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Get local: riots, youth and community

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The disturbances of August 2011 do not easily lend themselves to comparisons with protests in British history. Most obviously, there is no 'overt' cause that can be identified: it is not the death of Mark Duggan that resonates around the urban landscape of Britain, but rather a sense of people taking the opportunity to violently acquire 'stuff'. David Cameron has therefore described the riots as 'criminality, pure and simple'. Criminal acts were committed - including murder - but to see the riots as 'just' criminal behaviour is not useful. It is also unhelpful to suggest, as Cameron has, that this 'complete absence of moral self-restraint' is something new. Whilst most young people stay out of trouble, the capacity for destructive behaviour by those who do not is no different from that of previous generations. What is different - but not unprecedented - is the apparent level of frustration among the young.

Much attention has focussed on the way in which the rioters targeted their local communities. What is historically constant is that many children and young people have very localised lives that revolve around home, school, friends, family, shops, youth clubs/groups and part-time work in a fairly narrow radius. Identities, attachments and rivalries are formed around these places. This applies to the young of 2011 talking about their 'ends' as much as it does for their counterparts in the 1870s and any point in between. Andrew Davies has shown how 'scuttling' - violent skirmishes between groups of young people from different streets and localities - became common in Manchester from the 1870s, whilst Jerry White has written about how Jewish children feared violence if they strayed beyond the end of Brick Lane.

If you live in a fairly small world, with little exposure to the extremes of wealth in the UK, then the convenience store owner or manager of a chain store may well seem wealthy. For those who move further afield, high streets and shopping centres are where encounters with consumption, desire and wealth take place. There is an element, however destructive and intellectually incoherent it may be, of 'thinking global and acting local' in the looting. For many people, it is the local high street - not Regent Street - where frustrations about a lack of spending power are felt.

But what made people cross the line and break the law? Historically, registers of magistrates' courts are littered with otherwise law abiding people, young and old, who stole things because they caught their eye, bowed to peer pressure, thought they wouldn't get caught, or enjoyed the exhilaration of the moment. We might think of the East London boys who in 1948 stole from a printing works and started a fire to cover their tracks because the manager had shouted at them earlier in the day. Or the young men who got into a stolen car and were joy-riding around Stepney until stopped by police in January 1940. Or perhaps the mother who told the East End News that boys were stealing for 'devilment' in the summer of 1948.

Locality also helps us understand the historic touch papers for violent conflict: often where younger people from less affluent backgrounds are on the streets as opposed to in work, education or taking part in more structured leisure activities, combined with other social pressures. The 1958 Notting Hill riots erupted out of tension from white youths towards the black community, whilst similar disturbances occurred in Nottingham around the same time. Likewise, the riots of the 1980s exploded out of deep tension on the streets between police and young people from ethnic minorities. All emerged from similar strains and distrusts experienced daily, but were triggered by a local 'spark' event. In Notting Hill, a group of white teens set about avenging themselves after losing an argument; in Brixton in 1981, people believed the police were failing to help a young man who had been stabbed; in Tottenham in 1986, because Cynthia Jarrett collapsed and died during a police raid on her home. A locality is geographically unique, but its social shape can be replicated many times over.

To shift our focus away from 'criminality, pure and simple' to thinking about the riots as a series of resonating local tensions is not to condone the destruction, but to provide a different perspective on how 'ordinary' people found themselves looting their own neighbourhood as opposed to sacking the high-end retail or financial areas. Responses to previous riots have tackled the local dimension, for instance through Claudia Jones' establishment of the Notting Hill Carnival in 1964 to celebrate the Afro-Caribbean community in West London, or the establishment of the Community Police Consultative Group to improve lines of communication between the public and police in Brixton. It is essential to get back to the local level, to make young people feel part of their communities and give them a voice, to bring in local government, the voluntary sector, schools and families. The particular challenge in 2011 is to deliver this, despite cuts in funding for charities and councils. The solutions are not glamorous, but they are essential - and they do cost money.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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