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Inevitable Riots
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Tuesday 8th August 2011: First thing this morning, I sipped my coffee and dispassionately watched the reports of the national spread (England only though so far) of rioting by the hooded youth. I have to add that I did so without an iota of incredulity.

At 7.50am I got on the train to work for the 25 minute journey into town. I like to read on the train and have a bit of quiet as I spend my day talking to adult offenders. This morning though I couldn’t though because of the hooded youth sat across the aisle from me. I was bristling with irritation. You couldn’t call it a conversation that they were having – more like ¾ volume, half conscious cannaboid slur about spliffs, how stoned they were, and how they ought ‘forget it’ and go get some munch. ‘Thank goodness,’ I thought though, ‘that I live in the West Country and the streets are so awash with drugs and the youth so indifferent and apathetic, that there’s no chance of rioting whatsoever! (Outside Bristol, anyway)’. In the time it took for me to write these two paragraphs, they had both, fortunately, dozed off. And so, I read for a few minutes in peace.

I wanted to get back to my read (Bernie Gunther in Post-War Berlin), but what happened next compelled me to add to my little book of observations and write this as I thought it was telling. The ticket collector came for ‘all tickets and passes’ and when he had roused ‘the guys’ (boys of 17 I pitched them at) from their stoned slumber, they immediately volunteered, complete with Beavis and Butt head snigger, that they ‘got the machine wrong’ and both had to pay an extra £1.80 each as they had chosen to pay for a shorter route. Alpha piped up and said ‘ticket’ could keep the 20p’s (thanks guys) as Beta was too ‘baked’ to get a sentence out. And by the time I have finished this paragraph both had gone ‘sleepy-bys’ again, supine top-to-tail across the four seats, rasta addidas on the seats like lords unchallenged, unadmonished.

I have to admit that I felt compelled to blat Alpha on the back-side with my book and wake him up at St James so they could alight. And out they gratefully shambled. In the carriage, we all found it quite amusing. Someone expressed mild chagrin that they hadn’t thanked anyone for waking them up. But as I say / said, “We’ve got to be thankful they are that out of it that they don’t have the rebellion in them to riot!” Sage nodding from the under 40’s, confusion from the over.

Through the course of the day, out on the wings, I got to thinking of the mornings events more and more. The thoughts even obscured the grim (but compelling) soundscape of prison life (the shouting and echo, the distinctive chirrup of the officers’ radios and clanging doors and final key jangle). The conclusion had always been there – the one I had been coming to after six years of working with the ‘disenfranchised youth’. The rioting is, always was, inevitable. Strangely, it was confirmed to me in my last interview of the day when I met a 30 year old fella from North London who said, ‘It’s the underclass who are rioting. There’s the same people all over London, all over England. And what the news isn’t reporting is the devastation on the estates they live in. All burning – my sister and her kids have had to leave!’

As I have to, I checked the records afterwards and they confirmed to me the pattern that I saw repeated time and again in my previous job. His ‘profile’ was the same as my previous clients – just that he was 14 years since statutory school leaving age and had spent most of that time in and out of Her Majesty’s less salubrious institutions.

I worked for a national youth support organisation that was the brain child of a clever thinking group who wanted to make a one-stop-shop service for 13-19 year olds for all their wants and needs as they develop from teens to adult-hood. If ‘they’ had a question, it was our job to answer it and find a way through it with support. And that’s what we did while the ‘every child matters mantra’ was in vogue until some mattered more than others and then figures and stats became of primary importance, when proving on paper ‘you were doing’ became more important than doing. It was a great job and I would literally get up in the morning looking forward to work – for that I am greatful and feel privileged. But that was before. In the six years I watched the same in education (as we were based in education establishments) as they too slid into being businesses and league tables held primacy and greasing the figures became clever or as the saying goes, ‘just business’. Again with this in mind, I think that what is happening was and is inevitable.

We all had different jobs in the company. It was supposed to be the same deal. But, how could it be? When some worked in Fee paying schools; some worked in FE colleges; some worked in High Schools; and the likes of me worked in the community/ Pupil referral Units, Youth Offending Teams and Young Offender Institutions. I’ll explain those terms in a moment. And by that, I don’t mean to be patronising, it’s just I went to my sister-in-laws 40th quite recently and enjoyed her friends incredulity at my experience (most being professional earning 100k+) which I took as everyday while they looked on as, say Captain Cook may have his barely clad aborigines. What I mean is, what I take for granted as everyday was their utter bewilderment.

Community, Pupil Referral Unit and Young Offender Clients were my bread and butter and I enjoyed a good relationship with them and with my colleagues in partner organisations for engaging them. They were the NEETs – the Not In Education, Employment or Training. Hoodies, wasters, bums, the hooded youth, scum . . . . whatever label people want to attach (publicly or privately to them). What I will say now is that I really enjoyed working with them. And what’s I really enjoyed their company and this is why.

Let me sketch a character for a moment - Deano. He was 15 and had a manic compulsion (poor impulse control, you could read) for stealing cars. He had siblings and a psychotic drunk for a father and long suffering mother. Professional colleagues described their chaotic world as the most prolonged example of domestic violence they had encountered in 20 years of service. As the axe would literally come through the front door, mum would send the kids out the back to the car (with suitcase always ready to go in the boot) and give the eldest the keys to start up the car and ‘go’ if she wasn’t out in two minutes. . . . . . . . . .

With all that adrenalin flying around, it was no wonder he loved cars and what they stood for – escape and power, just like the rest of us. Except Deano’s love of cars is / was a little more fine- tuned you could say. On the occasions he was stabbed or shot by a sibling / friend, he loved hospital: the safety, the cleanliness, the food and the care. And he got it oodles as he had the charm and intelligence to play it. He rarely went to school as he couldn’t concentrate with the lack of sleep and would just get into trouble. However, during a 2month stretch a YOI, he did manage to get an A level in English. Quite simply, he was one of the most naturally intelligent people I had ever met and very, very quick witted.

There for the grace of God go I. I was lucky to have been born to the people that I was. I may not have enjoyed being educated at minor public school and gaining a fairly useless degree from a Russel Group university, but it gave me currency to trade. I had a starting point.

The profile of the rioter is simply this: that they are from broken homes and family has failed them. State education has failed them. They ain’t got no currency. This might seem like stating the obvious, but someone has to. One parent families or worse, when the parents are locked in a cycle of mutual dependence and domestic violence. This is more often than not fuelled by alcohol or substance misuse. The parents / grandparents don’t work and so possibly for a generation there is no model of work, so how would they know it / who would they have learned it from? The house is over-crowded – often a 9 person family in a 3 bed house (girls and boys sharing . . . . . . . . )

So, when 9 year old Johnny-too-bad gets to school, after the Police have been round at 230am because of screaming / domestic abuse reported by the neighbours, a beating by his ‘uncle’ then brother / sister / mother etc, he can’t concentrate. He’s had no breakfast but ‘monster energy and wotsits’ because that’s all that’s left. Before you know it, he’s told someone to ‘go forth’ or clouted the obvious person out of tiredness and frustration and what happens? He is sent back to the last place he wants to: home – while the school arranges another ‘inclusion’ meeting (ie upwards of 6 professionals around a table, with said spooked child, spouting the same as the previous 6 times before).

Since the education system has been strangled and made it the bureaucratic, target driven business/ monster that it has become, no one can actually afford to have other kids distracted and actually ‘include’ those who most need the help. Some will end up in inclusion groups (shut off from their peers in another room with a special or reduced timetable) or become the ubiquitous ‘corridor creeper’. This is literally what they do all day, but at least they won’t distract the other pupils or turn up as an exclusion statistic to be penalised! Utterly disaffected is something you can guarantee along with zero qualifications come statutory school leaving date.

The third way though is that Johnny-too-bad is ‘permexd’ (permanently excluded) and goes to the PRU (now a status symbol for some / others because people have the time to give them the patience and care that the system couldn’t cope with / have the time for with all their other business demands.

Like it or not – and a lot don’t, Johnny has reached the end of the educational road. It’s only small groups or 4 max, but this is now more intense as there is no anonymity and you have to prove yourself – by being loud and aggressive.

The profile of the PRU kid is as above, but a proportion (proportionately quite large) have been taken into state care and have involvement from the Courts and Youth Offending Teams. We’ve gone up a few grades of experience here and now. And I could, but won’t now, go into tales of anecdotes of these young peoples’ experience. Won’t, but probably should as they tell a truth that stats cannot.

The point being that if, you have no role models, no self-esteem, no qualifications, no chance of a job, teenage substance misuse issues, a criminal record, have scenes of sex and violence pumped to you by the media as aspirational and your right – if you’ve no legitimate means of doing that – if you don’t know that you can have a game of squash and feel less het up about life, then ‘oh yeah’ you are going to riot at some point, publicly or privately.

And that, I think, is what we are seeing now. Inevitable, some might say. If you can’t make eye contact, can’t talk to people in authority or everyman, can’t relate to anyone but your peers, and haven’t learned those social skills from your parents, you are unemployable – for life! (if there were jobs to go to). And, in that case, you have nothing to lose.

And what if you are stripped of your benefits? No money, no home. Where and how are you going to live? Needless to say, Johnny-too-bad isn’t going isn’t going to have an awakening that involves mend his errant ways, gaining qualifications and going 9 to 5. He won’t and can’t recognise flipping burgers for minimum wage as a life. It doesn’t offer what the media and his peers regard as the trappings of success. What he wants is excitement, a sense of belonging / brotherhood, identity, status, purpose and, of course, material wealth. Incidently, what a gang offers mirrors exactly what a fanatical religious group does, save perhaps the eternity in Nirvana with virgins etc. The more individuals are marginalised, the more extreme their counter reaction will be. And so, they will play ‘the Game’ as the characters of the excellent and critically acclaimed HBO series ‘the Wire’ call it, with characteristic scant respect for anything but ‘the sword’ – so to speak.

Watching the riots and having a knowledge of the criminal justice system, it looks like a lot of young people, if caught and convicted are looking at life sentences for arson. At £50+k pa to keep someone in jail, that’s going to cost. I read somewhere that by the time someone has served a six month sentence that from the time of arrest, in police, court and custody fees, it costs the tax payer somewhere in the region of a million quid . . . . . . . . And so, it tots up.

There are hundreds / thousands of hopeless youths in our cities. They are shrewd and as naturally intelligent as they MPs jetting back from sunny privilege for recall and they aren’t going to go away. The sad thing is that their voice won’t be heard as the likes of Peter Power say that it is ‘opportunist criminals’ when we have made them (as a society this way) and they will just invite the constable to go forth and won’t have the vocabulary to say what they think and feel. All this before you even get anywhere near not being white – if a young person is British Minority Ethnic young person, I dread to think / can’t think of the depth of alienation and disenfranchisement they must feel in ‘multi-cultural / equal opportunities (hmmm…./ !) Britain today.

I am sorry for the people that have lost homes and businesses to this unrest and rebellion, but I just hope that when Parliament meets and discusses these recent events that they have some advice from front line public servants who have met and worked with the rioters and their families rather than some North American who understands North American issues. The history of North America is triablism / gang culture of one sort or another to this day. Be creative is a response yes, but look to a nation that has clearly failed in its war on gang culture, please! No!

Street Talk

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