Saturday, 13 August 2011

Riots

The scenes of rioting in the past week, firstly in London and then across other major cities in England, will have shocked many. At first glance there appears no legitimate reason for such destruction to property, with associated violence and theft, but many of those responsible feel their actions are justified.

So, how can that be: what possible justification can be made for the lawlessness we have all seen on nightly news bulletins? Actually, there is no justification, but if we fail to understand why some individuals firmly believe their actions are legitimate, then we will continue to produce a level of society that sees rioting as a valid expression of its anger.

Recently I took part in a discussion about poverty. One of those also taking part was a journalist from the BBC and, nice man though he was, his input starkly illustrated how out of touch with reality he, and so many others, remain. In well-paid, full-time employment, the man from the BBC thought living on benefits meant ‘tightening your belt’ and ‘having to go without some of life’s luxuries’. The discussion took place at West Kilbride public hall and I invited the BBC journalist to go with me to Asda in Ardrossan, where he would see a queue at the ‘marked down’ section, with people desperately trying to snap-up items reduced in price because they were about to pass their ‘sell by’ date.

Living on benefits doesn’t mean ‘tightening your belt’, it means not being able to afford a belt. Living on benefits doesn’t mean ‘having to go without life’s luxuries’, it means having to go without food. Living on benefits means not being able to buy shoes; it means hoping the washing machine doesn’t pack-in; it means not being able to afford clothes – even Primark’s low-cost range; it means eating until the money runs out and then living on whatever food is left and hoping it will see you through to the next benefit payment. Living on benefits is an existence, not a life.

When you are on benefits the only way to buy high-cost items, like televisions, washing machines, cookers, laptops and mobile phones, is by borrowing money – and the only people that will lend you money are those that charge the highest interest. If you are on benefits, banks won’t even consider offering you a loan, so you have to turn to those who will, such as Wonga.com with its APR rate of over 4000-percent, club books where prices are two and three-times those of shops, and illegal money-lenders, where interest rates are sky-high and failure to make a repayment brings a little more than an angry letter in the post.

Living on benefits means living in poverty, and living in poverty places you on the margins of society. On the margins you become isolated and totally disenfranchised. You cannot take part in ‘normal’ social activities. Going for a social drink is out of the question; the cinema is way beyond your reach; running a car, no chance; going to the football, even a Junior game with an entrance fee of £4.00 is beyond your reach. Then there are the necessities: new clothes for kids going back to school; paying gas and electricity bills; trying to give children nutritious meals – all to be achieved from benefits that can be as low as less than £10.00 per day.

Of course, anyone ‘feckless’ enough to be unemployed should just get off their lazy backsides and get a job, shouldn’t they? In North Ayrshire, at the last official count, there were 27 Jobseekers for every vacancy, and that doesn’t take into account the skilled nature of some of the vacancies. It doesn’t take very long on the buroo to eat into someone’s self-confidence: see how worthless and isolated you feel when job application after job application is unsuccessful, and when prospective employers don’t even deem you worthy of a reply.

With your hopes and aspirations smashed, with the knowledge that you are a failure for not being able to support yourself and your family; with no money; little food; holes in your shoes; and no positive role in society, how do you get your voice heard?

One of the criticisms levelled at rioters in English cities is that they are smashing-up their own communities, but that is not the case. The areas being attacked are town centres and shops – parts of towns that the dispossessed rarely visit. Looters are helping themselves to the things ‘normal’ people buy from shops but they, as sub-normal, can’t afford. The rioting is an expression of the anger felt by those our society has placed on the margins.

London, where the rioting started, has an additional racial element. A young black man in London is seven-times more likely to be subjected to ‘stop and search’ by the Metropolitan Police than a white man of the same age. Compound the anger of being placed on the margins with the belief that you are being targeted by those who police the society that has discarded you, and a volatile mix is created, just waiting to be ignited. Last week’s shooting-dead of Mark Duggin by police officers in Tottenham was the spark that lit the flame.

The immediate reaction of politicians has been to call for tough action against those who have rioted: water-cannons, plastic bullets and long jail sentences are just some of the initial proposals, but none of the highly-paid MPs and Government ministers has stopped to question what lies behind people taking to the streets and violently expressing their anger. Put quite simply, happy people don’t riot, and the reason so many people are extremely angry is because of the society created by politicians.

The young men and women who have rioted over the past week did not create their own unemployment, they did not put in place the capitalist economic system that has all-but bankrupted the Western world; they did not create the consumer society, where credit has financed purchases of ‘must have’ high-cost items; they did not build sub-standard housing; they did not waste billions of pounds on unusable nuclear missiles and on illegal foreign wars; they did not create a society of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’; they did not allow the marginalisation of entire communities. These things are the result of policies put in place and carried out by politicians.

No-one should attempt to justify violent disorder and lawlessness, but we do need to understand why people are angry, and why they feel that rioting is the only expression of anger to which politicians take any note. Sadly, rather than addressing the issues that have created the anger, politicians seem intent on cracking-down even further on society’s marginalised communities, thereby making the problem even worse.

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