Who'd have thought it? Criminals don't like the police. But that doesn't make rioters social victims

Any research that takes a closer look at the deeper causes of the UK riots should be welcomed. It is just a shame that in the case of the Guardian and LSE report, it simply appears to be making excuses

Don't you just feel sorry for them? No?
James Hargrave
On 8 December 2011 10:58

After working for eighteen months in two London prisons I am afraid I cannot recall many occasions where the prisoner blamed themselves for their criminal behaviour – in fact as I recall it they either didn’t do it or it was someone else’s fault.

Nonetheless I am passionate about prison reform and have an open mind about addressing offending behaviour. However, even I was left red in the face after having read the Guardians and LSE’s Reading the Riots report, and I had an even higher blood pressure by 11pm thanks to the Newsnight feature on their findings.

To find that many of the rioters interviewed had laid the blame at the feet of police officers should not have come as a surprise – but the credence it seemed to be receiving should. Even in spite of its apologist tone I was left unsure of what reaction it expected to provoke. Was I supposed to empathise with one rioter’s (Alex) wistful nostalgia for the drug and alcohol fuelled camaraderie he experienced? “People were handing me cans – handing me a spliff” - he described it as if it was Glastonbury as opposed to a festival of violence.

I am no stranger to criminals trying to rationalise away their behaviour but you are supposed to challenge them on it – not humour it.

The police obviously experienced significant problems in responding to the riots and there are also significant issues that need to be addressed on their relationship with the communities they police. But if the Guardian thinks it can rewrite the discourse by presenting the rioters as some kind of social victims they can think again.

I obviously accept there were substantial social factors at play in governing their behaviour and there are no simple answers; but I was astounded by some of the report’s testimonial choices. Forgive me for questioning another rioter’s (Daniel) motivations – regardless of how articulately he put them.

He cites his desire for “revenge” as disenfranchisement due to cuts in EMA, benefits and a rise in university tuition fees. Yet he does so in the same breath as claiming he had to fly home from his holidays to take part in the rioting (I hope he at least got some holiday snaps and a nice tan before his return). Hardly the voice of a working class hero.

Over two thirds of the rioters brought to justice had criminal records – that’s only those who have been caught before. Experience would suggest to me that a substantial amount of the other third would be no strangers to the police either.

Although I was angered by some of the case studies, others simply depressed me. One has to accept that any of the rioters who put themselves forward as part of a Guardian research study must have had some level of social awareness.

Jade – a particularly articulate rioter who has aspirations of teaching primary school children – certainly made some comments worthy of dismay. She claimed that the police had no respect for her or her family (even though she acknowledges that her brothers had some history with local police) and therefore why should she respect them. Jade in fact believed burning police cars was a way of earning that respect. It is truly awful that a young aspiring woman even thinks in those terms.

I will continue to believe that a reformative justice system is a crucial cog in the machine of social change – but a panacea it is not. Our criminal justice system is not the cause of the summer riots it is merely what treats the symptoms. The damage is clearly much deeper than that.

I obviously welcome any research that that takes a closer look at those deeper causes. It is just a shame that in this instance it appears to be making excuses. Until then I look forward to the Guardian’s next enlightening piece of research – Turkeys and their dislike of Christmas.

James Hargrave formerly worked as an executive assistant to the governor for learning and skills of HMRPLatchmere House and HMP Wormwood Scrubs. He then moved into a role as a case worker, working with the prison charity PLIAS and the training provider Prospects. He now works as a press officer for the police. He writes here in a personal capacity

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