Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Rioting and reflections from society's broken window

Much has been and, I'm sure will be, written about the causes and response to riots which have broken out in towns and cities across England. The killing of Mark Duggan may have been the trigger, but clearly there are underlying tensions which any trigger would have released.

Firstly let me address the police response. It has been claimed that the response to the Tottenham riot was too soft and a more 'robust' approach would have sent a clearer signal that violence will not be tolerated. Whilst perhaps true, the police were caught in a very difficult position. Anything seen as disproportionate on their behalf would have been cited as a catalyst further disturbances and individual officers must be acutely aware of the risk of charges being brought against them.

Monday night's problem was that rioting broke out in many different areas of London and the logistics of dealing with a fast moving problem across a very large city with limited trained officers are very demanding. It's easy in hindsight to say what should have been done, but I think a more robust approach to the afternoon disturbances in Hackney would have helped.

At this point, quite literally, the Riot Act should have been read. This was not a peaceful student demo which got out of hand due to a minority of infiltrators bent on violence. The streets should have been closed off and a clear warning issued through megaphones and the media that people had half an hour to leave. Anyone leaving after that point would be searched and, if found to have committed an offence, charged. Those acting unlawfully or violently could expect more 'robust' attention. Yes, many would leave and direct their attention to other areas, but similar attention elsewhere by the police would have sent out a very strong signal.

I also think that those arrested and subsequently found guilty should be given community service orders which focus on working to improve the communities they have devastated - their own communities. They need to spend many hours working with community leaders; clearing graffiti, painting, repairing and generally improving the local environment. This needn't be a soft option; 200 hours of backbreaking work for no money is something most, I imagine, would not wish to repeat.

However, that doesn't address the underlying cause. Deprivation? Perhaps, but deprived people can't afford Blackberrys. Lack of opportunities and hopelessness? To a certain extent, but some of those charged have been found to have jobs. Most are still at school.

Many people are blaming the current government's policies for cutting back opportunities, apprenticeships, and forcing local councils to close facilities, and I think there is some truth in this. However, if this were so, the focus of the mobs would have been the police. Apart from a few stones and the odd petrol bomb, the police were being avoided rather than attacked. No, the objective was looting, initially opportunistic, then it appears more organised.

My belief is that the seeds of this discontent go back to the last Conservative government - the culture of 'greed is good' and a move away from community involvement towards a 'what's in it for me' mentality. When people see the likes of Wayne Rooney 'earning' £100,000 a week and paying minimal tax, failed bankers awarding themselves millions of pound bonuses, calls for a removal of the 50% tax rate, executive salaries increasing sharply year on year whilst they are on a minimum wage, and Vodafone avoiding £6 Billion in tax, is it any wonder they feel somewhat discontent and that we're not all in it together?

The government talks of a 'Big Society'. Every voluntary organisation I've been involved in over the last few years has struggled badly to attract volunteers. I gave up being a cub scout leader several years ago as none of the parents wanted to help, or could find the time, and all the work fell on few shoulders. Our community council is now down to seven members, from a maximum of 15. When the market dictates that Tesco should open 24 hours a day, someone needs to staff the checkouts, and families and communities suffer badly from our craving for convenience and 'must have now' attitude.

We need to re-appraise what we want our society and our communities to be. The free market will not build a social structure and we need to sacrifice some of our materialism for what really matters in life.

And one final thought. Don't condemn out of hand the looters of Croydon, Enfield or Birmingham. What they have done to their local shops, we have been doing to the planet for years.