I lived in Brixton following the riots and it didn’t take long to see at first hand some of the underlying issues behind the tensions in the community. On one occasion my parents witnessed a racial attack by a group of white men on a black man in the centre of town. The victim knew how to look after himself and got the better of the others only to be arrested by the police who turned up late to the scene and presumed he was the assailant. My parents tried to speak to the police as they had witnessed the whole incident and were told in explicit language to mind their own business. It was only when my father pointed out that he was a chaplain at Brixton Prison that the police began to take him more seriously. So worried was my mother that she asked me to take her to the police station a week later to find out what had happened to the young black man who had been arrested. It turned out that no one had been charged and the case was closed.
All this has been brought to mind by some of the follow up to the riots in major cities across the land during the summer. I’ve posted on the riots before.This week the discussion about the riots and their causes has resurfaced and the Archbishop of Canterbury has contributed to the debate in an important piece written for The Guardian: Rioting is the choice of young people with nothing to lose. I thought of the Keswick preacher because following ++Rowan’s article several people on Twitter criticised him for not mentioning sin. I think ++Rowan mentions sin in his article quite frequently, though he doesn’t use the word explicitly because of the audience he is seeking to address. Here is his opening paragraph:
The Guardian's Reading the Riots reports left me with a sensation of enormous sadness. So much of what is recorded here reflects lives in which anger and depression are almost the default setting, thanks to of a range of frustrations and humiliations. Too many of these young people assume they are not going to have any ordinary, human, respectful relationships with adults – especially those in authority, the police above all. Too many inhabit a world in which the obsession with "good" clothes and accessories – against a backdrop of economic insecurity or simple privation – creates a feverish atmosphere where status falls and rises as suddenly and destructively as a currency market: good lives are lives where one's position within a fierce Darwinian hierarchy of style is temporarily secure. Too many feel they have nothing to lose because they are told practically from birth that they have no serious career opportunities.He continues:
But because many of these people are damaged – by unstable family settings, by education delivered in almost impossible conditions, by what is felt as constant suspicion and discrimination – their way of releasing tension is destructive and chaotic. There is no point in being sentimental: they make appallingly bad, selfish, short-term choices.The Archbishop is not excusing the actions of the rioters, he clearly condemns the choices made by those who took to the streets. However, ++Rowan goes on to question the values and priorities of a society in which these choices are made:
The question is why such choices seem natural or unavoidable to so many. We may well wince when some describe how the riots brought them a feeling of intense joy, liberation, power. But we have to ask what kind of life it is in which your emotional highs come from watching a shop torched or a policeman hit by a brick.
Nearly three years ago the Children's Society produced its Good Childhood report, a careful analysis of what young people thought constituted a nurturing environment to grow up in. Its conclusions were devastatingly simple. Young people need love. They need a dependable background for their lives, emotionally and socially; a background that helps them take certain things for granted so that they know they don't have to fight ceaselessly for recognition. We should be keeping a sharp eye on working practices that undermine this, and asking how law and society reinforce the right kinds of family stability by training in parenting skills as well as high quality out-of-school activity and care. We should be challenging an educational philosophy too absorbed in meeting targets to shape character. And we should look long and hard at the assumptions we breed into our children about acquisition and individual material profit.In other words we are an idolatrous society whose worship of the gods of consumerism and money making are reaping their own particular fruits. If that isn’t sin then I don’t know what is.
The Archbishop is not content to sit on the side lines finger wagging like many of the commentators who spouted so much ill considered nonsense in the aftermath of the riots. Nor does he settle for platitudes and misty eyed optimism. ++Rowan presents us as a society with some hard edged truths which we have to face up to if we aren’t to see our inner city streets going up in flames every summer.
Demonising volatile and destructive young people doesn't help; criminalising them wholesale reinforces a lot of what produces the problem in the first place. Of course crime needs punishment, and limits of acceptable behaviour have to be set. The youth justice system has a good record in restorative justice that brings people up sharp against the human consequences of what they have done. We have the tools for something other than vindictive or exemplary penalties.
The big question Reading the Riots leaves us with is whether, in our current fretful state, with unavoidable austerity ahead, we have the energy to invest what's needed in family and neighbourhood and school to rescue those who think they have nothing to lose. We have to persuade them, simply, that we as government and civil society alike will put some intelligence and skill into giving them the stake they do not have. Without this, we shall face more outbreaks of futile anarchy, in which we shall all, young and old, be the losers.This is the Archbishop doing his job. Speaking prophetically to a nation that needs to wake up before we drift into a state of perpetual anarchy.