• John Lucas

Why Teens Riot

First published in the Guardian on Tuesday August 12th 2012

A masked rioter in Hackney during the 2011 London riots. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

There was a period of time in 2008/9 when stories about knife crime, gang crime, and extreme violence amongst teenagers dominated the media. But I felt like there was something missing in the way a lot of these kids were being portrayed, both in fiction and in the press. It either seemed to be voyeurism or demonisation, without much of an attempt at a deeper understanding in between. Neither did it fit with my own experiences of growing up in Hackney, where a lot of the kids I hung out with at school and on the estates were wittier, more articulate and more intelligent than they were being given credit for. The problem wasn't them so much as the world around them, the situation they were caught up in.

We all want to feel like we belong, especially when we're young, and there's no greater sense of belonging than being in a gang. We all want to live a life of meaning too - but if you're not being offered the chance of really achieving something, of following your dreams, of making your mark, then you've got to find your own meaning, create something that matters out of what you've got. So you end up with people fighting, even dying, over their own made-up rules, their post codes, their turf.

When I was at school my careers advice stretched to "If you get a job when you leave school, any job, then you're lucky." That's not an inspiring thing to hear when you've got your whole life ahead of you; when you've got a brain, a heart, some spirit in need of an outlet. There was no sense of abundance, no sense that life, the world, was there for the taking. We just had to make the most of the scraps that fell from the table.

That disparity, that unfairness, and the lack of opportunity that goes along with it, builds pressure. Disillusioned and disenfranchised youth in the innner-city have to deal with that pressure, the kids in TURF are dealing with that pressure, and what we saw in the riots last year was an explosion of that pressure.

At the time, the rioters were called "feral" and "scum" - which is understandable if you were on the receiving end during those few days, but dismissing them as a mindless criminal minority doesn't help address the issue. Why did it happen? Why was it allowed to happen? How can we accept a society that has a swath of people who have so little invested in it, that feel so disconnected from it, that they want to destroy it?

I wrote TURF before the riots took place, but there were a number of parallels between them and the events in the book. A lot of the book deals with the importance of personal choice - and of course we're all fundamentally responsible for own actions, but equally, if we want people to make the right choice then we need to provide them with the opportunity to do so.