The Riots – Where are the Voices of Reason? Aug 2011

This week has seen rioting in London and major cities in England.  Many times during the last few days I have heard young people referred to as ‘feral’ or ‘mindless’. 

I have worked with young offenders and young prisoners in Sussex, Hampshire and Berkshire over the last 5 years and I cannot think of a single person I have met that I would describe in these terms.

Shaun Bailey, Conservative Ambassador of the Big Society in London believes the problem is that ’we watched the previous government talk up the rights for young people but with no mention of responsibilities.’ Again, I search my memory for a single time when I have encountered a youth offending officer or youth worker or teacher or arts worker not encouraging a sense of responsibility.  This is probably the main function of community work.

Michael Gove the Education Secretary was especially spooked on Tuesday’s edition of Newsnight.  For him it was simple: rioters are thugs and criminals who need harsh treatment by the law.  Any variation on this theme incensed him.  He and David Cameron are angry not so much about the destruction, fear and misery caused by the riots as by the forcing of the focus onto deprived areas like Tottenham.  They have revealed not the foggiest idea about education or progress in these areas.

Many of the young people I have worked with would, probably, have got involved in the rioting if it had been in their areas.  They are likely to have been on the streets anyway, they often feel discriminated against but most important feel that they don’t matter.  Most will have suffered distress and loss in their lives, sometimes extreme.  I believe investment in good youth and community work counteracts this distress and has succeeded in preventing this kind of outburst for many years.  But now everyone knows, including young people, that belief in investment in deprived areas has gone.  The American TV channel NBC asked a young man in Tottenham if rioting really achieved anything.  He replied ‘Yes, you wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?  Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, 2000 of us, all blacks and it was peaceful and calm and not a word in the press.  Last night there was a bit of riot and looting and look at you.’   Young people seized a chance for mayhem, for the thrill of it, to be part of something and to feel that they mattered.

The reaction has been harsh.  Courts are sitting in Sunday sessions, the first time in history.  Gone is any voice of reason to say it is best we do all we can to keep young people out of prison.  Not just because of the huge financial cost – for a child, often more than £100,000 a year.  Our prisons are less equipped than ever to educate or transform, especially as numbers rise.  So many commentators this week have presented ‘lock them up’ as a satisfactory end to the story of the riots.  Rather, it’s the beginning of a story of a young person now with time behind them and a criminal record who will before long become once more part of our community.