Whose voices were we hearing in the recent riots?
Let’s make a distinction between the spark that set the riots off and the fuel that made that spark into a fire and then a bonfire.
There’s a petrol-on-the-road environment in the UK, caused by years of police harassment and brutality against what the government would term the ‘underclass’, what I would say are the socially excluded.
The police have often acted as if they are above the law and a number of high profile cases have highlighted this fact, the shooting of Mark Duggan being the most recent. There is a growing sense that there is no justice for the socially excluded, particularly when it comes to police brutality.
I remember seeing an interview on YouTube with a couple of rioters. One of them said, ‘I’ve been waiting years for this because I need to fight back.’
The fuel is what then piled on top of that spark and allowed it to burn. This comes from generations of poverty, hopelessness, and the daily numbness of long-term unemployment. People with lots of good ideas but no way to action them.
I can see how easy it would be to be drawn into an environment where hustling and looting seems like a viable option. I believe in principled nonviolence, but along the way, if my mate had got shot by the police and I felt that there was no justice, I would have thought it a good idea to burn a police car rather than go through a fruitless accountability process.
I am older and wiser now. I am not judging though – I wouldn’t dare do that, because when I was 16 I was angry too and I didn’t have the head that I have now.
I would like to see a shift to nonviolent strategies – for example, mass blockading. We must use collective security and nonviolence as our guiding principles and leave the violence to the police and film them when they do it. The power of numbers becomes more effective with nonviolence because even your nan could support that!
How similar or different are these riots to those on Luton’s Marsh Farm estate in the 1990s?
The spark at Marsh Farm was a few years of constant aggro between the kids and the police, which led to an explosion over a particular incident of police brutality. About 50 kids responded by burning two cars.
I went down to the front of the estate and asked them what was going on. I told them to go as the police would be here soon. They said, ‘Mate, that’s what we want!’
So the spark was the same. The difference is that it has got a lot worse today, because the gap between the haves and the have‑nots has widened.
How do we respond to the riots?
The decent thing to do is to listen: to take these voices seriously instead of using weapons of mass distraction, which is what the mainstream media has been doing. They want to distract from the root cause – they want to say, ‘This isn’t a voice from the voiceless, this is just pure criminality.’ We can’t let this voice be suppressed again because when it comes back next time it will come back even louder. This suppression will also amplify the feeling of no justice.
Look at the convictions. One which stood out for me was Steven Craven from Salford. He got 12 months in jail because he had bought a TV that someone had looted in the riots. His local MP Hazel Blears used £1,700 of taxpayers’ money to buy two massive TVs – and nothing has happened to her. The hypocrisy is stunning.
We must identify and empathise with those people who feel that there is no justice.
Can you describe what you’ve collectively achieved through this approach?
From 1995 onwards we proved that youth diversion works better than police oppression. We stopped the Marsh Farm riot by putting on a dance just outside Luton. We wanted to divert the energy and say, c’mon, let’s dance, then let’s talk, and then let’s build.
On Marsh Farm we’ve been baking a loaf – and we’ve managed to secure the dough for it. We have one of the biggest community-owned centres in the country, called Futures House, right in the heart of our estate, running as a social enterprise. Any revenue it generates will go back into the community rather than into someone’s pocket.
The yeast to that loaf is the people elements of it, achieved through participatory democracy and hands-on community governance.
There was a motocross club formed, engaging kids who were on ASBOs. They democratically drew up their own set of rules and codes of conduct. There was a written accord that anti-social behaviour outside the club would result in a self-suspension.
That approach not only prevented some of that anti-social behaviour but gave responsibility to the kids. It was so successful in diverting these kids away from the destructive stuff. This cost just £5,000 of government funding.
If you compare it to the costs associated with the penal route, it is far more cost effective and beneficial.
How would you sum up the lessons of what you have done with Marsh Farm Futures House?
We have faced an amazing array of technical, legal, bureaucratic and cultural obstacles, not to mention powerful vested interests. You’ve got the top-down culture that believes that we are here to be tended to. Ministers and officials talk about ‘capacity building’ as if it’s something they can do for us. I call it ‘capacity releasing’ because it’s in us already. We just need the right environment and freedoms.
Our approach takes the money and gives it directly to the community, giving people the skills they need. You learn by doing.
If you’re cutting grass, go cut some grass – let’s not have another seminar about it where someone is being paid £600 a day to tell me about time management and all the rest of the training modules they waste money on. This is also a powerful way to challenge the dependency mindset that goes along with it.
What kind of relationship with the government would you ideally want?
If I could pass a single law that I would think would make a difference it would be this: ‘If thou can produce locally, thou must produce locally.’ This ‘big is beautiful’ culture needs to be radically overhauled.
In the war there was the campaign to Dig for Victory, where everybody was given the means to grow vegetables. We need something similar: localise for victory, localise for survival, small is beautiful.
This will lead to conflicts with monopolies in the private sector. The government needs to take sides and say sorry to the big providers in favour of local production. I can’t see any government having the courage to confront these issues, though, so it needs to be fought for from the grassroots.
I want the government to free up the resources in a way that’s transparent and in local hands. We need a government that will sit down with us, look at the way this could be done safely and properly, and then step back to let it grow.