As I watched the events sparked by the death of Mark Duggan spiral out of control so spectacularly across London and other inner cities, like many people I experienced a range of emotions. Sadness…dismay…horror…, but the thing that struck me the most was how familiar it all seemed. Now obviously such widespread rioting doesn’t happen often and many would say that the last week’s events have been unprecedented in both their ferocity and in terms of damage done, still for me seeing young people act with disregard for societal norms is common place.
While I don’t believe that the riots were a race issue, the socioeconomic disadvantage experienced by some of our communities did have a role to play. High unemployment for black and Asian youths is twice that of their white counterparts. Poor job prospects and a dearth of youth services are a lethal cocktail that lead to a low sense of attachment to Britain and mainstream society. In it’s place has been constructed a bond with the local area; the estates that they are from, the gangs to which they belong and they have scant regard for anyone or anywhere else. Such young people commit acts of violence towards each other with frightening regularity, a lot of which goes unreported and, where for most of the country such things are rare, for our inner city young people it is a regular occurrence. Even those that don’t succumb to it as perpetrator or victim are very aware of it and accept it as part of their daily life.
I have worked with such young people for almost two decades. We run an employment and training centre and a youth club (that we are only able to open one evening a week), and being so close to them I have had a close insight into their world. When we ran a programme in schools and asked a group of 15 year olds what other uses than the obvious there could be for a toothbrush, we were greeted with myriad names for a weapon, such as “shank” and “borer”. For those a few years older it is even more stark, they all know someone who has stabbed or been stabbed, can access a gun by making a quick phone call, risk life and limb if they travel to a red/blue area (which can be 10 minutes down the road) and have to adopt behaviours that stop them from being a perennial victim. There is a real lack of empathy for anyone outside their family or friends and no understanding of the consequences of their actions. It is as if their lives are a boot camp, where they become desensitised to other human beings and so can go forward with lives in which the best they aspire to is to be a big time drug dealer. That said, they are still youths and are not demons, even though in particular circumstances they are capable of evil things, as Donnell Carty and Sanchez Santre Gayle, who both attended our youth club have done.
Now that they have been so dramatically thrust upon an unsuspecting public, we should not be scared of these young people, they were amongst us before these dreadful riots and will be around afterwards. The rioting has thankfully now stopped and now the criminal justice system must play its part, but I hope it does not end there. Even if we cannot be empathetic towards them, we must now acknowledge that we have a vested interest in tackling the causes of their alienation. As Martin Luther King said: “There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society, with a large segment of people in that society, who feel that they have no stake in it; who feel that they have nothing to lose. People who have a stake in their society, protect that society, but when they don’t have it, they unconsciously want to destroy it.” At a time when we all accept that there must be a reduction in public spending, the money that is spent must be done wisely, an organisation like ours that manages to get such young people through our doors every day and engages them, they even tell us that “when we are here, we are not causing trouble,” cannot access any public money and were it not for our reserves would have ceased to operate. In the absence of the right familial influences, we have the choice of these young people only exposed to the mores of the street or to be embraced by professionals in the community that can help them navigate into mainstream society. What would you rather have?