After four nights of unprecedented violence and rioting across London and other UK cities this week, media speculation has focussed the blame heavily on young people, describing them as “hoodies”, “juvenile delinquents” and “yobs. Headlines about gangs of children and teenagers have flooded newspapers, with the words “youngsters” and “young people” densely peppering almost every story. But are young people really to blame?
The few statistics that have yet emerged are vague and vary wildly. One news report claimed to have statistics proving that 70% of those who had been arrested in the riots were aged 21 and under. Another insisted that the crowds were largely formed of adult gangs and older, more organised criminals. At one of the London courts where detainees were dealt with through the night, a journalist emphasised the prevalence of more mature offenders, listing a graphic designer, a graduate student and a British Army soldier as examples. Until the smoke clears it will be impossible to draw solid facts about the demographics of those involved, but in the meantime two clear battle lines have been drawn. Are young people the immoral, feral perpetrators of mindless violence, or the innocent scapegoats for a wave of deep civil unrest amongst the disillusioned adult population of a country severely hit by austerity cuts?
One reason for the frequent suggestion that young people have been largely responsible for the riots is the role social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have played in the disorder. The immediacy of digital information means that the internet has inevitably been blamed for helping gangs of looters to communicate; quickly gathering where hotspots of violence flared and dispersing when police were reported nearby. The natural association of young people with social media sites has linked these stories to the teenage generation, but they were equally actively used in the wake of the riots by youngsters and adults alike to organise enormous clean-up operations.
Gove’s School ‘Discipline Measures’
Michael Gove has commented on the importance of school discipline since the riots took place, claiming that a consumer culture leading to phrases like: “I know my rights,” has sprung up amongst young people, allowing them to run rings around teachers with few disciplinary powers remaining. He has promised to crack down on school behaviour and to give power back to teachers to tackle the problem. The very fact that the Education Secretary has made these remarks in direct reference to the events gives a clear implication that the government feel youngsters are major perpetrators of the violence.
The Association of School and College Leaders became involved in the debate when its leader, head teacher Brian Lightman, accused parents of failing to raise their children with any sense of morality or boundaries. He claimed that schools were often faced with disciplining youngsters who “have never been told that something is wrong.” His summary of recent events heavily implied that the fault lies not with the children who have been raised to riot, but with the parents who failed to instil in them any belief in community, morality or justice.
Though the government has insistently refused to draw any parallel between the riots and any legitimate cause or protest, social commentators and activists have repeatedly pointed to the parallels between the communities and areas where the worst violence erupted and those which have felt the worst effects of the deep austerity cuts made by the coalition government. With the slashing of the Education Maintenance Allowance depriving hundreds of thousands of youngsters of the financial support to attend sixth form college and the trebling of tuition fees ending the dream of higher education for many from disadvantaged backgrounds, it has been asked whether it is any wonder if our streets are full of angry young people. They feel betrayed, forgotten and discarded by a government who came to power through promises to young people and broke those promises as soon as they were elected. One by one, from the Aim Higher scheme to the EMA, their avenues for social advancement and betterment through hard work and education have been closed off by government cuts.
There is absolutely no excuse or support to be made for those who commit criminal acts of violence and looting. But the government would be utterly foolish not to ask what has driven so many people to the desperate point of feeling that taking to the streets and committing public disorder is the only way that remains for them to make their voices heard.