Reading the Riots

Saturday, October 1st, 2011 by Chris Durkin

Although the majority of people were surprised by the riots, many were not, arguing that given the economic and social situation of many people they were perhaps predictable.Personally, the recent events brought back vivid memories of the riots in the 1980s. The 1980s were a period of considerable political, economic and cultural change with punk and ska dominating the music scene, music that very much reflected the feeling of many with its cries for justice, equality and on occasions some anarchic messages. Like today, there were questions being asked as to why this was happening. Again, it was a complex situation that had as its backdrop poverty, inequality, poor housing and derelict neighbourhoods. As today, merely seeing the demonstrations as criminal behaviour, fails to address the complexity of the issues.

The initial reaction to the 2011 riots from many politicians was to condemn the rioters as criminals, asking the courts to punish the offenders severely. As a consequence the numbers held in custody increased and the numbers sentenced to custodial sentences seems to have also increased. However, merely punishing people and locking them up in prison fails to take account of a number of the underlying issues, not least of which is the questionable benefits of locking up children and young people in prison - a response that is in breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to which the United Kingdom is a signatory.

As the dust settled in August, people began to ask the questions: why did the riots happen and what should we be doing to prevent them happening again? There are no easy answers and understanding the complexity of human behaviour is always difficult. Unless we understand the motives of the many and the underlying causes we cannot respond appropriately. All too often we put things in silos and as a consequence fail to see the bigger picture, failing to recognise that problems need to be addressed through multidisciplinary responses. Poverty, for instance touches so many aspect of a person’s life including economic and health; we need to focus on the relationships and connections of different social issues.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation[i] has begun to look at these issues and recently published a review of some of their work. In this report you begin to see the complexity of the problems we face. Problems, I would argue, are potentially going to get worse before they begin to get better. The review highlights many issue, including the physical environment that people are living in, their economic position, and people’s psychological and emotional state (including feelings of absolute powerlessness).

Furthermore, “People are worried about living in a culture that has increasingly defined status through material possessions and the accumulation of possessions as worthy in its own right”. It is a culture of celebrity greed and excess by a few. It is also a country with huge inequalities in many areas, including wealth, income, health and education.

Although crime needs to be punished, the continuous narrative of negativity, blame, deprivation and no hope is a recipe for disaster – and in my view it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some of the work we have been undertaking at the University of Northampton has focused on community and starts from a premise that in each community there are assets and skills that can be used and harnessed for the benefit of the whole community.

As the poem states:

If a child grows up in an environment of criticism, the child will learn to criticise.

If a child grows up in an environment of hate, the child will learn to fight.

If a child grows up in an environment of shame, the child will learn to feel guilty.

If a child grows up in a praising environment, the child will learn to appreciate.

If a child grows up in an encouraging environment, the child will learn to be confident.

If a child grows up in an environment of understanding, the child will learn to be patient.

If a child grows up in a just environment, the child will learn to be fair.

If a child grows up in a secure environment, the child will learn to trust.

If a child grows up in an approving environment, the child will develop self-esteem.

If a child grows up in an environment of acceptance and friendship, the child will learn to find love in people.

It is stating the obvious that for children to grow up confident they cannot do it by themselves. Equally if we are to address the issues in communities people cannot do it alone and need help, support and to feel that they are part of a wider network. It is easy to identify people’s faults and criticise; it is sometimes more difficult to identify their strengths and skills. However, the latter approach provides more long term solutions.


[i] The riots: what are the lessons from JRF’s work in communities? http://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/files/jrf/riots-community-lessons-summary.pdf (accessed 27/9/2011

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