Revisiting the Riots : Owen Jones speaks to young people and youth workers

Our campaign covered the August 2011 events from the outset in Riots are the Voice of the Unheard, which spoke too of Toxteth 1981, in Views from the Street, within which Tania, a youth worker on the ground, noted, “the riots seem to have sprung from nowhere, but paradoxically they have been a long time coming. Policing is a massively emotive issue for young people where I work in Hackney” and in Reflections on the Moss Side Riots 1981, where Gus John stated, “I would not be surprised if in the coming period as European economies begin falling in on themselves you have another upsurge of pan-European fascism.

In this context it is interesting to read the first and second of four reports, London Riots: One Year On, written by Owen Jones. He came to prominence as the author of the influential Chavs : The Demonisation of the Working Class and nowadays seems to be the leading and well liked, fresh-faced voice of a reviving Left outside and just inside the Labour Party.

In the first report he finds that racial strife, mistrust and frustration built up over generations show no signs of dissipating.

Drawing on his experience as a youth campaigner, Symeon Brown says young black men are “overpoliced as suspects, and underpoliced as victims”. But the impact could be subtle, he says. “You’re aware you’re being ‘othered’. You’re aware that you’re almost an enemy within the state, you’re a kind of danger.

With the situation facing young people in Tottenham worse than it was a year ago, questions have to be asked about whether we have seen the last of the disorder. The relationship between the local community and the police seems unsustainable.

“I do think there needs to be a communication about why they’re doing stop and search,” says Seema Chandwani, a 34-year-old youth worker and former deputy head of Haringey’s youth services. “Because I don’t think in their right mind anybody wants to allow people to walk around with knives or to walk around with guns or for their little brother or son to be stabbed because the police weren’t doing their job, so it’s about finding that balance.” Hinds is in no doubt that, if this balance is going to be achieved, there has to be a change in police training, which fails to “differentiate between the real gangster and the people who just go about doing their regular business”.

In the second he discovers that young people’s feelings of disenfranchisement and disillusion haven’t gone away.

Those who dismissed last year’s rioters as the “feral underclass” will find Jahmal troubling. Recently released after serving part of an 18-month sentence for violent disorder in last year’s Hackney riots, it is difficult to describe this baby-faced, softly-spoken 22-year-old as being simply motivated by “mindless criminality, pure and simple”, as David Cameron described the riots.

With so many young people facing a precarious future, youth workers warn of potentially grave consequences. Dean Ryan, 46, works with what he says “are euphemistically called ‘hard to reach, hard to engage’ young people”. He is adamant that austerity is having a dramatic impact on the young people he works with. “Before the riots we were campaigning against massive cuts to youth services. There are over a million unemployed young people in this country. Coupled with stop-and-search, continued police harassment and so on, we were saying this is a recipe for disaster.”

Fear of the future is mixed with a deeply-felt distrust of authority. Like many young black men, they have stories of stop-and-search going back years. “The police are very arrogant and ignorant about what’s going on in the community,” argues David. “They choose not to understand where the youths are coming from and why crime is rising. It’s down to a hard fact: nobody has anything to do, youth clubs are getting cut and stuff, so there’s nowhere really to go.” When asked if they knew anyone who rioted, the three friends laugh and shoot knowing glances at each other. “You were involved – don’t lie!” one mutters.

The feel of both these pieces resonates with our Campaign’s analysis. The circumstances underpinning the unrest cannot be changed by an emphasis on the individualised solutions offered through so many of today’s programmes for young people.

Sitting in a pub near Hackney’s Clapton Park estate, a group of middle-aged women expressed to me their despair about the future. Amanda Thomas, 40, has three children aged under five. When I asked about their future, her response was chilling: “I’m dreading it. People say, ‘Get a job, get an education’. But even if you get an education, there’s nothing.”

Lynne Stevens, a grandmother in her 50s, was just as pessimistic.

“We’ll just get more discontent, more homelessness, more family breakdown, more social exclusion, more narcotics,” she says. “How can it be any other way? The work isn’t there.” For many of those who lived through last year’s riots in Hackney, the hope is for peace on the streets. But the despair and fear that existed before the riots hasn’t gone away.

If youth work is to play a humble part in shifting the circumstances underpinning this despair and fear it needs be self-critical about its incorporation into a world, which speaks only of personal resilience and well-being; which if social is mentioned, refers only to enterprise and the entrepreneur.  Youth work needs to rediscover a commitment to collective, politicised activity from below, organised on young people’s terms and armed with young people’s own agendas in all their diversity.


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