Sheldon Thomas: We must nurture a forgotten underclass

The invisible became briefly visible last week. That's our cue to recognise need and potential in young people, and to help them up

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Looters. Criminals. Sick. A Nation in Decline. These are the convenient, slap-on labels that society scrambles for in a crisis. The mass outpouring of anger driven by a desperate need to explain, condemn and return to safety. But there are reasons why hundreds of young people took to the streets, robbing and looting last week. And they force us to ask deeper questions of ourselves.

Unlike others, seeing the violence last week I didn't feel condemnation, I felt a sense of déjà vu. I was propelled back to my younger days as an angry black youth during the Brixton uprisings in the summer of 1981. The seething rage and helplessness of realising that you can no longer slip a cigarette paper between the police and the National Front. Stuck in a quintessentially British rut where Thatcher's reforms were sweeping the country, sinking any prospect of a future in a way not dissimilar to David Cameron's government today. My world was the only one I knew. And it was at that moment I decided I had enough.

I took a dustbin lid and flung it at a police officer's head. I watched the steel fly into his face and took pleasure in the pain it inflicted. That was for all the racist and physical abuse I had endured over the years. Over time, I started my own gang and embarked regularly on scenes similar to last week's, each time getting angrier and piling further misery on myself as well as those around me.

Only after many years spent on remand and in prison, did I realise that things must change. With punishments and time in cells, you find your illusion of power outweighed by the pain you cause yourself and others. You gradually understand that fighting fire with fire invariably means burning your soul. And from the depths you can either sink into a darker, downward spiral of violence – or reform.

I was lucky enough to meet Bernie Grant, one of the few black MPs who could identify with my plight. He broadened my thinking, took me out and taught me the ultimate lesson: if you don't contribute to the vision of a society, you won't ever feel as if society belongs to you. And in the past few years that is what I have seen in today's younger generation.

As a director of a confidential phone line for gang members and their families, I understand their plight. I recognise the desperation in wanting to fight against the hand you have been dealt, while realising that our politicians, institutions and establishment make it near impossible to do so. When I heard that Mark Duggan had been shot dead by police, I was under no illusions about the severity of the moment. In the past two years, Britain has been an ever more volatile tinderbox of deprivation, inequality and unease. All that was needed was a spark. And that spark was lit in Tottenham. And it has ignited a fire across the country.

To understand what is behind it, you have to dig deeper than the headlines. Strip out the copycats of last week's looting. Forget those who were just there for fun, the students who should know better, or the comfortable classes that blindly lost their moral compass and followed. Now look at what you have left. This is the disaffected underclass that our country has forgotten, if indeed they were ever even counted. These are the young people far down the scale, many of whom have grown up in fatherless households with no role models beyond the gang leader or drug pusher. These are the estate kids who are coerced by drug dealers, whose mothers have been submerged into the dark world of alcohol and abuse, who are paying the price for their parents' mistakes.

Then there are those whose presence is so far removed from even the lowest tiers of the working classes that society would prefer it if they simply did not exist. Last week, they reminded you who they are. It is easy to feel anger and disgust at the scenes bouncing on television, but perhaps we must look inwards first. If you ask how we became a society where young people think it's OK to rob and loot, I respond how did we get to a society that cares more about shops and businesses than the lives of young people? When a society is baying for blood because shops have been burnt and looted, I think back to the 20 or so young men who died in gang shootings in deprived neighbourhoods of London in the past few years, with no one batting an eyelid.

For all its ideologies of social justice, the New Labour government never truly addressed the plight of the underclass, opting instead to silence it with benefits. Meanwhile, the bankers blew our cash while our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan led the country further into debt. Then a new government comes in, and starts cutting furiously into some of the most deprived parts of society: charities such as TAG, which help gang members reform, loose funding; the education maintenance allowance is crushed and youth schemes are cut back. Such changes pull the rug away even further. David Cameron says this is all necessary for the country. But for the underclass, who were never part of it anyway, the message is clear: if you want to make it in my society, you have to do it yourself. So they do.

Money is scarce, yet the pressure to fit in intensifies. Anger turns inward, gangs form, and Cameron's call is recognised. Mark Duggan is shot dead, and the tinderbox ignites. "You know what, Mr Cameron?" the subconscious logic reasons. "I am going to do something. I am going to rob a few shops."

Social mobility is virtually impossible. And people don't have to look far to realise that life in 2011 Britain for certain swathes of society will never improve. The Government and communities blame each other, but neither of them looks at, or thinks about, what are we doing to address the problems. But from the darkness of last week we have been given an opportunity: rather than slapping sentences on some of these children, some as young as seven, we need to nurture their sense of identity and make them feel part of ours.

We need to show those who have lived off our radar for too long that they can be let in. That they can appear on TV without being criminals. That trainers and televisions are within their reach, with hard work, and without smashing shops. And that the summer of 2011, painful as it was, has taught everyone a lesson, so that the scenes of last week are the start of something better.

Sheldon Thomas is director of TAG, a mentoring scheme for gang members in east London

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