This article first appeared in The Times, when my book, Kill All Enemies, was out on the heels of the riots of 2011.
Kill All Enemies and the 2011 Riots.
A couple of years ago I was interviewing teenagers for a new book. The kids I was talking to had all been in trouble of some sort – they’d been excluded from school or had problems at home – and many of them came from the same kind of communities who were so reviled recently for taking to the streets and rioting.
The book – Kill All Enemies – is now out, and I’ve found myself wondering how many of them would have taken part, given the chance. The answer, I suspect, is quite a few.
There’s been a huge amount of opinion about the riots, but one thing almost everyone seems to agree on, is just how repugnant the whole thing was. These people weren’t protesters, they were just criminals, a point the Justice Secretary Ken Clark emphasised in the Guardian on Monday, when he suggested that three quarters of cases brought to court were for persistent re-offenders. There was no point to it. It wasn’t even worth it financially. What sort of moron trashes their own patch for the sake of a new pair of trainers?
Greed is a common complaint against the rioters – greed and “the culture of entitlement.” But our MP’s, caught so recently with their fingers in the till, were trousering far more in money terms than these poor kids going after a new pair of trainers. The greed of bankers has brought nations to their knees, and no sign of the bonuses getting any smaller yet. Sense of entitlement? I should say so. How about journalists, trampling on privacy for a cheap story? And what about you and me? How many people reading this were rubbing their hands together as house prices soared, happily imagining they’d made a fortune with the purchase of a single property, while our own children were forced out of the property market? That feeling you got as the prices soared? That was called greed.
We live in a greedy society. That means you, me, the bloke next door, the vicar, our parents, our children, the lot. Over the past decades we’ve all sat by and mildly watched, not as the rich got richer, but as we got richer, while the poor got poorer. The example the rioters followed wasn’t just that of MP’s, bankers and journalists; it was us. They were only doing what we’ve all been dong for years; when a chance came to get something for free, they didn’t waste their time worrying about the fact that they knew it was wrong – they grabbed it for themselves with both hands and legged it. Their jobs weren’t going to pay them more; they have no expense accounts and probably don’t own their own house. What did we expect?
I guess we expected the usual – for the poor to be more moral and upstanding that the rest of us. It’s been going on for centuries. But in fact, greed and entitlement are virtues in many areas of modern life – just not for the poor and ignorant.
What we find revolting, I think, is not greed. It’s partly the violence, of course. Greed is so much more palatable if you can pocket the proceeds without kicking anything to bits in the process. But at heart, I think it’s something else. It’s poverty we really hate. It’s the ancient revulsion of the well-off for the poor. Ugly people committing ugly deeds, without even the charm to be polite about it. And perhaps the most offensive thing of all is the sheer uselessness of the rioters. We need MP’s, and bankers, and. But what use are this lot? Ugly, violent, ignorant – pointless. They offend us by just existing.
Most of us are by and large ignorant – that word again – of life on some of our big estates. The poverty isn’t always to do with money. It’s emotional and cultural. The way they speak, the way they treat their children, the way they dress, the way they make their livings. We like to laugh at them, with their Vicky Pollard opinions and funny way of talking. But it’s a very different matter when they start getting angry and misbehaving themselves.
Amongst the clatter of voices since London, Manchester and Birmingham blew up, the one thing we’ve heard very little of is the voices of the young rioters themselves. That comes as no surprise. Once the long arm of the law starts plucking people out of their homes and into prison, you’d have to be a complete idiot to crow in public. But while it was all kicking off there were a few voices to be heard. The ones that stick most in my mind came from two girls in London.
“It’s showing the police we can do what we want,” said one. And later – “It’s showing the rich we can do what we want.”
Given that the rich they were talking about were people who owned small businesses in their own community, it doesn’t say much for those girls’ idea of rich. But it does show what they hoped they were doing, at least, and what they resented. It’s a voice – an inarticulate voice, perhaps – but it is a voice. We ought to take some time to understand what it means.
One thing I recognise very much is the glee. That was good, wasn’t it? That was fun. No one could stop us. Just for a moment, we were in charge. It’s the voice of someone without power, revelling in a situation in which, if only for a night, she had some.
That glee is something people from all walks of life will remember, if they look back. Kids like wrecking things. It’s fun. Dave and Borris themselves, who famously enjoyed drunkenly wrecking restaurants when they were undergrads at Oxford, might manage a wry grin in private at their exploits. The fact that they were in a position of paying for it with high denomination notes hardly makes them any less the vandals. It’s an odd pleasure, and it’s as English as fish and chips.
But it’s a lot more frightening when vandalism turns into the mob. The English mob has been feared and reviled for centuries, and this is really only the latest manifestation of it. So what fuels that?
“It’s payback time,” another rioter said. And that, I think, gives a clue into what was happening. Payback. It was spiteful, swaggering, deliberately and almost senselessly violent. But it was political in this respect – it was striking back.
Against what? We already know the answer to that one. Against the police, against society, against their own communities. What does that say about the police and about society? Not a lot. And how damning for their own communities – their families, their friends, their schools, their councils, their community leaders, and their MP’s. Failures all.
Someone suggested to me that the riots in England could be linked to those taking place in Greece, France and North Africa. Is such a thing possible? Most people would find it difficult to accept that the inarticulate brutality of the UK riots can be in the same bracket as the Arab Spring. These were such ugly events – destructive, dangerous, with no clear direction. Not at all like the protests in Egypt where, in Luxor for instance, the only reported act of theft was that of a single taxi cab. If these riots were political, they were from a much less politically educated group of people. To use that word again, our protesters were ignorant. Not so much a manifesto as an inarticulate bellow, a gargle of protest, formulated out of greed, self interest selfishness.
But there is a link. Bob Marley’s song Burnin and a-Lootin suggests that he thought so. ”How far do we have to walk, Before we meet the Boss,” he sang. Martin Luther King would have agreed. “Riots are the language of the unheard,” he said. The fact that our rioters are so politically inarticulate and aimless doesn’t make their acts a-political. This is the voice of the unheard, as King suggests. Riots have broken out among poor communities in this country for hundreds of years. These are no different.
My book came out this month. Oddly, the over riding impression I came away with after talking to those young people was one of hope. I’m thinking, just to take one example, of a girl (let’s call her Billie) who pretty well brought up her five bothers and sisters for years on her own because her mum was on the bottle.
All she wanted to do was hold the family together; but of course she failed. By the time she was twelve, the Social Services cottoned on. Mum was taken off into detox, the kids all sent into care. But the final blow came later, when her mum come out, detoxed and ready to have another go. She accepted all the kids back – except Billie, who then spent the next years of her life kicking the whole world to pieces.
Now that is a responsible person, doing everything she could for the people she loved. Bringing up a family of five at the age of ten? That makes her a heroine, in my eyes. I’d go further; words cannot describe my admiration for her, and for many of the other kids I spoke to – even though, as I say, I’ve no doubt she would have taken a real wicked glee in smashing those windows to pieces at various points in her life. Society would have been very quick to punish her for her wrong doing, but there was no reward at all for her dedication and hard work towards her own family, except rejection.
There’s also some tremendous work being done by dedicated, and hugely underpaid individuals in those communities. Billie, for example, managed to rediscover her sense of responsibility and love with the help of the care worker, who took her for Personal Development sessions. The kids in that particular institution were amazing – so smart about their own psychology, they could have got a job as a councilor if they only had the qualifications. If they could only write properly …
I could go on for hours. Amazing kids and wonderful professionals carrying out programs that work. There’s certainly no shortage of hope in these communities. It’s just that somehow, somewhere down the line, we’re failing to empower it.
No one should be in any doubt that the greatest disgust of all comes from inside the rioter’s own communities. Listen to this.
“I heard one woman saying, “He’s twelve. What can I do?” and I thought – what a failure for you as a woman and as a human being that you can’t stop your twelve year old child from going out and wrecking everything.”
That’s from Karen, a Care Home Worker – an inspirational one, from a poor community originally herself. “In the end,” she added. “It just makes me feel sad.”
In the end, that’s how I feel about it, too. There are communities on some of our estates that are outside society, economically, culturally and emotionally. And it’s so difficult to escape. Education, the most obvious route out, is dreadfully hard to access in poor inner city communities. I failed my eleven plus, so it’s hard for me to actually like that system. But at least then, a working class kid from a rough area could work hard and get to grammar school and find a way out. You can’t do that now. Schools take their pupils from catchment areas. The moneyed classes – that’s you and me – have it sewn up. You either send your child to private school or buy your way in to a good school via property.
Often, the only easy way forward in those communities is crime. Every estate has a few big criminal families. You get respect, you get fear, you get a better standard of living. Difficult to resist …
What’s so sad is, those kids are worthless to society; but they needn’t be. They have a lot to offer, and they also genuinely have something to protest about. There are so many people who would back them up if their’s was any kind of genuine protest. But it’s wasn’t. They couldn’t even manage that.
I remember one PRU in Blackburn where they had flowers and a bowl of fruit in every classroom every day. All the walls were freshly painted and if anyone soiled it, they had to clean it up. The kids policed it themselves. Or another where they hold GCSE classes – small classes with patient, understanding teachers, where the kids were able to get good results. Or the Tranmere Center, where the Personal Development sessions produce a bunch of kids who’s self knowledge would amaze you. Or the parenting classes for teenage mothers at another.
I could go on. These things work. We could sort this problem out. It would take a few generations, and it would take money, but it could be done. But we’re not doing it. What’s so sad is, we’re not going to, either. I guess we have other things to spend our money on.