When it all kicked off in Hackney yesterday it was unpleasant as hell but, though not predicted, felt inevitable.
I’m not one for skinny jeans or innovative hair gel use, still less am I an aficionado of sculpted facial hair, but I am a university-educated former working class bloke who reads the Guardian and likes cooking. It is all too easy to live in the East End and see it as a paragon of New Labour-esque Cool Britannia. Little delis with wafer-thin ham, new pubs selling craft beers and basement cinema clubs are all yours to indulge in.
We walk past those who strut along with a hood up and, let’s face it, bypass shortcuts that would take us through the estates. It is possible to live here and have a charmed existence. Many do not.
Many live on those estates and are even more frightened by the riots because they live cheek-by-jowl with those perpetrating them. Many are frustrated by a lack of ability to find work, or decent work. Others struggle to raise children in the face of poor state school provision, without the means to supplement their education through music lessons or further tuition.
Beneath this majority – frustrated and law-abiding – is a mass of our urban young, mostly men, without any concept of community beyond a shared loathing of the police and loyalty to those around them who command ‘respect’ by engaging in drug sales and the handling of stolen goods.
Liberal leftists such as myself have been berated over the past three days for attempting to make some sense of these riots. With the notable exception of the usual suspects, a lunatic fringe of ever-batshit Trots and anarchists, I’ve yet to come across even the most pinko, lily-livered bed-wetter suggesting the police go soft. Violent disorder should be treated harshly and those arrested should face serious penalty.
If the police need to be physically tough to get control, they should be.
But a time will come when Cameron sets up an inquiry (presumably an undertaking to establish an inquiry in the fullness of time will be one of the things the PM announces to the House of Commons this Thursday) and we will want answers.
Why did this happen? Who are these kids who think a decent way to relieve their boredom is to trash a Ladbrokes or nick some trainers?
And when we ask those questions, we’ll want better answers than ‘this wasn’t protest, it was simply criminality.’ Of course it’s criminality – but such a mass spasm of rage-fuelled theft and wanton destruction does not manifest itself in a vacuum.
On one thing we should be immediately honest – Osborne’s cuts have not caused these riots, much though I disagree with their timing and scale. As many commentators have noted, it’s difficult to argue that those rampaging through our streets would otherwise have been playing pool in their youth club.
No, it has taken governments of all stripes decades of looking the other way not to notice the tensions that exist in our cities and draw up policy responses to ease them.
Once the police actions are done, the how and why will become important to us. And it is vital when that time comes that we ask those questions not just of our politicians and those who have committed the crimes but also of ourselves.
I don’t want to prejudice that process but suspect at this early stage that the gap between my day-to-day lived experience of bar openings and Vietnamese restaurant hunting and the grinding hopelessness of a world without brothers, sisters and parents who are secretaries, doctors or lawyers – or even police officers – needs to be explored and bridged a little for us to shed some light on the events of the past days.
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