A Year On – Riots, Olympics and Inspiration

Tottenham, London Aug 7th 2011

A year ago this week, as Londoners, we went  to bed amid  chaos, conflict and fear  in Croydon, Tottenham, Ealing, Hackney, Clapham as well as many other places throughout and beyond London. We woke up to the desolation and disbelief was something that shattered that self-assurance and confidence. Broken glass yes,  but also a break in that delicate social contract that exists to retain public order. We could see how narrow that ‘thin blue line’ can be. And it’s scary.

Riots and looting had spread bringing a wave of fear, confusion and anger with them that had flooded the city and beyond.

There were local initiatives to ‘rebuild’ communities, and much (too  much in my view) quick-fire speculation about causes and reasons which ended with much blame being placed and misplaced by those politicians and media junkies looking for instant answers. Answers were needed but sometimes it isn’t the first thing you think of that will provide the most learning.

It was a ‘youth’ problem we heard or ‘problem families’. I never really believed that. Firstly, the riots were not exclusively carried out by young people or by ‘poor people’  and blame needs to move beyond broad pasting of people based on background and income. If there is a problem (and I never really fall entirely for the ‘Broken Britain’ agenda) it is one that has to be shared through to those who lead our political and social culture that creates divisions and marginalised. But I’m not about explaining the riot phenomenon – academics who spend time researching rather than speculating are far better placed than me.  I’m more about explaining feelings.

It’s hard not to compare those feelings I had at the beginning of August 2011 to those I have now, in August 2012. I was scared, I was confused, I was also disenfranchised, I felt, by politicians spouting about  casting  blame  had no similarity to the reality that I was experiencing. If anything taught me about the detachment of politicians in their privileged ivory towers, it was their collective responses to those days and continued games of ‘divide and rule.

London 2012 Olympics

And this year, how do I feel? I have been carried away by the Olympics, I’ll admit it. I was beginning to feel the excitement as I went to see the Torch Relay and saw it was bringing a feeling of genuine joy. Although I’ve been privileged to attend a couple of events, I’ve also wholly taken part in the free events.

I am not blind to the problems that this country faces – we only need to reflect on the past year and the surmounting war on those who have the least and the games of ‘divide and rule’ which continue to be played but we have to take the positive focus on youth that can be garnished by successful sport but also participation by all and use it to counter some of the perceptions of blame – particularly blame of youth – that entered into general discourse.  These problems don’t go away for two weeks, they are still very much alive.

The feeling of pride and the happiness generated in London is about sport at the moment but it isn’t just sporting achievement that can bring these feelings of pride. It is about receiving support and encouragement to excel and to find the area in which you excel – whether that’s athletics, painting, writing or being a compassionate person no more or less – we need to find more ways to celebrate the positives and use these Games as a spring to motivate – not just in sport but beyond.

I’m going to use the example of Mo Farah, 10,000m gold medallist and his story of the support he received from a PE teacher, Alan Watkinson.

Mr Watkinson said: “If he was going to have an chance to progress, someone was going to have to take him under their wing – there were so many distractions that could get in the way.”

He entered Farah for a cross country course and finish second.A few weeks later he finished fourth in a county championship, despite not having spikes.

Soon afterwards Mr Watkinson told him he could run for Great Britain.

And if there’s a lesson to learn from this, I hope it is that. I hope the government and local authorities pick up on that. We have to find people to encourage and push us towards achievement. It doesn’t have to be sport and it doesn’t have to be world-class – but having someone who can mentor, guide and encourage is crucial. It’s not age-specific either. Doubts can emerge at any age and at different stages in life.

photos by Autr Films and Michael Hirst

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Lammy and Smacking

David Lammy, the Tottenham MP, spoke yesterday in an interview on LBC about his views on smacking.

Among other things, he said

“There are groups of people in this country who are confused by the law and we need to listen to those people,” he told the Guardian. “There is a divide between professionals and parents who feel quite differently.”

This issue has been covered at length in the media and it relates to issues he wrote about in the Autumn in  his post-riot book ‘Out of the Ashes’. He said that the Children Act 2004 ‘went too far’ in changing the legislation regarding the defence of reasonable punishment from parents who would no longer ‘be masters’ in their own homes. Continue reading

Pickles and ‘Troubled Families’

An article that appeared in the Guardian on Monday has been playing on my mind for a couple of days. Eric Pickles the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (who incidentally seems dead set on destroying both) wants to tackle what he calls ‘troubled families’ or more importantly perhaps, he wants to streamline the amount they ‘cost’ the state.

Louise Casey has been appointed as a ‘Tsar’ to oversee a ‘troubled families’ unit which sounds like some kind of Stalinist initiative.

Not that I don’t want people who need help to get help in the most cost effective and streamlined way but there are a few issues on which I would challenge Pickles and the government. Firstly the direct correlation that they seem to draw between the riots in the summer and particular familial issues.

The government really need to make their mind up about what they perceive to be the reasons for the riots. Personally I think they are oversimplifying to the nth degree and trying to ostracise and target particular social groups. Yes, gangs may have been an element but the reasons the riots spread has to be taken much more broadly than that. The subsequent arrests show the age ranges were not necessarily concentrated around ‘youth’ and the class base of those pillaging the country is much broader than these ‘troubled’ families if you include the political classes who continue to twist rules (re: Liam Fox) and virtually ravage public services (NHS) just as those on the street looted the electronics stores.

There are broader issues which have created a ‘must have’ society and it is not only the so-called ‘troubled families’ and ‘gangs’ that need to be tackled but the corruptions at the heart of the political elite that create an ‘us versus them’ attitude to rule and one which is not helped by highlighting those who are ‘troubled’ and targetting them.

Back to Pickles though, the article quotes him as saying

“the common refrain was where are the parents? Why aren’t they keeping their kids indoors? Why weren’t they with them in court? The whole country got a sudden, unwelcome insight into our problem families. The ones that make misery in their communities and cause misery to themselves.”

What Pickles fails to appreciate is that ‘the country’ got in welcome insight in the summer to far more than these ‘problem families’. We got an insight into the way that our society has developed a materialistic and opportunist streak that is by no means confined to the ‘less than 1% of the population’.

Indeed, it was the willingness of those who are  not in this particular group of ‘troubled families’ to join the general lawlessness and looting that was the real social issue evidence in the aftermath of the rioting.

So what is a ‘troubled family’?

A family with multiple problems has been defined by the cabinet office as “no parent in the family is in work; the family lives in poor quality or overcrowded housing; no parent has any qualifications; the mother has mental health problems; at least one parent has a long-standing limiting illness, disability or infirmity; the family has low income (below 60% of the median); or the family cannot afford a number of food and clothing items”.

Let’s see. Unemployment, poor housing, poor education.. oh look, mental health has been thrown in there too to add to the stigma as well as disability and low income. Hmm. That is a ‘problem’ family. Well, has it ever occured to the government that removing access to a comprehensive and supportive benefit system and social housing and decent education might actually cause some of these compounded ‘troubles’  rather than tackling the so-called ‘troubled’ families that arise from these social and financial circumstances.

Surely the proverbial ‘prevention is better than cure’ maxim applies? In which case, why doesn’t the government tackle the issues behind poverty rather than exacerbating them and marginalising and stigmatising poverty and the effects of poverty by dismissing families who grow up with these issues as ‘troubled’.

Labelling hurts. Labelling by a government is pure discrimination and playing politics with peoples’ lives is worse yet.

Troubled maybe, but troubled to whom?

I don’t say these families should not receive further help. Of course they should but they should on the basis of the poor housing, low incomes and ill-health rather than because they are ‘problems’.

Who created these problems and how can they be solved? That should be what the government is asking. How can we build a society with a sufficient and appropriate safety net than creates real community and doesn’t destroy localities and local services. The government cannot absolve itself from all social projects and social services by laying the blame on the ‘troubled families’ line without accepting responsibility.

Or maybe they can but we shouldn’t allow their narrative to become the predominant one.