Monday, 15 August 2011


Lessons from the London Street

msluluroseLulu Rose (Twitter):

The Youth of the Middle East rise up for basic freedoms.

The Youth of London rise up for HD ready 42" Plasma TV

Were they riots, demonstrations or protests? The thing that hit London and other cities in the UK this week has been a long time coming. It may yet find a name when sociologists and policing theorists get together to define its limits and extensions; when politicians profess themselves satisfied with the results of the inevitable enquiries, the thing will be named like a sudden newborn infant finally brought out of incubation. But this baby-thing is not of sudden birth; we can say the mother looked away despite the signs that a monster was within her body politic.

If we may now drop the torture of metaphor, we can put it like this: in London, as in other cities, groups of young men, intent of bending society to their will have taken over not just the street but the defining agenda for the coming generation. The tactics and motivations and timelines may differ but in essence and effect, what it means is that people’s lives are shaped, often by a small number of people whose instinct has led them to the conclusion that the street is the centre of all struggles. It is simple: however we live our lives, unless we are committed to a reclusive ideal that keeps us ensconced in a monastery we are bound to mix it up in the street – as both metaphor and physical space.

It doesn’t matter whether it is Cairo’s Tahir Square, Accra’s Kwame Nkrumah Circle or Trafalgar Square in London, people know the spaces from where to take effective control of the street. This, after all, is the rationale for holding demonstrations in the street and public spaces, and equally the reason why, especially in dictatorships, the police are commanded never to cede the street to dissidents. In London, the street has been ceded long ago to hooded young men but the authorities and parents pretended not to know.

The thing – when it acquires a name – will become part of the political folklore: that poverty drove these kids to want to break shops and make away with IPAD 2 and the latest mobile phone from the trendiest shop on the high street. Political parties will claim to have learnt lessons and think tanks and academics will write books about why groups of young men broke homes and cars and shops and looted from their own neighbourhoods. In effect society will say it understands why these young men effectively declared war on their own communities.

I keep referring to young men although TV pictures have shown a few young women and girls mixing with their male counterparts especially in the looting sprees. This is because at the core of these troubles is how young men and boys are brought up and regarded in society. Anyone who has used the London Underground train service would recognise the scene I am about to describe. In the twilight of late autumn and early winter evening you emerge from the underground station and the sight that greets you is a group of teenage boys all wearing hoods around their heads. They speak in rumbling tones as they smoke cigarettes and other substances or swig alcohol from bottles hidden in brown paper bags.

The sight is terrifying because you know they are not up to much good and anything could be the spark that starts something nasty. Nearby there may be a couple of police doing the local beat on foot but they don’t want to make trouble so as long as the boys are not actually assaulting any one even the police look away. We all look away and walk very fast away from the potential menace. No one drives them away because no one could dare. We know someone ought to tell them to go home to their parents, perhaps watch TV or even read a book. But no one dare. We look away.

Even in the broken parts of British society that the Prime Minister David Cameron has been talking about, girls are brought up a bit differently. There are some girls and young women who have also embraced the yob culture and do what the boys do, but they stand out because there are not that many of them in any community. The machismo that defines and motivates the boys in urban badlands of Manchester and London is not a girl thing.

You may think London is a world away from Ghana and that we can scoff at the excessive “human rights” and the softly-softly approach with which parenting is done in the Western world. We may think that the scenes of nightly violence gratuitously dished out randomly will not happen here. But think again. The seeds of generalised bad behaviour have long been sown and we may soon be reaping its whirlwind blowing our way. The way young men behave must give us cause to be worried. As we all know, if you want a group of people to cause any trouble for whatever reason there are young men who act as a special reserve force ready to be mobilised for rewards as little a t-shirt or five cedis apiece.

As in the UK, there may be a myriad of reasons why young men, or anyone for that matter may decide to join a group but the readiness with which boys and men between 13 and 30 are ready to put their bodies on the line suggests that there may be biochemical factors at play here and those may be moderated only through social conditioning such as training and education. But whose definition and characterisation of education and training are we talking about here?

The violence seen on the streets of UK cities stems from a culture of both entitlement and impunity which are both causes and effect of sheer bad behaviour. For too long liberals, conservatives, socialists and social democrats have looked away from the plain truth that stares at all of us from train stations, lorry parks, football stadiums, and all other places where young men congregate not only in Britain but across the world.

The behaviour of a certain type of young man during World Cup victory celebrations last year is a case in point. These people usually arrived on motorbikes or as a horde on foot and simply created mayhem and chaos. That they were able to steal from people in the disorder they created was not their main point. They simply terrorised everybody because they were allowed to. This is what is happening in the UK where the authorities finally cottoned on to this truth and put 16,000 police officers on the streets in London.

Here in Ghana if a group of young men decides to go on the rampage, say in Accra there will be no stopping them. Again, during the last World Cup, despite the foreknowledge that the Accra suburb of Osu would be the action spot whenever Ghana won, there was no police presence during the celebrations that followed the win over Serbia. It took a strong media campaign to change the situation on subsequent Ghana match days, although there was no change in the behaviour of the rampaging hordes.

While they look for answers in the UK and elsewhere for why young men go round destroying shops and homes in their own communities let us not be smug here. I know that perhaps these are wasted words because our authorities are not only generally slow to catch on to trends there is no visible interest in society and culture as such. Our governments generally prefer to encourage us to judge them by the physical infrastructure such schools, bridges, clinics and the like that are built during their time in power. However, as we have seen, even the strongest house stands little chance when they come face to face with badly brought up boys intent on doing harm just out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

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