Because I’ve spent the last couple of months working on one of the most topical, interesting and challenging projects of my career. Pause there. I’m not talking about hatching Palestine-Israeli peace before lunch and then solving the Eurozone debt crisis whilst waiting for Countdown to start. But in the process-heavy, sometimes dusty world of social research and programme evaluation, working on a project to understand the riots that swept England last August has felt more immediate, more high priority and more, well, front-line by comparison.
Little did I anticipate that when I wrote a blog at the time of the riots asking why it was wrong to ask ‘why’, that I would soon be part of a team asking ‘why’. (Are you still with me?)
It’s a good team, too. With financial backing from the eminent think tank The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (amongst others), the team comprises academic and journalistic muscle from the London School of Economics and The Guardian who have initiated and driven this ambitious undertaking, together with my colleagues and me recruited as pavement-pounding, stairwell-dwelling, café-loitering researchers who have captured the diverse stories of those involved.
It’s a credible outfit. And it has to be. The results of the study, being serialised today in The Guardian and to be followed by an academic launch next week, will be challenged – indeed are already being challenged – simply because this is a politically, emotionally, racially, culturally, behaviourally and financially charged issue. I hope – I believe – that the study will be recognised as a valid and authoritative insight into what happened on those incendiary nights in August. For me it has already shone a light into dark, secretive corners to illuminate some disturbing causes and motivations. It is also pointing to some pithy public policy lessons.
A big chunk of the evidence base comes from hearing the stories of those who rioted. That’s what we’ve been doing. Tracking down rioters from our contacts and then getting them to talk. No easy matter. Some of my colleagues have been writing about this too. Check out these excellent pieces from tonyshoey on an interview that nearly happened and lexvulgaris about a few that did.
I recognise everything they say. Some of my experiences range from trying to hold a conversation through the bolted front-door of a seedy flat in north London with a very frightened, remorseful and tearful young French girl about her involvement in the disturbances through to an interview with a highly politicised activist arrested for obstruction after advising other rioters on their actions. Today’s headlines focus on tensions with the police. Slightly buried is the fact that the study identifies complex causal factors. My tiny slice of the research process confirms all that.
But two experiences stand out more than the others.
The first is a discussion with the mother of a rioter arrested in Brixton who told me about her son being ground down by his “oppression” (her word, not mine) by the local police. These are the sorts of statements that are being challenged today in discussion forums, twitter feeds and webchats. “….hand-wringing liberals excusing wanton violence, etc…” I don’t think so. This is about piecing together explanations. Not justifications. This particular mother quietly got up from the settee in her nicely appointed living room and pulled a family-size biscuit box from a kitchen shelf. She prised off the lid and showed me the contents. I saw three neat bundles of stop-and-search forms issued to her son. She had collected 75 from him in a three-month period. Her son would sometimes be stopped and searched three times on the same journey between the youth club where he worked and his home. With the most objective will in the world, this is simply not right. It may not be an excuse for a riot either. But it’s easy to see how resentment builds up.
The second experience was one of the interviews I did in jail. I’ve never been to prison before, so that was something new. I was interviewing a young man convicted of inciting a riot. He didn’t incite a riot. He didn’t even leave his bedroom. He made a foolish joke online. That was his mistake. Once it’s out there in cyberspace, it’s out forever. I’ll never forget his hollow, pleading eyes as he described his arrest, his sentencing and his prospects for when he came out. Bleak and grim. This isn’t justice. This is a young man caught up in a politically-inspired sentencing crackdown.
I talked to others who are at the other end of the scale. 18 and 19 year olds who have been arrested 15-20 times. If they weren’t inside for rioting, it would have been something else. Journalist Erwin James wrote at the time “Images on news bulletins showing mobs rampaging and looting their way through the high streets and shopping malls of the country's biggest cities make it hard to disagree with David Cameron when he says that anyone convicted of violent disorder should go to prison. But our prisons are already bursting at the seams. Conditions generally are such that rehabilitative activity is limited even in the best performing prisons; and in those that are failing badly the outcome for prisoners and, as a consequence, for society, is ominous.” That’s the nub of the debate for me. It’s hard to see that another bout of bird is really going to change much for these lads. The punishment needs to fit the crime - what chance restorative justice (the rest of James' article) to make some kind of contribution here? And if you’re looking for swingeing public sector cuts, here’s an easy target: it costs £60,000 to host a young offender at her majesty’s pleasure for a year.
There have been some moments of levity too. Like during a particularly sensitive testimony from an interviewee during which I made to tweak my attentive body language by resting my elbow on a non-existent chair arm. The subsequent over-balancing act straight out of slapstick central caught the attention of the café and rather broke the tension. Or the moment in the canteen of a youth offender institute when I realised all my minders had departed and I was sat eating sausage roll and chips with no identification and a shirt rather too similar in colour to the inmates’ garb. I think I held my rising panic in check when I meekly explained to the restaurant manager – who hadn’t seen me arrive – that I was a researcher and could he spare anyone to escort me back to the gatehouse please. “Haha, sonny. Nice one. We’ve heard ‘em all here, you know. Now get back in line…” He didn’t say that, obviously. Infact everyone in the prisons was incredibly helpful.
So I’m looking forward to the rest of the Reading The Riots serialisation this week and to the ensuing, no doubt heated, debate over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, pass me the monitoring reports….back to the day job.