I cannot pretend to know what it's really like to be young in the cities of England ( because most of those rioters were young ); to feel that intense pressure to join a gang, to be part of its close network, its comradeship and to feel the pull of violence and criminality, so the mean streets of Hackney resembled those of L.A.
The part played by gangs in the riots may have been important, but it was also an abandonment of their traditional roles, which suggests the leaders weren't in control. As one commentator said - ' If you're operating a large drugs syndicate, the last thing you want is the place crawling with police.' Gangs left their territories and forgot allegiances for once, with a common purpose of crime always manifest. Though many of those prosecuted were individuals caught up in the mayhem.
When I first began teaching in Merthyr in one of the most deprived areas in Europe over 30 years ago, there was an outbreak of gang warfare on the yards. It was very vicious as they were vying for control; 'boyz' out to prove who was hardest.
It was no accident that this was also the most oppressive and violent era in education I've experienced, with the cane used regularly and almost every teacher using some form of physical punishment. One serial offender once told me he'd prefer the cane to detention any day : it was over much more quickly. This lad went though school being punished and emerged to spend a lot of time in Her Majesty's institutions ( and I don't mean the armed forces!).
Violence bred violence and, as the system improved markedly to favour the pupils, the influences of gangs waned. They were replaced by individual criminalised families and others who warranted a undue influence by being 'rock 'ard'. However, generally school created an alternative atmosphere to the destructive forces of the estate and sometimes, the home.
For many, it was very difficult though. With parents who didn't care or single mothers constantly struggling to survive, many couldn't be changed by the school's 'other world'. These weren't always pupils without academic ability. I recall one girl ( who I wrote about in 'Sara's Story' in the book 'Child of Dust') who was extremely bright. She would invariably volunteer to read in class and was a vocal and articulate presence at all times. She was highly creative and her poems and stories were a revelation.
One day I found her writing a letter in class. I asked her who it was to and she told me her boyfriend in jail. I found out later he was a drug addict and well-known pusher.
After that I noticed an alarming deterioration in her personality : from an outgoing, lively character, she became sullen and withdrawn. Soon, she dropped out of Year 10 completely and I learnt that not only had she been taking hard drugs, but she'd become pregnant as well. The sense of waste and missed opportunities was tragic, yet she tried in vain to finish her English coursework from home.
How to break this feeling of rejection by family and society isn't easy to solve, of course. Job opportunities and an education system which values everybody and fails none are fundamental.
Moreover, education can do a lot more to find and encourage pupils' talents. Many disaffected pupils are also the ones who can express themselves very well through poetry and music and they aren't given enough chances to do so, with music not inclusive enough and poetry-writing marginalised.
To encourage a sense of belonging, local history must be the foundation-stone of the History syllabus. It should involve both individual and group research into family and place. This is certainly an area which has declined in recent years and the Welsh Bacc. could play a significant role in reviving it.
More vital is that youth clubs should be run which actually empower young people. It's interesting to note that in the weeks preceding the riot at Tottenham, 8 out of 13 youth clubs in Haringey had their funding cut. These clubs should have direct links to the Councils, so youngsters can make their voices heard and, above all, see that their proposals are taken on board and executed. Even more importantly, young people should have opportunities to carry out changes to their environment, helping to design murals and skate-parks and , indeed, construct them.
All these require investment and trust. Some are already happening with regeneration programmes, yet need to be co-ordinated so they are seen as levels of true democracy and participation and not just another 'scheme from above'.
The following poem is set in a rough, tough estate in the Valleys, but it could be a lot of places where trainers mark out a gang's territory. Poetry and artwork, rap and song : the children of such areas have so much to offer and we must not let them down.
Two Trainers Tied
Two trainers tied to telephone wire,
flick-tongued tightrope walkers
left them behind ; the gangland sign
declaring – ‘ Do not enter!
This terrortree is owers!’
Two trainers are like trophies
of animal ears always listening
to the conversations complaining
that somebody has fallen far
down to the white lines.
Two trainers marking a no-go area :
if you’re the wrong person
at the wrong time you’ll be dangled
like a puppet, then strings broken,
your limbs found in the gutter.
Two trainers like flags of the poor
hoisted from shoulder upon shoulder,
a ladder of bodies aspiring upwards ;
emptiness steps and stops mid-air,
along the wire waves of fear.