‘R’ is for Riots

Originally published on the 6th September 2011

Last night I attended the Radio 4 Riots debate, run by the today programme. Fortunately when the riots kicked off in Birmingham I was in London staying at my friends house getting ready to take the Eurostar to Brussels the next morning (lucky I was! Had we gone with our original plan of getting the train up late that night we wouldn’t have made it!). I watched it avidly on the news, amazed by sights of a predominantly male crowd throwing petrol bombs at buildings, smashing in windows and attacking businesses.

The next morning our initially pleasant, but distinctly racist taxi driver of unspecified Eastern European origin, took great delight in telling us that the problem was black people and we should treat them like they treat their gypsy population (i.e. badly). We took equal delight in telling him that from what we’d seen on the news this wasn’t a race issue: the live reports clearly showed Blacks, Whites, Asians and pretty much every community in-between was represented amongst the thieves, vandals and aggressors. It was a closed minded attitude to blame one racial group. This was not an old school race riot, and this was the major issue I had with the R4Riots debate.

It seemed to me that a fair few questioners and a few of the panellists were blaming race, calling it a race riot, insinuating that it was just young black men rising up against an institutionally racist establishment. Given that less then half of the 600 people arrested during the riots were black and the primary targets were places like primark and corner shops this sounded, quite frankly, ridiculous to me (at this point I, somewhat nervously, posed a question about why if the issue was frustration with the establishment the rioters were attacking their own communities: http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9581000/9581914.stm listen in at about 2min 25 😉 ). I’m not ignoring the fact that these riots started because of the death of Mark Duggen and strained relations between the community and the police in Tottenham. Race may play a part but the issues, and the composition of the rioters, are far more complicated then this. The BBC really need to stop rolling out this old chestnut and, if they must, at least include speakers from Asian and White working class backgrounds too. Times have changed.

Aside from that there were a lot of lefties chatting about how it was all environmental factors and poverty to blame, if we, the wider community, solve that we’ll solve criminality and antisocial behaviour (completely ignoring the fact that only a minority of the ‘working class’ was involved and some rioters were from more privileged backgrounds) one recorded righty blaming the breakdown of morals and respect culture started in the 1960’s and a whole host of people simply viewing the whole thing as confirmation of their already firmly held beliefs, picking and choosing the evidence they cited and generally talking pointless nonsense.

Then there was, of course, the expected nonsensical, illogical rant about how it’s all the banks and the politicians fault. No other reason. If just one of the (very vocal) audience members and panellists who maintained this belief had proposed a single reasonable argument other then ‘all of the rich are immoral! Bankers greed made people steal televisions! Down with rich people!’ I’d be inclined to give this view a chance…but unfortunately I didn’t find a sea of unspecifically directed anger and resentment convincing.
Having said that it was very interesting listening to the different opinions and there were some nuggets of insight that seemed to resonate with both the present audience and those on the twitter-sphere. My favourites were:

1) Shaun Bailey suggesting that part of the problem is that we’ve redefined what government is for in recent years, we’ve become too dependent on it and those that have the least to do with it (i.e. aren’t dependant on benefits/government programmes) are the happiest, stating: “The welfare state started as a safety net, became a hammock and is now a noose”.
2) Shaun Bailey promoting the idea that young people need to be educated in how to raise children before they become parents and it’s too late, and stating that young people in prisons are a ‘captive audience, lets educate them’
3) Shaun Bailey (yes Shaun Bailey again, that man talked a lot of sense!) stating that parents in this day and age have an incredible tough job fighting against the negative gender stereotypes presented in such places as ‘Nuts Magazine’ and MTV.
4) Dr Les Henry imploring the audience to recognise that grassroots organisations do a lot of good getting people out of gangs and helping young people turn their lives around before they reach a point where they think it’s perfectly normal to engage in a riot, and to help them find the funding they need.
5) Javed Khan quite rightly asking people to stop bashing the police, stop focusing on the rioters and whether they need sympathy or a slap round the face (my words, not his to be clear!) and focus on helping the victims, some of whom have had their whole livelihoods destroyed and been shaken to the core.

…I could go on about how I was unimpressed that the issue of whether the glamorisation of gang violence and violently disrespectful attitude towards the police vocalised in certain popular genres of music (i.e. ‘gansta rap’) and certain hyper realistic video games could have played a part in blurring the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, or the idea that maybe the police were underinformed because people warn each other but not them (even I got a txt about trouble in my area and I wasn’t in the country) weren’t mentioned but I suppose there’s only so much you can fit into three hours…and this blog post is already excessively long. (Btw if you’re interested in other short quotes, views and reviews of the debate check out the #r4riots stream on twitter).

There are a lot of complicated issues surrounding why these riots started. I don’t pretend to have a simple answer. All I do know is that with the destruction of the local economy in certain areas, destruction of recently renovated low income areas, the massive cost of police operations, court proceedings, the inevitable appeals and the clean up, any idiot who joined in the riots based on the fact that ‘they can’t get and job and the economy sucks’ has shot themselves in the foot: now there’s even less money to go round and the chances of those actually deserving groups who desperately need help (and weren’t involved in the riots) getting it are even slimmer. Well done.

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