From optimist to pessimist

Luke Akehurst

hackney central riotsBy Luke Akehurst / @lukeakehurst

I’m normally an optimist about politics but the riots last week have left me with a profound sense of pessimism.

They happened almost literally on my doorstep. Clarence Road which saw the worst violence in Hackney forms the boundary between the council ward I represent and the next door ward. Some of my constituents will have been perpetrators and looters; the vast majority will have been cowering at home in fear. The town hall where I go to council meetings featured in many of the Sky and BBC helicopter shots of Monday afternoon. The now celebrated seeing off of looters by the Turkish and Kurdish communities was in the high street a few hundred yards from my flat, conducted by the guys who are my local newsagents, grocers, minicab drivers, cafe owners and who sell me fantastic kebabs after Labour Party meetings.

I count myself extremely lucky that I was on holiday and not at home in Hackney on Monday night. Just the idea of having spent that night awake and worrying about the safety of my five year old son and pregnant partner terrifies me. Having a disability, I don’t think I’d be much use defending my premises, unless it was to try to trip up a looter with my walking stick.

I can’t retrospectively criticise the local Turks and Kurds for vigilantism given that on Monday night I was cheering them on for saving our neighbourhood. Their community has its fair share of gang-related crime itself but with the police otherwise occupied three quarters of a mile down Amhurst Road, they kept Stoke Newington from going the way of central Hackney or Tottenham either side of it. If the police had had 16,000 officers deployed on Monday rather than not until Tuesday, there would have been no need for communities to defend themselves.

The bit almost everyone could agree on about the response to the riots was the need for a very firm response by the police and thereafter by the justice system. I’m not a civil libertarian at the best of times but I’m particularly short of liberal instincts when someone is trying to loot mine and my constituents’ local shops or torch the cars in my local streets. This isn’t about the policing of political protests in an open public space in central London. It’s about stopping people before they destroy people’s property, livelihoods, homes and in five cases last week, lives. I wasn’t convinced by the calls for water cannon, baton rounds or the deployment of the Army, but not for any moral reason, just because I didn’t hear any police officers make a strong case that any of those measures would have been tactically helpful.

The difficult bit – and the area in which there is unfortunately little scope for bipartisan political consensus, hence my pessimism – is how we reduce the risks of this happening again.

That’s because people are trying to suggest there are simple motives for what happened when in fact the causes are complex and multiple.

Undoubtedly those people who just looted goods, particularly as the riots took on a copycat feel after the first few days, can be deterred from doing it again. This can be done by physical threat – if you go on a looting spree next time there will be so many cops you run a high risk of getting hit with a truncheon, or (if the argument for them is won) by a baton round or a water cannon jet. Or it can be done by threat of punishment: if you do this again there will be so many cops and so much CCTV that you will get caught and the sentences will be tough enough that they don’t justify the risk of getting a free 42″ plasma TV.

There were people whom the press reports have been charged or convicted who have got good jobs, or even (particularly making my blood boil) travelled in to poor areas like Hackney to loot from their homes in prosperous suburbs. Those people were just on the make and can be deterred if the potential cost to them exceeds the value of their loot.

The deterrent aspects are fine in so far as they go. But it isn’t sustainable to have a society where there are people who grow up with such a screwed up sense of right and wrong that they think it is OK to loot their local convenience store, and are only prevented from doing it by an iron fist. You have to ask how we got young people who are so amoral. The answer is apparent to anyone who like me, has kids at an inner city state primary school. It is that a minority of kids in these areas have such chaotic, dysfunctional home lives that they are already well on the way to criminality by reception class let alone the pre-teens being seen in court this week. When you hear parents boast about their gang membership while dropping their kids of at school, you know something is very wrong. Similarly there will be kids whose parent or parents are drug addicts or alcoholics. Intervening to save these kids from the same kind of life their parents have is possible but it is massively expensive and complex and involves lots of different government agencies working together. Some of the people delivering those services will have lost their jobs in the cuts in the last year. Some of them probably had the bureaucratic job titles that Eric Pickles campaigned against as “non-jobs”.

The urban environment we are expecting some kids to grow up in is so harsh that it does help explain why they are desensitised to violence enough to act as they did this week. For many children and young people in the inner city, life is unbelievably tough and bleak. They live in poor and overcrowded housing, the public realm they go through is depressing in the extreme, they witness violence and vice younger than anyone should have to, and often the people in their immediate vicinity who are visibly prospering are drug dealers and pimps. It isn’t inevitable that this environment makes you a rioter. It also produces people from the same estates and same ethnic backgrounds who are deeply religious and moral, people who are fantastically driven entrepreneurs or artists, and people who seek a political or community solution to their troubles.

But the more we invest in improving the environment children grow up in, and the life chances they have, the more chance they will not end up as looters and rioters. That’s why when Labour was in power, investing in inner city communities, crime went down. We showed people we cared and tried to give them a pathway to a better life through legitimate means of education and training for a job. The little oases of beauty and calm in the life of children from estates in Hackney are almost all provided by the state: schools which are of an increasingly high quality (Mossbourne Academy, lauded by successive Education Secretaries of both parties, serves the Pembury Estate where the riots happened), libraries, parks, leisure centres, youth clubs. We managed as a council to avoid frontline service cuts this year but in future years it is these facilities that make life liveable in the inner city that may get cut.

The rioting may not have been about the economic downturn or cuts but you would have to be an idiot not to think it increased the risk of them. If you think you might have a chance of getting a job you are less likely to break the law and jeopardise that job. If you think you have no chance of getting a job, you have nothing to lose, and you may foolishly think you can get goods that you would never be able to legitimately acquire. If the state and society does something to help you – even just giving you £30 a week EMA to stay on in education – it increases the chances that you might respect the state’s laws and other people in society.

We know that some young people from Hackney thought the EMA cut and student fees were worth rioting about before Monday, because school and college students from Hackney were interviewed by the media during the student riots, wearing the same scarf and hoodie combo that has characterised the current events. Whilst the majority may not have had any political motive last week, some had already rioted once about a political issue so may well have done it again.

Some on the right have made the offensive suggestion that Labour tried to look after the poorest in society to create a client group of voters. This fails to understand the first-past-the-post voting system, which means most of the poorest areas are not in electorally marginal seats, or the low turnout in many inner city areas. Labour wasn’t trying to buy the votes of the most socially excluded, it was trying to create a society that was sustainable and where the streets didn’t go up in flames each August.

And not everyone involved was in it just for the looting. Otherwise how do we explain the prolonged stand-off with the police in Hackney that went on for hours with stones and other missiles being thrown? Those people didn’t just loot and then go home, they seemed to want a sustained fight with the police.

Some of that was gang-related and about asserting control of territory and thence the drug trade. There are postcode gangs covering most of the big estates in Hackney, including the Pembury Estate next to where the worst violence happened. There seems to have been a truce between them to come together against the police on Monday. To understand the degree of violence these gangs are a capable of carrying out against each other and other young people in Hackney and similar areas you only have to look back at the press stories of teenagers being stabbed or shot in inner London boroughs over recent years. If you are growing up on an estate where a gang like that is active, it must often be easier and safer to join than to not join. The police may have held back slightly on Monday because they did not want to escalate the violence when their opponents included people who habitually carry knives and whose older members can have access to firearms. There is good police work going on to tackle gang culture but it is a really complex area and deep-seated – there have probably been gangs in East London ever since the area was urbanised.

Then there will have been people who feel a wider animosity towards the police – because, for instance, of being repeatedly stopped and searched – which will have crystallised because of the Mark Duggan shooting – and who saw this week as a chance to settle scores with the police.

My Hackney Council colleague Ian Rathbone witnessed Monday’s events and told the Hackney Gazette he saw there was also an organised presence of white middle class men, who presumably had some political motive for being there. He is quoted as saying: “there were a lot of organised gangs of two, three, or four people dressed in black … they had bags with bottles and stones and were hurling them at police and running off.” I’d like to know who these people were.

The burning of shops and flats in Croydon and Tottenham also goes beyond acquisitive looting and speaks of at least some rioters being possessed of a nihilistic rage against wider society.

Overall, my take on the multiple responses needed to the riots is that they all require a strong state – whether to properly fund and empower the police and other public order measures like CCTV, or to properly fund and target social programmes to undermine the causes of crime, breakdown gang culture and give young people at risk of getting involved in criminality pathways to fulfilling employment and a good, stable life.

I don’t think Labour should apologise for that being a social democratic package. We took measures when we were in power that had a collateral benefit of reducing the risk of rioting. The Tory-led coalition will find it very difficult ideologically to come up with the kind of sophisticated and holistic policy approach needed to stop it happening again. It will require them to admit they have cut the police too far and too fast, and allowed a social crisis to develop in some of our poorest areas because of the double impact of public spending cuts and job losses. The Tory libertarian wing and the Lib Dems have been trying to reduce CCTV coverage when that has been instrumental in catching the looters. They have no vision for urban Britain, and none of the policy focus needed to deal with its complex issues. In fact their only real initiative in urban areas has been to maximise the cuts to boroughs like Hackney and minimise those to areas like Wokingham which have a fraction of the social problems to deal with.

I think the coalition hoped the inner city would quietly rot away, depopulating through negligence. Tragically it has taken people nihilistically trashing their own neighbourhoods to get any ministerial focus on the long term problems of urban Britain and the way current policies and priorities are exacerbating them. Even more tragically I suspect their response may be to posture tough on crime, without deploying the necessary resources, and to ignore being tough on the causes of crime entirely.

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