What is to be done?

Now more than ever, there is a need to move beyond the blame game; to engage with those who feel at the margins and who feel they have no stake. 

I returned on Friday from a week more or less out of reach of TV, radio and electronic communications to what feels like another country: A country convulsed by anger, outrage and anguish. A country in which the ‘old certainties’ of even ten days ago, now seem past their sell by date.

The rioting has ended, the initial clean up is complete, but a palpable air of vindictiveness hangs in the air:  Name and shame, lock up and throw away the key, evict them, deprive them of benefits. Punish anyone and everyone who played even the smallest part in last weeks events.

To be sure (let’s hope) the immediate wrath and anger will fade – but the genuine pain, anguish and numbness will remain.  And the long term consequences for individuals, families, communities and own our deeper sense of identity and well-being as a society are as yet harder to fathom.

Thousands of words have certainly expended:  Instant punditry from left and right, from on high (though noticeably – hardly at all from below).  Old prescriptions that made sense two weeks ago, still trotted out, now no longer sufficient.  Now is a time for quiet introspection, and thoughtful questioning (amongst the best of them Luke Bretherton,   Nick Baines, Jon Kuhrt, and Camila Batmanghelidjh).

Every crisis leaves its mark.  Credit crunch; recession; bankers; politicians; media. Now this.

So what is to be done?

Now more than ever, there is a need to move beyond the blame game; to engage with those who feel at the margins and who feel they have no stake.  There is a need to find ways to hear their anger (for to suppress anger is to invite further bouts of rage), to view the world through their eyes, and to challenge others to do likewise.

Now is not a time to presume that we have the answer to their problems (and far less that they are the problem); but that through conversation and dialogue, through supporting and engaging with the ‘disenchanted and the disengaged’ in the local communities affected we can at least start to understand what hope does – or could look like – and what is be needed to build some sense of a possible future.

But now is also a time to examine ourselves as a society:  To understand our own culpability and the culpability of wider institutions in hoarding wealth and opportunity.  Have we, for too long, been willing to acquiesce to the amassing of wealth by the few and the systematic exclusion of others, provided our own futures are secure?

Now is a time to rise to the challenge of modelling the kind of society which we ourselves would want to live in:  Inclusive, supportive, enabling all to fully develop as human beings, to share in life in all its fullness.   We must play our part in ensuring the institutions we are part of – our churches and schools, workplaces and businesses – live up to these values.  And to challenge others to do likewise.  To challenge our politicians, church and business leaders to engage with those at the margins – not for a condescending photo opportunity, or as a backdrop to the latest speech, nor less to lecture, to judge or to prescribe – but to really listen, with humility and respect – and with a willingness to be changed as a result.

As the Old Testament prophets were beloved of saying: We reap what we sow.  Although some will pay a much heavier price, the riots are a judgement on us all. And in our response to them, let us not be found wanting.

3 thoughts on “What is to be done?

  1. Formal response from the Churches Regional Commission for Yorkshire and the Humber to the questions set by the Riots Communities and Victims Panel. Hope the gathered views offer food for thought… (also available on the CRC website: http://www.crc-online.org.uk)

    In response to the request to feedback into the Communities and Victims Panel we have gathered views from individuals in various communities around Yorkshire and the Humber and discussed it at a meeting of our Social Inclusion Task Group. Those who contributed to this process came from Leeds, Hull, Sheffield and Doncaster. We were familiar with other towns and cities in the region as well as with more remote rural areas through CRC’s work with the farming community.

    None of our group lived in places where there was any direct experience of rioting, though some live in or work with deprived urban communities. Yorkshire and the Humber was relatively unaffected by rioting during the summer. We still felt able to offer observations to the first three questions:

    Why do you think the riots happened in some areas and didn’t happen in other areas?
    • We were of the opinion that what happened in the UK in August ought to be described differently in different places. Much of what took place could better be described as looting, so it is unhelpful to describe every disturbance as a riot.
    • Where there were riots, it was our perception that people were rioting against a variety of things:
    o The police
    o Specific shops
    o Authority in general
    • Obtusely, an informal capacity for self-organisation seemed to be a factor
    • We wondered whether the summer weather, combined with a reduction in summer activities for young people, may have been a factor.
    • In some parts of our region, especially where deprivation is acute, we believe that the population has learned to acquiesce in the face of authority. They have become habituated to exclusion and oppression in such a way that creating a disturbance barely occurs to them. This is not a good reason for their being no “riots” there.
    • Equally, there are some communities who do not come into daily contact with the wealth that other people own. It may well be that London juxtaposes wealth and poverty in a way that exposes the social disparities that create tension.
    • It is possible that the culture of local gangs is significant. In Sheffield , for instance, some observers believe that:
    o local postcode gangs have such a history of violence between them that working together to riot simply could not take place.
    o It is difficult for gangs to attack shops in local areas (where they felt safe and familiar), because there are no national Footlockers and Car Phone Warehouses. Many shops are small enterprises, takeaways/restaurants owned by local people that are not natural targets for angst.

    How do you think communities can be made more socially and economically resilient in the future, in order to prevent future problems?
    • The question is phenomenally complex with many factors at work. We therefore would choose to start by considering the bigger factors. Where advertising targets people with an image that “you are what you shop” and gives them the impression that they are less than human for not having the latest gadget/clothing/device, looting will become an attractive opportunity. The inequalities generated by our market society need to be addressed at a political level. Inevitably, young people will feel harshly treated if they are given a sentence for handling stolen goods whilst bankers are given a bonus for increasing national debt which means that there are less services/ resources available to the local communities from which they (the young people) come.
    • Powerlessness is an issue for particular communities, rather than in general. In these places, it may be necessary to find ways of helping people to voice to their anger without resorting to violence and theft.

    In your opinion, what could have been done differently to prevent or manage the riots?
    • We observed an over-reaction of the courts as a shock tactic to reinstate order rather than to see justice prevail. We felt that whilst society does need to say a clear no to riots, it is disappointing when that occurs at the expense of fair sentencing.
    • The media response needs to be addressed. Where young people are described as “feral rats” it dehumanizes in a way that is unhelpful.
    • One respondent recommended the reduction of police numbers, to be replaced by a disproportionately larger number of PCSOs.

    We were unable to contribute to questions 4-6 as no significant disturbances took place within Yorkshire and the Humber.

    We would conclude by suggesting that a proper piece of independent academic research around these questions is critically important. We would be disappointed if the Communities and Victims Panel was the only research work undertaken.

    October 7th 2011
    Philip Bee (Policy Officer)

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