Riots carried a message the Government cannot ignore
by Roshan Doug, guest blogger
I was a sixth former at a local comprehensive when Handsworth was torn by a blaze of communal violence in the summer of 1981.
The idea that the whole country - and indeed, the world - was watching our community and the landmarks in our area on their TV screens, filled me with excitement and fear.
I had no idea what caused such a frenzy of street lawlessness or indeed why it was caused. All I knew was that my tiny suburb of the city was the focus of global news.
We were on TV; we were in the newspapers; we were the epicentre. And our district was an eruption.
But last weekends riots in my city centre, and subsequently in the suburbs, seem a different, almost alienating.
There's been an extreme persistence of vandalism, looting, torching of cars with rioters' clashing headlong with the police.
Coupled with at least three fatalities, Birmingham, like other parts of the country, seemed in the midst of a war zone.
Yes, this was also altogether different.
Or perhaps it's merely my perspective that's different. In 1981, for instance, I was a teenager, excited and naive; today I'm a middle aged man, concerned and fearful for the loss of life.
Despite this, as abhorrent as it may sound, I can (and I have to be careful how I phrase this) empathise with the rioters.
I recognize the social/political climate that has fuelled such a rage.
Just empathise and recognise mind you. I'm not trying to condone it. I'm not excusing them.
Whether you want to accept it or not, a riot is an expression of dissention, agitation and resentment.
No matter how you look at it, a riot of any kind is a political statement made by those marginalized or who feel they're being denied access to the wider, affluent community.
It's easy to vilify rioters and the whole subject and issues relating to them. They'll be described and brushed aside, perhaps understandably, as hoodlums, thugs and their actions as acts of intense criminality.
But such use of language merely sweeps the problem under the carpet as if it's not a legitimate concern.
David Cameron, for instance, referred to the whole thing as 'sickening' and I've lost count how many commentators and people from officialdom have used words like idiots, hooligans, savages etc.
I'm not denying it, to a large extent, rioters are people bordering on insanity. Their destruction of property and their systematic, organized endangering of citizens and our police officers is appalling and cannot be justified - and especially not with a conservative mindset.
To understand the impulse behind a riot you have to conceptualise a little.
When people organise themselves with a broad aim to destroy, to violate the law, to cause mayhem and havoc, they are not led purely by the need to be criminal or that they've got nothing better to do or that they are simply bored.
That's a convenient argument but it doesn't really hold water. If that was the case then surely a riot could happen any day, any time, any place.
Why have we not seen serious bouts of riots for almost three decades?
People want to be heard; to be noticed. As the Dr Martin Luther King stated 'a riot is a voice of the unheard.'
Indeed. Riots, perhaps not unlike the ones we saw last week, are usually linked to a stagnating economy and what some people might see as the arrogant disregard and contempt politicians have for those on the fringes of our society.
And that certainly the case today with some police officers colluding with parts of the media; greedy politicians filling their pockets by abusing the parliamentary system of allowances; the government's removal EMA for 16-19 year olds and, their allowing of nearly all universities to charge £9,000 (plus) fees per year.
Individually these factors do not amount to much; collectively, however, they become socially inflammable.
The burning of property, looting and other acts of insane recklessness is a form of sticking up two fingers at the state that allows (indeed, perpetrates) social inequities and injustice.
The 1970s punk era, which people of my generation will recognise, and which was partly personified by the Sex Pistols, had that as its context.
That's why a riot is a form of self expression like music, a protest, a demonstration, a piece of radical art or graffiti.
Of course, it's frightening, scary, subversive like political rhetoric. It 'speaks' without decorum or the language of polite society.
It challenges us to re-think, to re-consider our relationship with the government and their agencies that control and, to the rioters at least, manipulate us into accepting all that is unjust, unbalance in our social equilibrium.
A riot by its very nature wakes us all from a slumber, it forces to re-examine how or why we are where we are and our feelings towards the interplay of various correlative forces that preside over our well-being.
In fact, I'm actually surprised we haven't had these riots sooner.
For instance, numerous social commentators including Stuart Hall, formerly at the University of Birmingham, have demonstrated rather persuasively the interlinked issues that were behind the riots in 1981.
They identified economic crisis, lack of prospects, disenfranchised young people, deep cuts in public services, a deterioration in the relationship between young (especially black) people and the police and, a lack of confidence and trust that some people have in our leaders.
And so, some critics have taken a broader perspective and have blamed the inequities within our capitalist enterprise, as the core point of the continuing social unrest.
When bankers can lose the country trillions of pounds and taxpayers are expected to foot the bill for their loss whilst they themselves can still expect their hefty bonuses and pensions, something is drastically wrong within that system.
When ordinary British pensioners have very little to live on - and often not enough pension to heat their living room - something is rather insane in the existing political conformity.
When working people have to take reduction in their salaries and have to work much longer for less pension we have to question the social system that breeds such injustice.
And we've lived with this state of affairs for so many years.
Without sounding political, the point is that we can deal with the symptoms but we also need to address the causes.
Essentially people may not articulate it as such - they might not even feel it's related - but the fact is that the gap between the rich and the poor continues to separate us.
Some young people (perhaps not all for I'm happy to concede that there are those who are purely criminal opportunist) are led by the need to be expressive, to be anarchist - it's the only way their voices are going to be heard.
Some people who have been working with teenagers and young adults have been saying for some time that something is brewing, that society's relationship with these groups is deteriorating and that we need agencies to connect with them.
But whilst social critics have tried to alert the authorities, our government has remained forthright and staunch in its blatant disregard for public opinion.
It was the situation in 1981 in the Thatcher government and it's the situation today under the coalition.
But in the light of the death of three Asian men - simply guarding their properties - the situation is also far, far more serious than 1981.
The coalition government needs to take heed.