Riots and rubbish

The recent riots seem to have elicited a stream of hasty comments and quick judgements by leading figures in our society. There is again talk of “broken Britain” with even Iain Duncan-Smith and Boris Johnson disagreeing about whether Britain really is broken or not. Ken Livingstone blamed the Coalition’s cuts. The award for the most inflammatory, bigoted and racist outburst must go to David Starkey on Newsnight whose view was that “the whites have become black” – not only do I wonder what planet he is on but, with a mindset like that, it makes me question the validity of his TV history programmes which, until now, I had admired and enjoyed.

But what have really made me feel angry and frustrated are the glib and off-the-cuff explanations of why the riots happened. There is, of course, the apparent fact that there was a wide spectrum of motives among those who rioted and looted – they weren’t all unemployed gang members. Many were clearly of somewhat higher economic status, exemplified by the arrival in Clapham of two mini-cabs packed with looters. And as for the view that “this was pure criminality”, Harry Eyres in his excellent “Slow Lane” column in Saturday’s Financial Times put it perfectly : “To attribute it [civil disorder] to ‘criminality pure and simple’, as the British prime minister and others have done, is to commit the language crime of tautology. Of course criminality is criminality. But that gets you no closer to understanding anything”.

Among all the post-riot clamour, two views in particular caught my attention. First, Owen Jones (author of “Chavs : The Demonisation of the Working Class”) who shared the Newsnight platform with David Starkey (whose performance he amusingly described as “Enoch Powell meets Alan Partridge”). Jones quotes a resident of Ashington, a large Northumbrian mining village devastated by pit closures, as saying that young people, who had grown up with all the frustrations and boredom of poverty, felt that they had little future to look forward to. Jones cites a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report into gangs which concludes that there is a strong link between “territorial behaviour” and poorer communities – gangs provide some young people with the fun, excitement and support that they otherwise lack. So – it’s all about poverty, not ethnicity.

Second, Harriet Sergeant (author of the report “Fixing Broken Britain”, written for think-tank The Centre for Policy Studies) made some particularly penetrating observations. She has observed over recent years that the failure of white working class and black Caribbean boys to make the transition to manhood has left them dangerously disengaged from society, resulting in an increase in violent incidents and youth disorder. The root causes of this are a lack of male role models in the home and classroom, a failure of the education system, especially in basic literacy skills, and poor incentives in the job market due to benefit payments (it’s not worth finding a job) and immigration (all the theoretically accessible jobs have been taken by arrivals from abroad). This all reminds me of the African proverb that my friend Nathan Roberts of The Kaizen Partnership quoted to me recently : “If we do not initiate the young men, they will burn the village down – it’s the only warmth they can feel”.

So where does this leave those of us involved in picking up litter and trying to change the behaviour of the litterers and, generally, attempting to raise the spirit of our neighbourhood where the presence of litter spoils the beauty of the place and, at worst, makes us feel unsafe and invites crime ? Well, I think that the recent and ongoing discussions about the causes of the riots can help us understand much more clearly why certain antisocial behaviour occurs and what is behind it. I hope that it will also make those of us involved in litter issues in the more deprived areas of the country think in a different way about the people (mostly young) who behave in bad ways. Yes – of course there is a place for the stick where a criminal offence has been committed. But let’s give some thought to how we can use the carrot too.

I have no doubt that, given the right approach, we could persuade even gang members to take an interest in de-littering their neighbourhood. To my mind, it’s about changing our own mindsets as much as changing other people’s – rather than viewing a neighbourhood as a “problem area”, let’s redefine it along the lines that I recently heard someone use – “a less confident neighbourhood” i.e. an area where the challenge is to develop an understanding with the people and try to persuade them to employ their not inconsiderable energies onto improving their area and integrating themselves more deeply into society. What we, as members of volunteer litter groups, are in a very strong position to do is to afford disillusioned young people the chance to attain a sense of “I can achieve something”. Let’s think, those of us who are in a position to do so, about how we can make that contribution to strengthening our community before it’s too late.

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