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15th September 2011

Citizenship and civil disobedience

people walked out of Curry’s with their looted TVs, stopping and waiting for a green man before crossing the road

A lot has happened since the end of the last academic year. This summer the nation was rocked as young people up and down the country took violently to the streets, wreaking havoc in their communities. Although the initial riots were sparked when an unarmed Mark Duggen was fatally shot by police, the subsequent, unprecedented, disorder was far removed from any sentiments of searching for justice or demands for police transparency.

The more deep rooted causes of the riots cannot be ignored. Much blame has fallen on opportunistic individuals and parents, but all too often these simplistic explanations fail to highlight more fundamental, structural problems that exist in today’s society.

Rather than seeking out or accepting simplistic, peremptory explanations of the riots, we surely need to understand them in the context of their roots: in particular, of heightened inequality and unemployment. There is currently a national unemployment rate of 40% for 16 to 17 year olds. Although I do not profess great hope that the Conservative Party will tackle these problems, it was the ‘New Labour’ government whom exacerbated the gap between rich and poor in the UK- further even than in the Thatcher era. The appalling violence exhibited on our streets this summer was in part a result of years of lack of opportunity to escape the poverty trap. In 2007, after housing costs, a shocking 48% of children living in inner city London were in poverty.  This negligence of our policy makers to reduce inequality and poverty has created a generation of young, angry people starved of the support they need and heightened status competition, inevitably stigmatising the poor. For a generation of youth, this feeling of inferiority is a source of frustration and anger.

There is a problem with the desensitisation of a wide section of young people already alienated by economic divisions and social injustice to the idea that crime is acceptable. This detachment from civic responsibility and reality was all too evident when people walked out of Curry’s with their looted TVs, stopping and waiting for a green man before crossing the road. Instead of symptomatically treating the problem through harsher prison sentences and ‘zero tolerance’, we might rather adopt a more causal approach that looks at the economic and cultural drivers of such behaviour – in particular, minimising the disparity of wealth in our cities, as well as providing opportunities to the poorest in society at a young age to escape poverty.

It can also be of little help to continue blaming parents for such behaviour, in a way that does not deny parental responsibility. Parents have dramatically failed their kids if they have such little respect for society, but when these parents fail, institutions should exist that attempt to correct some of the mistakes made at home. This is where education is key. Schools can provide citizenship education, something that, bizarrely, the current government wishes to scrap from the national curriculum. With dynamic lessons and good teachers, a concerted effort can be made to encourage children to respect their communities and fellow citizens, as well as to obey the law. Citizenship education is not a magic solution to the problems, but it certainly can discourage the type of behaviour displayed during the riots.

Relationships with the police also need to change. This can start with a greater respect for civil liberties; it is abysmal that in 2010 in London, black people were 26 times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched. This racial profiling is not only morally repugnant, but has also ostracised an entire generation of black youth from their local police-force. During the riots, this “fuck the police” was a common attitude displayed by rioters up and down the country. It may never be cool to be friendly with a policeman, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be some sort of relationship there; one which doesn’t stigmatise or aggravate the UK’s next generation.

Contrary to what some media reports might imply, and to the recent public racial slur by TV ‘pundit’ David Starkey (a Tudor historian whose views are from a similar era), this is not a ‘black’ problem.

It also perpetuates and even encourages a life of crime; by saying to this group that we expect you to break the law, it may have a reverse effect and actually familiarise young people with the procedure of being arrested. Pent up frustration was released en masse during the riots. The police are supposed to protect all citizens and a large number of people do not feel they fall into this scope of protection, something which may further alienate them from the idea of citizenship itself, something which was apparent in the abhorrent attitudes shown towards local communities in the riots.

If our society is broken, the answer is not to put a new, shiny engine in, but to question the direction it is heading. Issues need to be addressed. Strict measures for next summer’s Olympics will only delay a recurrence of such riots. There should be a full and thorough enquiry into how we are failing our young people, which should stretch no further than to the foundations of our society.

Ben Moore

Ben Moore

Columnist 2011-2012. 2nd year PPE student at the University of Manchester. Will be writing about pretty much those three letters.London raised, open minded.

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