit-hugging, liberal elite hogwash – probably from the same people that thought the Police were too tough on protesters and rioters in the past. Has the state forced their alienation from society?Has the state ignored the frustration of feral youth and their discontentment?Have the divisions within our communities been leveraged by passive aggressors?Has society failed to notice the people who feel they have so little to lose that they take to the streets to riot and loot.The parents, peers and overseers might have.But riots, torching buildings and looting businesses confirms that £billions in government charitable, welfare and guidance for these people was wasted.

  8. I’m asking the question here. Is this as much about exercising ones power in the only way they feel able? Is this also as much about the fact that some elements iof the establishment (very powerful people) i.e. the press, politicians and police have demonstrated themselves to be without morals and corrupt – thus part of this is marginalised yoth saying ‘I want my bit of the cake’ and this is how I’ll exercise my power. Again, I’m not condoning this…the long term damage to these communities will e vast, but just squarking ‘sheer criminality’ is a political cop out and spin speak to deflect from other, underlying issues.

  9. Toby – I really appreciate your take on this, and while I broadly believe we need to get beyond just blame, I think the coalition does deserve a fair amount of responsibility for this… this video fr/ a week ago about youth centre closures in Haringey makes it seem like a pretty major piece of the picture: Fundamentally, I think you’re spot on though; how do we make prevention as important as disaster relief? Maybe a joint blog in there?

  10. ‘We will need youth workers, community centres, community development workers and enterprise…’ I would put enterprise ie jobs top of the list. Unemployment is on the up and it is the absence of jobs that makes people think they have nothing to lose. Thankfully most of them don’t resort to violence but there will always be a criminal minority who do.

  11. Its the feral black population. They have no right to be apart of civilized whites. We made the horrible mistake of including them into our lives. BIG MISTAKE! Call me racist. I don’t give a fuck. When they are kicking you to death remember my words.

  12. This is excellent Toby.<i>How will we land?</i>That is indeed the question. For me, I think the worst thing that could possibly happen is that – in the tired words of police and politicians – "everything returns to normal."Normal is not good enough. Normal is the problem.

  13. @Power of 1I find your comments offensive, inappropriate, inflammatory and quite wrong. I was tempted to delete your comment, but thought that i would rather let people see for themselves the sort of opinions that some people have. There is nothing intrinsically civilised or uncivilised about white people or black people. Everyone is different. And this type of sweeping generalisation is neither accurate nor helpful.Contrary to some media reports, the rioters were not all young black men. They were of mixed age and race.I will leave your comment for people to see. but if anyone thinks i should remove it please say so and i will do.Frankly i’m just in shock

  14. @power of 1This morning I watched a phone video of some Polish guys narrating as a mixed group of white and black kids about 18 years old, picked a bleeding Asian kid up off the ground, distracted him, while white kids stole the contents of his backpack from behind. They all then walked off together, the black kids and the white.Simplistic attitudes and approaches will lead to simplistic responses which will fix nothing and simply fan the flames even further.

  15. Your sentiments are very astute and far reaching but I feel the immediate problem is much nearer hoe. IE soft justice. For too long people have been getting away with metaphoric murder. If we had more respect for the law most of these people would not have taken part in such awful pointless violence!

  16. Firstlt,@power of one, your comments are racist and offensive have you not been watching.the news reports they clearly shows kids of all colour and race rioting.These kids & youths may feel disaffected, but rioting is not the answer they are now infllicting unemployment, homelessness, iinjury and possibly death on others by wrecking these small businesses many of which have people living above. IThousands of others (including me) are unemployed without any future prospects although we keep trying. We are also under the threat of benefit cuts and unable to give our kids all the things they would like.However, my3 teenage kids haven’t taken to the streets. I always ring them when they are out to check where they are and they have age appropriate curfews. Parents need to take responsiblity for their offspring.The riotors don’t care that they are hurting people within their own communities. We wil all pay the cost of the clean up with price and tax rises.Also there are more job opportunities for young people than older as apprentiship schemes are being offer in retail, schools and various other career paths.are always being advertisedThe government need to take some responsibility and tone down the drastic cuts they are making.Finally, the police should not be critisized as they are caught between a rock and a hard stone. They were critisized in the past for being too heavy handed now they are told they are not being hard enough.Our police force need to get in line with the rest of the world to deal with crime in the 21st century.

  17. @Lou – thanks Lou. a valuable (though shocking) insight into the reality of what is going on and a valuable reminder to us not to fall into the trap of generalising about who is involved in the violence on the streets.@steve – interesting point. if by ‘metaphorical murder’ you are referring to the whole of society, then i think that has some validity. but i wouldn’t accept that this is confined to particular demographics…… Politicians, bankers, businessmen, charity workers, the unemployed and everyone else have all flouted the law in recent times. would things be better if all of them/us respected the law? probably…but the question that arises is how do we get there?@AllyFogg – "Normal is not good enough. Normal is the problem" is going to be my new mantra 🙂

  18. <html><body><div style="color:#000; background-color:#fff; font-family:arial, helvetica, sans-serif;font-size:10pt"><div style="RIGHT: auto"><SPAN style="RIGHT: auto">Hi Toby, yes I am speaking of society in general. We have, by various governments, been promised a tough approach to this &amp; that, such as knife crime and zero tolerance to many things but when comes to putting it in action we are sadly lacking. Incidences such as an unisured, unlicenced illegal imigrant killing and inocent child whilst driving well over the legal alchol limit is sentance to 4 years and will no doubt get out in 2! He is not even deported back to his own country because that will infringe his human rights! ( don’t get me started on that! – but there again that is probably the bigest cause of our unordered society) The government it’s self is just as guilty – how many of the expence fiddlers were prosecuted? – those that were only got the equiverlent of a rap across the knuckles. You or I committing fraud to that degree would have had the key thrown away! It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence does it? Although I must say that I think we should give this government all the help we can to get this country out of debt and able to function again.</SPAN></div> <div style="RIGHT: auto"><SPAN style="RIGHT: auto">There again they promised a curb on the obscene bonuses paid to banker but the latest news does not bear this out.</SPAN><BR style="RIGHT: auto">I wish I knew someone bright enough to come up with answer to all our problems, of which we have many! could you be that person?</div> <div style="RIGHT: auto">Best Rgds</div> <div style="RIGHT: auto">Steve<VAR id=yui-ie-cursor></VAR></div> <BLOCKQUOTE style="PADDING-LEFT: 5px; RIGHT: auto; MARGIN-LEFT: 5px; BORDER-LEFT: rgb(16,16,255) 2px solid"> <DIV style="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: arial, helvetica, sans-serif"> <DIV style="FONT-SIZE: 12pt; FONT-FAMILY: times new roman, new york, times, serif"><FONT face=Arial size=2> <DIV class=hr style="BORDER-RIGHT: #ccc 1px solid; PADDING-RIGHT: 0px; BORDER-TOP: #ccc 1px solid; PADDING-LEFT: 0px; FONT-SIZE: 0px; PADDING-BOTTOM: 0px; MARGIN: 5px 0px; BORDER-LEFT: #ccc 1px solid; LINE-HEIGHT: 0; PADDING-TOP: 0px; BORDER-BOTTOM: #ccc 1px solid; HEIGHT: 0px" readonly="true" contenteditable="false"></DIV><B><SPAN style="FONT-WEIGHT: bold">From:</SPAN></B> Posterous &lt;</DIV></DIV></div></body></html>

  19. I fully agree with your points Toby. We as a society, starting from the parents, have to take some share of the blame for what has happned over the last few days. Our young people have been left to feel excluded and useless in being part of a positive-thinking community and scoiety, and they have consequently decided to take arms illegally and destroy their own – sorry – our communities. In a world where we have all been part of the mass and excessive consumption and greed culture, these situations were bound to happen. My biggest worry is where the strong, influential and counter-cultural examples of decency, ethics and positive civil values will come from? Frankly, the state and its infrastructure e.g. youth clubs, leisure centres, schools, etc are not enough. My opinion as a parent, and an active community member, is that the renewal of society must come from the home – from parents, brothers, sisters, in a word , family. We then take what we learnt and taught, and share it in the wider community. It’s time communities take full control of renewing the minds of our children and young people.As for @ power one, I think you should delete him as his comments are a distraction to constructive discussions. Let’s not give him any ‘online time’.

  20. Toby, just picked up on your comments and thoughts. Turned off the phone for a few days. To appreciate peace on the sea and reflect on what’s happeneing in our ciities. What are the root causes? Find them and maybe we’ll be close to finding a strategy for handing the riotous situation without recourse to personal or state violence. Root causes need root solutions – and collectively we need to accept our share of responsibility for the state of the nation (and the planet). Human greed and selfishness lead to so much dis-ease; social, physical, mental, emotional, political, environmental. As Ade points out, the state cannot do it all – has never and can never provide the uniquely personalised support package that human beings need to flourish. So maybe we all have to try to step up to mark as parents of our own children -and as community parents. To demonstrate our respons-ability to love and to challenge people and communities we care about. Perhaps then can we create or resestablish the conditions for healthy mature personal and community relationships. Family is crucial – only sadly those positive family and parenting experiences that are fundamental to any child’s sense of responsibility for self and relationship (crucial for developing as strong, caring and autonomous adults) are getting more and more thinly spread. Social and tax policy that pushes economic performance to the detriment of wider socail well being; promotes training for the job market over a rounded education for life; supports consumerism and corporate well being over co-operation and community wellbeing is inevitably going to tend create an un balanced soil for realising human potential. Children learn what they experience; they experience what they live. Some – too many – have life experiences that do not nurture their rounded development. If we cannot between us give enough children and young people enough opportunities to experience positive eperiences in life – of being loved, of joyful, innocent and mischievous play, of being able to make mistakes, to rebel and understand what it is to be forgiven, of being guided and challenged to excercise and grow in responsibility – we (they, and the planet) will find it harder and harder to solve problems creatively and to collaborate in the face of difficulties. Steve, no one person has the answer – we all have parts of the answer. Matt: I agree with you that organised action that reflects and promotes human values of care, conscience and compassion really and clearly can have a powerful impact – to resist, to challenge and ultimately to overcome powerful destructive forces. The time to act is now – apply our strengths, skills and life experience to building positively – not tomorrow, or sometime, but now – when the impulse is strong. But that can be uncomfortable – even dangerous away from the armchai. – and commitment in the long haul. Polly – yep, billions hasn’t worked! Money – and the power relationships behind it – is part of the problem as well as part of a solution.

  21. <html><body><div style="color:#000; background-color:#fff; font-family:Courier New, courier, monaco, monospace, sans-serif;font-size:10pt"><div style="RIGHT: auto">At last a glimmer of common sence + it was in The Mail !?<BR style="RIGHT: auto"><BR>Mass immigration, and how Labour tried to destroy Britishness<BR><BR>SIMON HEFFER: After Labour’s obsession with multiculturalism, the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has at last said that the culture of the majority will once more be given pre-eminence in society.<BR><BR>Full Story: <BR><A href=""></A>&nbsp;&nbsp; <BR><BR>22 February 2012<BR> </div><VAR id=yui-ie-cursor></VAR><BR><BR></div></body></html>

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