Riotous youth: hang ’em high or hug ’em hard?

Why spiked is taking neither side in the great national handwringing over whether looters should get jail time or tough love.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

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What do the riotous yoof in urban England need: jail time or tough love?

The authorities’ surreally OTT punishments for some of the rioters – including six months in jail for a young woman who stole chewing gum and four years for two guys who tried to start a riot via Facebook – have got the commentariat hot under the collar. Many right-wing observers are loving it, with one fantasising that ‘this is a national emergency’ where ‘even those who behaved like idiots rather than like professional criminals must face exemplary punishment’. But more liberal-leaning observers, or ‘wets’ in the view of the law’n’order lobby, are losing sleep. We shouldn’t be pouring police into riot-rattled communities but rather ‘social justice’ projects, they say, including ‘parenting classes’, ‘family therapy centres’, and so on.

So which side is spiked taking in this great national handwringing over what to do with looters and idiots: the hang-’em-high side or the hug-’em-hard side? Neither. The problem with both approaches is that they see the solution to imploding urban communities as more external intervention. They see these communities as needing outside assistance, in the form of either tough wrist-slapping by wig-wearing lords or tough love from family experts with PhDs in parenting. Such responses to the riots, where faraway saviours are encouraged to punish and/or fix ‘broken communities’, are superficial at best and destructive at worse, threatening to exacerbate the very crisis that gave rise to the recent rioting in the first place: the corrosion of social solidarity and demise of self-generated authority in many working-class communities.

There are two problems with the authorities’ pseudo-strongman handling of the rioters. The first is that it is based on the erroneous conviction that the rioting was a conspiracy, that it was coherent, organised, overseen either by ‘gang overlords’ or ‘social media ringleaders’. So MI5 has been drafted in to ‘track down the riot ringleaders’. Meanwhile, police and politicians fret about gang culture, seeming to believe a) that three or four teens wearing the same t-shirt constitutes a gang and b) that these so-called gangs orchestrated the whole upheaval. ‘Gangs ferried thugs into hotspots by minibus’, says one journalist, in an article that smells a lot like an underhand pitch to Hollywood, and then ‘escalated or orchestrated [the violence] behind the scenes’.

The ridiculous four-year prison sentence given to two young men from Cheshire who set up a Facebook riot page also springs from the belief that the burning and looting were stoked by what one report calls ‘social media riot ringleaders’. Even though no one accepted the Facebook invitation and turned up to ‘Smash Down Northwich Town’ on 8 August – except one of the creators of the Facebook page, whereupon he was promptly arrested, the moron – still the men behind the invitation were convicted of incitement and jailed for four years. The Chester Crown Court judges and their backers in the media justify the sentence as a ‘deterrent’, designed to dampen the spirits of ‘social media riot ringleaders’ the next time there is an explosion in street violence.

The powers-that-be might find it comforting to fantasise that the riots were provoked by small handfuls of gangs and Twittering thugs who, in the words of the Daily Mail, were ‘intent on causing mayhem’. But they are deluding themselves. The riot was not a conspiracy, it was something far worse than that – a violent coming-to-a-head of various retrograde political trends and social developments of recent years. Depicting the violent upheaval as something consciously orchestrated by isolated groups of hotheaded youths is a massive distraction from facing up to the reality that this was a flabby, formless expression of the collapse of morality and authority in some of England’s urban communities, in which many youths felt little compunction about getting stuck in.

The nonsense notion that the riot was orchestrated by thugs on social media is exposed in the fact that Twitter and Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger were stuffed with rumour and misinformation during the nights of rioting, rather than with clear instructions for where and how to cause mayhem. The use of social media was secondary to the violence itself, which sprung from the fact that urban youth now seem to have so little moral or emotional attachment to the communities they live in that they are willing to smash them up, and the fact that the police, the so-called guardians of public safety, had no clue how to respond and therefore stood back and let it happen. Incapable even of acknowledging, far less discussing, this combination of urban social malaise and crisis of state authority which inflamed the riots and allowed them to spread, our rulers prefer instead to fantasise that England was simply rocked by opportunists who love a bit of violence. And to fantasise that taking away their BlackBerries or restricting what they can say on Facebook – that is, curtailing youths’ freedom of speech – will make everything okay again.

And the second problem with the elites’ response to the rioting is that it is myopically focused on having some external force dish out medicine to what PM David Cameron describes as the ‘sick’ parts of our society. Some want that medicine to be nasty, in the form of tough jail sentences, BlackBerry bans and curfews, while others want it to be sweeter, perhaps involving an army of state-funded Camila Batmanghelidjhs tiptoeing into damaged communities and hugging and stroking them back to full health. Yet both sides believe equally that these communities must be reprimanded or nurtured, propped up or straightened out, by external experts, of either the truncheon-wielding or therapybabble variety. (And there isn’t that much difference these days between those two wings of authoritarianism.)

This would make a bad situation worse. Because the very problem in rundown urban communities is the surfeit of ‘external solutions’, the surfeit of welfarism and authoritarian measures and do-gooding initiatives that have been imposed from without in recent years. A tsunami of economic, political and therapeutic programmes has had the effect of severely undermining community bonds and social solidarity in many areas. The welfarisation of people’s lives, where their every basic need is met by faceless bureaucrats who simply want to keep people ticking over, has undercut both the spirit of self-reliance and the trend for community solidarity. The imposition of everything from CCTV cameras to anti-social behaviour orders, alongside the society-wide questioning of adult authority over children, has undermined communities’ ability to deal with bad behaviour through their own initiative and with their own resources. The introduction of ceaseless parenting advice and classes for poor and allegedly feckless families has even torn the bond between parent and child, replacing the authority of the mother and father with the apparently superior authority of the ‘parenting expert’.

Time and again, external interference has undermined communities’ internal resources and their organic forms of solidarity and authority. In essence, such interventions have undercut good forms of dependency – such as children being dependent upon their parents or neighbours being dependent on each another – with a bad form of dependency: reliance upon the external force, the state, the apparently all-seeing, all-knowing expert who lives outside of your community walls. It is fundamentally this silent war on good forms of social dependency that has nurtured a new generation of young people who seem to have little sense of community spirit or social wherewithal. The cops and psychobabblers now itching to get into these communities to shake them by their collective collar will further contribute to this profound crisis of community life.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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