Friday, 12 August 2011

We Need To Listen

By Lola Okolosie

In the spirit of Charmaine’s post, what I have written below is not in support of looting but is my way to try to understand…

I had been ill with an agonising abscess at the root of one of my molars throughout the whole London/UK rioting; it meant that I wasn’t able to talk, or in anyway feeling inclined to socialise. For those five days, I was a near mute listening/reading any news about unfolding events. I mention the fact because I think it provides an apt metaphor for both what has happened in the last week and what should follow in the coming weeks, months and possibly years.

The riots are about Britain’s deeply unequal society, pure and simple. Be it a discussion about poor parenting (often linked to poverty, yet successful schemes like Sure Start, providing excellent early years parenting support and advice, now face sharp cuts to funding under this coalition government); poor education (again, often linked to inadequately resourced schools in areas of deprivation, yet Education Secretary, Michael Gove’s Schools White Paper clearly delineates the ways in which the coalition are attempting, as they did with the NHS, to create a market system in schools leading to the increased ghettoisation of many primary and secondary institutions across the country); or a poor moral outlook, we inevitably return to inequality. Indeed, it is evident that one set of ‘bad morals’ are worse than others if the sentencing of MPs who fiddled their expenses in comparison to looting rioters is anything to go by. Compare the sentence given to former Labour MP, Jim Divine, who received a 16-month custodial sentence for ‘looting’ £8,385 from public funds to that given to 21-year-old student, Nicolas Robinson, for stealing a £3.50 bottle of water- 6 months. Both men were defendants who, prior to their sentences, had no criminal records. The inequality in their punishment speaks for itself.

These riots demonstrate the ways in which, forgive me if it seems trite, the abscess of inequality has come to announce its painful presence to a society which is largely ignorant of what the word means for millions who live on the breadline. The appalling Commons debate on Thursday in which seemingly intelligent politicians tabled proposals around the curtailment of benefits for rioters, demonstrates that this country is categorically unwilling to have a discussion about inequality and its impact on social cohesion. Rather than do as I did with my abscess, stop and listen, our nation is caught in the grip of wanting to fight fire with fire. The mindlessness of the violence and looting we witnessed screams that we need to LISTEN. The sheer fact that a clearly evident anger and frustration at the system, by a largely poor and disenfranchised conglomeration of individuals, was articulated in this most inarticulate of modes, begs us, that’s right, the British public, to seek to interpret, enumerate and analyse these gabbled messages.

Yet that is not what is happening. I am as sickened and saddened by this fact in much the same way as I was by some of the footage of people wrecking their own neighbourhoods.

True to form the British public is looking for a scapegoat and true to form it appears in the visage of that age-old bogeyman, the young black boy/man. Forget the fact that this is an individual who, by virtue of being himself, young, black, invariably poor and male, places him at the bottom rung of society’s ladder (see statistics on educational attainment, employment, life expectancy, mental health, prisons below). On Thursday, when news first emerged that police had shot and killed Mark Duggan, the pictures circulated on TV and newspapers, the erroneous detail (from the Daily Mail) that he had shot a bullet lodged in a police vehicle attempted to frame him in the very same light: violent young black man corrupting social order.

I won’t even begin to mention how the looters and rioters were NOT a homogenous group but instead a reflection of the melting pot deprived communities of London; young, old, white, Asian, black, male, female, you get the idea! Once again, young black men are now, despite being one of the most disempowered of individuals being bandied about as the real scabs of British society. The real problem in Britain is not the bankers who have taken £3 trillion of British taxpayers money to continue their selfish acquisition of wealth, which they will distribute amongst an infinitesimal proportion of the population, no. It is not politicians who have, through MPs expenses and the News International scandals, shown time and again that they are a group of individuals with vested interests who will only argue the public’s corner when it is expedient to do so, no. It is not the police and media, named and shamed as having been engaged in a corrupt and criminal collaborations over phone hacking, no. It is those at the very bottom of society with no constructive means or avenues to articulate their position. Maybe my metaphor of an abscess is inadequate; they work from the bottom up…

The Stats

“The lowest levels of GCSE attainment were among Black Caribbean pupils, particularly boys. Only 27 per cent of Black Caribbean boy achieved five or more A*-C grade GCSEs…The permanent exclusion rates for pupils from the Other Black, Black Caribbean and Mixed White and Black Caribbean groups were 42 pupils per 10,000, 41 per 10,000 and 37 per 10,000 respectively. These were up to three times the rate for White pupils.” – Office of National Statistics

“Studies show up to 7 times higher rates of new diagnosis of psychosis among Black Caribbean people than among the White British.” – Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

London-wide, life expectancy is currently 75.7 for males and 80.7 for females, compared with 76 and 80.6 for England as a whole. But for males born in the boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark, Lewisham, Greenwich, Camden, Islington, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham, and Waltham Forest—all of which have significant ethnic minority populations—life expectancy is one year less than the average.”- British Medical Journal

“Infant mortality in seven London boroughs with a high ethnic minority population is 7 or more per 1000 live births, considerably higher than the average of 5.4 for England and Wales. “ – British Medical Journal

“Among men, those from Black Caribbean, Black African, Bangladeshi and Mixed ethnic groups had the highest unemployment rates (between 13 and 14 per cent). These rates were around three times the rates for White British and White Irish men (5 per cent in each case). “- Office of National Statistics

From the Office of National Statistics Black British people make up 2% of the British population, we can thus crudely assume that black men constitute 1% of that group yet they make up 15% of the prison population. Last figure from Transform Drug Policy Foundation

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