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100 days after the riots

Naked Eye visited Woolwich after the riots and met up with two young people to hear their views on the events and how they felt affected.

We’ve been anticipating the arrival of the Olympic Torch since 2005, but no one could have predicted the kind of flame the rioters would bring to London and other parts of England just one year before London 2012. For those few days I was glued to my computer, on constant ‘refresh’, moving between tabs of video footage on BBC News, posts and comments on Facebook, and streams of tweets and retweets on Twitter. Everyone talks about Londoners being cold and distant, but that week (I’m pretty sure) I could feel some solidarity in the air, even along the deathly silent wavelengths of the Tube, as people looked over each others’ shoulders onto the front pages of the Metro, which were plastered with images of London burning.

The riots were condemned almost universally, but there were many different questions and interpretations following the events. I was glad to see that they weren’t played off as a one-off sensationalist piece, as they could well have been. Instead the analyses have been lengthy and varied, and are still continuing even now; there has been a flurry of new research data and television programmes on the riots over the last month especially. All of this has fed into the discussions that kicked off in the summer, and has shaped and re-shaped this developing story.

Source: School Census, Ministry of Justice / BBC News.

Part of the reason why the riots have stimulated so much discussion is that there are so many different angles to look at it from. Social commentators, youth workers, politicians, experts and the general public alike have dissected it from all sides, trying to make sense of what happened and, more often than not, looking for someone or some group responsible/to blame. Many have focused on young people themselves, or have looked to societal factors, such as social deprivation, the negative influence of consumerist culture and the use of social media. The opportunity to criticise the police and politicians wasn’t missed -the police for their lack of presence and power during the riots as well as the handling of Mark Duggan’s shooting, and similarities have been made between the looters and expense fiddling MPs and greedy bankers – who affects our livelihood more, yet who is more likely to be punished? Psychologists have explored aspects such as crowd psychology, and the mindset behind the intoxicating ‘thrill’ of looting, which the recent NatCen report1 revealed to be a major motivating factor for the rioters.

“These shocking figures make clear that the poverty, disadvantage and disaffection experienced by this group are root causes of the August riots; and now their futures will be blighted by criminal sentences.”
Rhian Beynon, Family Action.
“How did we end up with some of the most indisciplined and frighteningly moronic youngsters in Europe?”
Allison Pearson, The Telegraph.
“Amidst the bleakness of this social landscape, squinting all the while in the glare of a culture that radiates ultraviolet consumerism and infrared celebrity…”
Russell Brand.

We’ve all heard these different viewpoints from the politicians, media and experts, about ‘the youth’ and the riots, but what do young people themselves think? Naked Eye went to Woolwich to speak to Helena and Leon, two young people from the area. They didn’t participate in the riots themselves; our focus was to talk to, and learn about their lives as young people living in one of these affected areas – the issues they face, and their experience of, and opinions on the riots. The last few months have given us all a bit of time to reflect – what are their thoughts on what happened?

Our time with Helena and Leon gave us several things to consider. The first was that whilst we might nostalgically look back to our younger years as a time of freedom and possibilities, many young people today are increasingly feeling it to be a burden. Being there not too long ago myself, I am still mindful of the pressure and expectation put on young people during that time between formal education and (what seems like) the ‘rest of life’, to be able to make life decisions and create and shape a future for yourself. This phase has always been difficult, but in the context of current cuts to youth services, the EMA and increase in tuition fees, things haven’t exactly become easier. If this wasn’t enough, the rioters’ socio-economic stats show their lives to be lacking in basic financial and educational needs – an additional barrier keeping them at a standstill.

“You worry so much about your future…it makes you ill sometimes thinking ‘ok what am I going to do’ and I think some people have got past that stage, and thought, well, these are ways I could do it.”
Helena, 18.

This lack of basic needs ties into the ‘having nothing, and therefore nothing to lose’ mentality of the rioters, which resonated strongly throughout our discussions with Helena and Leon, in particular relating to community, wealth and opportunity.

The absence of community, in terms of young people’s relationships with the people and places around them (whether that be those close to them or the wider community) has resulted in many young people feeling put down and unsupported at a time when they are trying to get somewhere. Negative media publicity, stops and searches by police, lack of basic support at home: all this leaves room for little, if any, encouragement. The extreme actions displayed by the rioters’ own created community that week show how strong these feelings of separation and disaffection have become.

“They want cars, they want clothes, people would rather all that s**t than respect, than dignity, than honour. They don’t care how they get it, as long as they’ve got it.”
Leon, 22.

Secondly, financial poverty is another real issue that must be addressed. The stats show this, but if we think in real terms what that means, consider this: what hope do we have if we have young people in our society who think of prison as a better and more comfortable place than their own homes? It is hardly a surprise that with this mindset, the rioters had little to hold them back.

Finally, the lack of opportunities, especially in light of the cuts, paints a depressing picture for young people’s future prospects. What struck us most, however, was how success, in the eyes of many young people, is being seen more and more in material terms and the goods that reflect success, rather than focusing on positive qualities and values like ambition and focus, that lead to that success. The extremity of the level of expectation and attainment is also striking. Instead of working at long-term goals gradually, many young people are just looking to see what they can ‘get’ in the short-term, with only the ‘lights and diamonds’ at the end in mind. Peer pressure, fuelled by celebrity culture, has not helped in fostering this mentality.

Whilst there is no doubt that the rioters’ behaviour that week should be condemned, there is no definitive answer as to why the riots happened, at least not yet, and it is important that we continue to challenge, and ask questions as the ‘investigation’ develops further. We at Naked Eye will carry on our own thread on our blog, commenting on new findings and reports as they emerge, feeding them into our own discussions on this issue, and continuing to ask questions not just of the experts and the politicians, but also of young people themselves.

Amy Ohta

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