In 1981, Michael Heseltine begun his report on the complex issues facing the city of Liverpool with the following words: “It took a riot to make the Cabinet take inner city problems seriously”. Well we’ve had days of riots from Tottenham to Hackney, Salford to Gloucester. Sadly it seems that the chances of this Cabinet taking inner city problems seriously remain decidedly, sadly, but most of all, predictably slim. The root causes of the violence of this past week are bigger than Mark Duggan, bigger than racial tension, and bigger than the cuts. The stench of divided communities lingers as strongly today as it did amongst the charred remains of Toxteth thirty years ago, but the problems have become more nuanced whilst the establishment has got only more crude.
I don’t have the education or acumen to even start to give an account of why we’ve seen communities tear themselves to sad shreds, but the signs that something is amiss have been starkly clear. If we did not predict the riots, then it is because we chose not to see the febrile ingredients which have laid bare for decades. Look at the areas where the most multitudinous and extreme acts of violence, looting and arson occurred. Do we presume to say that we were unaware of the rates of child poverty in those areas, of the number of stops and searches carried out in those areas, of the number of communities who know a black man that died in police custody in those areas. Again, if you so presume then you do so out of a wilfully disengaged ignorance – and the political classes are carrying on in this vein because they know that this very disengagement has played a far more pivotal role than the sexist idea that this is due to fatherless homes.
It seems clear that the social structures that many of us call society did not exist in the same format within the communities of predominantly young underprivileged people that lashed out earlier this week. A pseudo-gang culture has been rife in these areas for a long time, where emulation of this country’s consumerist obsession has been pervasive. Such sub-cultures evolve out of a disconnect with society in general – an implicit mass excommunication that, it seems natural to presume, is an inevitable repurcussion of a society where the richest 10% are 100 times wealthier than the poorest 10%.
And this is not a new phenomena – reckless and feckless politicians have been speaking of “feral youths” for many a year. Under Tony Blair we witnessed the proliferation of the ASBO – a legal instrument that sought to further marginalise disconnected communities. Marginalisation naturally produced a concentration of ties between those subject to them – and so the ASBO became a badge of honour. The mind boggles that the New Labour government did not see this coming.
But of course there was no need for them to do so. The ASBO was a performative tool – it was there to show that Blair would banish those who did not fit into society out of society. And here we are.
And here we will remain. Where do we think the rhetoric of anger, of disconnect, of “pure simple criminality” will take us? Do we believe that condemning actions will bring perpetrators into the fold and make them repent? Do we condemn to construct or destroy? Do we condemn selfishly or selflessly? Are the looters that are “scum” forever so branded? Cast out and aside? Not one of us? We reject the actions of these people because we refuse to face up to owning them. We pile on the scar tissue to the injuries against our communities and forget to heal.