Thursday, 11 August 2011

The UK Riots: What is going on?

In the last few days I’ve been shocked and embarrassed watching some of coverage of the rioting and looting that’s been taking place in London and other UK cities.

On Monday night, I turned on Sky News to see reports of buildings on fire in Croydon, looting in Clapham, South London, I thought: ‘What is going on!’

It felt like the police and the government had actually lost control of the streets. It still doesn’t feel like they’ve regained total control now.

Since then, I’ve had conversations with people at work as well as lengthy email discussions with friends on the situation, all in an attempt to make sense of it all.

That’s the difficult part - so much of the violence makes no sense and doesn’t appear to serve any purpose.

I’ve thought long and hard over what’s been happening. I will attempt to put together some coherent thoughts on the events of the last few days. There's just so much to discuss and so many questions to ask.

What’s going on in our inner cities? What do we expect from the police? How are young people being brought up and educated? What jobs are out there? Is the gap between rich and poor too big? Is our society too materialistic?

It’s hard to know where to begin, but a good place to start would be with what happened in Tottenham last week.

As cynical as it may sound, the riots that took place in Tottenham following the peaceful protest against the death of Mark Duggan came as no surprise.

Having been to plenty of football matches at White Hart Lane, I know that High Road quite well. The whole area smacks of poverty, alienation and deprivation. It’s the kind of place where I would expect something like this to happen at some point.

But moving on from Tottenham, the escalation of the riots to other parts of London and the rest of country totally baffles me.

The only time I can remember or know of riots similar to what’s happening now were during the 1980s. The thing is Britain today compared to 30 years ago is a very different place. The Brixton riots in 1981 were some of the worst this country’s seen, but the political and social landscape was completely different.

I remember watching a documentary on the 1981 Brixton riots, what soon became obvious was just how bad local community policing was back then. The police acted more like an invading army, it was no surprise that people rose up against them.

Those riots were more about people saying they’d had enough of brutal and discriminatory police tactics. They were speaking out against poverty and the lack of opportunities, during a time of rising unemployment and social tension.

This isn't the situation today. You can say what you like about the police, but things have improved greatly.

This is what I don't understand about this week's rioting. Where's the political aim? There isn't one. It isn't about people struggling to make their voices heard - This is just random violence, criminality and looting.

It’s like there’s two different countries in the UK living side by side; you have the mainstream and then you have this alternative parallel community of people who live by a completely different moral and ethical code.

It’s been building for a good generation or so now. Occasionally you see glimpses of it, but in the last few days its as if the whole country has been confronted by this ugly underclass.


So who or what is to blame?

I’m not falling for the simplistic ‘it’s the government cuts’ argument. That’s irrelevant. Some on the Left might try and push that argument but it doesn’t wash with me.

There's a number of issues, firstly poor parenting, and fractured family structures. I was telling my friend that I've been lucky in my life, as my Dad has always been around. I also had other male role models in my family, most notably my grandfather who came to Britain in the mid 1950s.

Within two years of arriving he'd found a job, brought a house and paid for his wife and 7 kids to come over from the island of St Kitts in the Caribbean. Many kids don't have such role models in their families, particularly those from my own West Indian background. Having stable, solid family environments is crucial.


Education

Although we always hear about how successful kids are at passing GCSE and A Levels exams, many kids leave school ill-equipped to deal with the world of work and living in mainstream society.

My cousin has been teaching in schools around London for a number of years, some of the stories he tells me about the education system makes me think that for some schools its more about ticking boxes. Making sure a school does well in the local league table rather than actually providing kids with skills for the job market.

Secondly, I've heard some real horror stories from friends who've been educated in some of London's tougher inner city schools. These schools sound like breeding grounds for the types of kids we've seen on our TV screens in the last few days, the kids have no chance.


Employment opportunities

In some parts of the country I wonder what jobs are available for people; secondly I think many kids simply don’t have the skills or social intelligence for full time employement.

I live in Stratford, East London, 20 minutes walk from the Olympic site. Do you think any of the locals are involved in the construction of the Olympic village? No they're not. Many of the jobs have gone to Eastern Europeans. Surely if our own youth were better educated and trained we wouldn’t need to recruit so many foreigners.

I accept that 40 - 50 years ago there was more unskilled manual jobs available for people without qualifications that simply don't exist today. But surely we have to do better in training and educating youngsters for the types of jobs that do exist.


Consumerism

We live in a highly materialistic and at times selfish society. There’s a book I’ve just finished reading which I highly recommend. It’s called Affluenza by Oliver James.

It looks at how anxiety, depression, stress and envy are increasing in Western Capitalist societies, most notably in the UK and the US. This ‘affluenza’ is now according to the author spreading to other parts of the world.

How does this relate to the riots I hear you ask?

Well the book argues that capitalism and consumerism are about making us dissatisfied with our lives and our possessions.

Too much of our status amongst family, friends and society are seen through what we own, how we spend our money. If we have the flat screen TV, the car, the holidays abroad, the house in the suburbs; all of this will somehow make us happier and better people. What we own are signs of our value, our success and worth within our societies.

Living in the West many of us experience this to greater or lesser degrees. People at the bottom of society are just as materialistic as everyone else. As a society we tell people that the possession they own make them better and more successful people.

Some will work hard and save money to get such possessions, but as we've seen there are many who feel they don't need to do that. They feel entitled to these things.

Since the end of the Second World War, we've experienced greater levels of wealth and prosperity, and I think as a society we have greater expectations of what governments and society should provide for us. There's a greater sense of entitlement from people.

For many people they realise that by hopefully contributing something to society, like paying taxes they will get something back in return, but unfortunately there's a growing underclass that have this sense of entitlement, but don't feel or want to contribute to the society they're living in.

I think I'll leave it at that for now. There's much more to be said, a lot more soul searching to be had. Don't worry, I know in the next few days, and coming weeks I'll have more thoughts on the riots and what it all means for everyone living in the UK.


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