The London riots: Communities in crisis

Posted by Diane Priestley

What lessons can be learned from the London riots? Diane Priestley explores the underlying issues

Anarchy in the UK

People across the UK and the world watched the horrifying images on television and You Tube in shock and outrage and asked the same question: Why? 

While rioters menaced the rest of the city on Sunday evening, West London, where I live, had been spared. But by Monday night the rioting, far from abating, had gained momentum as gangs were directed by mass text messages to catch trains to untouched suburbs.

The following morning, I woke to the news that Ealing Green, just a mile up the road, had been hit. Parked cars were set ablaze and the cafés and shops that line the street opposite the park had been looted.

That afternoon, I saw the aftermath for myself and joined other locals wandering around in disbelief. All the shops were closed and smashed windows boarded up. 

Do the gangs have any idea of the loss and pain and they have inflicted on whole communities? The damage bill is already £100 million and hundreds of police officers and innocent people have been injured, some seriously.

Yesterday saw 770 arrests. Finally, 16,000 extra police officers were deployed to guard the streets of London, restoring control.

However riots had already spread to Manchester and other regional cities. In Birmingham, three young men were killed when they were ran over by a car.

It seems, however, that an uneasy calm has been at last restored. Now is the time for collective soul-searching and public debate.

Was this crisis an extreme case of school holiday boredom? What are the emotions driving the anarchy? Was it frustration and anger escalating to hatred and rage?

Many commentators have blamed chronic unemployment and lack of future prospects. With savage government funding cuts and job losses in many industries, this is a generation with shrinking opportunities and crushed aspirations.

And yet it is also a generation raised on a Celebrity Culture that lauds instant wealth and fame. Along with junk food, kids are fed a steady diet of junk values. They are indoctrinated with images of mega-rich movie stars and sporting heroes. These warped values don’t match the grim reality of life on council estates. The gap between rich and poor in 2011 is a chasm. 

Which brings us to another driving force in those looters: Simple greed. Some of the laughing youngsters caught on camera display real enjoyment in running off with ‘free stuff’. Today’s young people want only quick fixes. 

Armed with a sense of entitlement, they stole brand-name trainers, laptops, mobile phones and flat screen TVs in a rampage of looting, believing they could steal with impunity.

Where did they learn such consequence-free avarice? Could it be from bankers and financiers who 'earn' obscene salaries? Do they see a class-ridden society where gross inequality is accepted while the poor face a lifetime of deprivation? 

Yes this is not a ‘working class’ rebellion because there is no work. Joblessness is now generational and endemic. Most of the young looters are spawned by an impoverished underclass. And yet poverty does not automatically lead to crime because crime, as we know, occurs at all levels of society. 

Many outraged onlookers have also pointed to a flagrant lack of morals in the rioters. What is lacking in their emotional repertoire? Concern, respect and empathy and compassion for others. These qualities can only be cultivated through role modelling.

If young people do not possess moral restraints, what about their parents and other adults? The rest of us are asking where the parents had gone. In fatherless families there is seldom guidance or discipline. 

As well as asking why, here is another good question. Just who are the sinister adult ring leaders? Delinquents have little time for the finer points of politics. They might be disgruntled but they cannot articulate anarchy, socialism or the fine points of social protest. As the weeks unfold, police must identify the faceless ringleaders who mobilised and lead these gangs.

This crisis has prompted analysis of underlying issues. We must all now answer hard questions about parenting, the break-down of the family unit, the lack of meaning and purpose, youth sub-culture and the future of our young people.

It is clearly a symptom of deep dysfunction when people attack their own communities. Such offenders must feel extremely disconnected, disenfranchised and marginalised. 

For if this terrifying tragedy was a crazed cry for attention, then young people have certainly got it. 

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