Commentary following the outbreak of violence in Tottenham this weekend has already fallen into the tropes familiar to those with experience of other outbreaks of anger from local communities such as those that occurred during the 2001 Northern Disturbances, say Ratna Lachman and Neil Cooper.
The focus of press coverage and political reaction – both Labour and Conservative – has been to condemn the weekend’s events as ‘organised violence’ and ‘wanton thuggery’ perpetrated by ‘criminal elements’ who exploited anarchy on the streets to engage in an orgy of looting. However, whilst no one would wish to condone looting, burning and attacks on the police, it is also the case that focusing on the easy targets – the so-called ‘feral youths’ with their hoodies and face masks – avoids the harder questions the riots raise about the culpability of government policy.
David Cameron and the Coalition came to power with two big ideas. One was that the budget deficit had to be addressed by massive cuts in public expenditure – effectively leaving the single mother, the unemployed and the vulnerable to pick up the tab for the activities of feral bankers and city traders. The Chancellor, George Osborne, speaking from his theme park holiday in the US valiantly informed us that following the downgrading of America’s triple A credit rating and steep rises in interest rates on Italian and Spanish bonds, the UK was right not to ‘buck the markets’ by holding firm to its programme of deep public spending cuts.
The second big idea was the Big Society – where an army of volunteers and do-gooders would miraculously step into the vacuum left by the state, fostering new bonds of community harmony and re-making social safety nets slashed by the Osborne axe. However, the London Riots have exposed the emptiness of both big ideas by highlighting that the ‘markets’ in community trust, confidence and solidarity – even more so than the financial markets – just can’t be bucked.
The rioters in Tottenham have acted like a flash mob version of the international credit rating agency, Standard and Poors, effectively downgrading the government’s ‘social’ credit rating. No doubt the obligatory condemnations of violence will also be accompanied by ritualistic commitments to learn the lessons for policing and for social policy – but we have been here so many times before with successive governments that the British State is starting to look like a bad debtor when it comes to social welfare – endlessly promising to reform but continuously defaulting.
A decade ago the family of Stephen Lawrence wanted to know why they were denied justice following the murder of their son. Following Thursday’s shooting of a young Black man, allegedly by the police, the parents and family of Mark Duggan were asking the same questions. They deserved to know what led to their son’s death, as did Mark’s friends and members of the wider community. The failure of the police to treat them with the minimum standards of humanity that anyone – Black or White – ought to have been entitled to, raises serious questions about police conduct in this instance.
As the disorder spreads to other London boroughs, residents of Bradford, Oldham and Burnley are probably reliving the divisive legacy of the Northern disturbances which strained community relationships and created a breach between the police and Asian communities who metaphorically sold their shares in the police as public confidence dipped. If we are to draw any lessons from Bradford’s 2001 Disturbances then it must be that an effective policy response will not be found through recourse to simplistic rhetoric – whether it be about parallel and segregated communities in 2001 or about the increasing gun and knife ‘criminality’ among African-Caribbean youth in 2011 – but by sustained engagement with multiple and complex social problems.
The violence in Tottenham certainly included opportunists looking to make a quick profit at someone else’s expense and – to the extent that it involved local people – might be described as a form of irrational behaviour which only succeeded in inflicting millions in damage to the local environment and left many without businesses and homes. Of course much the same could be said for the City traders during the financial crisis – the only difference being that the Tottenham rioters will no doubt be banged up whilst the delinquents in the City still receive their bonuses and knighthoods, despite the fact that the vandalism they perpetrated on the British economy was nationwide and cost hundreds of billions.
But acknowledging that the riots were spontaneous and conducted by rebels without a cause does not mean we should also discount the idea that the event was also a political and economic protest – not the kind of protests we have witnessed during the Arab spring, with their clearly articulated grievances and political goals but the violence of the alienated and the angry who no longer feel they have a voice that is heard in the public discourse between politicians, bankers and the ratings agencies.
Tottenham is a stark reminder of the legacy of inequality that lies at the core of the African-Caribbean experience in Britain. The reality is that the community suffers high levels of deprivation; they consistently under-perform in education; they are over-represented in the criminal justice system; they suffer some of the worst health outcomes; they are disproportionately targeted in police stop and search statistics and the disproportionate deaths of Black men in police custody speak of systemic and structural barriers that have to be addressed. The facts are stark:
Unemployment among Black groups has risen 13% since March 2008, compared with 8% among White people. Today, half of young black people are unemployed. In Tottenham itself there are 54 people chasing each registered employment vacancy.
Only 39.4% of Black Caribbeans achieved A*−C grade GCSEs. 8% of all Black university students attend Russell Group universities compared to 24% of all White students. In 2009 only one Black Caribbean student was accepted to study on a course at Oxford University. Black Caribbean pupils are three times more likely to be permanently excluded than the school population as a whole.
Although minority ethnic groups make up 11% of the population in England and Wales, 25% of the prison population is now from a minority ethnic background. 3 out of 4 young Black men, aged between 15 and 34, have records on the DNA database and Black men were 8 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white men.
Moreover, the savage public sector cuts made to appease the markets has led to a slash and burn policy of youth provision by local authorities across the country leaving local areas with no meaningful infrastructure where the necessary intervention work to heal divides can take place. With London experiencing a 10% increase in gun and knife crime, already there were warnings of a summer of discontent as street workers and youth outreach workers are made redundant. As youth centres close their doors and programmes of summer youth activities are lost many of the young people without the luxury of paid summer holidays have little else to do but ‘hang out.’ For example, in the borough of Haringey, which includes Tottenham, spending cuts have already led to the closure of eight out of thirteen youth clubs.
These trends are being mirrored across the country – as young people’s stake in society narrows ironically local neighbourhoods have become the battleground over which they seek to exert power and control. No amount of casual volunteerism by community do-gooders of Cameron’s Big Society could have prevented what happened in Tottenham and the other London boroughs. It is hard to see how the National Citizen’s Service can replace the sustained, long-term interventions that youth work offers. What we are witnessing is the primacy of Conservative market-driven ideology over the needs of society. Youth work is a skill and we are losing it at our peril.
Of course, this does not mean that politicians will heed this lesson. Indeed, one consequence of the game of craven deference to the financial markets is that politicians get higher marks for talking tough about the need for cuts to public spending and social welfare. Conversely, tough talk on the need to address the deficit in the life chances of Black youth is likely to get short shrift from the growing band of politicians who believe that we live in a post-racial Britain.
As the full significance of recent events unfold, the worst that politicians can do is demonise the African-Caribbean community as they did with the Muslim community in the aftermath of 2001. Denouncing multi-culturalism may win the Prime Minister international plaudits and praise from the Far Right for standing up for British values but those young people who spilled out onto the London boroughs over the weekend are fourth generation British citizens – they don’t belong to a remote ‘Them’ – they are part of the collective WE.
The only difference is that being from Tottenham and from a BME community they are doubly deprived – not so much an example of protest from David Milliband’s squeezed middle as from the ‘squeezed squeezed’. If Britain is going to be truly cohesive then this government cannot continue to remain blithely insouciant about the devastating legacy of its own actions. For example, its relentless attack on equal rights legislation at the behest of lobbyists who characterise it as a bureaucratic encumbrance is a symbolic slap in the face for minority communities who face persistent systemic and structural discrimination and institutional racism.
Whether the riots spread over the summer is hard to predict, but what is predictable is that without youth workers on the ground, society no longer has the tools to undertake the critical work of healing divides, re-engaging young people and restoring the breakdown in trust and confidence between young people and the police. It is a matter of deep irony that when the English Defence League came to Leeds and Bradford, the council deployed statutory and voluntary sector youth workers to work alongside young people to prevent a repeat of the 2001 disturbances. If similar riots were to break out or the Far Right were to return to our region we no longer have the tools in our armoury to contain the potential outbreak of violence on our streets.
We have a government that is obsessively monitoring every twist and turn of the international bond markets but which has embarked on cuts in social welfare and social provision guaranteed to destroy the community bonds that underpin effective societies – and economies. The rioters in Tottenham have just sent out their own message from the ‘social market index’ trading in public trust and confidence: between them, swingeing public sector cuts and Big Society tokenism have all meant the government has already defaulted on its obligations to the people of Britain. The big question is whether the government will be able to hear this message over the chatter between Wall Street and the City and – even if it does – whether it is capable of abandoning its ideological fixation with zombie neo-liberalism and, instead, invest in fostering the bonds of community. If it fails to do so then the hot money must surely be on the further growth of the already massive deficit in social harmony – and the consequent emergence of the Big Bad Society.
This article was originally published under the title, ‘The Big Broken Society: Reflections on the Tottenham and Northern Riots’, for JUST West Yorkshire, Promoting racial justice, civil liberties and human rights.