The UK Riots: One Year On

The great sense of pride and unity that has swept the UK during the Olympics, has to be utilised in order to inspire and offer better opportunities for the younger generation.

What a difference a year makes. This time last year, London and the rest of the United Kingdom were in a state of shock as riots (and subsequent looting) held the authorities hostage for over a week. Writing on this subject back then, I stressed that what was needed was a collective response from both the government and wider society in dealing with the complex background context that had fermented the riots. I talked about the need to engage with each other and to start the process of ‘linking’ to not only understand each other but to strengthen communities, add to social cohesion and contribute to personal and professional development through friendships made, as well as work undertaken across the partnerships. Linking, partnerships, and engagement all mean the same thing: a sense of cooperation that leads to better understanding that should be encouraged and supported. This is a powerful tool for the promotion of dialogue, tolerance, and harmonious living.

However, since then, despite assurances of addressing some of the real issues, it seems that not much has really been done. Some compensations have been paid out (though it appears not in amounts promised), damaged buildings have been rebuilt and looters have been jailed. But there has been very little done to address some of the underlying factors that precipitated the riots.

Community Forum

It is the community that has taken the first step to collectively move forward from blame to positive action and address the root causes. One such community forum, which took place on February 1, 2012, looked specifically at how grassroots organisations have responded and should respond to such incidents, taking into account the moral and value-based dimension of the problem.

What was particularly unique about this forum was that it brought together some of the principle players who were involved directly with the riots either as perpetrators, victims, or people who prevented the riots taking place in their own areas. It allowed them the space for sharing success stories and best practices, as well as, real engagement between the youth and people who are directly involved with realising changes within their communities. In the wake of the anniversary of the riots, the report from this forum was recently published.

Interestingly, the views aired by the youth in particular should point us to their frustrations and concerns, especially when it comes to relationships with the authorities, the police’s ‘stop and search’ practice, quality of education, lack of job opportunities, and the lack of resources to develop facilities for the youth. The young participants who attended the forum were candid in identifying that some negative aspects of youth culture, such as the types of music listened to or the expectations of obtaining the ‘best and shiniest toy’, misuse of social media such as Blackberry Messenger (and Facebook) by the rioters, a breakdown of respect within society, and a lack of purpose, were the dominant issues that need to be addressed. Their opinion tells us precisely where our time should be more productively spent in order to ensure that last year’s events do not recur.

What this report tells us is something that was already common knowledge despite the best efforts especially by the British Government to paint it otherwise. They tell us that the riots that took place in London and other cities in summer 2011 cannot be viewed or solved in isolation without taking into account the wider picture. At the heart of the crisis is the frightening failure of integrity in society and, to use the words of the former Bishop of Worcester, “we need to attune our moral compasses and move away from a ‘system of disregard’ that had emanated from the top of society and had made its way to the bottom”.

New Insights and Alternative Solutions

In order for us to tackle the root causes of the riots there is a need for new insights and alternative solutions. We have to develop values that can give a sense of purpose to individuals. This will come not only from an education process but also by developing closer relationships between families and communities. In this is a role for faith communities in particular, to move out of institutional power politics and to provide a narrative and a space in which one can start to explore some of these discussions of ethics, values, and morals. Thus, communities must recognize that the solutions to their challenges lie first with themselves and how they focus on the youth in terms of providing support, advice, and guidance. This involves tackling real issues, such as lack of aspirations and motivation amongst young people and enabling them to find meaning and direction in their lives.

Throughout Britain, there are seeds of hope. As the report shows, these are sown by community groups and organizations who out of the bankruptcy of failed regeneration efforts, are stepping in to fill the gaps. For example, in Manchester, the United Estates of Wythenshaw project – an inner-city cultural community centre – helps to ‘foster a sense of belonging,education, and training’. Or the Engage Youth Empowerment Services (EYES), a project based in Wolverhampton, which looks at training youth (regardless of ethnicity and colour), raising their expectations, empowering them, giving them confidence, helping them to find their voice, and to engage. In the words of the director of EYES: "Once they are plugged into the system they can change it. Then there’s no need to worry about them being radicalised or rebelling."

In working to change the system of disregard, decision makers and figures in authority must increase real engagement with communities through regular consultations with community leaders, groups and schools, thereby, reducing resentment amongst grassroots communities. The challenge for all of us is to facilitate and ensure that such initiatives are sustainable and spread throughout the country at all levels. Therefore, space and confidenceneeds to beestablished and, more importantly, sustained, for this type of engagement to take place. This would hopefully lead to the creation of strongercommunities that can share their best practices and come up with organic solutions to their problems.

London 2012 and Inner City Communities

This year, London has been seen in an entirely different light as the Olympics have showcased the city in all its summer glory, warmth, and hospitality. Adding to it, the remarkable achievements of Team GB athletes created a powerful feel-good factor and added to national pride.

The anniversary of the riots has been largely overshadowed by the Games and some cynically say that the Olympics have been a distraction, masking the real issues in London and the UK. Speaking to reporters, people from the communities at the heart of the riots last year claimed that the Olympics did not touch them, and that nor did they feel ‘inspired’.

While the distraction from the routine of everyday life and the effects of recession have probably been good for the morale of London, the real challenge now lies in the legacy of the Games. Whilst the motto of London 2012 has been ‘To Inspire a Generation’, a very laudable initiative, it is not just inspiration that is needed. It is real support and investment; guidance, mentoring, and hand-holding that can create a space for the next generation to flourish. The motivation to do this has to go beyond just political plaudits to real life investment and commitment.

Since inner city communities bore the brunt of the impacts of the riots, they should be the first beneficiaries of this legacy and hence we need to communicate with marginalized communities. To do this, it is vital to identify key ‘gatekeepers’ who have influence within marginalized communities such as teachers, former gang members, and religious leaders, who are part of the solution and not the problem.

What the Olympics have served to show is that results are borne from hard-work, dedication and perseverance. The achievements of the athletes goes very much against the grain of the consumer-oriented life we have allowed ourselves to fall into, where more is better if it is done quickly and without much effort. This is the inspiration that needs to be drawn from the Olympians who now have a responsibility to engage with these at-risk youngsters to inspire them to achieve their dreams, and perhaps even beyond.

People can be inspired, but without access to facilities and an opening up of opportunities, inspiration fizzles out to disillusionment. Currently, there is little scope in the school curriculum to provide young people with a bigger purpose in life and therefore, it is important for ‘out of school’ activities such as sports and community service to be developed.

The British government will have its part to play in correcting the structural weaknesses in society that lead to social inequity and isolation. However, there has to be a bigger role for wider society. The great sense of pride and unity that has swept the nation, the multiculturalism of the Olympic opening ceremony and the plethora of medals by people who capture the diversity of the UK society, has to be channelled and utilised in order to inspire and offer opportunities for the next generation. As Londoners, in the midst of a double recession and reeling from last year’s riots, we needed that reminder and that boost of motivation to, as Eric Idle would sing in the closing ceremony, ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’.

However, London 2012 cannot afford to be written off just as a long party, but will have to sustain this spirituality of commonality, which we discovered during the Olympics that will allow us to recognise the common space and substance that will provide the fuel for social change.

In short, we must learn to listen closely to one another, not simply because it is polite, but because it is just possible that we might learn something important about ourselves, become better human beings, and build a better global village in the process.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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