I’m walking from my home to the bus stop, about five minutes away. It’s dark. There’s a group of youngsters walking towards me. One or two of them are taller than me, but all of them are under fifteen, and the youngest and smallest is probably about ten or eleven. As I pass them, one of the biggest boys grabs the youngest boy and shoves him hard, so that he’s thrown against me. I’m solid and steady enough on my feet that the boy doesn’t knock me over, but I’m startled and angry and I yell at them. They laugh.
Search “rioters” on the government’s e-petitions site, and you get about 150 petitions, many of which of course have just one signature – the person who proposed it. Probably the majority of petitions accepted have less than ten signatures. Notoriously, one petition has over two hundred thousand – the one demanding London rioters have their benefits removed. Out of all of those petitions, I counted nine that were for mercy and justice: all the rest demanded that rioters should be stringently punished, with mandatory sentences of two years in prison (the British prison system is about 200 places from being completely full: take a look at this if you want to know what a prison system based on mandatory minimums looks like), with removal of benefits from the parents of rioters, giving the police powers to use tear gas on rioters, and of course, a handful of people who want to bring back flogging and don’t care who knows it. (Only two petitions for justice and mercy looked like they had some chance: Homelessness – Not in my name and Do NOT remove all the benefits of convicted London rioters – so I urge you to go sign those.)
That incident with the group of youngsters was just the start. Have you ever had a raw egg dropped on you from a fourth-floor flat? It doesn’t do any lasting harm – the shell smashes on impact – but it stings, and of course, it makes a godawful mess. I had stones thrown at me and once an apple. (The stones were small ones.) The gang was notorious around the neighbourhood, I discovered – the local police had set up a “special task force” to deal with the problem. They lived in the Fort House housing estate – an ugly block of flats in Leith, now scheduled for demolition. Many of the families there were on benefits, most of the flats were owned by the council.
I had a visit by two coppers soon after I first reported an encounter, a few weeks after the incident of the boy being thrown at me – a kid yelling abuse at me in the street and then throwing eggs (either deliberately to miss, or else he had very bad aim). They told me about the special task force, and warned me, under no circumstances, strike any of them, do them any physical harm – they’re kids, you’re an adult, you will be in trouble. (This sounds more intimidating than it was, I realise on writing it down. They were very sympathetic, they assured me they understood it was infuriating and worrying, and they all but said they understood I would want to strike back – but don’t.)
This went on for well over a year. It seemed like it would never end. It was scary. It was infuriating. I learned to avoid certain places in my neighbourhood, learned that packs of kids can be outright frightening, got the local police on speed dial.
There was an awful thing that happened in the block of flats these kids lived in, a couple of years before this gang became notorious. The oldest of the gang would have been about 12 at the time. A woman died. She was on benefits, she was a drug addict, her only close family was her child, a a boy aged about three. One morning, as far as anyone can tell, she simply didn’t wake up. The door was locked, the boy couldn’t reach the lock. The boy survived alone in the flat with his dead mother for ten days before someone noticed and the boy was taken into care.
I don’t know where in the big block of flats that particular flat was. But I walk along the street beside this estate several times a day. For ten days I was less than a hundred yards from a child locked into a flat with the rotting corpse of his dead mother, and I did not know.
What does it do to a child to live somewhere where a thing like that can happen?
In London and in other places, when street violence broke out – windows smashed, police and sometimes bystanders attacked – there was looting. The bulk of it appears to have been done by professionals – masked to avoid CCTV evidence, loading quantities of saleable stuff into vans. The small stuff – the bottled water and doughnuts looting – seems to have been done largely by people who were as startled by the street violence as anyone, who simply saw an open shop and walked in. There’s a good case to be made they deserve more lenient sentencing, not exemplary sentencing: good characters caught up by the pressure of events.
Anyone who offers a simple cause or claims a simple solution to the riots is simple-minded. There are multiple, complex causes.
One of them, fairly obviously, is that the Metropolitan police have made themselves into a policing force distrusted with reason by black people (policing the most multicultural city in Europe, an institutionally-racist police force that notoriously categorises people as criminal suspects by the colour of their skin!) and the police response to the student protests earlier in the year demonstrated that in London at least, a peaceful crowd of kids demanding investment in their future is regarded by the London police force as the enemy to be rounded up and kettled – taught a lesson.
Another fairly obvious one: it is a truth universally accepted that young people today should expect to be worse-off than their parents – and this has been true for twenty years. Children should expect to be worse-off than their parents, who in turn expect to be worse-off than their grandparents. We are watching a regular and consistent transfer of wealth from the many to the few. An agitprop theatre group in the 1970s named itself 7:86 – 7% of the population own 86% of the wealth – and now it would have to call itself 0.5:99 and be mistaken for a broken clock.
The end of the story with the boys who were throwing eggs and yelling abuse? It was very Scottish, really.
The ringleader of the gang turned 16. In Scotland, with parental consent, a sixteen-year-old can leave school without waiting for June. The ringleader had multiple ASBOs and I for one had been indulging in Daily Mail type fantasies of hanging him up by his heels. The police got him a joinery apprenticeship. Six months later – which was when I saw the news story about him – he was gradually working all of his old ASBOs off and had got no new ones: the group he’d led had broken up and was causing no more trouble. I guess he must be about twenty now, and I hope that by the time he’s thirty-five, and a master joiner, he’ll think of the stupid things he did when he was a teenager with pity for the no-hoper kid he was.
I’ve told this story several times, to people who knew I was being harassed by this group and to others, and most of the time, people take that resolution as a happy ending. Only once, I got a reaction: It’s unfair that a boy who caused so much trouble got an apprenticeship, when there are so few and so many good kids who would like that opportunity.
Unfair? Did this boy deserve special treatment?
Please take a few moments to read these, while I think about it.
“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. … Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
“God’s bodykin, man, much better: use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping? Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty. Take them in.”
“The law hath not been dead, though it hath slept: Those many had not dared to do that evil, If the first that did the edict infringe Had answer’d for his deed: now ’tis awake Takes note of what is done; and, like a prophet, Looks in a glass, that shows what future evils, Either new, or by remissness new-conceived, And so in progress to be hatch’d and born, Are now to have no successive degrees, But, ere they live, to end.”
No, the boy didn’t deserve to get a good apprenticeship. But I deserved for him to get it. As did his future victims, if he’d been left to go on as he was – ratcheting up the violence until he ended up in jail or worse.
So with the rioters. Get them to apprenticeships, further education, proper training: build a society which gives them hope that they can live as well or better than their parents: that’s the thrifty course of action. Spending money and resources on sending them to jail, tracking down their families and evicting them – that’s pure waste.
(You probably know who the first two speakers were: Gandalf and Hamlet. The third was Angelo, from Measure for Measure, a strange grim play about a man who prides himself on virtuous justice, who wishes to apply the law stringently and without mercy… topical chap, Shakespeare.)