Disillusion with the political system is seen by the latest ‘community conversation’ as understandable but easy to air and harder to address. But there is evident determination to tackle it
The challenge of re-engaging disillusioned young people kept recurring at last night’s ‘community conversation’ on Manchester’s street violence last August.
Speakers from an audience of 150 or more returned repeatedly to the challenge, debating the extent of alienation, its causes both real and imagined, and the differing effectiveness of official and community attempts to change it.
It was a purposeful meeting at the city’s Friends’ Meeting House but also polite, with an atmosphere encouraging involvement; speakers from the floor included a schoolboy in his early teens who wanted to know if minor crime, such as smashing a bottle, was more seriously punished during the troubles than ordinarily.
Seriously bad relations between disaffected youth and police were repeatedly raised, but Chief Supt Russ Jackson of Greater Manchester police got an interested hearing as he used statistics to question broad-brush claims about a ‘new’ type of previously uninvolved young troublemaker, or dice weighted against ethnic minority participants. Neither stood up to the facts, of whites and people with criminal record forming the large majority of those brought to book.
Engagement was the core; and although another young participant, 14-year-old Monica Williams, described before the meeting how her school organised lessons, many questions were raised about getting the disillusioned a platform. There was derision about young Mancunians being ferried to London for photo-opportunities with leading politicians, including Cabinet ministers, while the challenge of genuinely involving them went unmet.
The Guardian got ticked off too – politely again – for failing to give time to a group of young people from the city who arrived unannounced with a petition calling for positive media coverage.
Ruth Ibegbuna of the youth charity Reclaim agreed that teenage logic wasn’t always easy to follow, and civic engagement could be more of a slogan than genuinely at the top of young people’s wish-lists. But she described the practical challenges – a teenage discussion group priced out of places to meet, which started at £200 for a room for three hours; or the failure of the police to transfer the friendliness of officers’ primary school visits to those at high schools.
Coun Pat Karney, who took refuge in Marks and Sparks during an ugly phase of the trouble, and Mags Casey, who interviewed many Manchester participants and their families, left no doubt about the ‘exciting’ allure of sudden lawlessness, especially to people feeling alienated, suddenly seeing events just down the road on TV and heading off to join in. But there was general agreement that rioting, throughout the UK’s long history, has always indicated genuine grievances and problems which need sorting.
That is the next step in Manchester, where further work is under way on both research and engaging people in the findings so far and the lessons they suggest. A similar community conversation takes place tonight, Wednesday 7 March, in Salford, at St Sebastians Community Centre, 1 Douglas Green 6-8pm. All info on the Reading the Riots study here.