Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Reasons for rioting

Programme Director Jussi Nissilä comments the developments in the UK.
Who would have thought that a protest against the police after a young man’s death last weekend would turn into a full-scale anarchy all over the UK? Even after having witnessed the demonstrations by the students against the rising tuition fees and the demonstration and the aftermath anarchy against the government’s spending cuts,  I didn’t think this would be possible. After all, the issue seemed so geographically focused and so apolitical that my first reaction was that it would remain very local to Tottenham.

Travelling back home from the office and seeing black smoke, a closed street and a handful of police cars on the high street of my home neighbourhood proved me wrong. Running the rest of my way home (not because of the riots, but because it was raining!) I then watched the news and how the protest had sparked a full-scale riot with violence, looting and arson. How did it escalate into something this far-reaching and serious? There didn’t seem to be a reason, a motivation that would touch so many people. Most of the ordinary people, poor or not, would want nothing to do with these criminals. So what is the reason for the riots? And most importantly, what can we do to prevent it from happening in the future?

The first observation of the backgrounds of the rioters has been that they are mostly teenagers. With little hopes of a better future and few places to spend their time except on the streets, the youth of the Britain’s lower social classes are indeed troubled. The police and the politicians have asked parents to call their kids off the streets, and there seems to be a common call for some parental discipline to keep the youngsters out of the streets and out of trouble.

Columnist and blogger Laurie Penny comments in her blog that parenting or youth centres can only bring so much results: “ [The riots] are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all.”

It is apparent that in the UK there is a group of young people, who are socially excluded to the extent that their only means of empowerment is rioting. My observation is that people in this country are constantly divided into “winners” and “losers”. Within the education system this means people with talent and wealthy parents, and those who lack either of the two. In this way the the UK shows characteristics from both meritocracy and class society. However the motivation for the division of people seems irrelevant at this moment, when the rioters are still on the streets. The real question is how can there be some way of empowerment when the current government is cutting public services, social security, jobs and altogether making the situation only worse for the less fortunate. 

Jussi Nissilä
The Finnish Institute in London

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