London Riots – let us seize the opportunity…

Here I am in the leafy Chicago suburb of Glenview. Here I am, while London’s streets have literally been burning. London is where I live. East London – Bethnal Green, to be exact. I’ve lived in the East End for fifteen years, a marked contrast to Glenview where I grew up. I love London. Like many, I’m sure, I am experiencing a mixed range of emotions as I follow the happenings.  My initial reaction to what happened in Tottenham was outrage – outrage at the individuals who turned peaceful protesting into random acts of violence. I was sad – sad to hear that someone had been fatally shot by the police. I was also sad to see that certain groups of people are so disconnected from where they live and the lives around them that they enthusiastically participate in random violence. And now I’m a feeling a combination of frustration, cynicism, and hope. I am hopeful because I see in the riots an opportunity to shift, to start moving in a different direction in order that we might create a new story for our selves. I am frustrated and cynical because I can see the situation playing out as it always has, though cyber social networking has admittedly radically changed the community organizing dynamic.  Conflict is always an opportunity, provided we can engage with it constructively and creatively. 

Where are we now? Where can we go?

I’m sitting here some three thousand miles away from London and here are the highlights of what I’m observing:

  •  Ken Livingstone is talking up the need to be more caring of young people and blaming the cuts. He is making comparisons with the London riots during the recession in the 80s. He sees jobs as being a major part of the solution, applying the formula social programme cuts + unemployment = riots. He is being criticized for political opportunism.
  • David Lammy, Tottenham MP, is focusing on condemning the violence in his constituency and emphasizing the destructive forces a small group of ‘mindless’ people have unleashed on the vast majority.
  •  Stella Creasy, Walthamstow MP, (where there has also been rioting) is focusing on how her constituency is rallying together to condemn the violence and also to support each other in the aftermath, e.g. creating a respite centre with homemade cakes etc.
  •  A Turkish professional from the East End highlights on Facebook that Turkish shopkeepers in Dalston, North London have been doing their best to protect their shops and writes: “if anyone had a reason to riot these people have…but they are protecting the neighbourhood according to Tweeter reports…in the meantime a rioter/looter will be on the front pages of tomorrow’s papers, face covered, holding a can of beer in his hand…”
  • In Tottenham, according to media coverage, some residents will tell you the riots in their locale are the result of   continuous mistreatment of Black people by the police. Some suggest the riots were stoked not by racial tensions but by more general tensions between young people and the police. Some say the public spending cuts are the cause. Some say the violence was the result of criminals and thugs from all backgrounds simply taking advantage of the situation.   
  • The responses in Tottenham are typical: leaders, e.g. the Member of Parliament for Tottenham, in no uncertain terms condemning the rioting; some people saying ‘this has been a long time coming’; the police highlighting progress made over the years in community relations and standing by their policies and practices; a large number of people nodding in agreement that there are tensions, yet are also being confused, bewildered and saddened by the violence and damage done in their struggling community. An investigation into the shooting will take place to handle the matter of whether or not the police shooting was justified. To handle the wider issues such as distrust of the police I wouldn’t be surprised if a working group or commission might be set up – adding the existing groups/partnerships establish to strengthen police and community relations.
  •  In the rest of London and other British cities, the rioting is in the form arson and looting on high streets. Some commentators are saying this rioting is simply part of raw opportunism by a small group of criminals, facilitated by technology and social networking; it has no political motive.
  •  People seem to fall into two camps in terms of their response to the rioting generally: we need to understand why these young people are doing this and be sympathetic to their plight – they are jobless and frustrated (thoughtless cuts by the current government are of course part the cause) vs. these people are criminals and need to be held responsible for their actions (empathy-schmemapthy – how can you make excuses for criminal behaviour?)

When it comes to this last observation, I observe that The Prime Minister’s formal response to London riots 9 August 11 falls into the latter camp. He said:

I am determined, the government is determined that justice will be done and these people will see the consequences of their actions. And I have this very clear message to those people who are responsible for this wrongdoing and criminality: you will feel the full force of the law, and if you are old enough to commit these crimes you are old enough to face the punishment.  And to these people I would say this: you are not only wrecking the lives of others, you’re not only wrecking your own communities – you are potentially wrecking your own life, too.

Here’s what I thought when I read the PM’s statement:

Are you kidding me? ‘Potentially wrecking your own life, too’ he is saying to the looters. Surely, if a young person is compelled to go smash a store window, steal and commit arson their life is already pretty wrecked, no? A strong message of tough punishment –  Okay, you can show the British people (and the world) that you are tough on crime, will not tolerate such behavior, that you won’t let the delinquency of a few destroy the peace and harmony of the many. Then what are you going to do? And finally, I couldn’t help but take the PM’s words and apply them to another set of people who wrecked the lives of others – high fliers in the financial services sector. Not because I want them blamed and punished, but because I want to point out that people from all walks of life can and do wreak havoc on those around them – can and do have a total disregard for the impact of their actions on others. Are the attitudes of the looters really that different from those who took high-risks with other people’s money for personal financial gain?  

I want to ask the PM: What role do we all play in creating a culture that gives rise to such groups – looters and white collar profiteers – in the first place?  What kind of responses to the riots will start to dismantle that culture – and what kind of responses will feed it?

We’ve seen this story before. We know it all well. And I’m sure I’m not alone in  wondering: How can the outcomes be different, how can we move on to tell another story? How can we avoid going through the motions of having dialogues where people generally continue to feel that that they have not been heard, seen or recognized for their experiences and their views? How can we avoid reaching the point – again – where people explode in order to release the pent up energy, anger, frustration, and confusion?

Britain has a golden opportunity to shift its national and local conversations, to take what’s happening now and use it as a progressive transformative moment – but will it? Or will leaders and residents (wherever we sit on the political spectrum) simply do what we often do and are doing right now: blame, judge, score points, accuse, condemn rather than understand, collaborate, rise above the ‘Us vs Them’ and ‘Right vs Wrong’ mentalities? Riots – even if only done by a small few – are a symptom of a deep illness within our social body. How can we heal the body and not just temper the symptom?

We can already see how discussions are shaping in ways that steer us away from compassion, collaboration and creativity. We are locking people into specific camps – for or against, us vs them, right vs wrong.  We are, or at least those people who have power and voice, usually starting dialogue with solutions and entrenched positions. Ken Livingstone, for example, will say ‘We need to create jobs.’ Does that kind of response really give us something concrete to work with? Are, for example, people prepared to loot going to undergo an inner transformation upon learning that they have an opportunity to work? The Prime Minster wants to focus on making arrests and showing his iron fist. But what happens afterwards generally and what eventually happens to the people arrested? Do they leave prison interested and equipped to make a valuable contribution to the community they once violated?

Of course, where people have committed crimes, arrests ought to take place. But what about the bigger picture? What approach can help us construct a different story for the future? I suggest we endeavor to create a different story by stepping out of our entrenched roles, positions and perspectives – by holding spaces where people can take risks, be able to move beyond our fear and anger, and enter the messy, complicated ‘grey’ areas that take us into deliberations beyond ‘right vs. wrong’ and ‘us vs. them.’ 

How do we do this? We could start by asking questions instead of giving pre-fabricated solutions. Most of the solutions we will be hearing in the coming days are likely to be nothing new. We are, after all, approaching the future with the same mindset that has brought us to the present. One obvious question to ask is ‘Why the violence? ‘ And I’d like to put this question to the rioters. Policies do not cause riots – people’s emotions, beliefs, attitudes and values do. Why have the people involved made such destructive choices? And let’s do it properly here – ‘I don’t have a job’ is not an answer; let’s find out what is truly alive in people.  

What other questions can we ask, and what stories do people need to tell? And by people, I mean everyone – the shopkeepers, the rioters, the police, the politicians, your average person minding their own business and waking up to find their neighborhood in tatters. It isn’t just the rioters who are frustrated. We, the majority of people, are in a time of massive discontent (fear, anger, frustration, cynicism). Everyone has a story that lays out what’s alive in them and why.

We also need to stop making observations about everyone else – unless we can back them up. We need to have more people speaking for themselves, and doing so reflectively (as opposed to reflexively)– to dig deep into their emotions, beliefs, behaviors, values, attitudes and assumptions. We need some honest conversation where people can speak without being boxed in and judged. Some might argue that a focus on conversation, honesty, openness is an inappropriately soft, fluffy response to what has been a time of harsh, violent behaviors. Let’s be realistic here – where have hard-lines and overly moderated exchanges gotten us? In many dialogues and deliberations tied to equity and justice, people come to the table (and it is very few who actually are ever at the table) with anger, frustration, distrust, sadness, and hurt. Yet, the dialogues at the table tend to give little scope for people to be heard and understood. You say what you say and are either disparaged, refuted or simply given a nod and a thank you and then it is on to the next person.  

Conflict is always an opportunity, provided we can engage with constructively. This means, creating spaces where we:

  • Practice empathic dialogue, listening to and understanding all parties without judgments – putting aside momentarily our disbelief and our frustration or anger over someone else’s choices/behaviors
  • Start dialogue without pre-conceived solutions and answers
  • Openly engage with our emotions, values, beliefs, attitudes and assumptions
  • Deliberate and question what we mean by justice, freedom, responsibility and the ‘greater good.’
  • Strive to find common ground, e.g. shared ethical values
  • Be prepare to see the situation from multiple perspectives.

Conflict resolution can also include work with restorative justice. What is after all, our goal? Many political leaders will say ‘Jobs, economic growth and prosperity.’ I say it is to sow seeds and lay a stronger foundation for compassionate, caring, thriving and creative communities.  A judgment and punishment-oriented approach will not do that. Demonizing people will not do that. Focusing on guilt and blame will not do that. 

As long as people feel unheard, undervalued, overlooked, excluded, disconnected and invisible, we will be living in a society that is ‘us vs them’ and we will certainly not ‘all be in this together’. Or more accurately, we won’t be acting as if we are – you see, the truth is – we are all in this together. It is a question of whether or not we behave this way. Currently, we often do not. It is also a question of whether or not we take on individual responsibility to scrutinize and challenge our beliefs, attitudes, choices and behaviours. Only by doing so can we collectively change the cultures, systems, and structures that feed the destructive behavior we are experiencing.

Who is responsible for these riots? One way or another, we all are.  Who is responsible for change: one way or another, we all are.



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