Laurie Penny: Brute threats are no remedy for despair

For the young and the poor there are few ways to claw back status from society

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It's official: the riots of 2011 had more to do with poverty and social exclusion than gangs. Government figures show that only 13 per cent of those arrested in the disorder were identified as gang members, but almost half were in receipt of free school meals, more than a third had been excluded from school in the previous year, and most came from deprived backgrounds. Nonetheless, the terms "criminality" and "gang culture" are still being frantically batted about, as if both were synonymous with "absolutely nothing at all to do with the economy".

Gang culture itself is hardly exempt from political context. The initial disorder in Tottenham was a response to the shooting of Mark Duggan by armed police involved in Operation Trident. Whether or not Mr Duggan was a member of the local Star Gang, he was also a father, a family man and a member of a community in which poverty and police harrassment have been a feature of everyday life for decades, particularly for young black men. It is in such communities that street gangs tend to emerge.

For the young and the poor, there are few ways to claw back crumbs of status from a society that shuts you out, and joining a gang is one of them. Many members of the British establishment prefer to see gang culture as operating in a political vacuum, a savage "otherwhere" with its own rules and its own criminal economy, not only operating outside the law, but now looting and robbing members of the public to pay for its members' extravagant lifestyles. By a curious coincidence, the young people rampaging through the streets of London, Manchester and other major cities in August tended, when anyone actually bothered to ask them, to speak of the political class in precisely the same way.

The difference is that plundering the public purse only gets you jailtime in the most exceptional circumstances. Meanwhile, those even tangentially involved in the civil unrest that swept Britain's poorest communities this summer – for, make no mistake, civil unrest is precisely what it was – have recently had sentences upheld that are, in many cases, more than twice the normal length, for offences as heinous as handling stolen groceries.

Cracking down on gangs offers no solution to a nation whose inner cities are seething with discontent and despair. As peaceful protesters and wanton rioters alike are given deterrent sentences and threatened with the use of rubber bulletts and water cannon should they dare to come out on the streets again, it seems that brute threats are the only answer the British Government has to the civil unrest that has miraculously materialised in the wake of the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in recent history. For David Cameron, dismissing the events of August as "criminality pure and simple" may yet prove a grave error.

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