The London Riots: Language of the Unheard

By Ali A

It is easy to think in a black and white manner in regards to societal issues and hold a superficial opinion rather than trying to delve deeper to understand the source of a problem. A recent example is the London riotsthis past weekend which have consisted of rampant looting of stores, burning of buildings and vehicles, and violence primarily in the Brixton, Croydon, and Enfield Town areas of London and other cities within the UK. Many of us have made an impulsive judgement believing the people involved in this are criminals and thugs and deserve nothing but a lengthy jail sentence. We have forgotten that the source of this negative reaction runs much further beyond the streets of Brixton or Hackney.

People are not born to be rioters or criminals, they have made the choice to act in that way. What leads them to that decision are the factors within their own lives and the effect of society on them. Poverty, lack of education, lack of social support and unemployment are some of the factors that have contributed towards this mindset. When casting a closer look at the situation in London at the start of the riots, it is clear that this was an act of rebellion against the establishment rather than rioting just for the sake of it. For example, the spark in this situation was the murder of Mark Duggan at the hands of the police[1]. A protest outside the local police station escalated into violence, and when coupled with the sentiment of the population and history of the region, it provided the fuel for this unrest. After all, this is was not the first person to die because of the police’s wrongful actions. Ian Tomlinson[2] and Charles De Menezes[3] have faced similar fates. Those instances have stayed in the memory of citizens in the area and contributed to their feelings towards the governmental authorities.

On the national level, great cuts in the public sector resulted in loss of funds for welfare and public job opportunities while the banks received millions in bonuses. The recent phone hacking scandal and the crashing economy have also added to the resentment against the establishment. Therefore, when the opportunity presented itself to rebel against the city, it was difficult for some to turn away. That is exactly what we are seeing these days on the streets in a few British cities. It is important to that note that by no means is the violence, vandalism and looting considered acceptable. Nonetheless, to remedy this problem, we must put ourselves in the shoes of those affected and consider their mindset which is a product of decades of failed politics, unprecedented consumerism and enlightened self interest that has continued till today.

On a local level, the financial cuts have caused a strain on the support network for the youth living in these neighborhoods. For example, in Haringey, UK, the origin for the disturbances over the weekend, eight of its thirteen youth clubs have closed down between December 2010 and June 2011[4]. The lack of youth services represents a lack of teachers to identify the dangers of gangs and prevent their propagation. Because this is compounded by a deprivation of resources, it leads to different forms of recreational violence.The young people are therefore frustrated and angry and are venting at whoever and whatever is closest. They are not responding to a single problem, rather they are reacting to every problem or reason to be angry that they have faced in the past. Even though dire circumstances do not turn every person into a criminal, the absence of skills in dealing with them productively can lead to aimless and destructive behaviors. Also, due to the nonexistence of youth services, there is a void within the community which makes it easy for gangs to move in to fill it and prey on young minds due to their vulnerability. The idea of simply giving young people somewhere to go as a preventative measure against rioting might seem ridiculous. However, the fact that these riots are happening now, as opposed to five years ago, indicates how important it has been. Youth clubs are places for young people to be where they are not just viewed as a threat to social order. The supervisors provide an alternate adult influence in these young people’s lives. Because they are not teachers, police, or parents, they are often times the only adults in their neighborhoods who youth can confide in and learn from on a regular social basis.

Also, let us not forget that while society plays an influence in the growth of a child, the most important influence comes from the home. The role of parents is perhaps the most paramount in the upbringing process. This is why in the aftermath of the riots, fingers being pointed at the parents for their incompetence to control and discipline their children. It is unacceptable parenting to be unaware of the location of your child or their activities. An environment which does not emphasize education as the best form of social transformation leads to a situation where the streets are ruled by knife-carrying lawless types for whom serious levels of violence are a way of life. In order to facilitate reform, a support mechanism is needed which enables changing such mentality in coordination with youth services to provide a long term strategy to counter the influence of drugs, violence and gangs.

David Cameron, the prime minister of UK, highlighted the idea of the ‘Big Society’ within the UK in his pre-election campaign. Big Society is defined as the flagship policy to create a climate that empowers local people and communities in order to build a big society that will ‘take power away from politicians and give it to people.’[5] Yet, the policies that have followed have displayed contradiction to this idea and instead have increased the differences between the classes. The United Kingdom is now a country in which the richest 10% are 100 times better off than the poorest[6]]. What is required now more than ever is that the emphasis of enlightened self interest is discarded and the foundations of a moral society are laid out. People need to be given support in order to counter these social problems and to have educational and professional aspirations within their communities for a better future. As Martin Luther King said, “The riot is the language of the unheard.”[7] If those who are unheard are not attended to and supported, then the ‘Big Society’ would merely remain an idea.

Thus, the personal responsibility of those committing criminal acts in these riots should not be downplayed nor should such acts be considered as acceptable. Although, by merely labeling the rioters as “mindless thugs,” we are dehumanizing them further. This not the way to reform a society because it will only alienate those who are unheard even more. To improve and remodel society and to alter a negative mindset, the root cause of the problem has to be identified and rectified.

[4] Want to prevent further riots? More youth clubs not police, please:

[5] Government launches Big Society programme:

[6] Unequal Britain: richest 10% are now 100 times better off than the poorest:

[7] From Brixton to Tottenham, the inequality at the heart of the riots: