So, we had a rather unexpected visit from Ed M today… The call came through mid afternoon yesterday that he might be coming to town. The call came through rather later saying yes he was coming, and he wanted to meet some local residents to talk about the riots… Despite the short notice and not being able to get hold of people who had left work or were on holiday, my office managed to pull together a remarkable team of people, all of whom had real insights to offer. They met with Ed this morning after he and I had had a private briefing with senior police officers, and, it was obvious, made a real impression on him. TV cameras were there, and journalists, so I expect it will be widely reported, but here are my thoughts on what they had to say.
Firstly, they were really glad he had come to listen to them. We’d deliberately kept it quite a small event so that everyone who wanted to could have a say. Ed said afterwards, on Twitter, that he felt two clear messages had come across – on the importances of values, and the need to offer hope to young people. Although the police had told Ed and me earlier that there was a very broad range of people arrested in connection with the trouble in Bristol (55 as at this morning, but rising), and that it wasn’t one particular age range or ethnic group or from a particular part of the city, the discussion very much focused on young people, possibly because they were the ones about whom the participants felt the most concern and felt the most could be done to help them.
I thought it was interesting that no-one who spoke felt the need to condemn the rioting and looting – not because they were all bleeding heart liberals who think it’s all about understanding the problem and excusing the crime, but because it was taken as a given amongst those there that the rioting was wrong; that they were all decent people who wanted the best for Bristol, and unlike politicians, wary of being misquoted by the Daily Mail, they didn’t need to spell that out.. so there was a refreshing lack of posturing and platitudes.
Two of the participants – one, a 16 year old sixth-forms student called Levi, who had gone into town in the night of last week’s troubles to see what was happening, and had followed all the chatter on BBM, and
the other, Dennis Stinchcombe, who’s been running the Riverside Youth
Project for the past 36 years and has been awarded an MBE and honorary MA
for his work – made the same point, about boredom amongst young people, and the riots being seen as a bit of excitement, a bit of a ‘buzz’. But
it’s more than just plain boredom, it’s about a sense of futility, a feeling they have no future, no prospects, no hope. A nihilism, if you like… John Robb puts it well, here – http://louderthanwar.com/blogs/riot
There was also some discussion about the blame being heaped on single parents (I’d invited the Single Parent Action Network, which is national but has its HQ in Lawrence Hill), and the pressure on parents to work, at the expense of soending time with their family. You’re pilloried whatever you do… We spoke about prison not being the answer (from Dave, who was
chaplain at Ashfield YOI for ten years, and is about as far from the typical notion of a priest as you could get – we had a fascinating,
worrying conversation afterwards about football supporters and the EDL, a topic on which he’s something of an expert). And pleas were made by a several people, including Delroy, a volunteer youth worker, and John Hirst, who manages Broadmead shopping centre, for better provision of youth
facilities. Delroy quite rightly expressed concern about the impending closure of the Mill, in Easton, and John highlighted the good news about the Station (the My Place project at the old fire station in the city centre) which will be an amazing place for young people if it gets
The issue of gangs also came up, not in the meeting but in discussion with the police beforehand and when I was talking to some of the young
people afterwards. Bristol doesn’t have the same entrenched gang culture of some other cities, but there are turf wars between two gangs, the St Paul’s “Bloods” and the Easton “High Street” crew. I didn’t realise till today, but one gang dresses in red, the other in blue… And I was told that if a young person appears in the ‘red’ neighbourhood dressed in blue, “they’d be stabbed…” Frightening stuff. (There are also criminal gangs, of older people, involved in drug-dealing and violence, but that’s more about organised crime rather than street gangs.) I think Ed was particularly struck by talking to Narasser, a young woman who runs an anti gun and knife crime campaign, STOP, and whose two brothers were both
killed in street violence.
To conclude… as Ed said at the meeting, this can’t just be something we all talk about for a week or so before we move into the next topic (phone hacking again, anyone?) I really want to build on what we achieved today, and I think there’s a real determination on Ed’s part to do so too.