Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Riot Reaction

This is an opinion I wrote for this month's edition of Kensington & Chelsea Today - it was originally written about a week after the riots had taken place.

"Tougher sentencing, curfews, social media blackouts and increased police powers. These are some of the proposed responses to the recent unrest across the country.  These short-term ‘knee-jerk’ reactions may be popular in certain circles for a few weeks, but they will not help to address the social problems that have helped to create this situation. Not every area affected, or every person involved, was as a result of these social issues, but if we do not do something about them, then other areas could be affected as well.

Consumerism is a driving force behind so many peoples’ lives. It has almost become an ideology for too many, ignoring the reality of their situation. Like the American dream of the early 20th century, everyone looked forward to the day when they would be rich. For a generation we have been told that we can be famous, we can be wealthy, that we can be whatever we want to be.  But with rising unemployment – especially among young people – the chance of that dream becoming a reality is fading. And all the while, we are told that we are all in this together. When people see that this does not seem to be the case, it can cause resentment towards those who are not as affected by what is happening. Problems arise when these resentments are not addressed, and it only takes one action to push somebody over the edge. It is easier for others to follow once one group has stepped over the line.

When looking at the handing down of tougher sentencing, it is important that the punishment fits the crime, and that accountability is held across the board. Former members of the Bullingdon club – known for their wild parties – and a Deputy Prime Minister who once burned down two greenhouses full of rare plants tell us that those who commit offences must be held accountable, having themselves received no punishment. It makes it hard to believe that fair justice will really be done.  It is fairer sentences, not tougher that is what is needed here. If exorbitant punishments are handed down by the courts it will only serve to increase resentment towards the police and further damage trust in the justice system. It is easy to seek to make an example of someone, to scare those who might follow a similar path, but that doesn’t make it right. The sentence for burglary during a riot must be the same as that for any other burglary. I am not sure that stealing a £3.50 case of water would receive a 6 month prison sentence if it were not for the riots and politically motivated advice to ignore sentencing guidelines if the actions took place during a riot.

Social media is another soft target. It connects people more easily and more efficiently than ever before. All you have to do is log into your BBM, Twitter or Facebook accounts and you can interact with people immediately, and more widely than by texting or phone calls. I know this, because I use mine to interact with people as far apart as America, India and Japan. Yes, it can also be used to pass on information about where the police are, where there are shops with expensive goods, and where there is already violence taking place.  But while my city was caught up in the chaos of that weekend, I and many others, kept communications much closer to home – we contacted our friends and families to make sure they were alive, safe and unaffected. Using the hashtag #riotcleanup, people all across the country grouped together with others in their communities to pick up the pieces of their shattered neighbourhoods.

In a country where we are told that personal responsibility is the defining factor in behaviour it is illogical, na├»ve and possibly illegal to think that closing down access to social media will be of benefit. If personal responsibility is important, then judge each person by his or her actions. If those actions are illegal, then it is the individual’s responsibility, not the fault of the technology that they used.

If you tell one section of society that they are fat, lazy, stupid and criminal long enough and loud enough, then eventually they might start to believe you. When everyone assumes you break the law and contribute nothing to society, where is the social constraint that prevents you from doing exactly that? Society is broken, but it was broken long before these riots, and unless proper, long-term action is taken, it will be broken long after the glass shop fronts have been repaired.

We need to ensure that these events so not repeat themselves. That will not come about through draconian sentences, water cannons, rubber bullets or evictions from social housing. It will come about through an examination of every level of our society. Through stimulation and investment in less wealthy areas, to ensure that aspirations can be met. We must expect a higher standard from those above us. Our political and commercial leaders must lead by example, both in their words, and in their actions. And above all, we must rise above the temptation for retaliation, retribution or revenge. This is not a political problem, it is a social problem, but it does have political causes. We need to make sure that we are not just looking out for those at the top, or those in the ‘squeezed middle’, but everyone. The culture of blaming those below us must end. We must make our society stronger; make our country fairer, more balanced and tolerant. We must not forget that there have been victims of these events, and we owe it to them, and to ourselves, to ensure that there are no more."

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