A riot is the language of the unheard
The Riots of London started out as a peaceful demonstration in Tottenham over the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan, aged 29 and father of four children. About 120 people were marching towards Tottenham Police Station on Saturday, demanding official acknowledgement that Mark had been killed 36 hours after the shooting occurred. Three hours later violence escalated, and soon buildings were set on fire.
During the next three days rioting and looting quickly spread to other areas including Enfield, Brixton and Walthamstow, as well as Peckham and Croydon. As the people of London watched in dismay, many now ask: “How could this happen?”
Violence is never an answer, and mob action and looting can never be justified, but to fully understand the reasons for young people to attack their own community, one needs to look into the society that fed and brought up these kids. What is causing these feelings of utter hatred, and exclusion? Dismissing the rioting as criminality pure and simple (David Cameron, Prime Minister) and the work of a tiny minority of thugs (Jeremy Hunt, Cultural Secretary) is insufficient when talking about social unrest. Calling it non-political is, to be fair, idiotic and harmful.
Most of the riots are taking place in boroughs that have some of the highest poverty rates in London. According to the charity Save the Children, the highest rate of children living in poverty is in Tower Hamlets with 27 % of children living in severe poverty followed by Hackney’s 22 %; both areas where riots have occurred. Families in severe poverty are living on low incomes half or less of the average UK family income, meaning vital amenities are scarce in addition to food. Young people living on very low incomes in a capitalistic society where material possessions are more and more valued makes it not very difficult to see what looting could be an answer to. Bred by advertisements and demands of excessive consumption, in a society that values you not for who you are but what you buy, these young people had the chance of a life time to get it all.
Relationships between police and people from these communities have been strained long before the shooting that was to spark these riots. In England, it is up to 6 times more likely for a black person to be stopped and searched on the streets by police than a white person. Often young people are not told the reason for these searches, and feelings of anger and resentment arise especially in cases where young people feel that their innocence is being unfairly questioned. It is not uncommon in areas like Peckham to see children aged 14 or younger being stopped by police to be searched. Discrimination leads to anger especially in poorer areas where young people don’t know or don’t have anyone who to turn to for help them when they are unfairly treated, and the people who are supposed to bring safety, the police, are the actual perpetrators. This kind of anger at injustice, combined with discrimination, poverty and a sense of loss of dignity is enough of a cocktail to create violence. A kind of violence, even if not justifiable and legitimate, that is still understandable in a tragic way.
In the north London Borough of Haringey, which Tottenham is a part of, youth services felt a cut of 75 % from the £41m overall budget cut which led to the closure of youth centres, after-school clubs, and the boroughs youth counseling service. With levels of poverty that are amongst the highest in London in addition to problems with violent gangs, these services were withdrawn from youth who needed them the most. Criminologist and youth culture expert Professor John Pitts who spoke to the Guardian, said that "If you cut summer activities for young people as night follows day you will see an increase in crime," he said.
"My anxiety is that those gang members who were in school will now be on the streets. Coupled with cuts to the services they use and fewer youth workers who can mediate, those streets will be a lot more dangerous and I would expect the level of crime and violence to rise."
In Birmingham, another scene for riots, the aim is to reduce youth services by 50 % during the next three years.
Throughout the UK, hundreds and thousands of young people will be affected by the cuts aimed at youth services. This is in addition to the menacing economic climate, rise in unemployment rates among young people and the disappearance of the Education Maintenance Allowance, which used to give many disadvantaged young people the possibility to continue their education past the legally required age of 16. Add to that the rise in tuition fees of Universities this leaves little hope for a better education and better future for the next generation. Young people from poor backgrounds feel more isolated and excluded from society and rightly so. Why are the government cuts hitting the young and the disadvantaged so hard in a country of such wealth as England where the richest 10 % are over a 100 times wealthier than the poorest?
And why are we surprised that they are angry? They have nothing to do, nowhere to go, now or in the future, and they are aware that for the first time, everyone is noticing them. They are in the spotlight, and cannot be stopped. The police that discriminate them are helpless. But still it seems that the majority of the media are still too unwise to give these young people a chance to explain what is happening to them everyday and what they are so unhappy about. That is why I feel the need to end this article with a link to this interview: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/video/2011/jul/31/haringey-youth-club-...
The writer is a photographer and a resident of Hackney.