If you were asked how you spent your summer, I would expect you to reply that you enjoyed a week in Saint Tropez, had an internship with a prestigious law firm or spent a weekend at Reading festival. In light of this, why were so many people our age rioting on the streets, destroying buildings and looting shops?
I am sure that everyone reading this heard of the chaos that wreaked havoc last August and you may also be aware of the methods we used to cope with these outbreaks of disorder. I want to reflect on whether the way our government and police force acted was right, whether our criminal justice system indeed sought justice and why, in a civilised society, riots exploded onto our ‘peaceful’ streets.
Riots aren’t a new concept for British Society; throughout history we can find evidence of uprisings and in the last year we have seen the student protests as well as those over the Conservatives’ cuts. So why are these riots different? Torching and violence have been seen before, but what surprised the government, criminologists and the media was the involvement of so many people in looting. Looting has not been observed at this scale in a riot since the 1970s in New York.
When the riots started we saw a moderate response by the Tory government, but as the uprisings persisted and spread, the authorities became somewhat heavy handed. The use of water cannons, not employed since the unrest in Northern Ireland, was controversially authorised and the police were given a free hand to quell the aggression of rioters. Cameron described the riots as an example of Britain’s ‘broken society’ and vowed that everything would be done to ‘confront and defeat the thugs’.
So can we blame the recession? Twenty per cent of young people are facing unemployment, with few job prospects in an economy heading towards a double dip recession; our generation is getting a name for itself as the generation that will never work. Perhaps the riots were caused by a feeling of social exclusion or political marginalisation? Some argue that these two factors are inextricably linked. If the riots were inherently politically motivated by exclusion from society, how can we explain the robbery of clothes, televisions and food? Surely these riots must have been caused by more than an outcry for inclusion?
Research has shown that many of the rioters came from a background of poverty, with two thirds of them living in 10 of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Britain. In a consumer society, poverty, resulting in a lack of ability to participate in purchasing luxuries can have a huge effect on one’s feeling of identity, belonging, and worthiness to participate in society as a whole. Perhaps then, the causes of the riots are much more complex than the media, or David Cameron’s Tory government condemned them to be. These uprisings are a result of significant shifts in society’s structure and the consequences these shifts have had on the underprivileged.
Perhaps now we can start to realise that our criminal justice system did not consider the positions of these people, the reasons behind their behaviour and that it certainly did not treat them accordingly. We know that during and soon after the riots took place, 3100 people were arrested. Most of these were short circuited through the criminal justice system and most faced a double punishment in a justice system that processed 2000 people in 14 days. How can we delude ourselves and think of this as justice? What sort of system are we heading towards, where a passer-by is given 6 months in prison for picking up a bottle of stolen water from the pavement as he walks by? Many of those involved lost their public housing; how are these people going to avoid future offending if when they leave prison, having served an unreasonable sentence, they have even lower prospects without anywhere to live?
You may now have a different opinion on why these people rioted. What stopped you from rioting? Was it that you didn’t want to lose your dream of a high paying career, the respect of your friends, or damage your job applications with a criminal record? What if you had had nothing to lose? Our criminal justice model does nothing to threaten those in society who already have nothing. Perhaps we should consider our support of harsh Tory policies whose consequences are far reaching and unfathomable for those who haven’t been so lucky as to get a good education, end up at a top university, or have good job prospects. These problems have not been resolved and those living in desperation have not been helped.
So, when you’re next tucking into a Zen meal, you should consider the poverty you would need to riot in your community, maybe then you’ll start to understand that locking up these rioters in prison is a short-term solution to a long-term problem…
If this story has interested you, you may like to become involved in The Howard League Society here at Durham University; we run events and talks on similar subjects. It’s free and everyone is welcome. Find us on Facebook: Durham University Howard League Society for Penal Reform. I look forward to seeing you at an event soon.