Currently the United Kingdom is in a vice like grip of horror, disgust and panic over the riots that engulfed parts of London and other major cities nation wide. No-one who has watched the news coverage of the events can help but be shocked and sickened by the devastation that has been caused to families, homes and businesses. It is a sorrowful imputation of our society and the times we are living in that members of our community feel compelled to express themselves through violence and believe they have nothing to lose, no aspiration and no care for the consequences of their actions.
The analysis has begun and people are asking why? Why, did members of our own communities do this? Why, the needless and wanton destruction and violence? Why, are they looting? Why, do they think this is acceptable? The truth is that at the moment no-one knows. May be there is no answer or at least there is no answer that will please everyone. Unfortunately, with the question why comes accusations and blame. Whose to blame? The individual? The parents? The schools? The community? The economy? The government? To root blame at any one door may make us feel better and alleviates our anxiety over a seemingly random act, as if to classify it we can distance ourselves from it and be safe in the knowledge that it has nothing to do with us. That it is someone else’s child, someone else’s problem, someone else’s fault and like pontius pilate we can wash our hands and absolve our guilt.
I believe that there is no more rationality behind the actions of the rioters than there is from the outpouring of hate by the general public via twitter and facebook. Both are subsumed and being swept along with the power of the crowd. Within the crowd the individual as we know it ceases to exist and in its place the collectivity of the crowd takes on its own life and consciousness. Once an individual is ingratiated in such a crowd they find themselves capable of interacting in ways that may be completely alien to them, be it benevolent or malevolent. Extreme examples of this are the Rwandan genocide and the atrocities of Nazi Germany, a more benign example is the crowd at a football match (I’m not a fan of football but have been found jumping, cheering, booing and chanting at a live match!) The power of the crowd makes us bigger, braver, bolder, than we would be on our own, as well as more senseless and unthinking.
Much ink has been spent with people from all quarters venting their rage, disgust and incredulity at the insurrection of our youth. This leaves me questioning whether it would appear more acceptable to our sensibilities if the rioters were older? Surely, crime, criminality, disorder and violence are equally abhorrent no matter what the age of the perpetrator?! The youth element of the riots have fed into and reignited societies deep seated fear of youth. Unless youth is controllable and containable then it is to be viewed with suspicion, mistrust and apprehension.
A question that also begs to be asked is, what do we mean by youth? Are we even all speaking the same language? Do we all share the same definition of the situation? To my mind, youth refers to young people from adolescence to the age of majority at eighteen. The pie chart below demonstrates that using this definition of youth that in fact they make up only 19% of those appearing in court charged with offences related to the riots. Whereas, if you use a wider definition of the term youth, as referring to those from their teens to under twenty-five this would account for 70% of those facing charges. The difference between these figures is huge.
Media representation of the riot from the outset has almost exclusively focused on the youth element. Using terms such as ’spoilt children’, ’marauding youths’, ‘masked youths’, ‘hooded youths’ and ‘knife-wielding children’. Thus creating an image in the public imagination of our young, as unruly, out of control, and menacing, as well as solely responsible for the recent riots throughout the UK. They have been described as ‘feral rats’, ‘animals’ and one twittterer even suggested ‘Bring the army in. Bring back public flogging for feral youths’ and Anthony Daniels is noted with saying that British youths are ‘the most unpleasant and violent in the world’. I find this vilification of our youth worrying to say the least and fear what the consequences of this type of thinking will be on an already marginalised group.
The majority of the discussions surrounding the riots has as its locus ‘the problem of youth’, our young are disenfranchised, they come from ‘broken’ or ‘troubled’ families, they have a warped sense of morality and that this can be fixed by ‘zero tolerance’, removal of benefits. evictions and the ‘full force of the law’. All of these statements are troubling and strike fear straight into my heart, as they scream reactionary right-wing diatribe that is only serving to demonize and scape-goat a whole generation. The media and governments misguided centrality of youth involvement in the riots will only facilitate the further restriction and intrusion into our children’s lives. I know within my own town that police have been heavy handed and in the days following the riots were pulling over cars with young people, performing searches and arresting youths for walking home as ‘loitering’.
The recent riots have been marketed and sold to us, as sign of our ‘broken’ and ‘sick’ society epitomised in our anarchic, amoral and recalcitrant youth. The figures do not match the discourse, they may have been an element in these events, but they were not the driving force that has been portrayed. In whose interest is this? Certainly not a generation of young people who are being tarred with the same brush and may see their freedoms and movements restricted as a consequence. Why were these riots not packaged as a problem of male dominance and violence? After all, they are accounting for 92.2 % of the people appearing in court being charged with riot-related offences? Is it because male violence is so normalised within our society that it doesn’t make good copy? It doesn’t shock us enough? It doesn’t make us suitably fearful of an enemy within? It doesn’t fit into the political agenda?
We need to refrain from making sweeping generalisation, we need to not punish a generation for the crimes of a few, we need to understand the recent events for what they are and not what we envisage them to be. If the vilification of our youth continues we are sure to witness an actual rather than imagined youth uprising.
If the young are not initiated into in the village, they will burn it down just to feel its warmth (African Proverb)