The Debate: Could the behaviour seen at the riots ever be justified?
One year on from the biggest outbreak of civil unrest in England for 30 years, a study has revealed that riots are likely to happen again unless action is taken to heal the divisions between teenagers and the authorities.
The panel, a group of young people who have been looking into the impacts of the disturbances with the Children’s Society, said that things were improving but some of the scars of last year’s riots were still visible in their own communities.
The summer riots of 2011 began after Mark Duggan was shot dead by the police on 4 August in Tottenham, north London. The four days of rioting ended with over 3,000 arrests, looting, arson, violence and five deaths.
Across many areas of London and from Croydon to Manchester, some attributed blame to the media for its widespread reporting which resulted in copycat movements across the country. Social media also played an integral role used to orchestrate the mass protest.
There is no doubt that the unprecedented escalation of rebellion shocked and left most in fear, but can the actions of those involved ever be justified?
Robbie Wojciechowski describes how violence is an innate part of growing up for many young people in this generation, and their actions were a result of anger at a system that neglected them. Jamie Lewis disagrees and holds that while those who questioned the death of Mark Duggan were right in their actions, others who joined in with rioting acted with mindless rage and greed.
Which do you agree with?
YES: Robbie Wojciechowski
Back in my school days, I was taught that being untouchable was something I should look up to. That having that fresh pair of trainers and being able to handle myself in a fight, made me someone deserving of praise. That’s British playground mentality in some parts of the country, a dark world of education through violence, where criminals are made to feel like gods.
And in not following those rules, you fall into being a social outcast, demoralized by classmates, being left to feel confusingly inadequate. Violence is in our upbringing. So, when the riots hit last year, I didn’t question their violent nature. I’m not condoning violence, I just understand the reasons why kids find the prospect of smashing something, or someone, up romantic.
It’s sad, but from primary school onwards in harder hit areas, that dog eat dog mentality is bred into this generation. School is also a place of bright ambitions, a place where you’re taught that the future is yours, and that opportunities will be there to support you. But politics forgot about my generation and started a war of aggression against us – cutting our institutions, our roaming grounds and the money that kept us supported. With no jobs, no place to be, and nothing to do, young people needed to vent, and with the only culture they knew, they reacted. Taking an opportunity to grab the things that they’d been taught made them cool; the shoes, the tracksuits, the fags and booze.
Street life is born out of that playground ‘bang bang life’ mentality, and to many with limited job prospects, it’s the only immediate prospect to earn a salary. As Kate Tempest, a poet from Lewisham – one of the boroughs worst hit by the riots – puts it “big money is made through that ruthless pursuit. They tell you, to be a success, you’ve got to step on some necks”.
Life for young people is in no way easy. Since the age of 11, these teens have been graded, tested, tabled, dissected and challenged, only to be told they can’t have the dreams they were promised because there simply isn’t enough money to help them. So, as a youth with lost ambitions, the offer of the power that comes with a gang – a gathering of people with a collective mindset, ‘a fuck you’ attitude to all those responsible for their failure – is a welcome one.
The riots were a collective gathering of that mindset, an opportunity to get back at the powers that be, wrapped up in a free-for-all public rampage that saw the doors that were previously closed to these people swing open.
It’s fair to say that the police were unfair opponents to a generation of disillusioned, angry young people. But these young people have been hurt by years of stop and search, race division and unexplained bother. So, when the police stood in front of them, beating truncheons, and throwing tear gas into their eyes, they already had a reason to lash out.
In the poem, ‘A Year On’ by Clarissa Pabi, this moment is captured beautifully: Would-be olympians, that couldn’t be stopped by police umpires’.
But there’s one thing we’ve overshadowed. With the riots, we told young people that collective criminality and violence was the way to start conversation and get their voice heard. And that’s more dangerous than any of the violence we witnessed on the streets of Britain last year.
Robbie Wojciechowski, 18, is a freelance journalist
NO: Jamie Lewis
I’ll admit it took me a while to work out what I should write for this debate.
Not necessarily because I didn’t have ideas or because I don’t understand the subject to a great enough extent but purely because it all seems so damn obvious.
I even considered just allowing you, the reader, to make your own minds up and just filling this space with a short story – perhaps a series of limericks.
Then I realised this issue is actually rather fitting for someone like me. Let’s remember that the majority of those people involved were indeed my age-group; my generation. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow people to lump me in with the rest of them.
I’m not trying demonise my generation, but senseless violence, random acts of vandalism and widespread criminality under the guise of a politically motivated revolution doesn’t quite wash with me.
Mark Duggan’s death in 2011 was questioned – and rightly so – by his family and friends, who marched down to their local police station in Tottenham demanding answers. As tempers flared and when transparency failed, the situation escalated – unsurprisingly.
The problem began, however, when random hooligans began joining in with the march with absolutely no knowledge – or indeed respect – of Duggan or the worrying circumstances surrounding his demise.
Those aforementioned hooligans decided to use these unfortunate circumstances to steal trainers, flat screen TVs and alcohol. They mugged innocent bystanders, they wrecked homes and businesses.
Those people absolutely deserve criminal justice and need to accept criminal responsibility. I can’t fathom how anyone can possibly begin to claim otherwise. There’s no excuse for people involving themselves in any march, protest or gathering in hope of violence.
None of it will be any consolation to the families of the five people who died because a minority of my generation wanted a free pair on trainers. So, please, forgive me if I refused to be associated with those involved simply because of the year of our births.
Jamie Lewis, 21, is a freelance journalist
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Tagged in: Riots, youth
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