The riots have nothing to do with the cuts…
“imagine you are 14 years old, and you live in a flat four storeys up. It’s the summer holidays and you don’t have any pocket money. That’s your life. What will you get up to today? […] You can’t kick a ball around on your own doorstep. So what do you do? You hang around in the streets, and you are bored, bored, bored. And you look around you. Who isn’t bored? Who isn’t hanging around because they don’t have any money? Who has the cars, the clothes, the power? Of course, not everyone who grows up in a deprived neighbourhood turns to crime – just as not everyone who grows up in a rich neighbourhood stays on the straight and narrow. Individuals are responsible for their actions – and every individual has the choice between doing right and doing wrong. But there are connections between circumstances and behaviour […] We’ve got be optimistic about young people, otherwise we’ll forever be dealing with the short-term symptoms instead of the long-term causes. And I think there are three things that are vital if we’re to make all our communities safe and give every young person the chance they deserve. The first thing is to recognise that we’ll never get the answers right unless we understand what’s gone wrong. Understanding the background, the reasons, the causes.”
David Cameron, 10 July 2006
“I think there’s a very serious risk” of “rioting in the streets” if the Tories are elected
Nick Clegg, 11 April 2010
On BBC Newsnight two evenings in a row we have seen Conservative MPs steering the debate over the riots as far as they can from the cuts as is possible. Public indignation at the activities of looters and arsonists in London and around the country assists in that. Our outrage at the scenes we have witnessed, the lives and livelihoods put at risk, is immediate and authentic. It requires an immediate response, a need to find quick solutions to deal with the outbreak of riotous behaviour. But Cameron back in 2006, when wooing a public, made an important point about understanding the contexts of disaffection.
Social networks are awash with appropriate aphorisms – “A riot is the language of the unheard.” (Martin Luther King, Jr); “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.” (James A. Baldwin); “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.” (Nelson Mandela); “if you are not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing” (Malcolm X) – but watching and reading the media, it seems the gentle and steady wisdom of such words is irrelevant, sidelined, rendered temporarily impotent. Certainly, while innocent people, their livelihoods and their children’s safety are put at risk, we all focus on addressing that, putting an end to it. But condemnation and punishment cannot be the end of the riots. We owe it to our society and its future to ask how we came to this, how we allowed it to brew, ferment and explode.
Of course the cuts have something to do with the riots. That is not to say people smashed windows and grabbed wide-screen TVs and pairs of trainers because of the cuts, but that which takes someone to that window, that which causes the excited rise of temporary opportunistic avarice has, in the words of David Cameron, background, reasons, causes.
13 out of 18 youth clubs in Haringey have been closed because of the cuts. 130 libraries in London have closed or are threatened with closure. The number of probation officers working with young offenders has been reduced by a quarter. Jobcentres are closed down. The EMA is to be removed – the only support many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds had to access continuing education. Higher Education has seen cuts of up to 100% of government funds and a university education seems an even more distant aspiration to many, when it has now been priced higher than £100,000* (taking into account all interest payments over the lifetime of repayment in the new scheme). For more detail of cuts undertaken by or as a result of this government, see this page.
So, of course you don’t go looting because you can no longer shoot some pool, pick up materials at the library, or afford to get the bus to that training course (that has been closed) for a job (that might not exist) – nobody is suggesting that – but what do you feel about a society that removes what access you have to community and past-time, to opportunity and security, to hope?
And what happens if you protest peacefully? You get kettled perhaps, in the freezing weather, for hours, on a bridge with no toilet facilities, crammed alongside schoolchildren who are forced to miss their coaches home to distant cities. Or you get a police baton to the head, and have police trying to stop you enter hospital, or you get your ankle broken by a police baton to the leg, or see police pulling a disabled man from a wheelchair and the IPCC tell you it was for his own good. Or you see the video of Ian Tomlinson being shoved to the floor, and hear months and months of the police denying liability. Or you take part in a peaceful sit-down protest in Fortnum and Mason’s, where nothing more than a chocolate egg gets upturned, and the police promise you you won’t be arrested, but they then take you to the cells, force you to strip, and get you to sign a note to promise you won’t sue them if you commit suicide. And a man gets 16 months for recklessly pulling a flag from a monument (Even The Telegraph called that ‘prejudice not justice‘). And a politician gets to keep half of the money he immorally and fraudulently claimed, and others, such a Michael Gove, forget where they live when completing their expenses, and other MPs get plasma screen TVs fraudulently (is it better if you take public money to so so, rather than enter through a smashed window to grab one), and senior police have meals with the people they are supposed to be investigating, and bankers cost the public purse 1.2 trillion pounds and still give each other bonuses and wave wads of money at nurses. And Vodafone arranges to avoid paying enough tax to pay for thousands to access the higher education that is being priced out of many people’s range. And Tesco is fined for fixing the price of the milk you have been buying but threatens to sue the DFT to avoid that fine in a bullying corporate act. And then you read that Tory MPs are trying to argue for a reduction in the top rate of tax, and refusing to have their own pensions examined.
So what voice do you have, if peaceful protest is seemingly criminalised? And what hope do you have? And what do you do when all the other people who have had their opportunities taken away, and feel they have nothing left to lose, and have run out of faith in and respect for politicians and the police, what do you do when they say ‘tonight we go and make some noise’? Perhaps you’ve never behaved in a criminal manner before, perhaps you have form, perhaps you don’t care for the consequences, and certainly don’t think of the impact on others, but there is a desire to express, to feel empowered, to fight back, to resist, to experience a liberating moment of authentic experience, to stick a finger up to a society that seems to do little for you, and is taking that little away.
Does understanding these things mean we seek to justify the disruptive outcomes? Of course not. We are intelligent enough to know the difference between justification and explanation. But we solve the problem through understanding the reasons and the causes.
That is not to say there is no such thing as personal responsibility, or parental responsibility, or morality, or rule of law – but these all need a robust and fair social framework in order to be able to function effectively. To say the riots have nothing to do with the cuts is either politically myopic, or worse – it’s a deliberate fudge, a reckless dismissal of your responsibilities to the community and the society you belong to. The riots have everything to do with the cuts, and everything to do with how communities are policed, and everything to do with the banking crisis. Once the lawlessness begins, then, yes, it becomes a smoke screen for racist attacks, or for organised criminal gangs, or for the reckless, idiotic thrill-seeker, but the spark that sets the unrest off has clear, definable roots. If our society has ‘sick’ elements, as David Cameron would have us believe, then he needs to look hard at the root cause of that illness, the virus in the body politic. He’ll find the poison that sickened our society closer to home than he would care to admit.
*This assumes a tuition fee of £9,000 per year, living expenses of £5,500 per year and repayments under the governments scheme, with a salary of £35,000 in 2015 and a salary of £144,000 by 2045. Total repayment would be £103,000. The total amount owed would still not be paid off, but would be cancelled at that point. For more detail see this page.