London Showed Us the Need to Understand More and Condemn Less


5 Flares Twitter 3 Facebook 2 5 Flares ×
Print pagePDF pageEmail page

Last Saturday night when disturbances in Tottenham began I tweeted the following “Its a bus and a few cars. Bigger problems in London that 24 hour news doesnt tell you to talk about.Keep calm and carry on. #tottenhamriot“.

It was not my intention to be as dismissive as it now seems I was . Rather, I was frustrated at the lack of discussion around the underlying problems which initiated the disturbances in Tottenham.

As the week moved on and the disturbances grew in terms of violence and geography, my frustration at the lack of discourse around root causes grew also. What has constantly returned to my thoughts this week is my devastation for the people living in the affected communities and my frustration at the regressive commentary of the situation.

The online and media commentary that has surrounded the disturbances lead me to recall John Major’s infamous retort to Labour’s ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime policy. Major stated that when it came to crime ‘society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less’. This week society condemned plenty.

Twenty-four hour news was filled with hand-wringing liberals, right-wing reactionaries and the ubiquitous security experts whose expertise appears to be limited to the confines of cosy TV studios. These various agents placed the blame at various doors from absentee fathers, UK hip-hop artists and of course, the dreaded “hooded teens”. While TV commentary may have been retrograde in some respects it had nothing on the bile being spewed on social media outlets. All manner of punishment fantasies were being played out on Twitter as people seemed to be trying to out-do each other in terms of  ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment.

While all of the above may have served a purpose of macabre entertainment it did not even begin to address the complexities of the disturbances.  Little to none of the media outlets reporting went beyond ‘how do we stop these riots’. Those who tried to ‘understand’ the violence were ‘condoning’ it.  While this is a simplistic argument it has the weight of the conservative media behind it and its power cannot be underestimated.

In Camila Batmanghelidjh in The Independent we see someone who had developed a deeper understanding of why the disturbances were occurring. It is no coincidence that Ms Batmanghelidjh has worked tirelessly with London’s disenfranchised youth and is better placed than most to comment on their motivations.

She challenges the idea that the rioters were destroying “their” communities stating that these young people do not view these areas as theirs. Rather, they have established their own parallel anti-social communities in which they live and learn to understand the world. This idea would no doubt be attacked a “lefty apology for lawlessness”. It isn’t, far from it, but is a valuable way of understanding how these young people view themselves and see themselves as viewed by others.

We should recognise this closer to home also. I recently had a conversation with a young man who is persistently before the Courts for a range of minor offences. In discussing how he views his relationships with authority he stated that ‘the Guards want us to have nothing’. It was interesting to hear how this young person believes he is viewed by the authorities. Whether he’s right or wrong is secondary because he believes it to be true and his actions are guided by this belief.

As always in these scenarios, the debate has been simplified to a battle between good and bad, innocent or guilty, humane or animalistic and once we begin to classify people in these ways many other aspects of their lives are hidden to us.  While some of the reaction to these young people may be an understandable motional response to their behaviour, it obscures the complexity of their lives, as their intentions, motivations and identities become totalised as evil.

Regressive commentary and totalising statements help nobody in this situation. We can continue to demonise and ridicule or we can step back and look at the inequality and disenfranchisement that have underpinned these riots. There will have to come a time when society takes a step back, reflects a little more and reacts a little less. I’ll start by not tweeting at the beginning of a riot.

Darren Broomfield is a practising social worker and academic whose research interests include social justice, social policy and criminal justice.

Photo of events at Tottenham at the weekend courtesy of Urban Mashup.


4 Responses

  1. Walter Burns

    August 12, 2011 2:09 am

    A Scottish film called Trainspotters depicted aspects of the ‘nihilist’ lives of the contemporary lumpenproletariat, although it wasn’t trying to be a documentary. In 1997 John King published a novel called The Football Factory about the culturally deprived and intellectually nihilist mind of a North London football hooligan. Pretty scary stuff. Link:

    Call these people ‘chavs’, hooligans, antisocial gits, nihilist mindless scum or (marxian term) lumpenproletariat, or even use the liberal expression ‘socio-culturally deprived’ – their areas are found in too many urban places in Europe and North America. They can suddenly lash out at ‘us’ or ‘them’ or ‘objectively at the system’. The lumpenproletariat also can be crypto-fascist, as a well-known Irish street activist of the 1960s and 70s once confided ruefully to me.

    ‘Society’ ignores these smouldering, festering sub cultures at ‘its’ peril.

  2. Cynthia Martin

    August 12, 2011 8:19 am

    In response to the last points made – ‘chavs’ has become a sterotype for all those at the bottom of the socio-economic heap, since ‘class’ has been dropped by the political establishment. The marginalised, in broad terms,and according to Owen Jones (book – ‘Chavs The Demonization of the Working Class’), have been demonized as the lowest of the low. Jones explores how the working class is now seen as ‘scum’ and various other depletives – popularised by the Murdoch press, and accepted the norm as by some of the disenfranchised themselves. As Owen notes, ‘today’s consensus is all about escaping theworking class…’ (p.10) with politicians pedalling the idea of aspiration which to them means individual self-enrichment as the solution to what they see as ‘poverty of ambition’. Some of the most deprived communities hightlighted by Rowntree and Booth in their poverty studies refused to be radicalised.

  3. Donagh Brennan

    August 12, 2011 8:36 am

    Thanks Cynthia for that excellent response to Walter’s point. I’ve been meaning to get around to Jones’ book, but now I’m going to have to read it. It’s been recommended too many times. Here he is talking about the cultural perceptions of the working class in British media on Thinking Allowed from the end of June.

    Flick forward to around 15 mins in. (Right-click and selected Save As to download)

    Goths and ‘Chavs’ – Thinking Allowed Wed, 29 Jun 11

  4. Donagh Brennan

    August 12, 2011 8:46 am

    Actually, while I’m at it, this from Cunning Hired Knaves puts it very well:

    Many people online whom I would have considered more or less liberal in outlook identified uncritically and automatically with the police, and were quite happy to use the words ‘chav’ and ‘scum’ unguardedly. There were many who automatically accepted the initial account of the police shooting of Mark Duggan as unquestionably true, and who called upon the police and the army, to use live ammunition on the ‘chavs’ and the ‘scum’. Others took a more systematic approach, calling for sterilisation measures. These tendencies develop over years, I would speculate that over the last few days a creeping feeling of accelerated insecurity –the knowledge that welfare safety nets are being eroded, the threat of redundancy or the prospect of continued unemployment- has been far more effective at producing obedient rather than critical thought.