The rioting in Tottenham, Brixton, Hackney and now parts of Liverpool, Bristol and Nottingham are the product of a complex mix of long- and short- term factors. One that few have mentioned is the shutting down of the places that have hitherto tried to help young people – the group that has taken the lead role in the violence following the shooting of Mark Duggan – deal with their day-to-day problems. In Haringey – the original locus for the disturbances over last weekend – eight of its thirteen youth clubs closed down between December 2010 and June 2011.
The rhetoric of some rioters implies they are just responding to one man’s death while critics complain that it is due to a failure of teachers to root out gangs or a result of economic collapse. While there are lots of possible explanations, based on my own research I want to suggest that the riots are the product of both sustained and largely unrelieved deprivation and the removal of places for young people to cope with these pressures. Young people are frustrated and angry and they are venting this at whoever and whatever is closest: calling it ‘recreational violence’ as have some betrays a dangerously dismissive glibness. For they are not responding to a single problem; they are reacting to every problem or reason to be angry they have ever faced.
Of course deprivation does not automatically turn everybody into thieves. But not knowing how to deal with deprivation productively can turn anger into directionless, cathartic violence.
My research (based in Nottingham) focuses on the relationship between the types of young people currently venting their anger on the streets of Britain and voluntary youth services. By observing the comings and goings of an inner-city youth club I’ve been able to see how hard youth workers and youth services try to prevent the difficulties faced by the young people they work with from boiling over. Although the idea of ‘giving young people somewhere to go’ as a preventative measure against rioting might seem ridiculous, the fact that these riots are happening now as opposed to five years ago should give an indication of how important it has been. Youth clubs are places for young people to be where they aren’t moved along as a threat to social order. Youth workers are adults who are not the other adults in young people’s lives. That is, they are not teachers or police or parents and, for many young people, they are the only people not from their neighbourhoods who they speak to socially on a regular basis. Fundamentally, youth clubs prevent young people joining gangs by not being gangs.
The role of the youth club is to provide young people with a break. Youth workers encourage young people to use the space to step outside of themselves and reflect on their lives and the decisions they are making. They aim to be part-confidante, part-counsellor, teasing out discussions about sexual health, drugs, gangs, school, work and community while recognising that telling young people what to do is both unhelpful and futile. According to the National Youth Agency, youth clubs provide a ‘social education’ through ‘anti-oppressive practice’. They act as a microcosm of interactions between adults and young people. In youth clubs the types of young people now on the streets of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Nottingham are encouraged to reflect on how best to deal with the frustrations they face. As one youth worker I met described it, youth work is about developing life skills and helping young people make good decisions.
Importantly these ‘good decisions’ are not just ‘do what your parents tell you’ or ‘do not break the law’. Youth workers’ main focus is helping young people deal with their problems productively rather than resorting to self-destructive acts – and rioting can be seen as one of those. They do not tell young people in deprived communities not to be angry – various measures of deprivation suggest they have good reason to be angry – they teach young people how to channel this anger positively and overcome it. Young people who find themselves excluded from school are not blamed but asked ‘how can you avoid being excluded again?’. This is clearly what the young people in Tottenham are not doing. The riots represent a release with young people venting their anger and frustrations indiscriminately.
The steady withdrawal of funding from local authorities in response to calls to reduce government spending has meant that youth clubs are now disappearing from the very areas that need them most. The social education they represent is consequently also being withdrawn.
Youth work is not explicitly intended to prevent rioting. Nor will the anger represented by the riots be automatically resolved by setting up more youth clubs. But it is important to understand how important youth clubs have been for engaging with young people and helping them cope with the pressures they face. The combined effect of the withdrawal of funding for youth clubs and the augmented states of deprivation that the communities they live in experience is to put an entire generation on edge. The directionless violence sweeping across London is a manifestation of this. From their perspective such young people have little to lose by rioting and everything to gain. They are going to be marginalised, demonised and deprived anyway so why not fight back? Maybe then someone will talk to them.
Currently, the focus of most journalists and politicians is on how few police there were to deal with the events of recent days. This should not stop us asking why it was that so many young people thought it was a good idea to take to the streets in the first place.