A report released by the British government this week has contradicted the official line that the nationwide riots that swept the country in August were based on gang culture and “criminality.” The report showed that only 13% of rioters arrested were gang members.
By alienating rioters – criminalizing them, and distancing them further from society – we are only exacerbating the social exclusion that caused them to loot high street stores, attack journalists, and mob people. The report, and another by the Ministry of Justice, should put aside distractions and focus on the real debate which centers around the socio-economic causes for the riots and what we can do to stop them from happening again. We should start by reversing cuts to frontline social services in deprived areas and also not blame poverty on the poor, but rather on our society as a whole.
I was in London throughout the riots. It was tense, unbelievable – sirens, helicopters, and burning buses. It felt like a bad movie. But the outrageous class hatred expressed by politicians and members of the public only deepened class divisions by alienating those at the bottom more. Two blog posts I wrote that week, arguing that we should investigate the social causes while not condoning the violence, caused a number of furious responses. But the British have always had a problem with class.
Despite the government cutting three-quarters of frontline youth club services, it was difficult to persuade people that there were social causes behind the riots, while not condoning them at the same time. Instead, the criminals were “chavs,” “scum” and “benefit-scroungers,” words usually reserved for the vilified working-class. People wanted to see evictions from social housing and benefits revoked.
These responses were the easy way out and similar sentiments were echoed by those in power. Home Secretary Theresa May dismissed the riots, saying: “This is about sheer criminality, and let’s make no bones about it.” Prime Minister David Cameron sounded more hard-line, preferring to blame the riots on “behavior.” In a statement to the Commons, like a vengeful conservative action-hero, he said: “We will track you down, we will find you, we will charge you, we will punish you. You will pay for what you have done.” But both refused to accept their government’s crippling cuts might have played a part. This was criminality, pure and simple.
But by using the new statistics, it is possible to build a more in-depth profile of those convicted for rioting. They paint a picture of ghettoization, poverty, poor education, and – frequently – youths with criminal backgrounds. It will be a hard pill to swallow for some.
Some 1,984 people appeared before the courts for offences relating to riots – stealing, criminal damage, assault; but also the shocking excesses of justice, including the student given six months for stealing a bottle of water. Around 90% of that number were male, half of them under 21. According to the report, of those whose ethnicity is known, 46% were black, 42% white, 7% Asian, and 5% grouped as “other.”
But the statistics become most revealing when compared to national averages. Some 35% of adults participating in the riots were claiming out-of-work benefits, almost triple the national average of 12%. As for young people involved in riots, 42% were receiving free school meals, compared to 16% nationally. Seventy-five percent of those in court had previous convictions or cautions.
The riot is the language of the unheard, as well as of the poor, future-less, and bored. They won’t stop at smashing shop windows, setting fire to property, or mugging people. Prison is not a deterrent because going to university or finding a job are both unrealistic options when 25-50% of their age, or ethnic, group is out of work.
So the rioters attacked what was most relevant to them – mobile phone shops, sports stores, and McDonalds. There was violence and mob excess, which I am not condoning, but the whole event has been willfully misrepresented by politicians, journalists, and the public alike.
The words Cameron chose are as damaging to social progress as the policies his government has pursued. Poverty should never be blamed on poverty. You don’t stop criminality by attacking the perpetrators and their families, taking away state benefits and vital social housing. By doing this, you just get more criminals. We must remember this in the coming months of reconciliation.
Photo Credit: Andy Armstrong