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Archbishop's statement on UK riots

Thursday 11th August 2011

“Like everyone else, I am shocked and appalled by the behaviour of individuals this week who simply have no care and respect for other people. We need to send a message to those who rioted and looted, committed crimes of arson, burglary, theft and violent acts against people and property; that not only was their behaviour mindless and destructive, but has a massive human cost. These vile and evil acts can never be justified.

We cannot simply measure the damage in pounds and pence. It is not just about the rebuilding of shops and homes set on fire. It is not about the cost of repairing windows and walls. It is about the communities that have been torn apart by a selfish underclass that has little respect for hard work and decency. An underclass laid bare in the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and the Damilola Taylor Murder Review reports.

To this end, I want to raise two areas of great importance.

First, the difficulties experienced by the police in controlling the riots:-

If the police cannot do it, vigilante groups will.   Nature abhors a power-vacuum.   For the sake of responsible civil order, the police must be equipped and enabled to keep the peace, which is the first responsibility of government – prior to anything else it may properly undertake.   The broader question of the resourcing of the police should not be too glibly tied up with current plans for cuts in public expenditure, but the public does need to be reassured that first things are coming first, and that police resources are not subject to some false principle of equal sharing of burdens among governmental departments.   

An under-resourced police will be a brutal and insensitive police, because it will always be forced to cut corners to get things done.   The attempt to control the police by tying their operations up in excessively restrictive regulations has similar implications.   The freedom of the police is often looked on jealously by those who are protective of civil liberties.   As a matter of fact in our society the major threats to liberty do not come from that source, and we do nothing to protect liberties by hampering the police, but only undermine liberties.   We can protect them by ensuring that the police can exercise discretion within a sensible framework, and have time and attention for the concerns of their communities.   We also protect them by investigating complaints against the police thoroughly and conscientiously.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission, which was a key recommendation of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, needs to be more nimble, transparent and paid by results.

 Secondly, there is the question of the motivation of the young people involved in the riots:-

 It would be foolish to shoot off quick-fire opinions on what brought them onto the streets. We must understand what is going on, which is not the same as condoning what has gone on. It is very easy to ‘understand a little less and condemn a little more’. This will not deliver a safer future on our streets.

There is, however, to all appearances a strong peer-bonding element in the activities fostered by the gang-culture, and resort to this style of bonding suggests a significant educational deficit.   Major questions may be asked about whether schools – especially schools that have been increasingly measured (and not wrongly) in terms of academic attainments – can provide sufficiently for the educational needs of teenagers of more limited academic accomplishments.   Good parenting is, of course, important.   But the tendency to remember parenting only when something goes wrong is not helpful, and there are social pressures which make parental control extremely difficult even with younger children.   And adolescents are naturally seeking independence from the parent and an opportunity to develop a peer-identity.   Where there are no safe structures for this, unsafe ones will take over.   

Sadly, we have created an individualistic, disposable society, with weakened family and community structures, where the interests of me, myself and I have become paramount. In many ways, we have made a god of self and self-interest.

Let us stand together at this difficult time and seek the goodness in each other to help us rebuild our great nation for whatever challenges we may face tomorrow, following the good example of the thousands of young people who turned up yesterday, via Twitter, to clean the streets of Manchester.

As Rabbi Abraham Heschel said:

 “We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society, all are involved in what some are doing.   Some are guilty, all are responsible[1]


 [1] [1] Abraham Heschel, Vietnam: Crisis of Conscience, New York 1967; also in Pacifism and the Jews by Evelyn Wilcock, Hawthorn Press, 1994, p.169

 The Archbishop also spoke in the House of Lords today on UK Riots. His comments are available here.

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