If the actions of those participating in the recent riots could be helpfully explained away as” just” mindless vandalism why is there such complexity in the debate surrounding why they did it, where they did and when? The word mindless has a specific meaning; it is utterly without thought. And this is where I struggle. I think this was a riot was a very different animal. And there was most definitely thought involved – it was calculated, strategic and very specific. The anatomy of this riot differs on many levels to your Poll Tax Riots of the 90’s, the anti-globalisation riots of the 00’s and the student protests of the recent 10’s.
This was young people on a mass scale quickly sensing an opportunity to seize control of a situation of confusion and anger with the authorities, appropriating it, networking with terrifying efficiency and mobilising for a collective and very violent vent.
The speed and ferocity with which they achieved this; its continuation and geographic reach, speaks of more than deprivation and “old local pain”. Yes many of these places are and have suffered economic decline. Yes these places have a history of social and economic tension; struggling to remain resilient after the battering ram of unemployment, transience and physical underinvestment keeps on coming.
But what this is really about, for me, is a chronic sense of a generation under siege from society, media, consumerism, government and themselves on a daily basis for what has felt like decades. From a society that considers young people to be fair game for a kicking. Now that siege is against us. Mental health problems amongst young people are higher than ever. Victims of violence are more likely to be young people. Youth unemployment is at its highest levels for decades. Student debt is rising. Portrayals in the media range from lazy, hoody, violent and feral, stupid and disengaged. What impact is this having on individual and collect self-esteem. Where do we think this anger comes from?
As a sister and a friend and employer of young people I consistently find that what matters to their development and success is a sense of identity, self-confidence and self-esteem. Without these come fear, detatchment, lack of empathy for human feeling, alienation and isolation.
I’m not for a second condoning what this group of young people have been doing over the last few days with seemingly high levels of delight, satisfaction and frenzy. This was not about urban social protest in its traditional sense; it was rampant acquisitive crime. Why would so many kids be motivated to do this on such a mass scale? Mindless vandalism or because they’ve been taught that having “stuff” is key to morale and a sense of self-worth and if I can’t have it I’m going to fake it or take it with little disregard to impact or consequence?
But I also don’t condone the growing sense of detachment, cynicism and materialism that has pervaded our lives and our places - that have themselves become detatched, alienating, isolating and lacking in any empathy for fellow human feeling. Just looking at some of the development that has “regenerated” our towns and cities over the last few years and how prevailing social conditions get frozen in architecture and you’ll see how chilly and uninspiring they can be.
It always amazes me how, what so often gets relegated as the “fluffy stuff” – i.e., consideration of social regeneration and community development – quickly becomes very spiky when it’s absent or got wrong; and how it soon becomes the explanation for everything in those circumstances. Either it’s important or it’s not? Either make an effort to take it seriously and effectively build in the need for community services and support or don’t wonder when communities that are under pressure and under-confident explode?
There was quite clearly a spectrum of reasons people got involved ranging from ego, boredom, peer pressure, anger, sheer bloody-mindedness, greed, territoriality, hatred and for a sense of thrill. They were unlikely to be abject hunger or a threat to liberty or security. These people wanted trainers and tellies and to give you the finger in the most visceral way possible – burning YOUR and THEIR city.
Yes, these our OUR cities. The places we hand control over to councils, government, private sector interests as we get through our lives over-worked, stressed, sat in front of our tvs or in our communities; the places that we go to when we’re not out working or buying stuff. When things like this happen – suddenly it’s like the city is an extension of your very body, and you feel they’ve actually set fire or trashed you, and you want that city back?
Why is this attachment to place, city, street, community, each other so hard to come by these days that we need to loot several neighbourhoods and set up a city-wide twitter campaign to reclaim the street with a broom? We have been having our own riot, it just happens on a low-level daily grind – these kids stuck into the social equivalent of a Hadron Collider; fuelled by opportunity, social media, and an incredibly strong network; in a vacuum of responsibility and activity; and boom they kicked off.
I sympathise with their utter frustration with what feels like a wobbling mask for society that is close to the edge but keeping calm and carrying on because that’s what we do. But really; we are all being pushed to the edge and or places, faces and kids are saying it all.
I sincerely hope that as a result of this, serious questions will be asked about how we support communities raise individual and collective levels of confidence and self-esteem to withstand social and economic change, remain resilience and be able to grow our young people properly instead of leaving them to do it themselves. I also hope that we recognise that our places have not just been a backdrop to this but have been the one thing that has brought us together through a sense of attachment and ownership.