Stop the world, we want to get off! How else to sum up the mood of a bunch of codgers who turn out at dawn (7.30am actually) and quickly become the victims of hailstones as big as saucers, at least that’s how they felt on my Cameron-like bald patch. I either need a cap like Albert or a hair transplant like Wayne Rooney. To crown it all the heating in the clubhouse had conked. As we stood there shivering and swearing the thought of rioting crossed our collective Borg-like minds. But we are too old to head off to loot the local Comet store.
I wrote that without thinking and it is interesting that when asked, everyone associates the August Riots with cost-free shopping. Of course there was a lot of that and no one in their right mind could see that as other than opportunistic theft. But that was only one aspect of the gruesome days of last summer. Today the first in-depth research on the affair is published under the heading ‘Reading the Riots’. In a unique collaboration the Guardian and London School of Economics interviewed 270 people who rioted in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham Manchester and Salford. The project collected more than 1.3 million words of first-person accounts from rioters, giving an unprecedented insight into what drove people to participate in England’s most serious bout of civil unrest in a generation. Five people died, more than 400 people were arrested and enormous wanton damge was caused to property.
In the wake of the riots David Cameron blamed gangs for the disturbances. The findings contradict that, indeed even those who admit to being part of gang-culture said that it played no part. Many admitted that their involvement was simply the result of being able to obtain “free stuff”, we can dismiss them from any social analysis for nothing can justify criminality.
But the two reasons quoted by the majority merit further thought. Many described the police as a “gang”, claiming officers enforced a law they themselves played fast and loose with. Complaints included being beaten up in police vans and “stitched up” over offences people were innocent of . However the major factor behind the clearly widepspread hostility to the police related to stop and search, and the basic incivility of officers displayed toward sections of the community in everyday interactions.
One rioter, aged 34 and from north London, described an incident that, he claimed, shaped his attitude to the police. He was, he says, thrown into a police van, handcuffed, beaten, kicked, spat on and called a “nigger” and “black bastard”. In later life he claims that on three occasions attempts were made to fabricate evidence aginst him, including one involving a knife. There were many such stories.
Many told their story not expecting to be believed. A typical comment was along the lines of ;”if you ask people on the other side of the fence or from a posher community they will argue that the police just do not do such things”. But, the interviewees argued, they do in our run-down patch. Whatever the truth the sad fact is that many saw the riots as the opportunity to get revenge.
The other major factor quoted was unemployment. This is less of a surprise given that over a million young people are long-term unemployed and see no prospect of work. You don’t have to be a rioter to realise just how soul-destroying this is and how quickly it can produce feelings of alienation and rejection. To compound the grievance local youth centres have been closed in almost all the cities affected.
To draw immediate conclusions from so comprehensive a study would clearly be hasty. But it is important to note that, unlike the original governmental report, this one included people who were not arrested. Gut reaction must be that nothing justifies what people did but the role and attitude of the police in everyday contact with communities must be checked out. The role of the police should be to enforce the law, not to make judgements or hand out punishment. So far as unemployment is concerned it is high time that the government came up with meaningful initiatives. They could usefully start by examining the recruitmnent practices of our large companies, most of which now advertise even the most menial job vacancies exclusively in mainland Europe.
Another factor that did emerge was the feeling that our society is rent asunder by the have and have not syndrome. It is a theme referred to regularly on this blog-site. Today we have yet another example. The part-nationalised Lloyds bank mis-sold payment protection insurance to customers, and has been forced to set aside £3.2 billion to cover claims to pay them back. Yet the departing chief executive, Eric Daniels, was handed a bonus of £1.45 million!
Lord Oakeshott, the ex-Treasury sokesman for the Lib Dems, has asked why he was paid a bonus at all: “No bank chief executive responsible for this gross consumer mis-selling should have been paid any bonus. the Treasury under both governments has been amazingly soft at controlling bonuses in the state-owned banks”. Amen to that. And is it any wonder that, with stories like this emerging daily, many people out there feel that our society is rotten to the core?
On one thing we can rely. Next summer will bring more riots and those that become involved must be brought to account. But right now we need action, based on the report, to at least narrow the rioters to the truly lawless, for many people who have never so much as picked up a parking ticket are becoming almost as alienated as the brick-throwers and morons.