U.K. Riots - Talking Points and Observations from Three Youth Advocates

positive-youth-development_youth-in-hoodiesThere's no question that the riots in the U.K. last week -- mostly perpetrated by young people and young adults -- generated a lot of outrage on both sides of the Atlantic.
One of the hot topics in the U.K. was Prime Minister David Cameron's about-face. In 2006, he gave a speech designed to "reposition his party as tough on the causes of crime, urging a greater focus on the family and on the social influences driving children to offend," rather than on police crackdowns. This became known as his "Hug a Hoodie" campaign (#hugahoodie suddenly became a very popular hashtag on Twitter last week). But in the wake of the riots, Cameron promised the rioters, "We will track you down, we will find you, we will charge you, we will punish you." (You can see a fairly balanced AP story on Cameron's about-face and the politics of responses to youth crime in the Britain and the U.S. here.)
Commenters in the United States have also been quick to pile on their scorn for "soft on crime" approaches, so I thought it would be useful to hear more thoughtful responses from youth experts familiar with youth in the juvenile justice system and common policy responses. Several were kind enough to email me their quick thoughts:

  • Laura Nissen, Ph.D., a professor of social work at Portland State University and the former national director of Reclaiming Futures, wrote:

Young people need options, opportunity and a sense of hope. It is dismaying to see such unquestioned condemnation going on with little to no analysis offered about why there is a boiling point in London. Racism, injustice and oppression produce outrage. While violence is never the answer, youth advocates should look deeper and read structural causes into this situation and stand with youth as solutions are (hopefully) sought.

  • Jeffrey Butts, Ph.D., Executive Director, Research And Evaluation Center, John Jay College, New York, observed:

It was fascinating to watch the public reaction and media coverage to the events in England last week. They parallel our reactions to crime issues in general. First, we feel shock and a growing appetite for stories and gruesome images. This is the earliest part of the cycle--the “ain’t-it-awful” phase.
Next comes the outrage, anger and disgust. At first, the anger is directed only at the participants, but then it quickly turns on the government. This starts the “who’s-to-blame” phase. The government responds as governments typically do in all sorts of crime situations. They express sympathy for the affected communities, but then move on to promises of fire and brimstone for the perpetrators. They are really not interested in rational discourse at this time.
Early in the events of last week, the Prime Minister explicitly rejected any talk of “basic causes” and social conditions. This is the “don’t-you-worry-because-we’ll-get-the-little-buggers” phase of the story. The government talks tough and hopes that events die down and everyone forgets. Depending on events, that phase can last a few days or a few decades.
Eventually, even the government accepts the fact that “basic causes” are indeed relevant. This launches the “rational-search-for-solutions” phase. That phase, of course, is highly unstable. A new shock or social disorder event can start the whole cycle again. We seem doomed to repeat this cycle.

  •  Connie Flanagan, Ph.D., professor of Youth Civic Development at Penn State University the University of Wisconsin-Madison offered the following talking points for youth advocates:

It is through the media’s lens that we have learned about the recent riots in the U.K. And, as it does with most social issues, the media frames the story in an episodic format that downplays the backstory leading up to the events.
The images portraying events in the U.K. include burning buildings, angry youth, and police in riot gear and there is a danger that the viewing public will conclude one or both of the following: "Youth, in general, are a bad lot," or "Those youth from those social classes, ethnic groups, or cultures have not been raised with mainstream values like the rest of us." Either conclusion is overly simplistic and just plain wrong.
Negative stereotypes that the public holds about youth are difficult to dislodge – even when the media is not broadcasting footage of riots. So the field of youth work will probably be called upon to speak for young people. In answering these calls, it may be useful to emphasize the following talking points:

1. No one condones violence but violence against property is not equal to violence against persons.
2. Punishing individual looters without understanding larger community frustrations will keep conditions in place for the next triggering event for the next riot.
3. In juvenile justice, restorative practices that engage youth offenders in service to their community rather than retributive practices that incarcerate them are more effective in reintegrating young people into prosocial lives in their communities.

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 Photo: Welsh Icons (Dom), under Creative Commons license.

Updated: February 08 2018