Understanding the riots and rioters: An exodus Sign?

A reflection on the underlying causes of last summer’s riots in england.

On 9 July 2012 three reflections on the riots of August 2011 were put before the public. One was produced as the result of a partnership between the Guardian and the London School of Economics – ‘Reading the Riots’ (three parts of which had been published the previous week) – an investigation which started three weeks after the riots had taken place and involved 100 researchers, academics and analysts. On BBC3, ‘Riots the Aftershock’ examined the effects, culled over nine months, on three young people who were arrested; on two of the victims; and on those associated with them. The third concerned the presentation to the General Synod of the Church of England, meeting in York, of research highlighting the effect of government cuts.

Rioter and burning carIt recognised ‘the appalling evil and criminality’ let loose, but also that ‘Where hope has been killed off, is it surprising that their (the rioters’) energies erupt in anti-social and violent actions.’ The enquiries reveal insights which do not seem to add up. For me, this was best expressed by a man who was accepted as a role-model for younger lads. He had given way to some urge of the moment and had not only indulged in wrecking but in looting. Interrogated on his actions he said he deeply regretted the part he had played, but did not regret that riots had broken out. He had taken part in the smashing up of a café whose owner had spent ten years sacrificially building it up – now, though there would be compensation to restore it, in the meantime he was getting into serious debt because he had no other means of surviving in the bit in between.

An old woman’s house had been wantonly burned down. When she claimed compensation it was refused because she could not produce receipts for the contents. She was left with nothing. Have you heard of a fire which burnt down everything else and spared receipts?

As Bishop Peter Price said in his report to the Synod, he had no intention of being sentimental about the rioters and the laying waste of other peoples’ lives which they produced. But he also said that such disturbances could be ‘a kind of spiritual escape’ for those whose lives had been severely deprived. In all three investigations wrongs are not covered over or treated lightly. Yet, in all the mayhem, there is identified an element which sounds right. Maybe the Passionist Roman Catholic priest from Liverpool, Austin Smith, who died last year could have thrown some light on seeming ambiguities?

We were pals, for many years taking part in an annual Roman Catholic sponsored theological conference near Crewe. At a time when the phrase ‘One foot in the grave’ was current in speech and song we were found sitting on a stair step together, sharing thoughts and delighting in one another’s company. One member christened the picture ‘Four feet in the grave’ (though at that point I was just getting into my early 80s!)

Austin’s reflection was included in the Synod report: such rioting could be ‘literally an ecstatic experience’! A strange remark? maybe not.

My own insight, which was forced on me rather than came to me, belonged to a very different time and place. The Policy and Programme Committee of Scottish Churches House decided that something more concrete should be done by the churches about the gangs of Easterhouse, in what Billy Connolly would call ‘a desert wi’ windaes’ situation. I was asked to contact the gangs and invite representations to meet in the House for a think through of the situation. Three of the four gangs accepted. At the end, as I was farewelling participants, one stopped in front of me and said ‘You’ve fairly spoiled things, sir’. I asked how. ‘Ach’, he said, ‘You canna stick a knife in a boy if you have lived under the same roof wi’ him’.

I rejoiced in the remark at first- till it dawned on me that it meant ‘you have taken colour and excitement out of our lives and done nothing to change the situation’. I now recollect that, in my own report I wrote: ‘You hear them speak about the drabness of their lives and of the colour and excitement provided if you belong to a gang and find gang fights could flare up at almost any moment’.

Jesus called those who exercised control of other lives ‘to steal and kill and destroy’, life-robbers.
He said that he had come to give people life in its fullness. I think of Van Gogh’s dehumanised potato eaters – and of those in our time on whom a deprived, colourless life is willed by others.

If people find themselves controlled by authorities who prescribe for them a blighted existence, is there not, in a rupture of rapture, an affirmation of title to a more human life – life in all its colourful fullness? Was that not expressed in the ‘role model’s’ regret at his own conduct but a lack of regret that rioting broke out?

What are we to make of a government whose blinkered reaction was to crush and jail mercilessly without dealing with the root of human deprivation – all the time letting financial manipulators off scot-free though their wrongdoing was of an utterly different dimension, bringing the world to the brink of an abyss!

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.