I (didn't) predict a riot

Anyone desperately trying to make sense of the appalling scenes that have broken out across England since Saturday, these are about the most interesting pieces I’ve read. The explosive fusing of pressure cooker tension and poor police relations with opportunist criminals and thug tourism comes through strongly.

But I’ve seen an equal amount of reporting that isn’t at all interested in making sense. Where there’s nothing beyond the immediate police response and the calls for retribution against the perpetrators.

The riots have to be stopped. What’s happening out there is sickening. It cannot be condoned. But asking questions about it is a valid response. Mass media coverage has been stuck in a mindset that condemnation is the only appropriate reaction and that trying to understand it is the act of an apologist, or even a supporter – witness the Darcus Howe interview on the beeb this morning. That is too simplistic to be true.

A big part of my day job is working with frontline organisations who are investing in their local communities to build cohesion, respect and voice; delivering training, skills, opportunities and enterprise in some of the most deprived urban areas of the country. Often successfully and with the flexibility and innovation that the public and private sectors would die for.

I was on the phone today, in conversation with an organisation about fundraising for a project to help older partially-sighted people in the borough who struggle to access locally any services and support. They feel disillusioned. He had to ring off because the centre was being closed early and everyone was being sent home. Trouble had broken out a few streets away by another bunch of apparently ‘disillusioned’ locals.  

The cost of the riots will run to millions; the impact on lives, homes and businesses probably immeasurable. For many community organisations, the price they pay is seeing years of effort, patience and investment go up in smoke, quite literally, in a few short days. Some of that investment is being thrown back in their faces by the very thugs they might otherwise be helping. But those scarce resources go to other vulnerable groups in these neighbourhoods too.

Now, all that work is at risk: whether for young people or old; crime diversion or childcare; drug rehabilitation or victim support. The backlash has started already. “Bleeding heart liberals take note: it just goes to show that all those billions of pounds thrown at inner cities has been wasted”, bleated one blog I read.

Well on the contrary – it hasn’t been enough. Whilst public spending cuts aren’t entirely to blame for this crap, they don’t help. The facts about inequality are startling. "Today, Britain is less equal, in wages, wealth and life chances, than at any time since the 1920s. Last year alone, the combined fortunes of the 1,000 richest people in Britain rose by 30 per cent to £333.5 billion" Daily Telegraph today. “A well ordered society cannot develop when a sizeable number of its members are miserable, and as a consequence, dangerous” Same article. (Did I ever see the day coming when I’d be quoting the Torygraph?)

If the knee-jerk reaction is to squeeze community sector funding even further, the consequences don’t bear thinking about. If anyone was in any doubt about the power of community action, even in the direst of circumstances, witness today’s spontaneaous Riot Clean Up efforts around London and tonight the citizens of Enfield, Eltham and Southall who are out on the streets to reclaim them from looters and thieves.


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