It’s International Youth Day tomorrow. Intriguing, I think, because if you’ve seen the scenes from across England this week, you’d be excused for asking why on earth youths deserve a day all for themselves, horrible little wasters that they are. National service is what they need. We should bring it back, as well as the birch. And hanging, while we’re at it. Might as well. Prisons are already far too full. If we can get the murderers out, there’s more room to lock up troublesome dissidents.
I’d be extremely surprised if you haven’t seen the appalling scenes of anarchy from the capital, since copied with most enthusiasm in Manchester and Birmingham. British (not English?) youths are now apparently “the most unpleasant and violent in the world”. The camera doesn’t lie too often; we’ve seen some pretty unpleasant, violent things, let’s be honest. Nobody can condone looting outside times of famine or possibly zombie invasion and the pictures show the cheerful theft of items entirely unhelpful to either situation. Flat screen TV, anyone?
From reading and viewing the reaction to these scenes, you’ll notice far more condemnation than sympathy. It is hard to be sympathetic when greedy, ghastly people are destroying their own neighbourhoods and their neighbours, I admit. For the vandalism, theft and arson, working people will pay with their livelihoods. Insurance premiums will rise, potential businesses will look elsewhere, dilapidation will spread further into already deprived areas. Some have already paid with their lives, others have lost their homes. It’s not surprising that people, particularly working people, wish to distance themselves from the reprehensible activities of our shameless underclass.
Which is just what the government wants: to turn people against one another, worker against worker, the poor against the poorer (or richer, depending on how you perceive the welfare dependent, seeing as it has automatically been assumed that the work shy are most guilty of these crimes, even though the first looter to appear in court yesterday was a 31-year old teaching assistant).
It was the same recently with those ungrateful teachers bleating about their pensions, if you think about it. (Don’t they get enough holidays?) Or the lazy students expecting to be put through university at the taxpayers’ expense when they ought to get a proper job and stop fannying about with books and ideas. To add insult to injury, the students who were protesting against increased tuition fees in December (the trebling of fees for some), caused a rumpus which ended with some Royal knickers in a twist and a war memorial embarrassingly desecrated. As you all know, one shamed student is David’s son, Charlie, 21, currently detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, his sentence of sixteen months imprisonment considered by many to be purely politically-motivated. The same is true for that of Francis Fernie, 20, sentenced to 12 months imprisonment for participating in a protest against government spending cuts in March. The most serious of his offences was throwing two sticks from a banner at police officers in riot gear.
Amusingly or perhaps not, Jonathan May-Bowles, 26, better known as Jonnie Marbles, received a six-week sentence for pushing a foam pie into the face of media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. This was reduced to four weeks following appeal. Still, a month in jail for, in essence, a prank.
If these sentences aren’t designed to deter dissent and send out a clear message to would-be protesters, then I don’t know what they are. Drink drivers get less. Paedophiles get less.
They’re not a new group for politicians and the media to demonise, the young, of course. In fact, they’re the good ol’ reliable. Simple observation should reveal why youngsters, all youthful exuberance and idealistic vim, are the first in line to protest. Nothing surprising in that, surely: they have the time and energy to do so, as you would hope. They also have most reason to. They are incandescent whilst others remain indifferent. The others catch on eventually, as we’re seeing now, but instead of assuming that their intentions are dishonourable, and dismissing them all as trouble-makers, why can’t governments try to understand the context in which these protests, now riots, occur? They have a judicial system and willing media to send out their message, and it hits hard, but a mass of disenfranchised youth can also send out a message when they want to. Everyone’s listening now even if many a commentator is trying to drown out their social conscience by babbling loudly about making the criminals pay and taking away their liberties.
I write only of the UK, a country where the richest ten per cent are now 100 times better off than the poorest. Where social mobility is worse than any other developed, industrialised country. Where food prices have risen five per cent this year alone, yet half the population have not seen their pay rise since 2003. Wealth does not trickle down to where it would make a difference to living standards – and with them, dare I say moral standards? Oh, no. Much the same as other ‘developed’ countries, we all know, wealth continues to be sucked upwards. I don’t have the figures for those other countries, but it’s all much of a muchness. There have already been clashes with police in Greece and Spain in recent months.
(I do have one figure for the USA, actually. I read yesterday that fewer than sixty per cent – 58.1 per cent, to be precise – of working age Americans have a real job. I don’t believe that forty per cent are welfare dependant idlers.)
Who fares worst at times of economic decline? It’s the young, of course. There are nearly a million young people out of work in the UK. Add this summer’s school and college leavers, the 200,000 18-year-olds who won’t find university places, plus those who couldn’t dream of going to university now that tuition fees are greater still. Young people are increasingly being denied opportunities, yet we keep telling them that they’re our future. Are they meant to see the funny side?
It’s always those at the bottom of the social heap who get hit hardest, obviously. The ones who are looting and destroying. To be young and poor is particularly challenging. If you’re not fortunate to live where the best schools, houses and opportunities are to be found, you’ll be lucky to find a job you don’t hate; you won’t earn enough to buy your own home until you’re pushing 40; you won’t receive a pension of any note, so forget a secure retirement; you will have to work longer than your parents did and much longer than their parents did before them; if you go to university, you’ll be paying for it until it’s time to start paying for that house you never thought you could afford; and if you want to protest, whatever your cause, particularly in London, be prepared for some seriously heavy-handed policing from a force long accused of institutional racism and now found to be complicit in the hacking of mobile phones in the name of the Rupert Murdoch empire. Now remember what you were taught: you’re supposed to respect authority. However, evidently, there is no respect for you. Hard luck.
And governments wonder why people can behave so dreadfully when squeezed until even their pips squeak.
What sparked the initial confrontation with police was the death of an alleged gangster and drugs dealer, who also happened to be a black male, shot dead by armed police during an attempted arrest. It’s a fact that black males are more likely to be stopped by police and I can’t help but notice that the published pictures from CCTV footage of those involved in the looting of shops appear to show more black faces than white. Why that is, I don’t know.
These scenes come exactly thirty years after riots in Brixton and Toxteth, also blamed in the first instance on racial tension and police antagonism, then on inner-city deprivation. In the thirty years that have passed since those events, Thatcherism has stretched the UK’s social fabric to the point where rich and poor are farther apart than ever. Just as Ronald Reagan was dismantling society in the United States, allowing the conditions for the development of an under-employed class, Thatcher was denying that there’s such a thing as society.
Today, the UK is less equal in terms of income than at any time since the 1920s. Yet apparently we’re all in this together. Tell that to the youngster whose future looks bleak. Who now can’t afford to attend college because you’ve scrapped the modest state allowance that once enabled him to. Whose protests against this cut are not welcomed. Who can’t find a job. Who wants all the nice things being waved tantalisingly under his nose by the corporations pulling government strings, selling consumerism rather than hope, but can only attain them through further debt or criminal activity. Maybe you did tell him. Maybe you said it so many times, what you’re seeing now is the angered reaction to your hypocrisy and cutting of public services on which he depends at a time when they are most needed.
Don’t get me wrong, I see thugs on the television causing destruction to their own neighbourhoods. I see hooliganism. I see children high on the thrill of lawlessness, carrying away items that they don’t need, and I’m thankful that it’s not happening where I live. I hope those who have caused most devastation are made to somehow pay for it – and I’m particularly curious to learn of lengths of any custodial sentences. But those people do have my sympathy.
My feeling is that everybody should condemn them for their inconsiderate and hurtful actions, for their mistakes. Not all would do it again; many are ashamed, a lesson learnt. I don’t, however, wish for the government to take away liberties that others like them throughout history have earned for all of us by means of protest and, unfortunately when circumstances dictated, disorder. I don’t want the public to allow itself to be carried away on a tide of revulsion, buoyed by a vicious right-wing government and press, for a section of society that should be supported, not set upon. Not evicted, their benefits halted. I fail to see how that can be positive for society as a whole.
I wonder what you see and what you blame. Rap music and gang culture? Racial tension? Police brutality? Inadequate parenting? The breakdown of the family unit? Government cuts? Lily-livered liberals? I still believe it’s poverty and inequality in the main whilst accepting there is no single explanation.
Three rhetorical questions, if I may (I’ve already answered no to all of them):
1. Would the wealthy, whiter parts of London, such as Chelsea or Kensington, be allowed to burn?
2. Can we trust the media coverage not to distort events to suit an obvious political agenda?
3. Will any of those arrested receive sentences comparable to Charlie’s or Francis Fernie’s?
I’ve agonised over this all week. How can this anarchy be an expression of powerlessness and impoverishment when the perpetrators shown on TV – such as the one seen throwing an umbrella with predictable results (thanks, Rob) – appear far too stupid to be advocates of political change? The UK Uncut protests, for example, targeted tax-dodging corporations and caused organised disruption to those banks and stores known to be cheating the state out of funds. A protest has a purpose. Where are the placards? Margaret Thatcher played down the social disadvantages of those who opposed and so despised her, dismissing protester and striker alike as scum, vermin, riff-raff. Even for the most left-leaning apologists, what has been witnessed this week is indefensible.
If people can doubt that it was a form of protest, and I find it hard to support those who say that it is, nobody can deny that what we have witnessed is a two-finger salute to authority. And why shouldn’t the youth wish to upset authority? It always has done and what has authority – be it the politicians, police or media, all of whom have recently been disgraced once more – done to command the respect of the young lately? Nothing as far as I can see.
Where else would youths take their aggression but the streets? These are the streets of the most disadvantaged communities in the country, home to society’s most oppressed. It’s where they spend much of their time for want of anywhere else to go. The streets are all that they have when you close youth clubs and sell off playing fields.
Yes, I know that a lot of people, most people, from deprived backgrounds, perhaps single-parent families, who are poorly educated and never had much, grow up to be perfectly well-adjusted, law-abiding citizens (well, subjects, as we’re not really citizens in the UK). Thank goodness. But many don’t and they’re the ones causing this chaos. The TV mouthpieces bellowed advice as they looked down their noses: Parents of the underclass! Do you know where your vile children are? You should know where they are at 10pm. If your children are out right now, they must be guilty of criminal acts. Catch them before we do.
I’m not so liberal that I can’t concede that many parents are unfit for the parenting role and I fully expect many not to know where their children are or even care for that matter. I can even believe that some would have been quite pleased to see their kids coming home in the small hours with electrical goods and jewellery that they couldn’t otherwise afford and so, instead of marching them to the nearest police station by the ear for a stern telling off, patted them on the head for their enterprise. I still can’t help but be reminded of how often we hear about ‘the school of hard knocks’ and the ‘university of life’. Presumably this sort of lesson forms part of the curriculum. It’s called ‘getting by’ and it doesn’t have to be pretty.
Bear in mind also that Edward Woollard, 18, the student protester who threw an empty fire extinguisher from a rooftop, was sentenced to 32 months in jail. Thankfully nobody was harmed. His mother had encouraged him to hand himself in. Will any parent do this from now on knowing the possible severity of the sentence?
The TV cameras are having a great time capturing identifiable images of offenders. The Met has a Flickr photostream inviting people to name and shame the perpetrators. How many feral youths will be brought to justice now that a precedent has been set by jailing demonstrators?
I’m torn because I agree that there has been a collapse of order and authority, which forms part of the equally predictable generalising that’s coming from the right, of course. I don’t think people fear their superiors any more. When children can threaten to sue their parents for spanking them or accuse teachers of much worse out of spite, something is very wrong with society. Family breakdown does seem more widespread than I remember as a child and no doubt there is something to be said for “mass fatherlessness” (Melanie Phillips). There is welfare dependency and a culture whereby it’s acceptable to point the finger and play the victim, so as to seek compensation for real or feigned injustices. I get all that, I really do. But then at the helm we have a Royal family which costs the taxpayer a pretty penny. They are the ultimate benefit cheats. We have obscene bankers’ bonuses still being paid and those same bankers are advising government as to its austerity measures which are hurting the poor the most.
I’m all right, Jack. Keep your hands off my stack.
The cynic in me feels that these depressing scenes suit the government very well, as it now has the perfect excuse to further clamp down on dissent in all its forms and I, for one, find that more worrying than assuring. The power of the police is to be increased, water cannon made available. One Conservative, Tory MEP Roger Helmer, has called for rioters to be “shot on sight” – and he didn’t mean with water. Surely no voter can entertain the ludicrous notion of the police budget being cut now that the police are so vital to maintaining order in the face of wild provocation, so how convenient for the police. Something else will have to be cut, I guess. Probably something that poor inner-city kids will miss most. I wonder if anyone will be brave enough to protest against it.
International Youth Day should be good this year.