Riots: looking towards underlying causes

By Savi Hensman
August 11, 2011

Riots and looting have left large parts of Tottenham wrecked. The homes and possessions of some in this already disadvantaged area have gone up in smoke, and others may lose their livelihoods. As has now been extensively reported, other parts of London, and cities elsewhere in England, have also been hit.

The past few days have left many across the UK shocked and distressed. Saddest is the plight of those who have lost loved ones.

Some are calling for tough penalties for rioters. But, for those of us who live or work in the worst-affected neighbourhoods, however angry we might feel about what has happened on our streets, punishment for the past will not in itself rebuild our communities or make us safer in future.

Those who took part are responsible for the fear and damage they caused, and the harm to the reputations of our localities. But there are also questions to be asked of the police, government and wider society.

A young man, Mark Duggan, lost his life. The truth about what happened should be revealed, even if this proves embarrassing for the police, and appropriate action taken. It is understandable that officers may be frightened when approaching a suspect who may be armed, but killing someone and possibly endangering a colleague are serious matters.

This is the case whether or not the victim was a law-abiding citizen. Many people are not, including some who are prosperous and seemingly respectable. If a young stockbroker in the shire counties who was suspected of fraud and had an unregistered shotgun had been shot dead by police, there would be a clamour for this to be properly investigated. Duggan deserves no less.

How the Independent Police Complaints Commission carried out its responsibilities should also be scrutinised. The IPCC’s initial statement about the shooting implied that he had shot at police. If this misled the public and encouraged local people close to him to believe that justice would not be done through legal channels, it would be a cause for grave concern.

Certainly the failure of the police to give prompt information to the family, and send a senior officer to meet the peaceful delegation which turned up at the police station to find out what happened, helped to trigger the violence. A stop and search in Hackney is reported to have sparked off the trouble there, and how this power is used should also be reviewed.

There are also questions about whether action to deter arson and theft was swift and effective enough. If ‘efficiency savings’ meant that there were not enough police and firefighters on duty, lessons should be learnt.

An economic system, and government policies, which have left large numbers of young people feeling excluded are also a matter for concern. The latest crisis, making it even harder to get a job with reasonable pay and conditions, and harsh cuts in youth and community services, have made matters worse. So have the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance, which encouraged young people in poorer households to stay on at school or go to college after the age of 16, and steep rises in student fees.

Indeed, it might seem like a message from the government to those from the most deprived communities who have studied hard and are academically capable that they are wasting their time: university is for the privileged. Meanwhile money is squandered on war, and further young lives destroyed. By throwing cold water over the aspirations of those wanting to get ahead by legitimate means, the authorities may have unwittingly fed into the idea that, for many young people, crime is the best way to gain ‘respect’.

There are also unhelpful cultural forces at work, including the glamourisation of macho and violent behaviour, and fuelling of consumerism, as if people’s worth could be measured by the material goods they possess. Ironically, some of the media which are most hostile to the rioters and looters seem to buy into many of the same myths.

It is also worth asking whether our society pays enough attention to children. This includes supporting educational, health and social services in promoting the emotional and moral as well as academic development of those in most need, especially if their families cannot cope or are unwilling to try.

There is a challenge ahead if damaged areas are to be rebuilt, trust between police and communities increased and future riots avoided. As the Olympics approach, even top leaders who are not overly concerned with the welfare of those in poor neighbourhoods have an incentive to improve matters. For faith-based and other movements which are national, connecting town and countryside, privileged and poorer areas, there is much to be done both in helping to rebuild and increasing understanding of the underlying causes.


© Savi Hensman has lived in inner-city London for many years. She is an Ekklesia associate, a respected Christian commentator, and works in the care and equalities sector.

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