The riots: local leaders are the answer

It's rather hard to attack people that are so obviously a part of your community.

The riots were a game-changer. The sheer scale of the criminality tells a story in itself - 15,000 participants, 5,000 crimes and a cost of £0.5bn. Until now, crime has rarely impacted on most of us - if you live in the category of neighbourhood most affected by it, you suffer twice the rate of property crime and four times the personal crime than those in the next worst. Crime rates have remained relatively steady over the years, but distribution has become increasingly concentrated.

The social changes that lead to the events of August 2011 didn't happen overnight. They took years of neglect, of declining educational standards for the poor, of poverty, mental illness and drug addiction festering in depleted social housing stock, of bad parenting passed down from one generation to another.

Many of the comments below will say we need to be tougher, that we can police the problem away. And there's plenty to be said for getting the most damaging members of society out of circulation, and showing that law-breaking comes with consequences.

But even if you ignore the fact that reconviction rates within two years continue to hover around the two thirds mark, there's a bigger problem: it's what we've been trying to do for years. When New Labour said they were tough on crime, they meant it: they needed an independent commission to decide on sentences due to overcrowding and three new super-prisons housing 2,500 prisoners had to be built. When you consider that it costs nearly £40,000 a year to keep someone in prison, you have to ask: how much further can we afford to go?

Can we bang up the children of the 500,000 "forgotten families" cited in today's Communities and Victims Panel report the moment they step out of line? When writers like me talk about the importance of preventative work, we don't do so because we're hand-wringing lefties: we do it because shutting the door before the horse has bolted makes good economic sense.

Now the shroud has been peeled away, everyone's looking for answers. Today's report leads with materialism and poor school attainment. The headline factor from the Guardian's research was the poor relationship between communities and the police. No doubt commentators will again talk about parenting, unemployment and all sorts of other reasons over coming days.

All of these arguments carry weight, and they are all things which, little-by-little, we need to work on. But the fact that the riots were so widespread has obscured an important point. At heart, this is a local issue. When I researched street gangs, it wasn't hard to know on which estates to look. Riots and gangs are born of many of the same factors, and as it happens the location of the riots almost mirrored my book chapter-by-chapter.

Within these places, there are more criminals than average, but there are many more people who want to make their neighbourhoods better. Community empowerment and organisation are the answer to many of these problems. When the situation in August exploded, we cried out for the return of Boris and Dave, not for the leaders of our local council.

The market traders of Maida Hill held their market on the Tuesday of the riots - they were, in their words, willing to fight anyone who'd come steaming down the Harrow Road. The Sikhs of Southall who decided to defend their temple were untroubled. Perhaps the show of strength was off-putting; more likely, they were untroubled because it's rather hard to attack people and things that are so very obviously a part of your community.

Crime doesn't happen in a bubble. What we need to look at are ways of increasing - and it's a horrible, wishy-washy phrase - community empowerment: to take advantage of the dormant goodness that lies inside most of us. There were many who didn't know, or care, what their sons and brothers were up to during the riots. There were many more who did, but felt powerless.

The "big society" has quietly died a death. But there are plenty of examples of it around our cities and always have been - mostly in the voluntary sector, where local organisations fill in the gaps in state provision at short notice and with sporadic, unreliable funding. They need people to get involved and help out - people like you and me. The gnashing of teeth over the riots will continue for some time yet. No doubt it'll resolve itself into an old-fashioned political point-scoring match, fuel for a thousand twitterspats and occasional barbs in the House of Commons. And it'll be the greatest tragedy of all, because the answer to most of these problems is right under our noses.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, the Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets as @aljwhite. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture, republished this year.

A British riot policemen walks past a burning furniture store in Croydon. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage