What Does a Rioter Look Like?

On the night of Tuesday 9th August Manchester became the latest city in the country to be affected by rioting. That night around 2000 people went through the city breaking windows and looting shops all over the city centre. It is estimated that the bill for the policing these troubles, and cleaning up after them will cost more that £10 million pounds. So what does a rioter look like? What prompts somebody to go out onto the streets of their city and cause so much damage and destruction?

Let’s take one young person who I’ll call Mahamed for the purposes of privacy.

Mahamed is a young person who had just turned 19 on the day of the riots. To give a little background to his life. He lives in an inner-city neighbourhood just outside the citycentre. The neighbourhood he has grown up in is one of the most disadvantaged in the UK. It is a place where just under 8% of working age adults are out of work. Where around 70% of the young people who took GCSEs in the 2009 did not achieve 5, A-C grades. 19% of local residents are not in good health compared to the national average of 7%. It is a neighbourhood where levels of gang activity and youth crime have traditionally been high, especially for young people from BME communities.

Mahamed is a member of a large family with six siblings. His parents do not speak English as a first language and Mahamed has spent much time as a young person supporting them to develop their own communication skills. Mahamed is an independent young person who has, without much support, always pushed himself to participate and achieve. He has been an active member of local arts groups including theatre and music groups. He passed his GCSEs and had recently passed two A-Levels in computer sciences and was hoping to go on to university. Mahamed has never been in trouble with the police and has no criminal record.

On the early evening of the 9th August Mahamed was at home. He began getting messages from his friends that things were “kicking off” in town. That he should go down and have a look. Mahamed is like lots of other young people. He likes a bit of excitement. Likes to get involved when things are going on. However, at this time he resisted the temptation to go and have a look what was going on.

As the night developed he got more and more Blackberry messages from his friends saying things were really going on now. That he should go down and have a look. That you could get stuff in town for free. Things that you’d always wanted but never been able to afford. Now things got more tempting for Mahamed. And it couldn’t do any harm to just go and have a look could it? So Mahamed put on his jacket and walked the short walk from his home into the city centre, meeting some more of his mates on the way.

They didn’t have to get far into town to get a feel for what was going on. They only had to get past the university on the edge of the city centre to get a feel of the chaos. People running all over the place. Police desperately trying to keep things under control. Mahamed and his mates had never seen anything like this before. It felt strange to see town like this but it also felt exhilarating. Exciting. It felt amazing to be in control and the adrenalin of the moment was difficult to resist.

They headed further into town. All around them things were kicking off. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Shop windows were broken and people of all ages were just going inside and helping themselves to whatever they wanted. Trainers, jeans, alcohol… Whatever people wanted they were taking it. Just like that. And that was the moment that Mahamed made a mistake. If he’d just gone into town to have a look he’d probably have been fine but as he saw everyone else taking things he figured it would be fine for him to take things too. He saw the broken window of an electrical equipment supplier. People were running in and out of the shop taking things and it seemed too easy. Too much of an opportunity to miss. He stepped inside like everyone else and picked up a £200 video camera. He looked at it for a moment then the decision was made. He turned round and walked out of the shop with the camera in his hand.

Mahamed was unlucky though because as he came out of the shop he got stopped by the police and arrested. Not unsurprising as he had clearly done something that was against the law. He was taken into custody. His first experience of the criminal justice system.

To deal with the number of people who were being arrested the courts ran twenty-four hours a day over the following days. Mahamed was taken to court where he was charged with burglary – a charge to which he pleaded guilty. Despite the fact that he had no previous criminal convictions he was refused bail and remanded in custody. He remained in custody until last week when he stood in front of the crown court. It was there that he was sentenced to 19 months.

Mahamed was supposed to be going to university in September. Instead he will be serving a custodial sentence in a young offenders institution.

Mahamed is scared. 19 months seems like a life time when you’re his age. 19 months is much longer than many adults with significant criminal records were given for their part in these riots. The judge himself said it was “a tragedy” to have to sentence a young person like Mahamed to such a long sentence for such an uncharacteristic misdemeanor. However, despite this “tragedy” he did not act upon his own discretion to sentence Mahamed in a way that reflected his previous upstanding behaviour. Or in a way that was reflective of the scale of the crime that he had been involved in. Examples of other similar length sentences to Mahamed include:

  • An 18 month suspended sentence for a 22-year-old convicted with death by dangerous driving.
  • MP David Chaytor was sentenced to 18 months for theft of over £22,000 in false expenses claims.
  • A trio in Bristol each sentenced to 18 months for carrying out three vicious racist attacks on shop staff in the Bedminster and Southmead areas of the city.

So that’s what a rioter looks like. A slightly naive young person who will spend the next year and a half in prison as a result of one moment of stupidity. Who has pushed himself to do well in difficult circumstances throughout his life, behaviour which he has been given no credit for on this occasion. And what next for him? If he’s lucky he will manage to hold himself together through this experience. He will manage to pick himself back up and find a way back into the education system. Find a way to continue doing as well as he could as he had been doing prior to this. If he isn’t so lucky he will use his time in the custody to become friends with persistent criminals who he had previously managed to steer clear of in his life in Manchester. He will come out of custody at the end of his sentence and find it difficult to settle into his the life that he had been living before. He will become one of the 71% of young-offenders who will go on to re-offend within twelve months of release. After ending his sentence he will become one of the 50% of people on probation who are unable to find a job. After probation he will become one of the people who is rejected from 50% of jobs he applies for because he has got a criminal record.

It is noted by the Howard League for Penal Reform in their 2006 report on young offenders in the custodial criminal justice system that:

“Imprisoning young men at this critical stage in their lives can have a massively detrimental effect upon their development and their future life chances. Alternatives to custody should be sought in all possible cases.”

It is possible that Mahamed will be lucky and will be able to find the strength to break free from this. To not become part of this statistic. However, if he doesn’t he will likely become just another statistic as a young person who falls into the vicious circle of repeat offending and repeated custodial sentences. Seems an unreasonably high price to pay for a single, out of character moment of stupidity. Both for Mahamed on personal level but also for the society we all live in on an economic and social level, because ultimately this kind of behaviour and the subsequent response to it reflects upon us all.

So, that’s what a rioter looks like. And what will this rioter go on to look like in the future? Who knows… But good luck Mahamed. Now you’re really going to need it.

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