Why We Can Expect More Riots This Summer

The riots were the result of a tangled web of causes, inextricably linked and combining in such a way to create a 'perfect storm' on 6 August 2011. In order to assess whether more riots are on the cards, we need to look at these causes in turn and for each cause, ask ourselves this: Have things improved since 2011? Have we tackled the underlying problem?
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A recent survey found that a quarter of Londoners believe that the Metropolitan Police is institutionally racist. Among minority ethnic groups, this figure is as high as 38%. Such statistics have led some leading public figures to declare that more riots like the ones we saw in August 2011 may be imminent.

I've spent the last two years immersing myself in the lives of young people on the streets of South London as research for Feral Youth, a novel set in the build-up to the summer riots. I agree with those public figures who say that more riots are only a matter of time. However, I think it's important to justify this conclusion and to explain that it's hasn't been drawn solely on the basis of one telephone survey of 1,000 Londoners, conducted as news broke of the Met's smear campaign against the family of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

The riots were the result of a tangled web of causes, inextricably linked and combining in such a way to create a 'perfect storm' on 6 August 2011. In order to assess whether more riots are on the cards, we need to look at these causes in turn and for each cause, ask ourselves this:

Have things improved since 2011? Have we tackled the underlying problem?

So, here goes. Here are the five key issues - in my view - that culminated in the August riots. They are in no particular order, because none is more important than any other; it was the combination that proved critical.

1. "Them and us" culture

The people I met in my research frequently referred to 'the authorities'. I soon realised that this didn't just mean the police ('fedz'); it meant anyone on the other side of this imaginary line that separated the powerful from the weak, the rich from the poor, the spoken-for from the unspoken-for. This sometimes manifested itself as racism, sexism or ageism (for example, in reference to stop and search profiling) but it also became political.

"The MPs are allowed to rob what they like from us [in their expenses] but we steal one little thing [by looting shops] and we get nabbed [arrested]."

There was a sense among South London community members that they had been cut off from the rest of society. "It's like they just don't care," they said. "Feels like we been left behind." As one man pointed out, there was no respect in either direction across this imaginary line. The divisions ran deep.

Q: Have things improved since 2011?

A: No, they appear to have got worse.

In 2011, over 40% of Londoners yet only 10% of Met police officers were from BME communities. Over the past two years there has been a net loss of black police officers, and if statistics like those at the start of this piece can be believed, then mistrust in the police by ethnic minorities appears to be at an all-time high.

Austerity measures since 2011 have bitten hardest at the bottom end of society with measures such as the Universal Credit and the Bedroom Tax pushing the disparity between rich and poor to extreme levels. Resentment, jealousy and anger are running high.

2. Lack of opportunities

Most of the young people I met were not in paid employment. Some were at college or doing unpaid work, but without exception, they felt gloomy about their future prospects - both financially and emotionally. After the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) in late 2010, there are very few avenues for young people from low-income households to pursue.

Activities for under-16s were seen as inadequate. I attended a Reading The Riots community debate that was invaded by parents of teenage boys who talked angrily of 'pop-up schemes' that came in one year, only to be yanked away the next. The argument that young people should be more enterprising and find their own ways to make money (washing cars etc.) doesn't stack up against a backdrop of economic stagnation and austerity; there just isn't enough money trickling through. Even those in education will soon break up for summer, finding themselves on the streets with long, hot days to fill.

Q: Have things improved since 2011?

A: Not a lot, if at all.

The UK has experienced the fastest rise in youth unemployment of any country in the G8 since the start of the recession. Unemployment among 16-24s has actually fallen by a few thousand in recent months to 950,000. (That's still nearly a million young people out of work - and the figure is higher among young men and in certain parts of the country.)

The government's answer to this problem appears to be one- to four-year apprenticeships offering young people a staggering £2.65/hour, which frankly doesn't seem very convincing as a way out.

3. Demonisation and a sense of not being heard

Young people are very aware of the negative stereotypes they were assigned by our national press. Headlines about "feral kids" who "terrorise our streets" with their "anti-social behaviour" have a harmful impact on young people's self-esteem and cause long-term resentment, deepening the 'them and us' divide. As one 15-year-old put it:

"Way I see it, if they're gonna write us off and see us all as criminals, we might as well be criminals. At least then you get something out of it."

I met with various youth media organisations and was humbled by the energy and talent within these groups of young people. I ended up commissioning a young person to film my book launch. Every day there are good-news stories worthy of national attention, but we don't get to hear them. The most common terms used in stories about teenage boys are: Yobs, Thugs, Sick, Feral, Hoodies and Louts.

Q: Have things improved since 2011?

A: No. Media portrayal of young people has worsened since the riots of 2011.

In January 2013, the Youth Media Agency (YMA) submitted to the Leveson Inquiry to highlight the discriminatory practice by the print media with regards to children and young people. The submission contained compelling evidence that suggested young people were being unfairly represented, with bad-news stories filling a disproportionate share of newspaper column inches. The YMA had a team of young people prepared to represent their cause at the Leveson Inquiry, but they never had the opportunity to speak. I think this says it all.

4. Poverty and depravation

'Poor parenting' and 'lack of male role models' were popular phrases among MPS and journalists in the aftermath of the riots. The story that a generation of children had been brought up without boundaries, lacking guidance and with no moral compass was an easy one to tell, because it required no proof. Anecdotal evidence - extreme cases dredged up by our national press - appeared sufficient to answer the question of why so many young people took to the streets.

This is irresponsible reporting. It's impossible to make generalisations about thousands of individual circumstances. I've met children from single-parent households who shunned the idea of rioting, while children from stable family units got involved. It's hard to draw conclusions about environmental influences, but if I had to pick one contributing factor then I'd call it depravation. It's hard to provide stability as a parent when you can't afford to eat properly and you're working long, unpredictable shifts. It's a simple time vs money equation; you either spend your time earning money or you go without.

Linked to this is the widening chasm between rich and poor. In the words of Alesha, the main character in Feral Youth (a fictionalised amalgamation of the young people I met):

We spend all our lives looking through shop windows at shiny things we can't afford ... All you see is the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. This is it. Just for one day, the poor is getting richer.

Q: Have things improved since 2011?

A: No. Things have got worse.

The Trussell Trust, the largest UK provider of food banks, has reported that more than 350,000 people turned to their food banks for help in the last year, almost triple the number who received food aid in the previous year. Recent research by the CEBR shows that at least 4.7 million people live in food poverty in the UK. Recent changes to the benefit system will only exacerbate the situation.

5. A 'spark'

In 2011, Mark Duggan was shot dead by police. This wasn't the cause of the riots; it was the spark that ignited the pent-up frustration caused by everything I've already mentioned.

As Lee Jasper (Director for Policing and Equalities during Ken Livingstone's term as Mayor of London) describes in a recent blog post:

The dramatic and unprecedented finding of the public inquiry into the Met killing of Azelle Rodney that concluded the Met had "no legal justification" for his shooting will seriously aggravate these already severely strained relations. If the police officer concerned is not prosecuted - and there is every chance they won't be - then we will enter Rodney King type territory. This is exactly the atmosphere that makes civil disorder more likely.

Q: Have things improved since 2011?

A: There are plenty of possible sparks.

So, what does all this mean for the long, hot months ahead? It means that more riots are a distinct possibility. All it takes is one shooting, one altercation or one court case going the wrong way...

In the words of Alesha:

It's already there, the rage. This man ain't starting nothing new. It's all over the streets. The truth is, it ain't just a race thing. They talk like it is on TV and that, but really and truly it's black against white, young against old, authorities against the rest. It's countless of things. There's bare reasons for feeling vexed right now.

Polly Courtney is author of Feral Youth, a novel set in the build-up to the summer riots of 2011, written from the perspective of a disenfranchised 15-year-old girl.

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