UK Riots....Could it Happen Here?

by Matt Clear

The riots in England are a result of youth feeling disengaged and socially displaced from their community.

I have a level of respect for British Prime Minister David Cameron.

I was recently impressed by his long session answering questions in the House of Commons in response to the phone hacking scandal. I think he deserves a level of respect for his ability to juggle his responsibility to the country as a fairly young leader (45) with a young family, including three children – his youngest child is only one!

I am, however, dismayed at Cameron's response to the riots currently gripping Britain. Using terms like needing to 'fight back' and that the people involved are 'sick' really misses the point. Cameron has said this is not about poverty it's about criminals.

I don't agree.

Are we expected to believe that so many young people have just turned feral for no reason? Do these young people simply like destroying property and creating chaos?

As Lleyton Hewitt would say (and you should add the emphasis) "C'mon!".

Do that again, as it is pretty therapeutic ... "C'mon!".

I say it just doesn't add up, and that issues of poverty and alienation are very much at the core of the problems.

What we are dealing with here are disenfranchised, marginalised and disadvantaged young people that feel like they have been left behind by society in a country where the gap between the haves and the have nots is ever increasing.

We are dealing with young people who have not been given the opportunities they deserve, and have not been provided with a level of engagement that would make them feel part of the community in which they live.

It's not their fault; it's the fault of society who have left them behind in this capitalistic, consumerist and highly competitive society that we all live in today.

I know there are also a range of broader specific cultural and societal issues at play – distrust of police, racial and demographic issues and rates of employment are all significant and contributing factors to the current situation of violence.

So, could it happen here?

I say 'no' now, but 'yes' in the future if we don't see the warning signs and take steps to ensure that members of society are not left behind.

The British government was playing with some level of fire when pursuing austerity measures that may have been too harsh.

In a chillingly accurate prediction of what has happened, a story in the Guardian on 29 July 2011starts"Farewell youth clubs, hello street life – and gang warfare... with budget cuts leading to the loss of facilities that kept many inner-city youths occupied, experts predict a rise in crime."

In Australia, we follow a similar path of blaming young people, rather than working from a strengths-based community development perspective that seeks to identify why issues emerge and what we can collectively do to ensure that people are supported and empowered to make decisions in their own lives.

You only need to read the story of a young man living in an outer suburb of Melbourne to see that the mix of distrust in police, a brush with the law, and the lack of a supporting family network show that the frustration and alienation that we are seeing in Britain is not so far away in Australia.

The Victorian Government is also preparing itself to receive (in November) the report on Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry, which was commissioned after it swept to power in a tough on crime and clean-up child protection mandate.

Will the Victorian Government heed the warning signs we are seeing right now in Britain?

Will the Government take the opportunity presented by an examination of Victoria's child protection system to look at how the community sector can more effectively contribute? It is the community sector that is highly connected to children, young people and families and stands ready to further strengthen the system that supports vulnerable young people.

I have three key points that will go a long way to ensuring we are creating the sort of community that we want in Australia...

  • Targeted and earlier intervention; in terms of support services to people that need it. Let's work to get at the heart of problems in the community and make sure we don't wait until the issue has developed into something that is too complicated to fix.
  • Community service organisations should be recognised and strengthened to provide real hands-on family strengthening and life skills services. These are the sort of services that work with people on things that will make a profound difference in their day-to-day lives.
  • Look to expanding (not reducing) youth-focused services and programs that actively engage young people to channel their energy and ensure they develop the skills/have the resources to be active and valued members of the community.

Problems don't just come out of nowhere; young people do not start rampaging through the streets for no reason. I say, let's take the opportunity to think about how we can work smarter to ensure we don't see the sort of alienation, frustration and loss of hope that we are seeing on a mass scale on the streets of Britain right now.

We need to think of the root of the issues and problems that are showing themselves. We need to pick up on the warning signs in our own communities and work with children, young people and families, in order to ensure that we are building a community that doesn't leave people behind.

Matt Clear has been actively involved in the community sector for over 15 years.

He has worked on international campaigns defending human rights as a staff member with Amnesty International Australia and has been involved in creating community awareness of the importance of community child care in his neighbourhood.

Matt has worked at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, as an advisor to the Centre for Multicultural Youth and a Manager at the peak body for community mental health in Victoria.

Matt is currently employed as the Manager of Community Relations with Connections UnitingCare.