Reasons to riot, a need to believe

July 21, 1995

Max Farrar arrived promptly on the scene of the rioting in Leeds two weeks ago. A sociologist living and working in the notorious Chapeltown district of the city, Mr Farrar interprets communities from the inside.

Inner city unrest holds few surprises for a man who witnessed at close quarters serious disturbances in Leeds in 1975 - the charges were later dropped. He knows the youth communities well and has earned their trust. Indeed they provide the focus for both his private and academic life at Leeds Metropolitan University.

It was not the violent events earlier this month in the Hyde Park area which astounded Mr Farrar but their treatment by the media.

"It is so unfair to portray these groups as corrupt amoral gangsters who are beyond redemption," Mr Farrar says. "They are anything but lawless professional criminals but the police have pushed this idea and the law and order line is always followed."

There are inherent dangers in consistently misrepresenting communities. But so-called bleeding heart liberalism is just not fashionable any more, he says, even among Labour Party politicians who are terrified of being accused of going soft on law and order. While Mr Farrar was talking to one group of youths almost certainly involved in the disturbances the police arrived to question the same individuals.

"It was a depressing scenario. They arrived in force with video cameras, riot gear, flash guns."

Mr Farrar's analysis of the Hyde Park skirmishes does not legitimise the youths' behaviour. It does not portray them as angels but it does take issue with the orchestrated riot and drug-dealing criminals theory. "These are seriously disillusioned young men who would love to look smart and earn money legitimately," he says.

While interviewing one group of youths Mr Farrar's sandals provoked great interest. "They wanted to know how much they cost. These lads wear the cheapest trainers but they want to look good."

They are the long-term unemployed (estimated 34 per cent unemployment in the area; 81 per cent on benefits), who display what happens to a person's sense of self after prolonged periods of despair. "How do you make yourself feel as though you have something when you have nothing? You exercise your physical power in confrontations with figures of authority."

Mr Farrar points out that young insecure men in uniform also have problems with their masculinity and they too become aggressive when challenged.

The youths are not interested in nihilistic forms of behaviour. The older ones usually have children and they referred frequently to them during conversations. They take their responsibilities seriously and would love to lead more conventional lives, Mr Farrar says. They seek reasons for their desperate circumstances.

He also argues that there is a deeply felt class consciousness among Hyde Park residents forced to live alongside "privileged" students from both of the universities in Leeds. For Hyde Park has seen extensive development in recent years, smart new accommodation blocks stand out among sub-standard housing for local residents.

Estimates are that seven out of ten students in Leeds are burgled and according to Mr Farrar increasingly burglars force their way into occupied houses with baseball bats to steal possessions. Students are viewed as fair game - as the privileged getting more privileged.

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