London’s Burning

Canary Wharf  Magazine – 09/11 

One month on, Bel Trew looks at why the London riots happened…

Monday 8th of August: Croydon, Hackney and Clapham are on fire. The rioting, which started in Tottenham on Saturday when a peaceful protest against the shooting of Mark Duggan turned violent, spread across London. The looters have just swept through my area, Bow, a few local stores are in ruins and one shop owner has been beaten up.  The streets are deserted except for a group of hooded youths who were still hanging out on one of the targeted streets. There are no police, so I turn back quickly. The only pub that is open has its metal shutters down and is allowing its customers to smoke inside. As I knock on the door the proprietor says: ‘Only white faces? Good you can come in’.

What is going on?

Footage from the riots showed youth with looted items screaming ‘fuck the government’ at news cameras. One rioter captured on a mobile said she was ‘getting her taxes back’, another group of girls, who were found drinking the wine they had looted earlier, said they were ‘showing the rich we do what we want’ (BBC).

The situation had come a long way from the group of local residents protesting a young man’s death. It became a chaotic free-for-all with 11-year-olds carrying TVs out of shops and even businessmen grabbing phones and trainers on their way home.

With no cohesive group or manifesto and no one talking, the riots were written off as mindless violence committed by thugs. The cause David

Cameron said was a ‘slow motion moral collapse’ stemming from bad parenting, schooling and a culture of ‘criminality’.

I attended hearings at the Westminster courts, only two people were granted bail in two days. Those caught received heavy custodial sentences: one student was sent to jail for six months for stealing £3.50 worth of water from Lidl. The courts were working through the night. Journalists were stationed outside desperate for interviews with anyone involved, to find out why they did it.

I managed to find five rioters who risked being sent to jail to speak to me for the Evening Standard (The Boy Who Refused to Riot, 5September). They claimed there were different groups with contrasting agendas out during those five days. Behind the violence, they maintained, there were real grievances that were being expressed.

‘I finally found a reason’ said Tyrone, 17, to me for the article, ‘If we were to take an innocent person’s life, we’d be bought to justice but [the police] won’t. I was debating with my family, who tried to take the police side…. That is not the real truth, we know the truth.’

They talked about Mark Duggan as a symbol for all the disaffected youth they hang out with.  The riots, they said, were about venting frustrations with the politicians and police. They separated themselves from the looters, half of which they said were tempted opportunists, half of which were organized criminal.  They went as far as to identify themselves as ‘protesters’ whose only way of being heard was to become violent – ‘smashing stuff is acceptable’ confirmed Gregory, Tyrone’s friend as, he said, peaceful protesting is pointless.

The ‘broadcasts’ (BBMs) the boys say were sent out and forwarded from Sunday through all of Monday, calling for everyone to forget their backgrounds, to come out of their areas and meet at specified points.

The messages talked about the end of the ‘reign of the police’ – some mentioned Mark Duggan’s death.

At first the boys thought it was a joke, as it seemed impossible for a BBM to transcend the postcode war. Despite not being in ‘criminal’ gangs, the boys said they are still are bound by traditional gang rules: ‘We are separated by postcodes. If you go to someone else’s turf, their people will come and see what you’re saying.’

The groups out that day were predominantly angry young adults, the boys said. They talked about being targeted by the police from the age of 11 years old for fitting the stereotype as a young black male. This means, they said, they are stopped and searched several times a day, often by the same officer. They talked about budget cuts and ‘no hope for the youth’.

It is little known but the UK one the worst social mobility records in Europe, with four million children living in poverty. Margaret McCabe, Director and founder of Debate Mate, who works with disaffected youth, identified similar key issues.

‘The riots were a direct consequence of cuts, especially the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA),’ she explains, ‘the government made a policy error in thinking that the EMA wasn’t needed any more because most kids stayed on at school’.

As Margaret explains, the government cut the EMA believing that the financial shortfall could be plugged by continuing the parent’s entitlement to child benefits until they were eighteen.

Effectively the government relies on parents sharing their child benefits with their kids instead of paying the children directly. ‘This is an error. For families that live below the poverty line that money is committed elsewhere-they need it for food.’ Gregory pointed out to me he can’t afford his schoolbooks for college.

With university fees skyrocketing, there are no incentives for kids to stay on at school past sixteen and then they are no jobs if they do leave. ‘The problem have been building up. If you’re born with no hope, frustration, anger and discontentment breeds. So the shooting of Mark Duggan was like putting a match on a tinder box.’ Margaret explained.

To Margaret, the politicians don’t appear to understand the riots: ‘There is a disconnect from both sides. The problem is poverty is invisible in this country. You don’t realise it unless it impacts you in the form of a crime’. Certainly I live in an area with one of London’s most violent gangs, the E3 Bloods, yet Danny Boyle lives opposite me. Take Islington, this smart and wealthy banker area has the second highest child poverty rate in Europe.

‘Young people need skills to get out of poverty. If we blame parenting and schooling this will cost billions to turn around, there has to be a more pragmatic way of dealing with it. At Debate Mate we tried to find a cost effective way of doing that, with something you could bolt on to the curriculum – we came up with debating. Peer-to-peer mentoring and teaching verbal intelligence has proved to be successful.’

The behaviour of the rioters and looters was criminal, unjustified, wrong and those responsible should be punished. However it is important, and not mutually exclusive, to recognise that these social problems do exist and contributed to the outburst of violence. We should not allow the riots to encourage further prejudice against racial minorities or to widened the class gap.

Those caught are receiving considerably longer custodial sentences for their crimes because their actions were committed in the background of public disorder but how can sending a student to jail for six months for stealing some water help?

We need to be less reactive and go back to the roots of the problem. More programs like Debate Mate are needed to supplement the shortfalls of our education system – to ensure that the disaffected youth realise that where you were born doesn’t dictate your whole life. Perhaps if we can help the rioters truly recognise this, London won’t burn again. All names have been changed.

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