Posted by: Jules Birch09/08/2011
Trying to make sense of the riots is as tough for anyone as it seems to be for David Cameron and Boris Johnson.
Yes, the looting, the violence, the arson have to be condemned and yes the perpetrators have to be tracked down.
Yes, there’s a wider social context too. It seems no coincidence that the riots have happened in parts of London where deprivation is surrounded by affluence. Or that young people raised in a culture that values consumer aspiration above everything else should target the shops that have the merchandise.
But neither response seems enough on its own and even a combination of the two seems like a trite new version of tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. How can you make sense of something senseless?
I wasn’t in London yesterday but the TV news pictures took me right down to the summer of 1981, when riots spread within cities and from city to city (and were far more widespread than they have been so far this time around).
As shopkeepers boarded their shops in fear of the night ahead, commuters rushed home early and groups of youths hung around waiting for it all to kick off, the sense then was of a society and normal rules that had broken down, of a political elite completely out of touch with what was happening in the inner cities and of a police force that was part of the problem and struggling to be part of the solution.
Flash forward 30 years, and it seems clear that the police and the politicians have got things badly wrong. As Chris Gilson explains on the LSE politics blog, history should have told them that protests over heavy policing, and especially a police shooting, could trigger a riot.
Think Paris in 2005 and Los Angeles in 1992. Or think back to the other Tottenham riot, at Broadwater Farm in 1985, when the death of Cynthia Jarrett during a police seach of her home led to a terrible riot and the death of PC Keith Blakelock.
In one of the best blogs on the riots I’ve seen anywhere, Steve Hilditch what it felt like next morning on Red Brick:
‘Talking our way through hundreds of riot police, three of us opened the Broadwater farm Neighbourhood Office at 7am the following morning, dealing with many terrified people. Teams of council staff arrived spontaneously and began the clean up. Shops and cars had been burned out but there was remarkably little damage to the residential parts of the estate – extraordinarily, the glaziers were hardly needed – although the impact on residents’ morale was palpable.’
Back in 2011, I’d seen the riots around the Pembury Estate in Hackney feature prominently on last night’s TV news. Inside Housing’s story today has a small message of hope that the estate was largely untouched by the violence all around it but also a sense of foreboding with Peabody pulling its staff out for fear of more rioting tonight.
Franklyn Addo, the Pembury resident who famously turned down a place at Cambridge, has a slightly different take on the Guardian’s Comment is Free. He tells of an estate that was once plagued by crime.
‘But anyone living here will be able to testify that over the last five years, the area has improved significantly and has become safer to walk through and live in. The local council was committed to providing funding for youth clubs and other regenerative schemes to deter young people from engaging in criminal activities, which contributed to the area improving greatly over time.
‘The events this week will undo years of work to regenerate the estate and restore the confidence of residents in their safety. Early on Tuesday morning, the estate resembled a desolate wasteland.’
He concludes that it will take millions of pounds to restore the damage caused in affected areas and years to rebuild community solidarity and trust. ‘Unfortunately, the mental scars and the afflictions of those who have been injured, those whose homes have been destroyed and those whose livelihoods have been adversely affected by these wholly unacceptable events, may never fully heal.’
The 1981 riots provoked just as much outrage and just as many calls for a police crackdown too. But even Margaret Thatcher knew that it was about the victims too and that more was needed in the inner cities.
The 2011 riots are happening only a few miles from the homes of the political and financial elite of this country but the gap between them and the deprived communities of London is now a million miles further away than it was then.
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context