The Government’s “interim report on the 2011 English riots” 5 Days in August sets out many of the challenges facing the localities where the rioting took hold. One important task, the report argued, was to rebuild communities to make them more resilient in future:
“The absence of hopes and dreams amongst many we spoke to is a danger for society. We need young people who are able to improve their education, get a job that fulfils their ambitions and allows them to achieve their potential. We were concerned at the level of despondency and anxiety amongst the young in particular.”
Exposure, a youth media charity based in Haringey where the riots began, was created precisely to help young people (many disadvantaged and vulnerable) realise their “hopes and dreams”.
The interim report’s authors went on to note: “We heard a lot about the sense of hopelessness felt by young people in many areas. We want to look at how we can help all young people become responsible, ambitious, determined and conscientious members of their community.”
How indeed? I have been managing Exposure for 16 years and seen the organisation win many awards for its work with young people. Yet shortly before the riots started, Haringey Council cut youth services by 75 per cent. Despite its acknowledged successes Exposure had its entire youth service grant axed. Haringey disastrously failed to appreciate the danger of shattering the hopes and dreams of local young people.
Meanwhile the neighbouring north London borough of Enfield decided not to fail its young people, managing its constrained finances in a way that ensure that youth services remained intact.
Naturally, Haringey’s youngsters were upset. Thousands became involved in the Save Haringey Youth Services campaign to challenge the devastating cuts to services that so many young people relied on. But the voices of these responsible, ambitious, determined and conscientious young people went unheeded. Haringey Council simply failed to acknowledge the perceived injustice of cutting youth services by three-quarters when the overall council budget was being cut by only a fifth.
It is difficult to imagine a parallel in the “adult world”. How would we all react to a government decision to, say, wipe out the health, fire or ambulance services while maintaining military spending and MPs’ allowances. What, one wonders, would be the immediate aftermath of such a decision.
Just a few weeks before the riots, there was a disturbing report in The Guardian entitled ‘Farewell youth clubs, hello street life – and gang warfare’ interviewing young people in the Wood Green area of Haringey about the impact the cuts were already having. The writer, Alexander Topping, interviewed young people on the streets who made it clear they were there because their youth clubs had closed. Erika Lopez, aged 19, told her: “I'm upset but what can we really do about it? It's not like we've got a chance to win in a fight against the government.”
Before the cuts, Lopez had been trying, with other conscientious youngsters, to tackle gang violence in her community through sports activities. In an accompanying video to the report, a young man sadly predicts: “There’ll be riots”.
Young people appalled
Obviously the vast majority of Haringey’s young people did not participate in the riots and, like all right-minded people, were appalled by the devastation they witnessed on their doorstep.
The young people involved in Exposure were as keen as any other youngsters in Haringey to vent their feelings. Luckily for them, particularly in the face of the swingeing cuts to its budget, their organisation was still around. Those who wanted to make their voice heard still had a legitimate, yet powerful, way of doing so. Some used Exposure’s website to describe what they saw and felt. Others to set out their visions of a decent future and what lessons the government needed to learn.
Sthephanie Luna, aged 18, from Tottenham, described her reaction and posted her solutions on the Exposure website:
“I turned on the news and I could not believe what I was watching: a bus and several police cars on fire just down the road from where I live. I was shocked. Until now I considered Tottenham quite a good area, of course not the best, but after the chaos I saw… how come a group of young people could cause this kind of damage to this community? I was angry; I really was, especially with the police because somehow they should have controlled the situation better. I still don’t understand why they allowed the protesters to go so far.”
Nile Gooden, aged 14, from Wood Green, communicated his views alongside a sharp graphic on the Exposure site created by Mary Gallagher, aged 18, from Tottenham. Gooden wrote:
“I went to bed and when I opened my window to get a little air all I could hear was siren after siren, helicopters, shouting and screaming. I turned on Sky News and watched in horror and shock at the lengths some people will go to get a pair of shoes. Embarrassing? No. This is more than embarrassing. Not to the youths but to the people who are meant to be ‘controlling’ Britain, ie our politicians and leaders!”
Jerome Ghartey, 17, from Tottenham, wrote of his dismay and posted it under a picture of a burning bus:
“I woke up on Sunday morning and realised how bad it was. My parents were watching the news, looking at images of Bruce Grove burning. I was too scared to leave my house. I never knew where the rioters would hit next, and I would hate to get caught up in it. I don’t know why people looted and burned shops and businesses we all need on a daily basis. What I find sad is that the whole spirit of rioting and looting spread so quickly. I’m sure most people who looted knew it is wrong, but they still did it.”
Courtney Dionne Carr from Tottenham
Courtney Dionne Carr, aged 13, also from Tottenham, offered her idea of what should happen next.
“The government needs to be an example to us. How can they tell young people that we are thugs and that stealing is wrong when many MPs have falsely claimed thousands of pounds on expenses? What about the bankers who looted billions from the economy and have trapped us in a debt cycle? How about the Police Commissioner who was accused of bribery and corruption? The government forgets about them, but when it comes to the youths it’s zero tolerance.”
Exposure’s 100 per cent cut had made a front page story in the local press. Other services such as Haringey Young People's Counselling Service, which provides one-on-one therapy to teenagers experiencing mental health problems, had also become local news when they were axed. The Save Haringey Youth Service group condemned the news in the following harsh terms.
“It is disgraceful that such a pivotal service to work with the borough's most vulnerable teenagers are the first to go under the banner of efficiency savings," said spokesman Matt Green in the Haringey Independent. The campaign group was severely critical of the fact that no local young people were consulted before the cuts were implemented despite the existence of a “Youth Council” in the borough.
Later at a full council meeting, Funmi Abari, a cabinet member of that Youth Council and an elected representative of local young people, complained that there had been no attempt at consultaton.
A few weeks after the riots, Exposure, along with other youth and community groups devastated by the cuts, received an invitation to a meeting with Haringey Council to examine how we could all now “work together to rebuild our community”. Our young people were not invited to attend and only when we arrived did we realise that there were no youth representatives.
Exposure asked Haringey Councillor and Deputy Leader Lorna Reith, Cabinet Member for Children, why it had lost all of its funding.
Since it had “won loads of awards” she explained … it would therefore be OK. Well, even if that seems a strange way to reward success, it is true that Exposure has survived. The funding we are now receiving from Big Lottery, Esmee Fairbairn Charitable Trust, Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund, The London Mayor’s Office and Enfield Youth Service, amongst many others, will help us to continue to give young people “hopes and dreams”… but, above all, a voice.