Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Police prepare for another night of violence – how should society prepare?

In Chalk Farm road, Camden borough, at 3.30pm this afternoon, shopkeepers weren't just repairing their damaged shops. They were boarding up their windows to mitigate the damage of another night of violence. Evans Cycles, Sainsbury's, a local Thai restaurant, all had their windows smashed. I pass a police car apprehending two individuals, who appeared to have been selling goods out of the boot of their car. It may be adding two and two to make five to say their wares were looted. Or it may not. Morrisons superstore, normally open till 11pm, was shutting. A mother remonstrated with the shop manager as the shutter went down. “All the supermarkets are closing”, she said, irate. “How am I meant to feed my kids?”. 

The police, however, had advised the store to close, expecting another night of violence. A policeman standing outside a smashed-in Domino's pizza store admitted they don't know where in London the violence will hit next, they just know there will be more. Police will be drafted in from outside of London to help. The hope that 'PC Rain' will step in – as the constabulary term a helpful downpour – seeming more unlikely underneath the clear blue August sky.

Having seen You-tube footage of the disorder, I told the policeman he and his colleagues had done well given the numbers they faced. He admitted it could have been worse. The Domino's, he said, had a father and baby living above it. The father had come outside to find children attempting to set fire to it. He asked them why. “We've got to burn stuff”, they said. Perhaps they were as uncomprehending of their own actions as was the father. But he managed to stop them, and tragedy was averted.

Tragedy, however, will surely occur should the violence in London continue. Public support in a traditionally liberal city is moving ever towards heavy-handed policing to put a stop to it. It's hard to imagine many objecting to the use of water canon now. The situation at night is descending not so much into violence, but lawlessness. Looting for want, not for need.

What this generation are wanting for, is a question for the longer term. Yes, youth unemployment is bad and getting worse. The previous government's scheme to tackle it, The Future Jobs Fund, was swiftly scrapped by the current Coalition; it's new flagship Work Programme, intended to help 'the hardest to help' into work, incentivises welfare to work providers more to place previous incapacity benefit adult claimants into jobs than young jobseekers. Cuts to public services too disproportionately affect poorer areas who are more dependent on state support, and stories of diminished or axed youth support are rife. 

Intriguingly, a news story appeared on Sky News on Friday, before any rioting took place. It spoke of teenagers unable to find work, depressed about their future, while being fed unobtainable aspirations by celebrity culture. It was “a warning shot to society”, said a sociologist. How prescient that turned out to be.

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