In the wake of England’s riots, spectators from across the political spectrum have united in their diagnoses of the grim state of British society.
But for one man it was deeply personal.
A week before the riots, he was on a bus on his way to a job interview when police officers approached him to perform a stop and search. Being a young black man living in London this was not the first time he had been searched. Yet he did not expect it on this particular day, having swapped his hooded jumper for a suit. The police refused to let him alert his prospective employers, saying it would only take a second. He was taken to the police station where he was made to take off his suit for a full strip search. They found nothing on him. But he had already missed the interview and the job he badly wanted went to someone else.
‘The first experiences we have with the police in inner-city areas are usually bad ones'
Not all the rioters had such fresh, specific grievances and not everyone subject to stop and search was out on the streets last month. But in parts of London, where many teenagers took to the streets, it was a chance to hit out at the only form of authority they had regular contact with: the police.
‘I don’t think the rioters themselves were making any political statement but whether they knew it or not, they did make a political statement about the state of society,’ says 20-year-old Yohanes Scarlett, who lives in Ladbrook Grove in West London. ‘The first experiences we have with the police in inner-city areas are usually bad ones. When I was 13, the first thing I saw police officers actively doing was hitting a boy over the head with a baton at the top of my road. The police were holding his head to hit him. I was able to get over it because my parents talked to me about it, but for other children, it stays in their memory.’
When the riots hit Hackney it was mainly teenagers that took to the streets to throw stones and glass bottles. For one night only the usual fear of the police was gone. One of the few figures of authority not targeted that night was Jim, a youth worker from north London. His face half covered with a bandana, he said: ‘It is a feeling of empowerment when the police run away from you. They are not thinking about tomorrow, they are thinking about today. Today the streets are ours.’
For 19-year-old Tobi Akinpelumi, who lives in Hackney, it was his youth club, the Crib, that kept him away from the riots. ‘The youth centre has had a big effect on my life,’ he says. ‘It has shown me what I can do while I am out of trouble. At the Crib, you feel safer and more at home. Sometimes you can actually forget about the police.’
But the police always loom large. ‘We do get harassed a lot but it is just part of life,’ he says. ‘Sometimes they [the Police] will be polite. But maybe if they’ve had a bad day and they’re just really angry, then they’ll come across very aggressive and rude, and give you unnecessary reasons for stopping you.
‘Maybe they think we’re involved in gun, gang or drug-related crime but we are just normal like them. After they are out of their uniform we are exactly the same as them.’
It is unsurprising that Tottenham descended into rioting after police failed to account for the death of Mark Duggan. It is even less surprising that it proved a trigger in other areas where there is an already toxic relationship between the police and young people.
But Yohanes thinks there is only so much the police can do and that politicians should be doing more.
‘The government needs to actually talk to young people. We want to help, we want to make a change’
‘Politicians need to get involved and speak to young people,’ he says. ‘When they take their second house allowance, they should take a council house and live with ordinary people. That way a young person growing up will see a politician, instead of a drug dealer.
‘At the moment, they only see the dealers and they think, “the drug dealer has got a nice watch and a nice car, and my mum is struggling, so which path am I going to go down?”’
While some of his friends are frustrated that things are unlikely to change after the riots, Yohanes is glad that the unrest kick-started a long overdue debate on the difficulties faced by young people who have plenty of aspiration, but few practical opportunities to realize it.
‘The government needs to actually talk to young people. We want to help, we want to make a change,’ he says. ‘We have some of the keys to answering some of the problems with young people. We may not have PhDs, but we live here.’