by Aki Schilz

In the wake of the recent riots – which struck all too close to home with my borough, Ealing, being one of the worst hit in the capital – I have been simultaneously appalled and heartened by the response and coverage of this national catastrophe.

The news now of possible non-military national service, benefit exclusions, curfews and council housing evictions is changing all the time, so comment on that will be left here, however I had jotted some thoughts down in response to the initial fallout which I felt I wanted to publish.

London and other affected cities have pulled together and it is encouraging to see so many community projects being created to deal with the immediate aftermath of the riots. Unfortunately, not everything has been so inspiring.

Particularly disheartening (and the spark that led to this blog post) was one BBC reporter’s frankly maladroit questioning of a young youth worker who was attempting to explain, according to her line of questioning, the possible reasons behind the upheaval. Her brassy profession that she had once lived on a council estate and hadn’t turned out this way, and neither had her son, were awkward and unconvincing. And one did not have to be equipped with any great powers of discernment to see as she narrowed her eyes and at everything the young man said shot back ‘yes, but is that justified?’ that she wasn’t listening.

And this, surely, is the problem.

The questions asked across the board were skewed. Coverage was largely biased, leaning either to one side of the debate, which levelled itself at the question of class, bringing to the table in a smug, triumphant hand the old cards about education and ‘thuggery’ and the tragic and/or inevitable links between the two, or to the other side which thought vaguely in terms of law-abiding versus non law-abiding citizens. The latter, I would have to say, seemed more to fit the bill. But talk around the infinitely complex problems at the heart of the situation was vague at the same time as it was excruciatingly dichotomous. Good citizens vs bad citizens. Working class vs middle class. Whatever your view, the aim seemed to be to shove a wedge between the innocent and the guilty. Culpability? Well, obviously that’s with the parents. Or the lack of ambition (We’re breeding unintelligent children with no hope of a future! screamed one tasteless headline). Or, finally, the shadowy, faceless spectre that is The Government. Blame is thrown at random at age-old targets, yet no one seems to be able to explain what has led them to string their bow this or that way. The gun shoots. The bullets fall. The pattern of shells is about as readable as runes, or tea leaves sitting limp and sodden in a heap at the bottom of a cup. Why? Because the lens through which we have chosen to view this ‘incident’ is severely warped. And the desire to continue to peer through it reveals some unpalatable truths about our society and its slip into a kind of corruption that lies not only at the bottom of the ‘heap’ (if one must talk in such terms), but has contaminated the whole.
(Peter Oborne talks extensively about this in a recent article for the Telegraph)

Recent ‘revelations’ proved what we should all really have known already. The rioters weren’t just ‘low-life youths’. A young millionaires and an Oxford graduate are amongst those hauled in by the long arm of the law and waiting to stand trial in the newly set up 24-hour courts, as well as an organic chef (doesn’t get much more middle class than this, does it?) and, more poignantly, an aspiring social services worker who tearfully returned a high-end television set she had stolen to her local police station. One young lady was turned in by her furious mother, which story certain papers immediately grabbed upon, not as proof of the mother’s moral integrity and a plea to all parents in similar situations, but to hold up this animal for all the world to see. Since when does chaos control entail sending up individuals to a baying crowd, whose ‘brave’ vigilante response is to want to take a bullet to the heads of those who have broken windows, torched buildings and stolen thousands upon thousands of pounds of goods?

Oh, wait…

The name and shame culture is nothing new, after all. And it is no less disgusting now. That said, I for one, though admittedly politically left of centre, am thoroughly unconvinced by too-far-left-of-Liberal cries to ‘spread love and prayer’. Erecting ‘good thoughts’ walls, though sweet in sentiment, is hardly going to stop anyone from doing this again, should the opportunity (or excuse) arise. Telling everyone God loves criminals is equally unhelpful and more than a tad smug. Using social media, the very tool that facilitated these riots, to gather troops and organise local clean-ups? Now that is good citizenship. Riot Wombles, with my broom I salute you.
(For an interesting take on the riots that references the frankly uncomfortable image of a female Riot Womble wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan ‘Rioters are Scum’, try Hari Kunzru’s article in the Guardian)

And finally, there is the courage and bravery of the individuals who have been hit. There is something slightly painful about the nervous and awkward smile of certain of these ‘everyday heroes’ as they blink into the camera, unaware of how their small tragedy – gutted homes, ransacked shops, life savings looted – has somehow become front page news, but any unease around this is balanced out (and in some cases very encouragingly so) by coverage of the generosity of people willing to help those in need. Donations on a JustGiving page set up for Ashraf Rossli, the 20-year-old Malaysian medical student whose mugging whilst seriously hurt with a broken jaw was filmed on a camera phone, have so far reached £22,000. The shopkeeper who claims he now has only 25p left to his name after his shop was smashed and looted will no doubt also be receiving donations from well-wishers who feel sympathy for him and the family he has somehow now to find the means to support, perhaps through the De-loot London website, a site aiming to flag in online maps every independent store hit by looters in an attempt to encourage local communities to help businesses get back on their feet.

Not all will be so fortunate, and indeed not all were. In their name and in the name of this and future generations, I sincerely hope we can all make the necessary changes, at every level, from social work to parenting to education to work to policing to government, in order to prevent a future, bigger and even more devastating event. This was not a random act. This was a long time coming. Britain is damaged. I just hope, not irreparably.