Once the smoke cleared from that terrifying week in August 2011 it gave us all the opportunity to take stock and look at why young people felt the only way to express their anger at a police shooting was to loot and burn.
It was a wake-up call from some of the most disconnected voices. Many were rightly brought to justice as this was not a way to make your voice heard. However, many gaps in our society were exposed – between the haves and have nots, between the police and local communities, between the political classes and some of the most disadvantaged families in the UK. To some, running riot felt like a last resort.
London’s stoical response in sweeping up the broken glass the rioters left in their wake was followed with welcome support from businesses and local councils to everyone affected. SOS was lucky enough to secure support to run a project in Croydon – one of the worst affected areas – to help young people with the life-changing support SOS can provide.
Only a handful of our SOS clients got involved in the 2011 riots. This might seem surprising given we work with such disadvantaged young people. However, we know that the help we offer gives young people a strong incentive to stay out of trouble and do the right thing. Despite all the sensationalist rhetoric about the riots being organised by gangs we saw a different reality of young people who were desperate to maintain positive lifestyle choices that only our ex-offender led staff could understand and furthermore demonstrate. At our 5th Anniversary event back then rather than denigrate young people we decided to praise the achievements of those who had done exceptionally well through an awards event.
But we are worried that some of the tensions of 2011 could easily kick off again. Much of the support that was offered in response to the riots has since stopped. Our work in Croydon was halted due to the funding ending. My team are seeing rising levels of deprivation and desperation amongst the young people they support. Sustainable funding for our work is an ever present challenge.
One lesson we must learn from the riots is that marginalised communities will no longer tolerate being ignored and excluded. So we must make everyone feel like they have a stake in society. SOS – with its ethos of training and employing people with lived experience of disadvantage and exclusion - can act as the bridge. However, we need the right kind of funding and support to keep us well-maintained and ensure everyone feels society is something worth investing in.
Junior Smart, SOS Project Founder