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The riots hit home

It must be bad if I’m actually writing a blog.

I went to bed last night having spent an uncomfortable few hours watching the coverage on BBC News. The images such as those of the furniture store burning out of control were simply astonishing and tragically compulsive. Around 11pm I started to hear rumours that trouble was brewing in Ealing, my adopted home of the past 6 years. Initially I dismissed this as rumour and exaggeration of the (justified) extreme police precaution. Last night you could put virtually any place name into the Twitter search box and you would find tweets claiming the area was under attack and that its branch of Nando’s had burned down. By 11pm I could no longer bear to hear any more, switched off the radio and went to sleep.

At 6am I awoke to news that there had indeed been violence in Ealing. Turning on Sky News I was met with images of destruction not unlike or anywhere near as severe as the pictures I had seen from Tottenham, Enfield, Hackney or many other areas over the past few days. Except this time the windows that were smashed were those of coffee shops I had relaxed in, restaurants I had dined in, and retailers I had shopped in. Selfish though it sounds, it definitely hurts more when it’s your home.

In the office today the mood was subdued, and most people had a story to tell of what they witnessed last night. One colleague told of a troublemaker hiding under bins in her garden, meters from her bedroom window. I consider myself fortunate that in my temporary lodgings in a relatively sleepy village near Heathrow (long story) I am immune from the direct of impact of events.

As many of you will know, I’m something of a Guardian reading, granola munching, fairtrade drinking lefty liberal. And as us types so often do, I’ve found myself torn on my feelings around all of this. Seeing the images of youths running riot in the streets, especially streets that I know and love, like most people my instinct is that they should be punished with the full force of the law, with a tragic feeling that there is no hope of “fixing” such mindless animals.

And yet at the same time I am unable to shake the desire to understand and explain their behaviour. Many times over recent days attempts to analyse the situation have been shouted down by those saying that there is no justification for the appalling violence and theft that we have seen and that those responsible for the trouble over recent nights must be punished quickly and firmly.

And I wholeheartedly agree. But what about the kids that are going to cause trouble tomorrow? Or next week? Or in five years time? Many say that firm policing and punishment would be a deterrent, and perhaps this is true. But do we want to live in a society where the reason people don’t commit crime is just because they don’t want to go to prison? I don’t. So therefore I do need to understand what has driven these people to make the utterly incorrect conclusion that this behaviour is necessary or acceptable.

I could write about how the education system has failed people and how too many children do not have a stable and loving family to look after and guide them. I could speculate over how the current spending cuts may be disproportionately affecting the poorest, youngest and most vulnerable in our society while the bankers and the wealthy continue to occupy a different world. I could explain how it’s all the fault of the coalition. I could argue that the 13 year Labour government must be to blame. Plenty of people have and will continue to write on the subject with varying degrees of accuracy and sensitivity, but clearly I’m not best placed to work this out. I’m a white, middle class accountant who has been fortunate to have received a good education and to have been raised by loving and decent parents who somehow instilled in me an implicit sense of right and wrong. I have a good job paying a decent wage, have never had to go hungry or cold and my only worries in life are superficial in comparison to many others.

Obviously I have an opinion which I could and at some point may share on this blog, but that’s another post for another day, and you’re unlikely to have your view changed by little old me anyway.

Whatever the underlying cause, regardless of whether you’re a bleeding heart liberal or a member of the Daily Mail “hang ‘em and flog ’em” brigade, the immediate question is what the police should do to stop the trouble in our cities tonight, and dare I say over the next few nights. Should they use water cannons? Should the army be called in? Should Blackberry Messenger be closed down? Should there be curfews? Should there be a media blackout? My answer…

I don’t know.

Outrageously, given me zero years of experience and training in the area of public order policing, I cannot tell you what should be done. Pathetic isn’t it… everyone else with an equal and even lesser understanding of the subject have been able to come up with a view, be they callers to radio phone-ins, members of the public interviewed on TV, politicians, colleagues, friends, random people on Twitter or some bloke on the bus that some other bloke overheard. As Simon Mayo ever aptly and succinctly tweeted earlier – “I never knew I followed so many experts in urban riots”.

In hindsight I’m sure that the police will be able to learn lessons from this. Who amongst us when faced with a new and unprecedented challenge can guarantee that we would get it right first time. For now they are simply doing the best they can under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. When people rant that the police “weren’t there” to protect them, that wasn’t out of choice. They weren’t sat in the canteen sipping tea and eating doughnuts. And for whatever failings there have been in the past or inevitably there will be in the future, I still trust them to make the best choices about how to deal with the situation. Frankly if I didn’t, I should probably be moving.

To finish on a positive note, as is so often the case when our city comes under fire and we witness the worst of human nature, soon after we witness the best. By 7am this morning “#riotcleanup” was trending on Twitter and throughout the day we have seen pictures of the “broom armies” out in force and getting our communities back to normal. I would have loved to join them in Ealing today, and like the police and our other emergency services the images of them hard at work remind us of the overwhelming number of decent people that we pass and ignore every day of our lives. Thanks to them my faith in the people of this city is maintained at a time when it would be so easy to despair. Thank you all.

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