This story was first published on CNN.com on August 13, 2011
As a Brit living in America I have watched the footage of riots and looting going on in my homeland with a mix of sadness and shame. But shocking as the events of the last week have been, they don’t surprise me.
In fact, I’d be willing to bet that anyone who has spent time riding public transport in the cities where this civil unrest occurred might echo my lack of surprise.
When I lived in London I took the bus to work every day. Aside from rush hour gridlock, the thing I dreaded most on those journeys was a certain type of adolescent getting onboard.
You could spot them immediately. There was a good chance they’d be clad in hooded sweaters, baseball caps and outlandish sports shoes. Peppering the air with expletives they would strut down the centre aisle and drop heavily into seats, yelling across to one another as if the man in the suit alongside them was no more than a phantom. And woe betide you if you made the mistake of actually engaging them: I have seen teenage girls heap mouthfuls of abuse on a passenger for no other reason than they didn’t like the way he looked at them.
If you don’t live in Britain it’s hard to appreciate just how pervasive this kind of behavior has become. It was part of what the British Prime Minister David Cameron was referring to four years ago when he stated that Britain was suffering from a “broken society.”
This week’s appalling scenes of looting are the worst manifestation to date of Cameron’s stark diagnosis.
The causes are manifold. Even so, when the debate on the riots began in earnest this week the two sides of the political divide reverted to type. The rightwing media were quick to blame neglectful parents, a breakdown of moral values and an indolent underclass with no stake in society after decades of pampering on welfare. The left pointed to the lack of jobs and opportunities in the communities many of the looters came from; they criticized recent government cuts to facilities aimed at keeping inner-city youths occupied.
But by concentrating all their attention on the criminals, both parties have forgotten to consider the role of the other key player in this story: the British public or, to put it another way, everyone else on the bus.
Let me give you another example from my life. A few years ago I did something very out of character. At the time I was living in Leeds, one of the riot-hit cities. I was riding on the top deck of a bus home from work when a group of teenage boys began flinging coins down the aisle. Beside me sat a young woman with a baby. I shouted at the teenagers to stop, but a few minutes later they hurled a coin in my direction, which, thankfully, hit neither myself nor the mother.
I was shaken up by the experience and when I told friends about it the answer I got was universal: if it happens again, don’t get involved. I understood their concern but the defeatism of the answer was depressing.
Since moving to New York two years ago I have the impression that Americans are better at dealing with this kind of thing. I was in a pharmacy the other day when a young woman pushed past an elderly lady with a walking frame who was trying to get out the door. A customer confronted the girl who noisily protested her innocence. The good Samaritan stuck to her guns and the young woman left looking embarrassed though not quite contrite. In Britain it is rare to see that kind of intervention simply because we are by instinct much less inclined to speak to our minds.
We Brits have ceded our public space to antisocial teenagers. There has been a collective loss of nerve. Most people on the bus prefer to avert their eyes and hope trouble goes away.
This is unsurprising. Nobody wants to be pelted with coins and the consequences of intervening can be much worse. The news in Britain often carries horrendous stories about concerned citizens killed in the streets trying to break up fights or for confronting a gang of young people over some act of vandalism.
But the consequences of doing nothing are evident in all our major cities. With the police apparently incapable of tackling the problem, the hoodlums are given a free rein. Often the product of broken homes or of abusive parents, many of these young people grow up placing no value on themselves or the world around them.
In public this problem is compounded when no one censures them for their behavior. They become emboldened, regarding certain areas of towns and cities (and their public transport systems) as their own personal fiefdom where they can do or say whatever they like.
For some, this destructive path only ends with the intervention of the courts and, eventually, prison, by which point it is usually too late. There is no clear solution. The chronic social deprivation that produces this antisocial behavior is entrenched and will take decades to overcome.
It is also hard to see how ordinary Brits can take back their streets without putting themselves at risk or without descending into vigilantism. Neighborhood Watch programs serve an important role but they are hamstrung by the often chronically slow response time of the police.
Yet until Britons find a way to reclaim their streets, the anarchy we saw explode this week will never be far from the surface. And, I’m afraid, the passengers on the bus will be in for a bumpy ride.