The Young and Restless in the Streets of England



“What is wrong with British youth?” This headline came out on The Telegraph in 2007 after a study of the Institute for Public Policy Research said that teenagers in the UK are among the most ill-behaved in Europe. They were more likely to engage in alcohol and drug abuse, have underage sex, join gangs and get into fights, the research said. Four years later, riots and looting are breaking out across England and young people are identified as prominent participants.

It is difficult not to feel outrage against these rioters and looters when we read about how a local shop owner is devastated with the loss of his livelihood, or the story of a father whose young son died in his arms amidst the violence in Birmingham. In Manchester and Salford, youths and even kids as young as nine or 10, were involved in the looting. Store windows were smashed and designer clothes, expensive gadgets, jewelry and alcohol were brazenly stolen.

In demanding justice for these criminal acts and the re-establishment of law and order, we must still seek to understand the cause and context of the violence. The rioters may be acting out of sheer self-interest with no apparent political cause but the societal breakdown that led to the riots in the first place is still political, as one columnist similarly pointed out. Social exclusion is often mentioned as one of the reasons for the eruption of lawlessness. Young people feel disconnected from their communities and are hopeless about their future. Feeling like they have nothing to lose and with no regard for the consequences of their actions, they storm the streets of their cities and set buildings and vehicles on fire while making off with flat screen TVs and branded clothes.

The problem of anti-social behavior among the youth in Britain has been brewing for some time now. The media have called it the rise of the “yob culture,” unruly groups of young people who are often drunk and wreaking havoc on the streets. There have been calls for imposing curfews, stronger police presence, and actions on alcohol abuse. Youth centers and after-school clubs were also among the suggested solutions for providing young people with alternative activities to combat yob culture. Now it seems like the anti-social behaviors have come to a head, sparked by the death of Mark Duggan at the hands of the police.

As authorities are scrambling to restore order, the coming days will still be fraught with discussions on why these things have happened and who should be blamed (because it’s human nature to play the blame game when something bad happens). But a key lesson probably is we ignore deep-seated societal problems at our own peril. If we don’t give attention to youth issues and we don’t address the root causes of anti-social behaviors, the consequences are going to explode right in our faces sooner or later.

Justice should be served and rule of law should be restored; that much is owed to the shop owner who lost his livelihood and the father who lost his son. But in the same way, social inequalities should be addressed and the youth should be given a stake in their communities; that much is owed to today’s young generation.

Photo: (Creative Commons) Tottenham Riots. A shop and police car burn as riot police try to contain a large group of people on a main road in Tottenham, north London.

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