Like everyone else, I have been appalled by the troubles in our cities.
The violence, destruction, looting and the tragedy and devastation that have been inflicted on communities will not easily fade. These past few days have left us asking: “Why did this happen and how can we avoid it happening again?”
We need to remember those involved in these deplorable acts do not represent the vast majority of teenagers and young people who are equally appalled and saddened by what happened. I know many young people who have helped to clear up and condemn the actions of their peers.
The reasons for this terrible violence are complex. There is clearly a criminal element that is not excusable. Many of those in the pictures we have seen are not young people but men in their 20s or 30s who should know better. There are young opportunists who have got involved, sadly some very young people, but in the midst of anger and dispensing of justice we need to remember that hopeful children do not cause trouble like this.
These opportunists were not born criminals but are children who became young people, caught in hopelessness generated by such issues as family break down, poor housing, financial, emotional and aspirational poverty, educational failure and youth unemployment. They see little hope for a better future.
Gang culture provides a solution to coping with these problems and increasingly significant numbers of young people are making crucial choices about their future and urgently need positive alternatives. “The gangs I joined seemed the only people in the world to offer a kind of comfort and caring. The desire to feel wanted in a world that seems to regard me as scum was very powerful,” I was told by “Amy”, a former gang member.
Although it is hard to convey, it seems like the door towards having a normal life has been slammed in their faces. Over time anger, frustration and a sense of “nothing to lose” become a cancer that pervades their lives and they change from children into angry young men and women. Their behaviour and attitudes alter and as a result they are excluded from schools, communities, employment and often their own families.
Now, before I am accused of “being soft and making excuses for them”, nothing I have said here justifies or excuses these terrible events and justice needs to be done and to be seen to be done over the coming weeks. Nevertheless, as the mist rises, we need to ask why children turn to criminality in this way? Addressing this question is to begin to try to prevent this happening again.
The temptation to offer a one size fits all solution for political expediency must be avoided at all costs, we cannot solve this problem overnight. To begin with everyone in our communities must work with the police to keep families safe. Then for me there are three particular issues that need to be addressed.
There can be no excuse for unlawful behaviour but we need to recognise that the ringleaders of this violence are often all these young people have for role models and in that respect our society has failed. Through our work at XLP (an urban youth charity) we know that a good, consistent and present role mode in the life of a young person is a major contributing factor to young men and women making the positive choice to stay away from gang culture. Society has to provide compelling positive role models.
One young person said to me, “I was told I’d end up in prison or in a dead end job” but the influence of a strong, consistent and positive role model in his life has resulted in him staying in school, completing his education (he got all As!) and now he has a rewarding job and hope for the future. It can be done.
With around three quarters of young offenders describing their educational attainment as nil and almost nine out of 10 young men and young women who end up in prison having been excluded from school, we have to find a way of keeping our young people in school and helping them get a good education.
Finally, with reported youth unemployment of more than 20 per cent – nearly a million young people not in education, training or employment – we have to urgently find a way to offer meaningful employment to young people if they are to have any reason to finish their education and hope for something better in their future as part of mainstream society.
Politicians and the police need to make the right choices now to get the situation under control but they also need to take a long hard look at how we create hope for this generation.
I’ve lived in London and worked with young people and their communities for almost 20 years. If we want to have a lasting impact and see real change happen we need politicians who are prepared to listen, understand the issues and to be committed for the long haul.