Saturday, 20 August 2011

The Denoument

I apologize for the extreme delay in posting. If I'm honest, it's because this piece is one of the hardest I've written. Sitting in London, watching the news, reading the papers, it's difficult to balance the reality of what happened last week with rational thought and compassion. The civil rights of many were violated, but that's nothing new so who's right and who's wrong? And, more importantly, where do we go from here?

After some very hectic and tense days across the country, England seems to be breathing again. People aren't  waiting to find hooligans knocking down their garden walls in search of bricks to use as weapons. Shops are keeping their regular hours and people in restaurants and pubs aren't wondering if they'll be robbed before they can order another g&t.

Unfortunately, we also seem to have returned to the social status quo. Gangs are being blamed for the rioting, entire swaths of society have been called "sick" by the prime minister and the government is calling on the Los Angeles police department for assistance in handling gang violence. Interesting. Do they know that LA has terrible race tensions and gang wars? I'm not convinced that they're the shining example of diversity and peaceful living.

Meanwhile, middle class England has returned to their jobs, their weekend city breaks and their glasses of Pimm's. They scurry past council estates, not noticing the kids sitting around with nothing to do and no where to go on their six weeks summer holidays. These are the kids we should be training to be future leaders of their own communities. These are the kids that will make positive change, but we have to enable them to develop skills to help themselves. Anyone who has ever worked in community development will tell you that the change has to come from empowerment within communities, not from politicians or other outsiders.

No doubt, these empty conversations will continue for some time, with little social or political action. However sentences are being handed out to some perpetrators. The courts seem to intent on handing down tough sentences. So tough, that human rights groups are up in arms. Low income families being threatened with eviction from government housing because their teen was an idiot one night last night. Jail sentences for dumb kids who posted stupid messages on facebook inciting riots that never happened. Now, I don't know the full story - most people commenting on it don't - so I feel unqualified to pass final judgement on these situations, but I do feel that the solution can't possibly be kicking people when they're down. Surely each of these cases ought to be judged on its own merits and placed in its own context. A blanket judgment that all families with any member who had anything to do with rioting will be made homeless. Does that really solve a problem?

What about the family of five whose eldest child at fourteen was swept away by mob mentality? This child is doing well at school, has never been in trouble before, has no gang ties and has an involved, albeit single, mom (maybe she's a widow, maybe there isn't a deadbeat dad). Maybe this boy received a flurry of messages one night last week and sneaked out the house when mom was putting the younger kids to bed. He didn't go out intending to burn down a building and make other families homeless. He didn't even consider consequences like that because he's a fourteen-year-old boy and they don't consider consequences. None of them, not even the wealthy ones. Mom can't go out after him because she's got four younger kids at home to take care of so she calls and texts him all night long telling him to come home and not to do anything stupid.

Maybe he robs an i-phone 4, because who doesn't want one? Mom can't afford it, but there it is, right there, in his buddy's hand and all he has to do is take it. There's no police so he does. Woops, he forgot about CCTV cameras. Busted. Now, because they live in a council house they're being evicted. He's missing school because he has to serve a sentence so he'll be behind next year and lose interest, even if he doesn't drop out he still has a criminal record so he can't get a job. For the rest of his life he has to tell every employer that he was really dumb, one night when he was a kid. Long after the i-phone has gone the way of the A-track. Meanwhile, Mom gets evicted because her son was involved in the looting. What chance do we give her other four kids now that they're homeless. Do we really reckon they're going to get A*s in their A levels and go to Oxford?

None of this is to say that the looters, regardless of age, shouldn't be punished. Of course, they should, but we need to think carefully about how we proceed from here. Just because the public is crying out for something doesn't mean it's right or that we should do it. Knee jerk reactions don't help. Didn't we learn that last week?

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