The list of complaints is a mix, but it isn’t surprising:
- Anger that millions are being spent on the Olympics, but none is seen to benefit local young people.
- Local sports facilities are block booked by people from the city, meaning local young people can’t use them.
- Resentment at new people – people they see as yuppies – moving into the area.
- The random stopping and searching of young people has got worse, and they blame this on a desire to make the areas safer for ‘the yuppies’ moving in.
- There are no jobs.
- Youth services are being cut.
- Most of all, we were told, not being listened to.
These had been explained by young people to a meeting with youth workers, voluntary sector workers and community leaders in Hackney in the afternoon. They were now being read out to our evening meeting in neighbouring Tottenham, Haringey. I suspect the details in other areas of the city would be different. But the broad picture seems about the same everywhere.
Round the corner, a burnt out building shell was guarded by police cordon, forcing us down a side street. A hint of burnt then soaked plastic particles caught in the nose. Smashed shops were boarded up: “I’ve never seen all these closed like this, blood” one guy I passed explained to his mate. Only the cultural centres of the various Turkish and Kurdish communities had open doors and glowing lights. These were full of men hunched over bottles effes, buried deep in serious conversations.
In our meeting, there was agreement that the complaints of young people must be be heard and that those who have suffered from their actions must be compensated: people who have lost their homes and businesses and possessions must be supported. High streets must be re-built. But most importantly, communities must be re-formed. We heard from an old teacher that the riots of 26 years ago are better understood as a police charge of a council estate, from Turkish community leaders that they are afraid that further clashes will build tensions with black communities. Plans for unity marches, leaflets, and assemblies came together.
As I walked back to Seven Sisters tube station I found a crowd of young black men and women on the pavement, lining up against taught police tape. In the road, a fire engine had its sirens blazing. Its crew paced anxiously around their vehicle. Were these young people about to charge? As I got closer, I realised something quite different was going on. Amongst the young people were mothers with children, grandparents: this was a community standing guard. Surrounding them, posters I had seen on my way to the meeting: ‘restore the peace on our streets’. And that is just what they were doing.
I don’t know what will happen next in London, never mind in other cities across Britain. Our communities have been ripped apart by inequality. This breeds resentment. They have been blighted by racism. This breeds anger. They have been crushed by cuts. This sparks flames. But I do know this: these communities, like all communities, are full of astonishing and ingenious people. They know what they need, and they know the way forward. They are brave, and they will stand up for what they know to be right. The only question is, will the government listen? Will it stand with these women and men, girls and boys? Will it do what’s needed? Because if not, then Boris and Dave can continue to prance round the capital in their contest to show which is the most glorious leader. But both will soon find that few Londoners are following.
I wrote that on the late night train from London back to Oxford. When I arrived, the station building was shut. I ran into friends, who explained: “MacDonalds in Jericho has been trashed, and a car burnt at the ice rink” – which is just a couple of streets away. As I walked from the station, that same smell caught me. I looked down the road towards the rink, and another fire engine crept along it. As I crossed Oxford, police cars and an ambulance rushed from various corners and up Cowley Road to the East of the city. I don’t get the impression it was anything on the scale of what has happened elsewhere, but there was certainly a little arson, some burning of bins. I don’t know if it will grow here, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
But I do know this: this was predicted. In fact, if you are a regular reader here, you know it too. In our local anti-cuts group, we’ve worked closely with a number of young people and youth workers to try to defend their youth centres. They gave speeches to full meetings of the council, organised protests, and got national press coverage to embarrass David Cameron. But they were mocked by their local representatives. They weren’t listened to.
Of course this is all about much more than youth centres. But these youth services weren’t just the pool tables they are often made out to be. They were the buffer. As teenager after teenager has said to me: ‘Now, we don’t have anyone to go to when we want to talk. When we’re angry, no one helps us sort out our problems’.
The youth workers here in Oxford were working hard to stop these riots happening. While there were underlying tensions, they managed to squeeze hard, and with every effort, to hold our communities together. And then they were thrown onto Cameron’s trash heap. As they left their jobs, they told him this would happen. He didn’t listen. And last night, Britain was burning.