Letters: The riots' deeper roots in poverty and alienation


Astonishingly wise, experienced, studious and cogent letters on the riots. Pretty much says it all. I’ll just mention that playwork would be much better at developing that resilience thing that the  report recommends,  than schools would be.

Here is a machine-precis of the letters, produced using the Mac’s ‘summarise’ feature.

—–start machine precis——

So the riots were fuelled by “a lack of opportunities for young people, poor parenting, a failure of the justice system to rehabilitate offenders, materialism and suspicion of the police” (Verdict on riots: people need a stake in society, 28 March).

…Do we now need a panel to decide whether the MPs who commissioned it were: a) trying to justify their own existence, b) corrupt and trying to find jobs for influential friends who could advance their political careers, c) so wrapped up in the political system that they have completely lost touch with the real world or d) all of the above?

…• Lack of parental control of individuals may well be a contributing factor in last summer’s riots, but the example set by society’s elders must also be a broader factor. A population looking up to leadership desperately trying to justify MPs’ exorbitant expenses claims, phone hacking on an industrial scale, governments sucking up to media bullies, donations for political influence, toleration of massive tax avoidance and various other examples of very bad behaviour is hardly a good example set for the proletariat, and if we blame the parents for a family misbehaving, we can equally blame the higher strata of society for the lower strata following their lead.

• The Riots Communities and Victims Panel calls poverty a key factor that can lead to a person’s involvement in crime. The panel recommends that efforts are made to improve young people’s resistance to the peer pressure that leads them astray…. Nowhere in the report is there any mention of the actual level of weekly income at which young people live in poverty.

A single unemployed parent has to live on a shrinking jobseeker’s allowance of £67.50 a week, or £53.45 for those aged 18-25, or on the national minimum wage, a poverty wage in London that is also shrinking. The word “debt”, and its debilitating effects on parents and children in poverty, never appears in the report.

…There will continue to be impoverished young people who, because survival and inequality are massive issues in this very expensive economy, will turn to crime.

…The figure of 120,000 families that is constantly bandied about derives from a 2007 Cabinet Office analysis of data from the 2004 Families and Children Study. It refers to families with five of these characteristics: no parent in the family is in work; the family lives in overcrowded housing; no parent has any qualifications; the mother has mental health problems; at least one parent has a long-standing limiting illness, disability or infirmity; the family has low income (below 60% of median income); the family cannot afford a number of food and clothing items.

…Government rhetoric makes a quite illegitimate and cynical slide from families who undoubtedly have troubles, through troubled families, which suggests they are somehow dysfunctional as families, to families who cause trouble. This is yet another example of government misuse of research and demonisation of the poor and the sick.

• Much has changed since I was arrested during the first systematic attack on the police launched by black British youth in Chapeltown, Leeds, in 1975…. Another is that there was no inquiry, just a trial lasting six weeks, during which everyone who pleaded not guilty was acquitted by an all-white jury.

Afterwards, five of the young working-class jurors said they believed us (11 young black people, and me, a 26-year-old white FE college lecturer) because, like us, they had been beaten and fitted up by the Leeds police.

…In 1981 we learned a bit from the inquiry headed by Lord Scarman, and his report kickstarted the move towards equal opportunity policies in government and local authorities. But it took until 1999 for Lord Macpherson to announce (contra Scarman) that institutional racism in the police force was a central issue.

One reason both the left and the right denounced the 2011 rioters was that they had swallowed the idea that the police force had, post-Macpherson, completely cleaned itself up. But as the LSE/Guardian research showed, visceral antagonism to the dehumanising effects of some police officers’ behaviour remains at the heart of the problem in our cities.

The other reason even thoughtful commentators rejected the idea that there could be any legitimate cause behind the conflagration was the unedifying sight of people joyfully stealing high-value consumer items…. To refuse to enter the cash nexus to express the overwhelming desire for these goods that we are all persuaded to feel doesn’t make you a revolutionary, but it does indicate that you do not automatically accept capital’s property laws.

…Darra Singh’s report has some sensible (and some silly) recommendations, but all of them will gather dust…. But even if they were implemented, unless we get to grips with this deep alienation, there will be many more violent urban protests.

• Like most of your readers, I am appalled that over 60 years of postwar progress in education and at least some stumbling progress towards social equity has supposedly left more than half a million “forgotten families” and their children.

Elsewhere, there are suggestions that the numbers may be even higher, we may be talking about more than a two or three million such people overall, which seems incredible to me. I think there might be a simpler explanation for the riots: the police did nothing for the crucial weekend when this all “kicked off”. Whole streets and neighbourhoods were left with no one trying to control what was happening, so all those kids at a loose end joined in with looting their local shops.

—–end machine precis——

I’m doing this so that you can get the flavour without having to follow the link. If you want to comment on the precis, please don’t,because I don’t trust a computer to summarise, nor should you; if you are inspired to comment, follow the link, read the letters in full then come back and comment.

If you did, that would be lovely!


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