Why 'business as usual' is a fatal response to Birmingham's riots

Birmingham city centre and New Street StationImage by marcreeves via Flickr
There have been riots in Birmingham at regular intervals throughout my life, and I’m sick of it.

It's like a simmering pot that occasionally boils over, but instead of taking it off the flame, we just force the lid down ever tighter.

I grew up in Handsworth and saw the impact of the 1981 riots at first hand. I reported on the 1985 Handsworth troubles as a cub reporter, and after living and working away for more than a decade returned to my home city in the still-raw aftermath of the 2005 disturbances.

I remember someone remarking to me then what fantastic changes I must have seen in the city after my years away. They meant the city centre sheen of the ICC, Brindleyplace and the horizon of budding skyscrapers, all taken as symbols of Birmingham’s progress. I saw and liked these developments for
sure, but I also saw that actual deprivation had significantly worsened in Handsworth, Witton, Aston and many other areas I knew – made all the more stark in contrast to the apparently booming centre.

What I saw was two Birminghams – the shining ‘global city’ of the brochures and the unrecognised city of the underclass where most citizens actually lived, typified by appalling housing, educational attainment, skills and chronic unemployment.

And two weeks ago, one of these cities broke through the divide and  played out its despair in full view of the other.

The sheen was punctured, despite the best efforts over the years of many to paint a picture of the perfect city.

Glossy brochures proudly proclaim Birmingham's diversity and its youth, and business leaders celebrate civic achievements they label as corporate social responsibility. At the same time, politicians highlight improving exam results in the city's schools.

Yet on the night of Tuesday August 9, thousands of young people laid siege to this city and at least one of them fired a gun at police.

On the same night, three innocent people died in the violence.

If there's anything good to come from all of this, I hope it will be the end of the conspiracy of complacency that is Birmingham's fatal flaw.

Complacency is the single biggest obstacle to this city's future safety and prosperity. And it's everywhere.

It's in the belief that slogans alone are enough to improve the city's lot, and that ticked boxes discharge a business's debt to its community.

In the enclave of Colmore Row, business professionals work feverishly 'creating wealth' all day, before taking themselves and their money home to the stockbroker belt in the Midlands shires.

In Victoria Square, tired politicians and council staff labour to shore up an inept, bloated and irrelevant way of running the city because they're scared of the alternative.

In suburban front rooms, the 'squeezed middle' celebrate their normality by drowning out the real world with a tidal wave of reality TV and other consumer fetishes.

When the inhabitants of these cosy worlds are shaken from their complacency by two nights of rioting, looting, murder and shootings, could it be that they'll realise that things in Birmingham are perhaps not as they should be?

Will they look to themselves and those around them and wonder that while their firm's award-winning CSR programme is admirable enough, it's clearly failing to make a real difference to the city and its people?

Will they consider the possibility that behind the hype is a city with real problems that hundreds of jauntily named committees, inquiries and initiatives have singularly failed to solve over the past four decades of decline?

Will they realise that you can't delegate to others your own duties as a citizen, that change cannot be left to someone else, that being a city dweller comes with obligations to make your neighbour's life better, as well as your own?

Or will they embrace the response that puts the perpetrators of the riots in a box handily marked 'Not like us. Not part of our world. Not our problem'?

Perhaps their shock will last as long as it takes to clear away the debris and lock up a satisfactory number of criminals. Everything will soon look reassuringly normal, just as it did before those days in August, when the people who became looters and rioters lived alongside them in the same city, their presence only occasionally registering in the peripheral vision of fellow Brummies.

It'll be business as usual - and the cycle will begin again.

Not everyone looks the other way, of course. People of all faiths and none, all backgrounds and ages - thousands of them - forego luxuries and often make real sacrifices to make the city a better place. They volunteer, campaign, mentor, agitate, educate and get engaged. Some make it their job, others seek office to make a difference. But all of this is a drop in the ocean when countered by the complacency shown by the rest of us.

So what's to be done? What's the magic answer?

I honestly don't know, but I think we have an opportunity to try to answer that as a city before our memories of the riots fade and daily routines push out that nagging feeling that we should do something after all.

I've been mulling this over in various conversations with friends and colleagues over the past ten days.

Three of us got together to see if we could articulate our thoughts and turn them into something more practical.

We don't have a masterplan or a ten point policy proposal, and we certainly don't want to launch an initiative that will dilute or frustrate the impact of existing efforts to destroy the environment that nurtured the riots.

But we believe that leaving it others alone is simply not acceptable, and we particularly want to give businesses and the people involved in them ways to engage with the city like never before.

Our tentative plan is to talk to as many people as possible across all communities in the city, as well as businesses and their leader, by posing four questions that we think might help to get to the heart of things. We'll be talking to young people, to the public and voluntary sectors, and also to the owners of small businesses, young professionals, social entrepreneurs, artists, bloggers, academics and even a few politicians. Most of all, we'll be talking to people as individuals, not just as representatives.

We'll pull the responses together and present them to a small panel of people that we think, to speak plainly, have the balls to do something with the messages that emerge.

We sincerely hope that by then something concrete will have emerged that can contribute significantly to forcing the step change that we believe the city needs. We certainly don't own this process, nor claim any special insight or 'right' to do anything about it, but we do commit to taking this as far as we can. Many others are making similar noises (such as post-riot clean-up king Miles Weaver: see his post here) and we’ll happily combine forces with anyone who wants to work with us.

But one thing’s for certain.

We don't want Birmingham to go back to business as usual.

The questions?
1.    As an individual, Do you feel part of Birmingham? Tell us what the city owes you, and your responsibilities to it.
2.    Do you think you know the causes of the troubles? What single thing could ensure they don’t happen again?
3.    What are you doing, or what could you be doing, to make a difference?
4.    What do you think the business community in particular could do?

My fellow citizens in this endeavour are Louise Teboul of Common Purpose, and Karl George, a city professional and church pastor. The views in this blog post are mine alone, but we’re working together on the action plan I’ve described above.

To contribute, simply put a comment at the bottom of this blog post (anonymously if you wish),  email me at marcreeves1965@gmail.com, or contribute to the conversations that we’re intending to start on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. We will use the hashtag #wearebrum, which has already been used in similar social media conversations over the past weeks.

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  1. Correct. The article I mean. I would say that the 'leadership' of the city has something to answer for... those politicians and senior officers you refer to, as well as the business people taking their 100,000s back to Worcestershire and Warwickshire.
    From a solutions focus I say it is for my generation 25-40 yr olds to stand up and do something - we are training young leaders, but that's for the future. Lets get some people with some balls and some skills together and push things forward. I'm in. And have a few more people behind me - keep me informed. Matt Kendall doninchile@yahoo.co.uk

  2. Marc; I like what you say, but I do not think you go nearly far enough: to me most of the problem is the rampant and unchallenged ethos of consumerism: if kids who have been quite openly discarded by society are also told that the only measure of worth is how much bling you have, then please don't pretend to act so appalled when they riot and steal stuff to get that very same bling.

  3. 1. As an individual, Do you feel part of Birmingham? Tell us what the city owes you, and your responsibilities to it. Jk reply - I don't think the city owes me much, as it has given me a lot - employment, entertainment,friendliness. My responsibilities to it are to provide leadership to make my University better at educating people from all areas of the city.
    2. Do you think you know the causes of the troubles? What single thing could ensure they don’t happen again? Jk response. Main causes of the troubles are lack of opprtunity for the people involved, lack of law enforcement, lack of self-discipline, over emphasis on consumption as the be-all and end-all of modern life.
    3. What are you doing, or what could you be doing, to make a difference? JK response.I could be mentoring someone from the poverty doughnut around the city centre to change one person's opportunities at a time.
    4. What do you think the business community in particular could do? JK response.Employ more people from the poverty "doughnut" by investing more in developing their skills and confidence.

  4. 1. As an individual, Do you feel part of Birmingham? Tell us what the city owes you, and your responsibilities to it.
    - I very much feel part of the city. responsibilities of mine to the city include raising my children well (to treat people with respect and work hard), trying to create wealth - do things that are valued, so that people will pay us to do them - which means we can create jobs. the cities responsibility to me? Not sure. I'd appreciate it if the politics stopped being petty - some politicians stopped serving their own small communities and bureaucrats grew up.

    2. Do you think you know the causes of the troubles? What single thing could ensure they don’t happen again?

    Not sure we can stop them happening again. Work tend to make people more responsible - but clearly that isn't enough.

    3. What are you doing, or what could you be doing, to make a difference?

    Nits and pieces - trying to strengthen community groups. I think the thing we need to do most is challenge waste. So much money gets badly spent.

    4. What do you think the business community in particular could do?

    Innovate and modernise like mad - that ways leads prosperity.

  5. "As an individual, Do you feel part of Birmingham? Tell us what the city owes you, and your responsibilities to it?

    Isn't that a loaded question? especially, "tell us what the City owes you" - isn't that buying into one sided media opinion, and middle class stereotypes that the riots happened because of a sense of entitlement?

  6. Hi Marc,

    Thank you for starting this debate. B,ham Leadership Foundation is doing some work on collecting the good practice. I will allert them of what you are doing.

    My biggest concern has been the absence of any leadership or statement from Birmingham City Council (I have not seen anything yet). My concern is that they will appoint a consultant and ask them to draft a report that will be shelved for several years. The aftermath m uz6 7* urb`n{cC Sbwthe Radley req~r2IaLD#(e establishement of the Community Team in Handsworth.

    1) This great City is mine and it owes me the wellbeing of me and my family. My responsibility to it comes with my ownership. I nurture the future and present leaders of the city to take it forward.

    2)The causes for me was an opportunity for young (mostly) to have fun and adventure. The City / Police should have seen it coming and sent out strong messages, instead they waited until it started and then played cat and mouse with young people. They should have been apprehended there and then, instead of waiting for CCTV footage to chase people up. The Policing tactics were wrong. I know thye are children, but there actions were of criminals and they should have been treated as such.

    3)The answer lies with the young people themselves - we need stronger leadership / responsibility from them. I work with young leaders and support them informally, but I agree that there is more that I could do.

    4) The business community should employ local young people when they have a chance. There should be a drive to employ local people for local jobs, so that the wealth remains in the city. Instead of being driven away on a daily basis, like economic migrants that flock to the city to take the wealth to the shires. Massive contracts are being given to redevelop parts of the city centre - there should be clauses to stipulate that they should employ local people.

  7. By the way James Robertson is right - the battle against rampant consumerism is a bigger one and difficult to fight in the city - it's a national and in fact global problem.
    But if you want to.... I work developing volunteering (amongst 10000 other things) and if someone from a professional background says they want to make a difference - I say "why not be a school governor?" and influence education.

  8. Hi Marc,

    Thanks for the pro activity and foresight that many of the rest of us lack.

    1)I have been a resident and am currently employed in Birmingham, so while it has given me a lot I don't feel that connected to it. Which is sad.

    2) Low trust, chronically low aspirations of young people and a lack of connectness and ownership to the local community. I believe there is a reason why these incidents happen where they do. There is a reason why they happen in diverse, unequal, mixed up cities rather than small village hamlets where everyone knows each other. That reason is a lack of connectedness. A sense that 'others' are having it better. 'Others' are in charge. 'Others' are responsible.

    It is this connectness that says to a young man, don't I know the owner of the shop that I'm looting. Connectness that reminds us that the policeman is just like me. Connectness that nags at us that it our community we are breaking, our town that we are burning and our future that we are ransoming.

    3) Not enough! I am currently the regional manager for a youth charity, The Challenge Network, in the Midlands. I have been managing a youth programme for 16 year olds this summer. Over the school holidays 540 16 year olds have been through The Challenge which brings together young people of different backgrounds and enables them to learn about people of other cultures and backgrounds, learn new skills, interact with local community groups and make a difference in their area through social action projects which are designed and delivered by the young people themselves. The Challenge programme is not the solution, but the young people coming out the end of the programme are part of the solution.

    For example, in response to the riots young people from The Challenge have set up a page on facebook called “We are part of the solution not part of the problem” have planned projects in their local community to boost community spirit, improve the physical environment and promote integration.

    I would love the young people that are going through The Challenge to be part of this debate! Please do get in touch laura.bassinder@the-challenge.org

  9. Just a quick comment - how many of us would stand up to a rioter or at least an abusive youth? I know I would/do and I know there are others that will do the same but not sure how many when you ask around friends/family. It's a very violent world and people are scared of the repercussions. Until we remove that fear AND drill fear into any criminal that prison really is a bad place to go/be, what hope do we have of bringing about a sea change - ACTIONS speak louder than words - Govt take note. This is where we need your leadership.

  10. I grew up in lozells (1980s-90's) and went to a tough school there which already had the reputation of having been the first to ever have a murder occur in the UK (a school fight where one stabbed another). I can say I was lucky to have made it through a school system in which the teachers had low expectations of its pupils and where parents of said pupils could not care less about the education. I know in my year about 5 in the whole year actually went onto good jobs via university or training. The rest went to either prison, or mental institutions or became parents without jobs and live on benefits with no skills or aspirations for anything else. During my uni days i went to volunteer to help with job clubs in the area. These people were let down by the education system and parents and here they were in the similar position as those that left school in my year years ago.
    Some are scared worried and use the comfort of gangs to feel valued-as if they count. As i said i was lucky to make it out-to educate myself mentally and work at building up my self-confidence which was broken during schooling.
    What is needed is proper education of teachers and support of parents. Teachers need to be allowed to discipline properly- as one school friend told me- 'i messed my life by not learning anything because i could get away with messing around in class and no-one would touch me. I wish teachers had given me a kick -its what i needed but instead they put me in special rooms where i listened to music and kicked footballs!'

  11. I could not put it any better than Laura Bassinder. And on a side note, encouraging the creation of more faith schools may only serve to undermine any efforts at cultivating connectedness, in my view. SMJ

  12. 1. I am doing my best to be a part of Birmingham's business scene. Working with The Custard Factory and getting involved in as many events as possiable. However I think there is a lot of confusion and businesses are working together as much as they should be.
    2. There is no one single meeting place for businesses to get together. To me everything seems very departmentalised.
    3. Re lancing www.dodgerdigital.co.uk over the next few days. When the riots started we used dodger digital as a quick blogging platform to get as much news as possible across Birmingham. Its main focus with the relaunch is promoting creative talent across the UK.
    4. Work closer with a range of different business types with a forum for change and innovation.