Grand schemes do not quell riots

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It goes as if pre-scripted. In an inner-city neighbourhood, a youth suspected of a crime dies, or is mistreated, while in police custody. Masked youths take over the streets, burning and looting. And equally predictably the headlines ask the question: where did it all go wrong?

Received wisdom in dealing with urban unrest has been that riots can be stopped by throwing money at regeneration schemes. Since the unrest in the 1980s the Brixton area has received grants of pounds 100m. Some people have set up businesses, some have done well. Middle-class people have moved into the area, attracted by the tangible signs of investment and growth. All the signs of gentrification are seen in the streets of Brixton - yet 10 years after the last street violence, riots erupt again.

The uncomfortable message for the police and the politicians is that programmes for the inner cities, however well resourced, cannot afford to ignore or play down the difficulties caused by the nihilistic youths who are unemployed, marginalised and involved in crime.

Despite all the money spent on urban regeneration, three out of four of ethnic minority men aged 18 to 25 in London are unemployed. One third of young urban males have criminal records. There is a strong association between crime and being male, young and from the inner city - and this group is also the most likely to become victims of crime.

Race undoubtedly plays a part in the alienation of these young men, making areas like Brixton and Tottenham more vulnerable to the cycle of recurrent riot. Unlike other immigrant groups, Afro-Carribbean men have not shown the same tendency to be socially, economically and geographically mobile - once in an inner-city area they have stayed there and their problems have multiplied. Racism is one reason for this - it can be hard for black people to assimilate into white areas, there are also cultural reasons for the failure to pass on wealth through black families in the way that, say, Asian families often successfully do. The exception to this are young black women who often prove very successful in using education to remove themselves from the inner cities. As they emerge from poverty and reap the rewards of employment, their male counterparts are ever-more jealous and despairing.

Racism - whether perceived or actual - in the police also exacerbates the tensions in an area such as Brixton. When many young black men are involved in crime, and the vast majority of policemen are white, then distrust between the police and ethnic minorities is inevitable. No matter how much effort is put into community policing, it will always be undermined by everyday policing, especially when the police have not been successful at eradicating their own long-established culture of racism.

In my own study of a high-crime neighbourhood a picture emerged of a group of alienated young men under pressure to survive by making a name for themselves and winning respect on the streets. In such a world a boy has to undergo a process of premature toughening. His first priority is not how to get on at school or learn to live in the family but to learn how to negotiate the unstable society of his peers. Among the young men I met were a small minority referred to by their peers as "evil people", persistent offenders at the centre of whatever trouble occurred. Many people in inner-city communities blame the courts for showing misplaced leniency to these men, and for not putting them in prison.

Even the law-abiding in these communities can become sceptical about regeneration. Some even suspect the motive behind regeneration schemes: Are black people being set up to fail? they ask. This general cynicism may help to explain why symbols of these "inner-city initiatives" are often the targets of recurrent trouble. The pattern is not confined to Britain. In October 1990 the high-rise suburb of Vaux-en-velins in Lyons, which has a predominantly ethnic minority population, was engulfed in bloody clashes between police and local youth and the gleaming new community sports centre was attacked. In April 1992, following widespread anger over the Rodney King affair, a group of youths burnt down the Watts LA shopping mall and other products of 20 years of community development.

Is there an as-yet undiscovered blueprint for urban regeneration, or would existing schemes work better if more cash was made available over a longer period? Some believe that the best way to combat drugs and crime is through encouraging individual self-help. And then there are those, not all cynics, who have concluded that nothing works and that all of the ineffective attempts at constructive solutions have proved that youths who are heavily involved in crime and too intent on ruining their futures are too hopelessly misdirected to be reached.

Many inner city youths retain a kind of incurable optimism, that the good times will be just around the corner. It's an attitude that can lead them to crime, as an easy way of making money, or to the instant pleasures of hard drugs. But some turn their lives round. One young man I met, Jerry, was constantly in trouble with the law, and was banned from his school. He foresaw a criminal future for himself. Instead, he attended a job training programme run by a voluntary agency and obtained a business set-up grant from the Prince's Youth Business Trust. Today he runs a successful electric repair business. Jerry explains that his transformation took place because he decided to make something of himself instead of becoming a crime statistic. Of course such young people may fail, but in the meantime work rather than crime becomes the main structure in their lives. When the politicians, from all parties, sit down to learn the lessons of Brixton 1995, they should consider stories like Jerry's before launching yet another grandiose regeneration initiative.

The writer is the author of Tarnished Vision: crime and conflict in the inner city, OUP 1992, price pounds 19.95.