What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, London (and the rest of the England) was in a state of shock as riots (and subsequent looting) held the authorities hostage for about a week or so. Writing on this subject a year ago, I stressed that if anything what was needed was a collective response from both the government and wider society in dealing with the complex background context that had fermented the riots. I talked about the need to engage with each other and to start the process of linking to not only understand each other but to strengthen communities, add to social cohesion and contribute to personal and professional development through friendships made and work undertaken across the partnerships.
However since then, despite assurances of addressing some of the real issues, it seems that not much has really been done. There have been some compensations paid (but it appears not in the same amounts that were promised), buildings have been rebuilt and people have been jailed. There has been very little done to address some of the underlying factors that led to the riots. Several news reports on the anniversary of the riots spoke to local residents who claimed that the status quo had remained and what change had come about was as a result of the communities coming together despite Government assurances of helping.
It is the community that has taken the first step to collectively move forward from blame to positive action to address the root causes. One such community forum took place on the 1st of February 2012, which looked specifically at how grassroots organisations responded and should respond to such an incident, taking into account the moral and values-based dimension of the problem. What was particularly unique about this forum was that it brought some of the principled players, who were involved directly with the riots: either as perpetrators, victims or people who prevented the riots taking place in their own back yard, and allowed them the space for sharing success stories and best practice and to have real engagement between the youth and people who are involved with making real changes within their communities. In the wake of the anniversary of the riots, the report of that forum has been published and makes for some interesting reading.
The views in particular aired by the youth should point us to their frustrations and concerns especially in relationships with the authorities, police stop and search, the quality of education, lack of job opportunities, and the lack of resources to develop facilities for the youth in their areas. The young participants who attended the forum were candid in identifying that some aspects of negative youth culture, misuse of social media, a breakdown of respect within society, and a lack of purpose were important issues to be addressed. The voices of the youth speak out and tell us precisely where our time should be more productively used, in ensuring that it doesn’t happen again.
What this report tells us is something that was already common knowledge despite the best efforts especially by the Government to paint it otherwise, that the riots that took place in London and other cities in the summer of 2011 cannot be viewed or solved in isolation, without taking into account the wider picture. At the heart of the crisis is the frightening failure of integrity in society and in the words of the former Bishop of Worcester “we need to attune our moral compasses and move away from a ‘system of disregard’ that had emanated from the top of society and had made its way to the bottom”.
In order for us to tackle the roots causes of the riots there is a need for new insights and alternative solutions. We have to develop values that can counter consumerism that will come not only from an education process but also by developing closer relationships between families and communities. In it is a role for faith communities in particular, to move out of institutional power politics and to provide a narrative and a space in which one can start to explore some of these discussions of ethics, values and morals. Thus communities must recognize that the solutions to their challenges lie first with themselves and how they focus on the youth who are the drivers of the future with the provision of support, advice and guidance. This involves tackling real issues of the lack of aspirations and motivation amongst young people and enabling youth to find meaning and purpose in their lives. Throughout Britain, there are seeds of hope. As the report shows, these are sown by community groups and organizations who out of the bankruptcy of failed regeneration efforts, are stepping into fill the gaps.
In working to change the system of disregard decision makers and figures in authority like the police must increase real engagement with communities through regular consultations with community leaders, groups and schools thereby reducing resentment amongst grass roots communities. The challenge for all of us, particularly decision makers, would be to facilitate and ensure that such initiatives are sustainable and spread throughout the country at all levels.
There thus needs to be space and confidence established and more importantly sustained for this type of engagement to take place which can lead to the creation of stronger communities that can share best practices but also come up with organic solutions to their problems.
This year London has been seen in an entirely different light. The Olympics have showcased the city in all its summer glory, warmth, and hospitality. Add to it the remarkable achievements of Team GB athletes and there is a really strong feel good factor and pride in the nation at the moment. The anniversary of the riots has been largely overshadowed by the games and some would cynically say that, the games have been a distraction, masking the real issues underlying London and the UK in the midst of a deep recession and other social issues. Those same news reports on the anniversary of the riots spoke to people from the communities at the heart of the riots last year, who claimed that the Olympics did not touch them nor did they feel “inspired.” The distraction from the routine of everyday life and the effects of recession has probably been good for the morale of London, the real challenge now lies in the legacy of the Games. Whilst the motto of London 2012 has been “To Inspire a Generation,” it is not just inspiration that is needed. It is real support; it is guidance and hand holding that can create a space for the next generation to flourish.
Since inner city communities bore the brunt of the impacts of the riots, they should be the first recipients of this legacy and hence we need to communicate with marginalized communities. To do this, it is vital to identify key “gatekeepers” who have influence within marginalized communities such as teachers, former gang members and religious leaders, who are part of the solution and not the problem. What the Olympics have served to show is that results are borne from hard work, dedication and perseverance. The achievements of the athletes goes very much against the grain of the markets dominated life, we have allowed ourselves to fall into, where more is better if it is done quickly and without much effort. This is the inspiration that needs to be drawn from the Olympians who now have a responsibility to engage with these at risk youngsters to inspire them to achieve beyond their dreams.
People can be inspired but without access to facilities and an opening up of opportunities, that inspiration fizzles out to disillusionment. Currently there is little scope in the school curriculum to provide young people with a bigger purpose in life and so it is important for “out of school” experiences such as sports and working and serving in the community to be developed. The government will have its part to play in correcting the structural weaknesses in society that lead to social inequity and isolation, however there has to be a bigger role for wider society. The great sense of pride (and unity) that has swept the nation and allowed them to embrace as the best of British, the multiculturalism of the opening ceremony and the plethora of medals by people who capture the diversity of the UK society, has to be channelled and utilised in order to inspire and offer opportunities for the next generation. As Londoners in the midst of a double recession and reeling from last year’s riots, we needed that reminder and that boost of motivation to, as Eric Idle would sing in the closing ceremony, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” However London 2012 cannot afford to be written off as a party for a few weeks, but in essence, we will have to sustain that spirituality of commonality, which we discovered during the Olympics that will allow us to recognise the common space and substance that will provide the fuel for social change.
In short, we must learn to listen closely to one another, not simply because it is polite, but because it is just possible that we might learn something important about ourselves, become better human beings, and build a better global village in the process.