Thursday, 11 August 2011

England riots: what next?

I don't pretend to understand. Like a host of other people, as the riots took grip, I sat watching the TV coverage, following the Facebook and Twitter updates, trying to figure it all out.

It didn't seem like other riots, it didn't seem an attack on authority, more an opportunity to plunder. The voices heard on the television weren't calling for the downfall of the government, but for satnavs and trainers. What kind of riot did that make this?

The Government seems unequivocal about this. Today, David Cameron said: "To the lawless minority, the criminals who’ve taken what they can get. I say: We will track you down, we will find you, we will charge you, we will punish you. You will pay for what you have done."

To the Government, these were criminals. Nothing more. Today, a range of measures were set out to crack down on these criminals. Limits possibly placed on social media. Gang injunctions being extended. Police being given the powers to remove facemasks. Sentencing powers to be kept under review to ensure the courts have the powers they need. That's the kind of response that will satisfy those who might have voted for one or the other political party, but how will that touch the lives of those who took part in the rioting?

A host of people have said that this shows that the police cutbacks should be reversed - but where is the outcry over the cutbacks in youth services that have seen a slew of youth clubs closed down, that have resulted in youth workers losing their jobs, the cutbacks that have seen community facilities close down?

The official line seems to be that these are criminals - nothing more, nothing less. And with that, the shutters seem to come down on any attempt to understand the motivations of those taking part. The line is that there is no excuse for such actions, but just because there is no excuse doesn't mean that there is no reason. How is it that so many people - nearly 1,000 arrests in London alone and hundreds more across the country - are so disconnected from society that they have no censor inside their heads that says: "This is wrong."

Is it racism? Is it the feeling of being excluded that comes from the fact that black people are 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people? Does it draw strength from views such as that quoted by one woman early on in the riots who pointed out that people had seen the expenses scandal involving politicians, the accusations of corruption with police taking cash from journalists? Is it helped by the likes of Peter Tapsell calling for looters to be rounded up and locked up in Wembley Stadium? Or does this latter point only serve to show how disconnected many of these MPs are from those running wild on the streets?

As I said at the start, I don't pretend to understand. But I do know this - there are two stages to dealing with these riots. First, order must be restored as quickly as possible, and whatever resources the police need should be provided to help them do that. That does not mean a kneejerk reaction - such as the suggestion of limits to social media - but simply enforcing the law. It also isn't helped by comments from the PM, declaring that anyone convicted must be jailed. I'm quite sure there will be a wide range of offences arising from the riots - many of them deserving of a jail sentence, but some of which will be able to be dealt with in a non-custodial way, such as one 15-year-old who was arrested with 21 Yorkie bars and 13 bags of fruit gums. Sentencing should be left to the judges, not those seeking to shore up their vote.

But then, after order is restored, comes the second stage. Never mind the tough crackdown when rioting takes place, how can it be prevented from happening in the first place? Discipline in the schools comes the rallying cry, tax breaks to encourage marriage, making people fear the rule of law - these are the suggestions being put forward. No words about understanding, little suggestion about finding ways to integrate people into a society they feel excluded from.

There are no easy answers, but there is an easy question: why? If we are to avoid a repeat of the disorder of the past few days, it's a question that those in power should not be afraid to ask.

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