Monday, 15 August 2011

RIOT AND WRONG

© Copyright StuartBannocks and licensed for reuse. This is not an endorsement of my post. 
Since a 17-year-old was arrested for attempting to incite a riot in Margate, I've realised the mass violence and looting which sprung up all across the UK last week grew unnervingly close to home. What caused so many young people to take joy in smashing up their towns? Why did vandalism become little more than a fad? Was this fondness for looting high street shops a manifestation of our greedy hyper-consumerist culture, or is it just an unexplainable burst of opportunist burglary and theft?

The left didn't waste any time trying to score political points by making the rather vacuous claim that youth service cuts and the scrapping of both the Future Jobs Fund and EMA are to blame. Even cuts in police numbers have been put under the Labourite magnifying glass and regarded with a discerning eye by Ed Miliband, even though it wasn't long ago that most civil liberties campaigners were criticising New Labour for trying to turn Britain into a police state. Clearly, being out of office hasn't changed them one bit, has it?

Meanwhile, the right seem happy to just dismiss these riots as nothing more than random, unrelated bursts of violence, thuggery and criminality by chavs and hoodies, putting little emphasis on the root causes other than calling it a sign of moral decay and social breakdown. Throw into the mix the misguided belief that bad parenting, absentee fathers, dysfunctional families and welfare dependancy are the primary causes and what we have is a recipe for disastrous policy-making on both sides of the political debate.

To try and explain why these riots happened, even Conservative historian David Starkey popped up on BBC Newsnight to make the disgraceful claim that white people have become black. He said that black culture or, as he puts it, the “violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture” of rap music, has corrupted white youths into lives of crime and gang warfare. If I remember rightly, the last time a man stood up and blamed the nation's ills on a specific ethnic group it didn't end so well. I can't quite remember his name, but he had this paranoid idea that the Jews were out to ruin his country... oh yes, that's right, his name was Adolf Hitler, that's it. As a historian, I'm sure Starkey knows how that panned out.

My point is, these riots and the responses of certain media commentators across the spectrum has highlighted to me that they are all, quite simply, useless. Those on the left veer towards apologism (implying that poverty, unemployment and deprivation justifies the rioters' violent actions somewhat, which is nonsense) while those on the right rejoice in getting puritanical and spouting empty-headed glittering generalities about 'family values' and 'moral collapse' without offering anything of substance.

The fact that we should focus on is that 51% of those arrested were between the ages of 18 and 24. Therefore, this seems to be a problem almost exclusive to a whole generation of young people, so we need to look closely at the causes of disenfranchised youth and perhaps we should even interpret these riots as a sign of collective unrest.

Even though the actions of a minority of juvenile delinquents are not representative of a whole generation, what is clear is that people in this age group – and I include myself in this – have to contend with problems of mass unemployment; fewer job opportunities; stratospherically high rental and housing costs which price young people out of the market, leaving many to live with their parents for longer; and a lifetime's worth of debt to pay off for those that are university graduates (like me). Of course, these are NOT excuses for starting riots. What they are, however, are problems which cause mass discontent amongst young people today, so any attempt to tackle problems with disenfranchised youth needs to take these issues into account.

If employment, jobs, housing and income disparity were given adequate political attention and intergenerational justice became a cornerstone of social policy, then it is quite probable that in future young people wouldn’t feel the need to riot. Instead, I fear we’re getting caught up in a vindictive cycle of police crackdowns and overzealous corporal punishment and risk alienating young people even more, making things worse in the long run. Of course, these rioters and looters must be held to account – many of those involved did, let's face it, have criminal pasts – but the punishments must fit the crime, and there seem to be many judgements made in UK courts recently where this doesn't seem to be the case.

A student caught stealing a £3.50 case of bottled water from Lidl has been sentenced to six months in prison. Children have been held at gunpoint and had their backpacks searched by police officers only to find a pack of Smarties. Now I'm hearing that somebody's due to appear in court for allegedly arranging a water fight in Colchester on his BlackBerry. Is this justice? Or is this a slippery slope to a totalitarian state? Either way, making an example of youngsters in this way is rapidly becoming a circus and it doesn't help people come up with any tangible solutions. I just hope we realise it before it's too late.

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