This open letter was sent to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, on August 13th, 2011.
Dear Prime Minister,
I write as someone whose contribution for more than four decades to the struggle for quality schooling and education for all and for racial equality and social justice is a matter of public record. I write as a former youth and community worker, community development officer and director of education and leisure services whose work has been predominantly in urban settings. I am a social analyst and professor of education. I am interim chair of Parents and Students Empowerment, an offshoot of the Communities Empowerment Network which for the last twelve years has been providing advice, guidance and advocacy in respect of the one thousand (1,000) school exclusion cases on average we deal with each year.
It is with profound sadness that I write to you.
Sadness at the lives lost and families traumatised as the civil unrest spread across London and elsewhere in the country.
Sadness at the number of young people who are now being taken through the courts, most of whom will doubtlessly end up with criminal convictions, if not prison sentences, thereby compounding the social exclusion that had already engulfed many of them.
Sadness, above all, at the utterances of leaders of state, including you, and the appalling lack of understanding that you and others display of the complexity of the situation underlying the violent civil unrest.
You, sir, have stated, in terms, that ‘gangs’ are responsible for the disturbances that started in Tottenham and spread across London and beyond. You have also asserted that the conduct of those caught up in the disturbances was indicative of a complete lack of responsibility in parts of our society, people allowed to think that the world owes them something, that their rights outweigh their responsibilities and that their actions do not have consequences.
You have described the protesters as not just criminal but ‘sick’.
You and others in your government want to see individuals and whole families evicted from Council housing if any member of those households is charged for allegedly taking part in the violent unrest. Your position and that of the government is also that those in receipt of state benefit should have their benefit withheld.
I would suggest to you that at times of national crisis such as this, the country requires its Prime Minister to show leadership. Leadership of One, Inclusive Nation.
‘Our nation’, ‘our country’, includes all those who, for whatever individual or collective motives, or for no reason at all, took to the streets on Saturday 6th August and in the days that followed.
Some of us may wish to distance ourselves from them, if not banish them from amongst us altogether and for all time. Others may wish to distance themselves totally from their conduct and not from the individuals themselves. Either way, the nation as a whole needs to own the events of the last week in all their ugliness, as well as for all the heroism and humanity that was displayed in the face of utterly disgraceful conduct on the part of some individuals. Only thus will we be able to embrace the responsibility to understand how the society has produced citizens capable of the scenes we witnessed and the conditions that gave rise to them taking to the streets and conducting themselves in those ways.
As I have stated elsewhere in the last week, some of the conduct we saw on our streets during those disturbances was consistent with what communities up and down the country have been witnessing since the late 1980s, including groups of young men and women chasing their peers through crowded streets in broad daylight and knifing them to death, or gunning others down on the street, while sitting in their cars, or in fast food outlets.
Five people are known to have been killed in the course of the recent disturbances. Scores of people have been killed on our streets since 1988 in incidents in which both perpetrators and victims were of African heritage. In one period, such deaths averaged 27 per year in London alone. Yet, politicians, the media and the nation as a whole seemed to take it all in their stride. There was nothing like the sense of national outrage or the urgency with which the government, the media and the entire country are responding to the current crisis.
The task of the ‘leader’, therefore, is to understand and speak to the nation in a manner that suggests you do understand the nuances that give the current situation its complexity and on that basis indicate what the government is minded to do, having regard to all the underlying factors and the way the policies and practices of your own and previous governments have contributed to the crisis.
The task of the ‘leader’ is not to invite and lead a national lynch mob, a lynch mob to which racists, fascists, separatists, assorted bigots and whosoever seeks revenge on behalf of victims or of a hurting nation could feel they could justifiably rally.
Much of what I have been hearing from the police, from crown prosecutors, from national and local politicians, from certain academics, from sections of the media and from various commentators is undoubtedly a recipe for strife, divisiveness and further social unrest. It encourages a ‘Big Society’ of bullies, self righteous and otherwise, and a spurious moral crusade that can only breed cynicism and discontent and fuel social exclusion.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the response of politicians, yourself foremost among them, and of various other commentators in the last week has been the moral relativity, the relative morality you and others apply to the conduct of those who took to the streets as you presume to occupy the moral high ground.
Over the last eighteen months or so, this nation has witnessed three major scandals:
– a financial crisis nationally and globally caused, not by the urban poor, the unemployed, or the ‘feral’ and ‘sick’, but by sub-prime mortgage lenders, bankers and other financiers who presumably are considered ‘responsible’ and not at all ‘sick’, who supposedly do not ‘believe the world owes them something’ or that ‘their rights outweigh their responsibilities’, or that ‘their actions do not have consequences’.
– Ditto, the MPs and Lords expenses scandal;
– Ditto, the telephone hacking scandal and the complicity of the police, not to mention the compromising relationship between successive governments and News International and Rupert Murdoch.
It is truly breathtaking that, despite the fact that the taxpayer was made to bear the burden of the financial meltdown and rescue the banks, with the attendant impact on services to local communities, the obscene bonuses those who caused the crisis in the first place continued to receive and the jailing of MPs and Lords and of journalists for the other two scandals, those who broke into shops and helped themselves to goods in the last week could be accused of ‘greed’, ‘materialism’ and a ‘complete lack of responsibility’.
But I suppose there is a difference between Members of Parliament looting the public purse to buy plasma TV screens, duck houses, ghost houses and various other goods, and ‘rioters’ breaking into premises and taking goods.
One thing is as clear as it was predictable, however, is that the treatment that first set of thieves received from the police was vastly different from that being dished out to those who took to the streets and took from shops and business premises in the last week. The former were treated to polite and respectful conversations/interviews with the police. Not for them dawn raids by scores of officers in riot gear bursting into their homes to sow ‘fear in their hearts’ and terrorise their families. Not for them pre-emptive strikes and intimidating searches in order to ensure that vital evidence is gathered.
And then there are the hoary old chestnuts of parent(s) and families, absent fathers (ever in the mix) and the extent of their culpability for where their children were and what they did.
I would beg you to consider that, short of following our children everywhere, not all parents could guarantee that where we think our children are at any one time is where they are actually to be found.
Not all children are the same, even within the same family. Parents could have three very focused, well-behaved and obedient children and one who is always kicking against the boundaries and defying parental authority. Those parents might well require or be in the process of receiving support in parenting that challenging child. The other children might be model students at school and totally happy at home. What purpose does it serve, therefore, to punish that entire family for the fact that the hard-headed child allowed herself to get caught up in the street disturbances and ended up being charged with an offence?
What is the impact upon those siblings of having their security at home and at school destroyed by being made to suffer the consequences of their elder sibling going off and doing stupid things?
Whether it be in relation to the recent civil unrest or to school attendance and young people’s behaviour at school, it is oppressive, unjust and counter-productive to adopt the default position that ‘the parents’ are to blame, the ‘parents must be made to bear the responsibility’. This approach usually has scant regard for the strategies that even so-called ‘dysfunctional’ parents use in parenting the best way they can.
In my experience, this accusation is never levelled when white, middle or upper class young men and women congregate in leafy suburbs or attend high end restaurants, drink excessively, indulge in criminal damage and other forms of anti-social behaviour. Nor is the accusation made when they jump into fast cars and terrorise motorists and other road users up and down country lanes.
There clearly is looting and looting; criminal damage and criminal damage; causing a public nuisance and causing a public nuisance. In the case of the first, the police, the courts, the media and the nation as a whole seem perfectly capable of making the distinction between criminal acts and criminals. Not so when it comes to young people from working class backgrounds, black or white.
In the case of the first, there is the automatic presumption that the perpetrators do know the difference between right and wrong but that through recklessness, daring, the desire to have a smashing time, they abandon that intrinsic knowledge temporarily and commit criminal acts. In the case of the latter, however, not knowing the difference between right and wrong is presumed to come with their white working class and African genes and be a function of the social and cultural capital they do not have and never will have.
In the case of the former, the taken-for-granted presumption is that upbringing, wealth, social and political connections and the automatic validation conferred upon them by this class-obsessed society would see them through even in the rare eventuality that they are made to serve a prison sentence for their criminal conduct. It even adds to their cultural capital in that they are totally comfortable regaling friends and colleagues in wine bars and dinner parties with their tales of total abandon and hedonistic conduct.
In the case of the latter, criminal convictions translate into compromised life chances, lack of opportunity for employment and progression, added to personal stigmatisation. Such convictions come to identify the individuals. They are no longer young people who committed criminal acts.
You and other politicians, some of whom once belonged to the former category, are ever so quick to apply your relative morality and condemn them to the full force of the law and the opprobrium of a disgusted public in whose interest you purport to act.
And then the nation wonders why there is so much moral ‘leakage’ among that revolting class.
Let me repeat that we witnessed some truly disgraceful scenes on our streets since August 6th. There were deliberate and murderous acts committed by individuals who apparently have long ceased to care about themselves, the consequences for them of the acts they were committing, let alone for others, and the impact upon the community of their chosen courses of action. This is indicative of a nihilism and hopelessness that cannot be fixed simply by locking them up and throwing away the key. I doubt that any of them came into the world genetically programmed to cause mayhem and commit murder.
Then, there are those who would have committed arrestable offences for the very first time and who though guilty of criminal acts are not the ‘criminals’ that the police, crown prosecution service, media and sections of ‘the public’ round upon them for being.
At the risk of setting myself up for arrest for ‘hugging a hoodie’ at a time like this and for what some might unkindly regard as ‘interfering with the course of “justice”’, may I respectfully suggest that rather than going down the road of naming and shaming juveniles and creating extra places for them in young offender institutions or in pupil referral units, the crown prosecution service be asked to amend its sentencing guidelines such that restorative justice approaches could be applied in the case of juveniles and of adults charged with less serious offences.
I have long argued that the conduct of many of our young people is indicative of the urgent need for healing and for rehabilitation of the self; for the restoration of value to the self; for the emotional literacy to be sensitised to the impact of their actions on themselves and upon others; for the acquisition and embedding of the values that make us fit for living in civil society.
To a large extent, it is not just young people’s damaged or warped social and emotional development that has resulted for many in the displacement of all those things and in the abandonment of hope and the death of aspiration. It is the fact that many of them have had no experience of others acting towards them in a manner that suggests that they as adults and facilitators of young people’s socialisation, learning and self development are living their values and are exhibiting the behaviours they would wish to see young people emulate.
This is evidently not a failure on the part of parents alone, whether in single or two parent households.
It is also a failure of national leaders, the political class, schools and teachers, leaders of faith groups, the police, the media, advertisers, pop artists, reality TV, producers of computer games and a raft of other people, products and organisations that young people encounter daily.
The established trend to demonise parents generally and to bemoan the absence of fathers in particular, obscures the fact that many parents lose the battle to ensure that the cumulative impact of popular culture, cyberspace and the dynamics of peer groups does not displace or countermand their patterns of child rearing and the values they seek to uphold in the home. My work in communities, my mentoring of four teenage boys and my research provide evidence that many parents need dedicated support in managing that balance and in equipping their children, teenagers in particular, with the strategies and the understanding to navigate their way through that myriad of influences and pressures and remain rooted and grounded.
That is why in 2010 I wrote The Case for a Learner’s Charter for Schools and argued for its adoption by schools, by all learners irrespective of background and by families, such that each has an understanding of their rights as well as their responsibilities and can sign up to the shared values that could underpin children’s learning and self development. The charter has been received favourably by many students, teachers and parents and it is my wish that your government will give it due consideration and recommend it to all schools and not just those in ‘challenging’ environments.
In your response to the recent civil unrest, you appear to suggest that the disturbances have their origins in the activity of ‘gangs’. Reports emanating from the courts thus far do not support that belief. In other words, I very much doubt that as many as twenty-five per cent of the nearly two thousand people arrested by the police are members of ‘gangs’. While it might be easier to explain the extent and ferocity of the unrest by placing ‘gangs’ at the centre of it, that does not help us to understand the rapid unleashing of anger and violence and the abandon with which some people destroyed property or helped themselves to goods.
Nor does it take account of the fact that black people had no monopoly of that unrest, nor did they erect barriers to exclude white and other non-African people of all tendencies and political persuasion from joining in. Those were open, free and fast moving events that any person or group with whatever personal or political intent, including anarchists, could join.
The accused and charged have not all been through the courts. Even though some have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentence, that does not mean that they have told the police, crown prosecution service and the courts what their political affiliations or motives were. It is therefore irresponsible of you to focus the nation’s attention on ‘gangs’, on ‘absent fathers’ and on ‘moral collapse’ without presenting the evidence that ‘gangs’ composed of black people from households without fathers were proven to be responsible for organising and spreading the unrest and for torching buildings.
I say irresponsible because it not only stereotypes black young people and their parents, it also provides ammunition to the likes of David Starkey to indulge in the worst forms of racist stereotyping and unfounded generalisations about people of African Caribbean background.
Even you must know that the suggestion that ‘moral collapse’ in the nation originated with the conduct of ‘gangs’ or of black people generally before and during the disturbances is ludicrous and amounts to a dangerous form of racial scapegoating.
But, assuming you are correct in placing ‘gangs’ at the centre of the unrest and the manner in which it spread across London, the questions I ask, again, are:
– why this sudden eagerness to tackle the problem of ‘gangs’?
– when our children were being murdered week in and week out in London and elsewhere year after year, why did government not look at the causes of the implosion that was so fatally evident in parts of our society?
– why did government, media and the nation generally regard it predominantly as ‘black on black’ crime and by implication nothing to do with the rest of us, thus allowing us to get on with business as usual?
– why is it only after the nation saw how destructive of property and disregarding of people’s lives that section of the population could be that there is this determination to deal mercilessly with ‘gangs’?
– why is no correlation being made between the relentless cuts in services for young people (youth and community centres, club based youth workers, detached youth workers, youth counsellors, theatre-in-education programmes, community based social education and outreach programmes, school based community education programmes) since the late 1980s and especially since the introduction of local management of schools, and the growth of opposing youth groups and ‘post-code wars’ in various cities and towns?
– why did successive governments see fit to massively expand police involvement in schools and in youth work and fund the police to do such work, while at the same time getting rid of youth workers and youth and social education provision in schools?
As I have argued in The Case for a Learner’s Charter:
It costs the government roughly £100,000 to keep one young person in prison for a year. For every ten young people in a young offender institution, the cost is £1m. Where those young people are looked after children in local authority care, the cumulative cost is considerably higher.
How much more cheaply and in a more humane and children friendly environment could the state provide for such people, before they offend, in a learning environment that acknowledges their emotional and developmental support needs, rather than one that effectively makes them yet one more statistic among the 135,000 children of compulsory school age who are not in mainstream schooling or, worse still, the 85,000 prisoners in the nation’s prisons. (page 14)
Two youth workers or youth counsellors, at least, could be employed for a year for every young person we keep in jail for that year.
As early as 1969, the Birmingham Post and Evening Mail ran a series under the heading ‘The Angry Suburbs’. The focus of the series was black young people, their unemployment, the quality of their schooling outcomes and, most of all, their response to the treatment they were receiving from the police. That led the Runnymede Trust to appoint me that Summer as director of an action-research project to go and work in Handsworth, Lozells and Winson Green and establish what was going on in those communities.
In that same year, the all-party select committee on race relations and immigration published their very first report entitled The Problem of Coloured School Leavers. That report argued, among other things, that West Indian parents had unrealistic aspirations for their children and that those children could not be expected to attain the goals their parents had set for them. From then till now, the schooling system has consistently failed that section of the population and black parents have had the experience of having their parental values and parenting practices undermined by the society.
As a consequence, each succeeding generation of black school leavers have found themselves surplus to the requirements of the labour market and have been stigmatised as the section of the population causing the state and the police the most problems. Each succeeding generation, they are made the scapegoats during every economic downturn or when the government in power feels the need to gain favour with the electorate.
Such was the process by which young black people came to have the profile that has defined them from one generation to the next:
– most underachieving in the schooling system
– most excluded from school
– most unemployed and for the longest periods upon leaving school
– most stopped and searched by the police
– over represented in young offender institutions and prisons
– victims of market-driven, planned obsolescence, always surplus to requirements and therefore dispensable
You see, Prime Minister, in the absence of such considerations and with your obsession with parental responsibilities and with absent fathers in particular, you rather leave the nation with the impression that the civil unrest and the pock marks on the landscape of London and other cities which it has caused have their origin in the assumed dysfunctional nature of the African-Caribbean community, pure and simple. Subliminally, at least, in your and Ian Duncan Smith’s preoccupation with ‘absent fathers’ and ‘role models’ for black young men, there are undertones of endemic ‘moral collapse’ within that community itself which, by your logic, is somehow infesting the nation as a whole. There is therefore a short step from that to the conclusion that the malaise within the society and the ‘breakage’ which you think is evidenced by the civil unrest is attributable, principally, to African Caribbean families and their ‘out of control’ young people.
You do not take care to emphasise, for example, that ninety-five per cent of black young people have no involvement whatsoever in ‘gangs’, street culture, serious youth violence or anything that brings them to the attention of the police, albeit they are routinely stopped and searched as if they were so involved.
I would respectfully suggest that the nation is steeped to its very core in moral turpitude, beginning at the very top, i.e., with those who make (and break) our laws and whose task it is to put systems in place to safeguard the weak and defenceless, children and minors for example, according to the international human rights standards to which this nation subscribes.
But just in case you conclude that I am pointing the finger in every direction other than towards the African heritage community itself, given the incidents on August 4th that triggered the start of the civil unrest in Tottenham, let me assure you that following consultation with a large number of community organisations in London and elsewhere, I submitted to Home Secretary, Theresa May, on July 4th a proposal for a ‘People’s Inquiry into Gun- and Knife-enabled Killings in the African Community’.
The following extract is from the Executive Summary of the proposal. The full proposal and my covering letter to the Home Secretary are attached:
Last Friday, 1st July 2011, Yemurai Kanyangarara, from Belvedere, died after being stabbed in the neck as he got off the number 96 bus in Upper Wickham Lane in Welling. He was 16 and had just completed his GCSEs.
Detective Chief Inspector Mark Dunne described the killing as an act of ‘sheer brutality against a defenceless schoolboy’, adding that the murder carried out in broad daylight on a busy street was ‘as bad as it gets’….. ‘It’s as bad as it gets. It’s among the very worst I have investigated in 25 years, the sheer brutality against a defenceless schoolboy’. (BBC News)
Yemurai was the eighth teenager to be murdered in the capital since January.
On Friday 20 May, the South London Press reported that Lambeth Police put into operation Section 60 Stop and Search powers in response to the fatal stabbing of 15 year old Temidayo Ogunneye in Camberwell the week before.
Section 60 empowers the police to stop and search anybody without giving a reason or without having ‘reasonable suspicion’ of their involvement in unlawful acts. Lambeth Police were allegedly concerned about reports that young men armed with guns were driving around intent on revenge for Temidayo’s murder.
Since the beginning of the 1990s, gun and knife crime often associated with so-called ‘gangs’ has ravaged the African community in Britain’s inner cities. In the 1990s, it earned Manchester the moniker ‘Gunchester’.
The lives of hundreds of parents, siblings, families and friends have been wrecked by murders that have traumatised a whole generation in cities across the nation, including London, Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool.
In Lambeth alone there have been fifteen (15) such murders since the beginning of April 2010, including 5 since 1st April 2011.
Over 95% of the nation’s youths who are of African descent have no known involvement in activities or groups associated with gun- and knife-enabled crime. The 3% to 5% who have are in daily danger of becoming either perpetrators or victims, whether in London, Greater Manchester, the West Midlands or Avon & Somerset. While it is the case that since Operation Trident was established in Lambeth and Brent in March 1998, black communities have been cooperating much more with the police in London and elsewhere in the country where special units similar to Trident have been established, ‘Stop & Search’ remains a vexing issue for the majority of black young people who feel unjustly targeted because of the illegal activities of a small but dangerous minority of their peers.
We desperately need to create spaces and opportunities for our young people to engage with one another in neutral ‘territory’ and, with the aid of capable and experienced men and women in our communities who have listening, mediation and conflict resolution skills, encourage a dialogue about the matters that preoccupy them and for which they are prepared to kill and to die. Unlike what was argued at the meeting convened by Councillor Rachel Heywood in Lambeth recently, I DO NOT BELIEVE this is all to do with turf wars about drugs. This is far too simplistic and grossly inaccurate an analysis. While that may have been the case at the point at which Operation Trident was set up, it is no longer the main cause of gun- and knife-enabled crime in London or anywhere else.
Much more worrying is the fact that those involved in using guns and knives are getting younger and younger, as compared to a decade ago.
Trouble is that there are too many meetings/forums where concerned adults are talking about young people, often in an undifferentiated and non-nuanced way, and too few where young people are engaging meaningfully with one another, including:
- those with gripes and grievances
- those seeking to control and dominate
- those who are deeply disturbed and angry with the world
- those who have suffered loss and seeking revenge
- those who are angry because their siblings have been sent down for ‘Joint Enterprise’ although they were nowhere near the scene of the killing and were not aware that their peers would ‘take things that far’
- those (boys and girls, young and older) who are fearful and anxious because of what their siblings are up to or are known to have done
- those with knowledge of terrible deeds but who have nowhere to offload that burdensome information
- those who live in fear because they are known to be in possession of that burdensome information
- those who are still traumatised by the loss of loved ones and friends but have had no counselling or support in dealing with their loss and in healing
- those who go into schools with those feelings and are labelled and excluded rather than understood and supported
- those who know that their parents are grieving over what is happening to young people in our communities but are unaware that they, their sons and daughters are actively caught up in it
- those who are reluctant to engage with projects/initiatives in their local community because they see those as being too closely associated with the Police or as dependent on Police funding…..
- …. the list goes on…. and on.
Where are young people having meaningful exchanges about those matters and working out strategies for dealing with them? Whom can they trust to come clean about those issues to? Where can they go to for confidential counselling and not feel that a death sentence hangs over them because of the “don’t snitch” code and the fear that if they reveal what they know, those in whom they are confiding would feel they have to go to the police?
What makes people believe that you can abolish youth and community work with young people and with it the opportunity for young people to build trusting relationships with significant adults over time and have those adults guide and influence the choices they make about ways of handling their affairs, and then out of panic open up a few facilities in the Summer and expect young people to come and engage meaningfully?
Who is dealing with those schools that, rather than supporting young people who bring their fears, their anxieties, their anger and their grief to school and act inappropriately as a result, exclude if not criminalise them on the grounds that their behaviour is mirroring ‘gang culture’ and the culture of ‘street violence’ which ‘we simply will not tolerate in our school’?
It is for all of those reasons that I am calling for a ‘PEOPLE’S Inquiry’.
I have not received a response or any form of acknowledgement from the Home Secretary.
Exactly four weeks after I sent her the proposal, however, Mark Duggan was shot in precisely one of those police ‘Stop and Search’ operations I pointed to in the proposal.
It would appear that a firearm was found in the car in which Mr Duggan was travelling. No evidence has yet emerged from the Independent Police Complaints Commission as to whether the police had established the purpose for which the gun was being transported in that car before Mr Duggan was shot and killed.
Be that as it may, I believe that there is now even more need for the ‘People’s Inquiry’ I have proposed for the following reasons:
You are now adding Bill Bratton to the mix, without any evaluation of the various measures that police forces around the country, including the Metropolitan Police, have been taking with communities in a joint effort to stop the killings and stem the recruitment of young people to peer groups with negative outlook or to ‘gangs’ committed to violence.
Communities need to examine the implications of that for our children and for the work already being undertaken.
So, Prime Minister, whatever inquiry or series of studies you may commission in keeping with your agenda in response to the civil unrest, I would urge you to fund a ‘People’s Inquiry’ such as I propose and facilitate the African heritage community that has borne and continues to bear the brunt of the systemic betrayal of generations of our children to look at ourselves and at our ways of helping our children deal less destructively with the condition of being young, black and forever ‘ethnic minority’ on the margins of this society.
This comprehensive response to your and your government’s interventions following the civil unrest is necessarily long. I would urge you to give serious consideration to every aspect of it, however, and make a timely response.
Professor Gus John
If you would like to download this letter in pdf format, please click here.