Is ‘hug a hoodie’ the way forward? Melissa Jane Knight, a specialist youth worker in SE London, comments on the summer riots

Lucy Jones, one of the jag press & publicity senior team, has been helping a contact with her pr. Read what Melissa Jane Knight believes is the solution to the recent rioting in London. Great to see someone so passionate.

Melissa Jane Knight, Specialist Youth Worker in SE London, writes:”I should be watching the riots with a smile, rubbing my hands like a good capitalist.   Despite recession cuts to key services such as libraries and parks, this secures my line of employment as a specialist youth worker with excluded teenagers.   But of course I don’t.  Instead I watch in horror as fires blaze, burning the livelihoods of thousands of workers’ homes and businesses.  Up too, burns the hard work of council staff, probation officers, teachers and people like me.  Instead, I witness joined up working on a scale that deifies local authority boundaries and outsmarts a frustrated and tired police force.

“You’re probably trying to get your head around it, just as much as people like me, who work with these young people on a daily basis.  You’re probably a little frightened too.  And angry.  And some people are no doubt reverting back to the comforts of parents and grandparents attitude to black skin.  But before those people start shouting ‘send them back’ or ‘lock them up’, here’s an insider’s perspective.

“Party politics aside, Ken Livingstone in the absence of Mayor Boris Johnson, said on the BBC that these are a generation of young people with none or little job prospects, and a future set in play leaving them worse off than their parents generation.  The old folk are screaming at me right now, ‘we had nothing in our day’.  Exactly.  There was nothing of the materialism displayed to them that we witness in our society.  These are not the times of Sunday Best.  These are times where wardrobes are full of clothes, many with labels attached, unworn before the fashion trend switches from floral to ‘this season’s must have big print’.  British Weather may be volatile but unlike Primark, a season still lasts around three months.

“Pitted against this unprecedented materialism are the adverts for it, and I don’t mean the seconds of flashy super slender white bodies painted gold, rubbed up against oversized bottles of perfume.  I mean programmes like My Sweet Sixteen and Cribs, which show the fantastic wealth of over consuming youth.   Then there are the indirect images in teen shows where all the actors, if American, drive convertible cars to and from school, and if British, push every boundary going from sex acts to drug use, all in the latest choreographed outfits from the high street.

“As a youth worker, what I can’t do is blame these shows, alongside every second rap video showing men, not children and teenagers, but grown men flash their platinum chains, sitting on their shiny cars, telling us to ‘Get Rich Or Die Tryin’.  No it’s certainly the responsibility of the individual not to run down the street to Curry’s, or Comet, or Morrisions, when their blackberry pings ‘cum now bruv’.  But I didn’t run down the road and it wasn’t because a dishwasher I need is too large and too heavy because I still would like to own a digital projector.  No, it is because I am a stakeholder.  I need this community and feel like this community needs me.

“David Cameron always had a huge job on his hands to try and convince a groomed nation of individualist capitalist consumers that Big Society is where the party’s at.  Running services as volunteers ain’t going anywhere when the real work requires more than time share of the local library.   Every single youth you witness steal trainers and clothes, is a failure by all of us to engage them.  The chasm between young and old is unforgivable.   As I wrote in my dissertation on ASBOs when upping punitive punishment was seen, as usual, to be the answer: ‘Adolescents are not hooded monsters who naturally seek to intimidate or harass. They are young people with energy and time but little experience.  Adults are people with lots of experience, but little energy and time.  Somewhere a swap needs to take place.’

“What we all witnessed last night was the ability of a hardcore of ringleaders to whip up groups of youths all over London into a frenzy.   Just like whispers fly around a school playground to come see the fight happening in the back playground after school, thousands of opportunists heard the Pide Piper’s’ call to grab what you can.

“The answers as to Why? will come from the disengaged young people who are from those same estates and income scale, who chose to stay home last night.  Whose parents watched them like hawks to see if there was even the slightest possibility of their involvement in knowing the sorts of kids that go out and steal goods for fun.  Why say no, when the sheer scale of those saying yes, mean you won’t get caught?  And to those abstaining young people without loved ones, I take my hat off to you.

“Yesterday’s riots and looting spelt a new era of youth uprising and rebellion.  There is no doubt about that.  They started a war, not with local residents, though my friend’s car was firebombed, the same car spread over today’s Telegraph and the BBC websites.  They started a war with police.  In my role as a youth worker, there is not one single black teenager I have worked with that says they have a good relationship with the police.  Even those who know the police are there and that that is a good thing, still complain of stop and search, wrongful arrest, intimidation.

“In an era of positive discrimination, we subject thousands of British youth to continually tick ‘black’, ‘black’, ‘black’.  So what if your skin is black? It’s skin.  Why not eye colour?  Hair colour?  With every X in the box, the subjectivity of the youth is that they are in a different box, set in a different column, set in a different space on the page from their peers.   Then drop down from the statutory level, and look at how those forms have affected the private sector workplace.  Have you ever stood outside Bank or Liverpool Street station to play ‘spot the black person’?  You should, it’s really fun.   And yet, as the suits all march over London Bridge this morning, the last thing on many minds will be, I’m going to get in touch with the male mentoring programme.  Something needs to change.

“On a macro scale, some would say these riots have roots that go way back to time of slavery.  That black people have always been mistreated by white people.  That the United Kingdom, far from that, is a broken Britain, full of broken ideals and dreams.  When the riots broke out  across countries like Syria, Tunisia and Egypt, we patted ourselves on the back for being a stable democracy.  When the riots broke out in Paris, over ghettoised communities, we patted our London on the back, for being tolerant.  We have a clear problem of integration here, not solely with the black community, but with the disillusioned, the unemployed, the poor.  Many government programmes and services are being slashed too deep and too fast, and yet in the midst of this London’s top architects compete to build London’s most expensive postcode.  As billionaires pop up around us, the desire to be rich and famous grows too.   Like an overstretched rubber band, the patience of these young people snaps the moment a backdoor entrance opens up.

“The media are already saying the riots are by ‘ethnic minorities’.  To do this only widens the chasm.  Britain might as well be saying they’re not British.  But they are.  Some third and fourth generation British.  This is certainly a British problem.

“Then the catalyst incident itself.  Whatever his history, shooting a man twice in the face.  The face?  Twice?  Identifying the body in the morgue must have been the most terrifying experience for the family.   The police, it is reported, dealt with the family in the business as usual approach.  The man in question, linked to Yardie Gangsters, therefore the family left to accept his fate.  Now comes reports, the officer in question was never shot at.  That the bullet is police issue.   Any Safer Neighbourhood Team work ruined.  Any policing within the communities trust broken.  Answers are certainly needed.  But riots and looting are not answers to those questions.

“So what happens now?  What next?  What can we do?  Before Britain panics hysterically, I want to offer you a new approach.   Not every young person you saw on the news is a criminal.  Most were opportunists.  But there are a hardcore collective of criminals who hijacked a peaceful protest and showed the world they can mobilise a malleable bored mass to wreak havoc.   Parents and loved ones at home need to show their children stealing is wrong.  As responsible adults, we need to make a stand and hand the goods back.   Yesterday I saw loads of teenager running up my street with stolen goods.  They’ll have taken those goods home.  It is up to their loved ones to stop them enjoying the fruits of their loots.  Look under their bed.  In their wardrobe.  And hand them in.

“These young people won’t care what the police think.  They won’t care they are called criminals or thugs.  They feel it already.  They wear all their designer labels proudly these days.  But if someone at home tells them Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Mother Theresa never stole Nike trainers from JD Sports to protest against injustice, they may listen.  Someone should tell them that they are being exploited by people who only pervert their problems further.  Who talk of an illuminate, of impenetrable Britain where poverty will only get worse.   Then we must learn from our elders, who went through rationing, who wore their Sunday dress, week in and week out.   In that craziness needs the healing power of loved ones to teach values about being human, that new trainers may band aid today’s lack of status, but fade as soon as Nike bring out its latest £105 pair of Bangladeshi-women-working-for-£17-a-month shoes.  Inner confidence and an outer vision.

“David and Boris: you won’t win the battle unless you offer these young people some of what you give your own children.  They’re smart.  They know your inherited wealth isn’t earned by you.  That most wealthy people sit on money that someone, somewhere once got from exploiting others.  That landed estates were once commons.  That our chancellor will inherit £4 million, £1.4 of which is tax dodged.  That their ‘good uncle’ is tired, over-worked, never sees his kids, or makes enough money to buy his own flat.   Unlike Rosa Parks, they don’t want to sit anywhere on the bus.  They want their own car, and we are giving them not even the slightest chance to realise this.  Instead you scrap EMA and Connexions.

“Viewing the ring leaders as mindless thugs is a huge mistake.   American Rap has morphed into a new UK underground scene.  Lyrics are ‘conscious’, set against the same enticing beats, now telling the young and the poor that bankers, politicians and police are keeping them down.   That no matter what they do, the big house and car will remain locked away from them behind the stolen flat-screen as they watch MTV’s Cribs.  That unless they stand up and take what they want, no one will be arriving to help lend a hand.   They have seen that for fifteen years watching their mother struggle to feed and clothe them.  And as families are pushed to the limit to pay energy bills, the moral fabric soon weathers when their teenage son or daughter chucks in a quick fifty made from last night’s cash and carry.

“The lady screaming in Hackney last night said it and said it right.  ‘Allow out burning people’s shops that they worked hard to start their business.  You understand?  She’s working hard to make her business work and then you lot wanna go burn it up.  For what?  Just to say you’re warring and you’re bad man? …Get it real black people.  Get real.  If we’re fighting for a cause then let’s fight for a fucking cause.  You lot piss me the fuck off. I’m ashamed to be an ethnic person, ‘cause we not all gathering together fighting for a cause, we running down footlocker teefing shoes.  Dirty teefs ya know! Cha!’

“This is the point.  This divides communities.  This harms communities.  This is self harm.   This is not a black peoples’ problem.  This is our collective problem.  This is not a gang problem. This is frustration that the ladder up is as real as a Dali portrait, as attainable as an Olympic gold medal.  Keep sucking up the wealth.  Keep squeezing the working poor.  Keep the young unemployed and isolated and this will be a taste of what’s to come.  Use the hard line approach for voters and fail in your responsibility as a true politician.  Be angry as a resident and fail in your responsibility as a neighbour and a citizen.

“Years ago Mr Cameron announced the solution and was laughed at but he was right to say ‘Hug a Hoodie’.  As I said before, the answers lie in the kids that didn’t rise to the Pied Piper’s call.  The ones safely tucked into the arms of a loved one, and a loved one can be anyone.  Where parents are on alcohol and drugs, out prostituting themselves or living elsewhere; those that absent or indeed, in the shops looting, others are needed to take their place.

“When we saw my boyfriend’s bike being stolen by two hooded monsters, we ran out to get in back.  I saw the youth in their faces, and shouted ‘stop I’m a youth worker!’  After some reasoning he gave the bike back.  My boyfriend walked back to re-chain to our friend’s bike, but I remained.  I couldn’t just let them go without asking why?  He told me ‘what man, I gave the bike back?’.  I replied, ‘I don’t care about the bike.  It’s just a bike.  I care about you.  What about you?  What are you good at?’  He looked at me, his smaller friend silent the whole time.  ‘What are you good at!’ I yelled.  ‘Nothing’.  Tears pricked my eyes.  Familiar tears.  The ones I leave the classroom sometimes to have in the toilet.  ‘Don’t say that.  Don’t say nothing.’  He had no words for me.  ‘You’re better than this.  You’re better than being a thief.’  He was silent.  What he didn’t do was run away or get angry.  He didn’t pull out whatever it was he cut the bike lock with and he didn’t jab it in me.   He simply looked at me, without any answers.

“So if you have a brother, a cousin, a neighbour, nephew or niece you know suffers neglect: now is the time to call more often.  Now is the time to get them cutting your grass for pocket money.  Taking them to the supermarket, showing them to cook a hot meal from scratch.  Now is the time to introduce you to their teachers and listen to their dreams.  Now is certainly the time.”

Melissa Jane Knight, MSc, BA Hons, Specialist Youth Worker, SE London


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