The Co-operative supermarket at the end of my road was smashed up and looted in the riots that flared across London last week. It was just one case of the widespread violence that has been unleashed. Why did this happen? It is difficult to talk about the reasons for riots during or immediately afterwards. People who blame factors such as poverty, racism, alienation, or the classic “There is nothing for the kids to do around here” sound as if they are giving easy excuses for terrible behaviour. Most people need simply to express their anger and astonishment at what has suddenly kicked off in the past few days.In a Facebook discussion I read during the riots, someone said: “This is not about social problems, it’s about greed and thuggery.” But if greed and thuggery are not social problems, what are they? The point is that riots always tell us something important about society and what is going on. With the distance of time, they promote reflection about what symptoms have led to them. This was true for the Brixton and Toxteth riots of the 1980s, which led to a significant change in the way that the police relate to communities.
Martin Luther King said: “At bottom, riots are always the language of the unheard.” In the United States in the 1950s and ’60s, explicitly racist laws and material poverty meant that whole communities felt unheard and disenfranchised. In the battle against such conditions, King constantly tried to stem the flow of potential violence.
Yet, today, it is wrong to blame immediately these kinds of structural issues, because this puts the blame somewhere else — normally with the Government. But today there is a very different way in which the rioters are “not being heard” from what there was back in the ’60s.
These disturbances are not “isolated incidents by a minority”. Rather, they are the scary symptoms of a widespread and deep sickness in our society. I believe that we are reaping what we have sown; that a tinderbox of issues has been created, and it simply needed something to set it off. That something was the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, but it could easily have been another incident.
I have worked for many years with people who are homeless. Whatever the hardships they face, a vital aspect of working with marginalised people is to urge them to take personal responsibility. Encouraging a victim mentality, where everything is “the system’s fault”, is a costly road to nowhere.
I believe the tinderbox of this situation was created by the following three factors:
1) Consumerism: we are a nation that has gorged itself on consumerist values and easy credit, which have created poverty, and left little room for any sense of true values such as hard work, caring for others, family, and commitment. Like spoilt children who don’t respect their parents, rioters have contempt for the peddlers of these addictions. That is why they focus on the mobile-phone shops, sports stores, and the large corporations. We have a generation deeply malnourished by a poor diet of technology, violent computer games, bling labels, and dysfunctional family situations. I grew up in Croydon, and in many ways it is a town centre dedicated to consumerism — endless shops with big windows designed to provoke discontent and increase spending.
2) The lack of moral authority in key institutions: the number of high-profile scandals that have hit institutions such as the police, Parliament, and the City has undermined the moral authority of the establishment. It stokes a sense of injustice among many urban young people that they cannot trust the “suits”, and that “everyone is on the make.” Free newspapers now mean that more people read the headlines about banks’ paying ridiculous bonuses, MPs’ claiming on houses that don’t exist, and the payment of the police by newspapers. To many people, these seem like middle-class versions of shop-looting. They see that “the grabbing hands grab all they can,” and they believe that they are following suit.
3) The collapse of family: there is no way in which the police can stop the numbers of young people who are determined to cause problems. Policing demands consent, and they will always be outnumbered. What we are seeing is the impact of dysfunctional families. There are too few fathers stopping their kids from rioting. Too often, it is left to the mothers who are struggling alone and cannot physically stop their children. A cocktail of poverty, amoral attitudes, both parents’ having to work, and the loss of personal responsibility means that the traditional barriers to bad behaviour do not exist. We have been too scared to talk about family breakdown for fear of being judgemental, but it is the biggest cause of poverty, exclusion, and violence in the UK today.
These are characteristics of a society that is seriously ill. We need to look full in the face of the problems, and grasp their significance, before we consider the action required.
For me, this is the time for an authentic Christian spirituality to offer a way forward. We need to use the language of sin, of repentance, of transformation, and of hope — and apply it to both institutions and individuals, if we are to chart a way back from the mess we are in.
The American social activist Jim Wallis wrote in The Soul of Politics (New Press, 2004):
“The crisis of our times calls for our conversion. Our structures, values, habits and assumptions are in need of basic transformation. Neither politics nor piety as we know them will effect such a change. Rather, a new spirituality is required, a spirituality rooted in old traditions but radically applied to our present circumstances.”