The Guardian and the LSE have just published findings from their research on the riots. This is really really worth a read and a watch. However, anyone with any experience of youth work with marginalised young people will not be at all surprised. This is a bit of a reflection of some of my own work and a call for better ideas!
A digested read, digested, of the topline tells us that “Widespread anger and frustration at the way police engage with communities was a significant cause of the summer riots” with deep-rooted “distrust and antipathy toward police”. A feeling of injustice and alienation pervaded the various reasons cited for the riots- from lack of jobs and opportunity; to scrapping the EMA; to how they felt they were treated compared with others.
It was acknowledged that the form the riots took (e.g. looting) was essentially due to opportunism given a “perceived suspension of normal rules”- people felt this was an unusual chance to get away with it. Social networking sites were seen as mere corollaries to the main facts – although Blackberry messenger was seen as being crucial - and it was found that far from being centered around gangs, the riots were actually a reflection of an unprecedented ‘truce’ which allowed people to cross postcode lines.
“Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in."
This all took me back into work I conducted in Camden on young people’s social networks with the fantastic charity PanArts. The social world inhabited by the young people in the Synergy project – which aimed to unite young people divided by endz gangfare- was typical of this. If they wanted young people from, say, NW5 to go to a youth centre in NW3, they needed a mini-bus.
The young men that took part in the arts projects were incredibly affectionate between themselves – playing with each other’s hair and clothing - but untrusting of others: “they do have to look over their shoulders all the time” (PanArts worker, 2010). They were never still, always on the look-out for danger, and always in friction with the police.
This friction might be expressed in police de-facto stopping youth club meetings by imposing a curfew on the area, or the anger-inducing story of a young man who left all his friends and networks behind to go on to bigger things, yet found that once he had left Camden to learn new skills, Camden could not leave him. Whilst in the centre of London attending a prestigious arts training course he was stopped and searched by police who informed his new friends who knew nothing of his background that he was a ‘repeat offender’ who they should not be spending time with.
Youth culture has historically always been about forming identities... Gangs are not the problem
As expressed by PanArts in an interview with me at the time:
“ A lot of the kids we work with don’t have that belief that society is working ultimately for their good, so those micro-systems [of trust] are what they latch onto, well possibly because it is all they have got… and because they like being able to trust people… and tell their secrets and have fun”
Human beings need identities, and when they are shut out from mainstream society, they form their own. Youth culture has historically always been about forming identities: our identity is what we barter our social capital on. Social capital is not always ‘positive’, it merely describes human interactions. A sense of community is not solely about geographical proximity, it is about who we recognise as ‘like us’.
Gangs are not the problem. What is worrying is marginalised groups who feel they are not part of mainstream society, who feel that they are treated different to everyone else, handed a rawer deal than everyone else, who experience suicidal levels of disinterest in what happens to them as they feel they have nothing to lose. Anger at police, is essentially anger at how representatives of the state interact with you. Researchers for the LSE/Guardian reported being repeatedly asked “This is nothing to do with the government right, this is nothing to do with the police, right?
We are seeing the formation of “some neighbourhoods that are effectively somewhere else from the rest of society”, and we can all see the cracks in the perfect offering of a supposedly meritocratic ‘open-opportunity’ society. The question is, what are we going to do about it?
We're looking for ways that technology - particularly the web - can play in helping young people: whether it's helping them access advice and information, seek support from others, or connecting them to hidden job and training opportunities
I would love to see what would happen if we were to run a service re-design project with young people affected by the riots or gang violence. Co-production has been used to great effect in many arena: what happens if you ask people "Right, this is our budget, these are all the people we need to provide for: how would you do youth services? How would you ensure something of a fairer deal?"
Or maybe you have a far better idea: the RSA has just launched a interactivism challenge with Google " asking people of all backgrounds – software developers, young people, professional practitioners, teachers and policymakers of all levels – to put forward innovative ideas for how the internet and technology could support young people." What can you build?
We have heard the bells, and we have seen the cracks. Is it maybe time to let the light in?