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Siobhan Courtney
Siobhan Courtney
Siobhan Courtney is a British freelance broadcast journalist and writer.

'The riots haven't changed a thing'

As an official report into the 2011 London riots is released, an angry, troubled generation is being ignored.
Last Modified: 30 Mar 2012 11:14
The unrest spread to several London boroughs over five nights of rioting [Al Jazeera]

London, United Kingdom - Daniel, an 18-year-old from Newham, in London's east end, has one regret.

"I wish there was more time. More time to have shown them what I really could do."
I asked him: "And what exactly did you do?"
"Enough," he says slowly. "I did enough in what time I had."
I ask again: "What did you do that was enough?"
"I'm not giving you exact details," he says.
I respond: "Why not?"
"Because I'm not," he says. "If I tell you exactly what I did, they'll get me for it, and they're never going to get me. But I can tell you I didn't loot a thing. I wasn't out to nick a pair of trainers or a telly - it wasn't about that. But put it this way, I went to bed happy that night. I slept well."
 
Daniel, of course, isn't his real name. He eventually agreed to this interview, but only if his anonymity was protected. We're talking about the night of August 8, 2011, when he took to the streets as the rest of the world watched London burn.
 
Seven months on from the worst civil disorder in England for decades, discarded in the gutter is a generation of ignored, angry young people desperately crying out for help. No one gives a damn about them, least of all the British government, who can only lambast them from their secure fortress inside Downing Street. Prime Minister David Cameron's esteemed analysis of the riots was: "This is criminality, pure and simple." 

I am not attempting to become an apologist for those that set out with the intent to destroy and steal from businesses and homes, but this argument is not about stating the obvious regarding criminal behaviour. This argument is about not accepting and calling to account the oh-so-predictable attack from the indulged governing elite, who label our troubled, frustrated youth as "pure and simple criminals" that behave "in the only way they know how to". I wonder if it has occurred to the privileged, public schoolboys inside Number 10 to step down from their ivory towers and begin to understand why our future generation knows of no other way to express their anger and resentment at their dark, depressing existence, from which many can see no way out.

"This is criminality, pure and simple ... It has to be confronted and defeated."

- British Prime Minister David Cameron on the 2011 riots

Ironically, the PM followed his declaration of rioters' criminality with the proclamation: "It has to be confronted and defeated." He is absolutely right on that one. David Cameron has a heavy weight bearing down on his shoulders, and the more he continues to ignore it, the more pain it will inflict on him. Our government and society have an urgent responsibility to "confront and defeat" the destructive cycle that a large proportion of our future generation are trapped within, rather than tossing them back into the gutters, desperately hoping that no one will notice.
 
Back in Newham, Daniel tells me that if I were to live a day in his life, I too would have been out there rioting. He has been unemployed on and off since leaving school, and says there are no jobs where he lives. He talks me through a typical day of getting up late with nothing to look forward to, hanging around on the streets to avoid going insane in his bedroom and being stopped and searched by the police "so many times it all blurs into one".

Daniel says there is not one day when he is out, as a young black man, that he is not approached and confronted by the police.

"They manhandle me, it‘s always assumed that I'm holding a knife. I'm threatened - unless I hand it over 'things will get nasty'."
I ask: "And are you holding a knife?"
"No. I don't need to, and besides why would I carry one? The amount of times I'm stopped, it would be pretty stupid of me to carry one."
 "Are you known to the police then? Are you saying it's because you're a young, black man that you are harassed?"
"They search me every day, they're gonna know me aren't they? I haven't been perfect forever; I'll admit that, nothing serious, just fights when I was younger. The fact is we are targets, I'm not asking for sympathy here, I'm not a victim but it's a different world being a young black guy surviving in a rough part of London. Unless you're trapped in this life, you'll never get it, it's too difficult to explain. The only people that get it are the ones that are in it and they've never known anything different."
 
Daniel tells me how he desperately wants a different life from the one he has, but admits it won't change as the toxicity of depression, with a lack of both motivation and opportunities, are too overwhelming to overcome. Thousands like him across London are fighting to survive. They are wilted, parched fish, gasping and gulping the fume-filled air as they struggle to keep their heads out of the murky dark waters that surround them. Eventually there is no alternative, but to surrender to the shark infested depths that await below.
 
Abusing powers

Under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, police are allowed to stop and search people - without reasonable suspicion - antagonising and aggravating racial profiling in England. Despite insistence from the Metropolitan Police that "it is used mainly to tackle football hooliganism and gang fights" it appears this "legal right" is and has been abused. The latest research from the London School of Economics and the Open Society Justice Initiative shows under Section 60, black people in the UK are 30 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.
 
The 5 days in August report from the Riots Communities and Victims Panel identified ongoing tensions with the police in relation to stop and search. In some instances, these tensions were cited as a motivating factor in the riots, including some of the attacks on the police. The report stated: "Where young law-abiding people are repeatedly targeted, there is a very real danger that ‘stop and search' will have a corrosive effect on their relationship with the police. As these young men become future parents these negative experiences will be passed on to another generation."

Interestingly, in terms of motivation for involvement in the riots, the following reasons were given from the rioters:
 
"The riots were payback to the police."
"They never listen to us - they did that day."
"They wanted to give the feds [the police] a bloody nose."
"No opportunities, no jobs - why not?"
"[The police] are just the biggest gang on the block - but they weren't that day."
 
As I read through the reasons from those explaining their involvement in the riots, it struck me how similar the responses were to Daniel's comments, despite him never reading the report. Throughout our interview he tells me repeatedly that the police are, without a doubt, a legalised gang. 
 
"They are the biggest gang going; they rule the whole of London. We're assumed to be in gangs because we're black, young, stand on the street - and on occasions wear hoodies - but we're not going round terrorising people like they are. I'm honestly telling you the truth, I promise you, you wouldn't believe what they get away with."
I ask: "Have you ever filmed anything on your mobile to prove this?"
"Tried it, they take it off me and they've got back up everywhere, there's no point running."

One thing that strikes me about Daniel is that he doesn't seem particularly angry with the police or government, but is resigned to the fact (in a non-emotional way) that he is never going to be helped or supported to change his life from the one he is currently trapped in. I felt both sadness and anger at the way he was so accepting of this.

The Metropolitan Police did not respond to interview requests about the abuse of Stop and Search under Section 60 and allegations of fraught tensions between police officers and young black men. 

"We only have to look at countries like Greece, Italy and Spain and the unrest there to see how those examples support the strongest possible social science evidence that the kinds of changes the UK government is pursuing generate social disorder."

- Professor Peter Taylor-Gooby

Riots ‘will be repeated'

Former government adviser Peter Taylor-Gooby has published academic research warning that futher government cutbacks will result in yet more riots. In his paper, Riots, demonstrations, strikes and the Coalition programme, Taylor-Gooby found high unemployment, increasing poverty and privatisation of public services led to increased social disorder.

Taylor-Gooby, a professor of social policy at the University of Kent, examined data from 1980-2005 from 26 developed countries, and found those with the most rapid increases in public spending cuts and poverty were also found in the top third of major civil unrest incidents. The same results were found for job insecurity and reliance on private - rather than welfare state - services.
 
He told me: "We only have to look at countries like Greece, Italy and Spain and the unrest there to see how those examples support the strongest possible social science evidence that the kinds of changes the UK government is pursuing generate social disorder."

Moreover, the discussion paper, Austerity and Anarchy: Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe, 1919-2009 [PDF], found from the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1930s to anti-government demonstrations in Greece in 2010-11, austerity has tended to go hand-in-hand with politically motivated violence and social instability. The paper, released by the Centre for Economic Policy Research, examined the extent to which societies become unstable after budget cuts. The results show a clear, positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability.
 
This coalition government that the UK is lumbered with for the next three years could not be doing any more to fuel the possibility of more social unrest with their current austerity measures. Their number one objective is reducing the deficit, and Chancellor George Osborne clearly has no qualms about slashing £8bn ($12.7bn) from public spending in 2015-16, and a further £7bn ($11bn) in 2016-17. To hell with growth and investment for everything and everyone else.

How can we ensure our future generation ever live in hope, with pirates like these in charge ferociously wielding their swords?

Given the current economic outlook in the UK, I do wonder why our angry youth haven't rioted more. Vital support networks, such as sure start centres and youth clubs, are no more. In a cruel twist of fate, frustrated teenagers in north London, angry over their youth club closures, predicted riots just days before they happened.

Moreover, how can the socially deprived ever have a chance of going to university with the abolishment of the Education Maintenance Allowance - introduced to help poorer students fund A Levels? The real reality of attending university is also now nothing but a distant, hazy blot on the horizon - as the government further let down our young people by trebling tuition fees to £9,000 ($14,300) a year.

"The central thrust of the workfare scheme is 'work for free or lose your benefits'."

The latest youth unemployment statistics from the Office of National Statistics show 1.04 million young people aged 16-24 in the UK are now out of work - the highest level for 16 years. Instead of the fortunate, highly educated (at Eton, for many) ministers tackling this, they are now having to plough their energy into mopping up the mess of one of the worst examples of slave labour they could dream up: the workfare scheme.
 
The central thrust of the workfare scheme is "work for free or lose your benefits". Needless to say, it has been an absolute disaster, and thankfully many companies, responding to recent public pressure, have realised exploiting our young and adding them to the grinding cogs in their huge corporate wheels equates to slave labour. Even though we all know what the answer is, the Commons work and pensions committee have now launched an inquiry to find out whether the government's approach to youth unemployment is working.
 
The deeply unpopular Health and Social Care Bill, savage disability reform, the capping of benefits - and projections [PDF] by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that at least 400,000 more children in the UK will be in poverty by 2015 - all make for devastating prospects for our future generation.
 
Contrary to popular belief, the main purpose of the riots was, for many, not to loot. The forgotten underclass saw a chance to fight back, to take control and be heard. Sheldon Thomas is a former gang member who was involved in the Brixton riots in 1981. After long spells in prison and finding faith, Thomas founded Gangsline, which offers support and exit strategies for those affiliated with gangs. He told me the riots weren't about an opportunity to steal a couple of hoodies or a pair of trainers, but about the invisible becoming visible.

"If they want to steal, they will," said Thomas. "It doesn't matter whether the shop is open or shut, the riots weren't about that. Social mobility in the UK is dead. We're talking about people who are so far below working class they don't exist, they're nothing - and when you're told that and believe that and you have one opportunity to be heard and noticed, you're going to take it.

"[On] the nights of the riots, the invisible became visible. In a sense it is already too late, but I pray the government will get their act together and attempt to reach out to those who critically need help and opportunities."

Reading back through the Riots Communities and Victims Panel's foreword to their research, the final findings of which were published today, I was struck by the following question the panel posed - and answered -  which seemed to support the theories and interviews above.

"Will the riots happen again? The answer is quite possibly ‘yes'. This is why we need to work together to develop ideas which deal not only with the symptoms of the riots but with the deep-seated causes of dissatisfaction beneath."
 
But the most poignant sentence I read was this:

"We have also noted a collective pessimism about the future. We were shocked by the number of young people we spoke to who had no hopes or dreams for their future."

I can't help but wonder if our government feels the same way.
 
Siobhan Courtney is a British freelance broadcast journalist and writer. She is a former BBC World News presenter and BBC News journalist who has reported and written for BBC Newsnight.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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