Thursday, 25 August 2011

Tony Dyer: Confessions of a failed Bristol rioter


Aug 15, 2011 from bristol24/7

I grew up on the Hartcliffe council estate which is where I was on April 2, 1980 when news came through of rioting in St Paul’s. Unlike my parents, who were shocked, their 15-year-old son’s reaction was somewhat different. My sympathies were with the youths throwing bricks at the police.

My friends felt the same way. Our view of the police was a negative one. In our experience, their main objective appeared to be simply to harass us on the apparent assumption that because we were young and from relatively under-privileged backgrounds we must be up to no good.

We felt that the police simply didn’t like us – and we felt the same way about them.

In addition those of my friends who had left school were either signing on or worked for companies that were cutting their workforce. The Thatcher government had been elected the previous year, helped by an advertising campaign that showed a line of unemployed signing on and the slogan “Labour isn’t working” – but under the Tories the dole queue was getting even longer.

Our futures looked bleak – even our parents with their years of experience were losing their jobs, and struggling to find new ones. We had no experience and few, if any, qualifications. Who’d employ us?
We felt that the rest of the country didn’t care about us – so why should we care about the rest of the country?

So when it was suggested that we pile down to St Paul’s and join in the rioting nobody objected. As a result, we made our way to the city centre. For most of us, including myself, this simply turned into a game of cat and mouse as we tried to join in the rioting – only to be blocked off by the police at every turn.
In my own case I returned to a grilling from my parents about where I had been that evening and a warning that if I ever got involved in the sort of events that were now being shown on the TV, I would get the hiding of my life.

Fast forward a decade. It’s July 1992, and another riot erupts in Bristol. This time however it is not in St Paul’s but Hartcliffe.

In the intervening years, my circumstances have changed completely. The 1980 riot in St Paul’s had been followed by a copycat riot in Southmead and a series of riots the following year across the whole country, as the UK entered into full-blown recession.

In the immediate aftermath, some additional funding had been made available for deprived areas and my father, increasingly worried about the direction his son was taking, got me on to a computer training programme.

By 1992, I was married and living in Portishead and had recently been recruited by one of the largest computer companies in the world. Despite the country once again being in recession, my own economic and personal situation was an almost complete contrast to 1980.

The dichotomy is that if I had been arrested for rioting in 1980, it is unlikely that my future would have been so successful, but if those same riots had not taken place it is just as unlikely that the training programme that kick-started my change in fortune would have been available to me.

Meanwhile back in Hartcliffe, that same programme that had helped me start a successful career had been the victim of cuts. In addition it was clear from talking to my young cousins that their relationship with the police was as bad as ours had been in 1980, and that, if anything, job opportunities were even worse as another recession began to bite with youth unemployment already high. In hindsight, the ingredients for a riot were all there, all that was needed was a spark.

My own involvement was brief. I received a phone call from my mum asking me if I would drive over to Hartcliffe and pick up my cousin and her two young children from their flat above the shops in Symes Avenue. A crowd of youths had set fire to some of the shops below and she was in a state of panic. Thankfully, by the time I got to Hartcliffe, my brother had already picked her up and taken her to my parents.

I was angry. A close relative of mine and her two young children had been scared out of their wits and their lives put in danger by a bunch of “mindless thugs” who had decided to set fire to property and throw bricks at the police.

I then realised what a hypocrite I was.

Because if the same riot had broken out in Hartcliffe in 1980, my 15-year-old version would have been among those throwing bricks. I might tell myself that I would not have set fire to property but I had also seen plenty of evidence close up of how recklessly individuals can behave within a mob situation with no thought of the possible consequences.

Once again, when the riots were over, and the usual sound-bite of politicians had had their say, public funding was made available for the sort of programmes and initiatives that had changed my own life.

By 2011, yet again many of those programmes had been cut largely due to a financial crisis not of the making of those most affected by the cuts. Instead, those responsible either fiddled their expenses, or pocketed their bonuses, as they told us we were all in this together. Once again jobs are in short supply, and this time it is my nephews and nieces who see little future for themselves.

So when I watched the news coverage of the riots in recent weeks, I found myself experiencing contrasting feelings; anger at the destruction of people’s livelihoods, and disgust at the loss of life.

But underlying it all there was intense anger that we, as a society, appear to have learned almost nothing over the last 30 years and continue to make the same mistakes – and that as a result it is only a matter of time until the next outbreak of violence.

No comments:

Post a Comment