Recent UK news has been dominated by the riots which began in London a little over two weeks ago. So far, over one thousand nine hundred people have been arrested, most of them under the age of twenty-five.
Everyone has their own view about how and why this looting and violence started. Popular opinion is that such crimes are intolerable and I suspect most feel that the arrests and custodial sentences are an appropriate punishment for such horrendous behaviour. Many innocent people lost their homes, their livelihoods and suffered traumatic attacks at the hands of rioters. There is just no excusing these delinquents, right?
While many might see the rioters as opportunistic or simply bored teenagers on their summer break, I am inclined to speculate that a number of those involved have a history of crime and violence. Over the past two years I have had the unfortunate opportunity to gain insight into London’s gang culture. I say ‘unfortunate’ because I wish that such a thing did not exist. But as much as the politicians like to deny it, these life-destroying, drug-induced, fear-led gangs prevail in almost all areas of our city. My experience is that the young people who get sucked into this way of life see it as a more appealing option than the life they already know – council estates, parents who don’t know how to show love, absent fathers and relative poverty. Those of us on the outside say that they lack ambition. What we, observers, don’t see is that being in a gang means being part of a group of people who promise to protect you when all your life you have felt vulnerable. In light of their experience, this must seem like a worthy aspiration. These young people don’t throw away good lives for a TV or trainers (some of the most popular items looted), they commit crimes because they feel they have nothing to lose. Perhaps jail is a better alternative to what they are confronted by when they go home or when they walk the streets of a rival postcode.
My mother recently highlighted to me the statistics relating to ‘looked-after’ i.e. foster children currently in custody in young offenders institutes in the UK. Prior to the riots, which have disproportionately exaggerated numbers, the percentage of looked-after children equated to around 27%* of the total young offenders in custody. A particular paragraph in a 2011 report on Werrington Young Offenders Institute
stated, ‘Some young people had asked if their clothing allowance could be used to provide a parcel for them to open on Christmas Day when other young people were opening their gifts from their families.’ Every time I read that I feel my heart break a little bit more for these young kids who have probably never known what it means to be part of a safe, secure and loving family unit. Can I still tut and shake my head at their behaviour when this is the hand that they have been dealt? I am not dismissing the trouble they cause or trivialising the impact of their crimes on others. Just like everyone else, I am merely asking ‘why’?
I want to be angry – I am angry – that innocent people were, and are, affected by the actions of these errant youngsters. But maybe it took such a wake-up call for us to acknowledge that everyone has a story. The young guy who gets abused at home; the kid who goes to school hungry every day because his parents spend all their money on drugs; the girl whose mother is an alcoholic and she is helpless to stop it – they were all there. And others who suffer the same or worse. Of course there were opportunists but it is not them who concern me. The one with whom I am most concerned is myself. I am the one who is quick to jump to conclusions about others. I get annoyed with people who are too needy, cross with those who are rude to me and quick to decide that criminals deserve the punishment they get. However, it is far more complex than I can ever imagine. So, rather than judge a person or a situation at face-value, I am going to try and understand from their perspective. If I can swap judgement for compassion, maybe I can make a difference in the life of someone who has been written-off from the time they were born. I wish I could adopt all these children so that none of them would ever have to suffer again; of course, this is not an option. Instead, I can make a small change by acknowledging that everyone has a story to tell. I just need to be willing to hear it.