Image credit: Flickr/Nico Hogg

A police car bursting into flames rocketed out into global awareness via text message. Even before it would find its way to front-page news coverage the world over, the image had already become emblematic of the London riots in August 2011.

As Jason Featherstone, a violence prevention expert helping to launch a UK-based CeaseFire replication project – Surviving Our Streets (SOS) explains:

What looked like chaos to most of the world was experienced differently to those in Tottenham. Having grown up there, I was raised to have an extra sensitive awareness of the police, you know, to always be on my guard. One of the first things I noticed, this isn’t something that was reported right off in the mainstream press, was a BBM (Blackberry Messenger) message attached to the image of the police car. It was a call to action street-by-street for where people were to meet up in protest, but here is the thing: Each of the areas listed were also home to local gangs. In other words, as soon as the riot kicked off there was a spontaneous and seamless peace treaty in effect among gangs usually at war.”
Echoing Martin Luther King, Jnr’s quote that ‘A riot is the language of the unheard,’ Featherstone elaborates by saying that:
for residents, regardless of their affiliation status, this was an opportunity to make their issues known.
But, in spite of these sympathies, Featherstone is the first to note that these events could have gone another way entirely. In April-May 2012, Featherstone presented a unique perspective of the riots at a historic Institute of Medicine workshop in Washington DC early this month on the Contagion of Violence.

Bringing together over two dozen professionals and experts in a broad range of fields, this two-day Institute of Medicine workshop addressed the issue of violence from a new perspective, considering self-directed, interpersonal, family, domestic, collective, community, political and ethnic violence as different manifestations of the same disease. During the workshop, Featherstone spoke alongside Zainab Al-Suwaij of the American Islamic Congress, who not only presented on the Arab Spring through the lens of contagion but who also currently facilitates the Iraq-based CeaseFire replication.

It was this perspective of violence, and the innovative approach to treat it with a disease control approach, that originally attracted Featherstone to the CeaseFire program back in 2010. Featherstone stated that:

It was achieving remarkable results, and I had to see the model in action for myself.

Bringing CeaseFire to London

At the same time, Featherstone was helping to launch a CeaseFire-replication with a group he had established in London. He visited Chicago with a team of five youth workers to learn what he could about the model firsthand. Yet for more than a year after his return the group struggled financially to get a replication project off the ground, and, although working closely with Chicago and handling mediation work where they could, they continued to pound the pavement in the search for funding.

Fast-forward to 2012 and Featherstone is optimistic:

Post-riot London is paying more attention to young people; we are not where we need to be yet but there has been a renewed focus especially in the youth violence arena.
Even with a threadbare staff SOS has managed to quell several potentially volatile conflicts, but, as Featherstone notes, it has been minimal in comparison to what can be done with 6 to 8 Interrupters working with major groups in and around the Tottenham/Haringey - Enfield target areas. Featherstone explains:
We weren’t even operational yet, but I had guys who I knew from back in the day contacting me saying, “so and so” has just been violated, something is definitely going to pop, can you do anything about it?

We’ve started the mapping process to identify where the major conflicts are coming from, who is involved, who are the main players and in the upcoming months we will be working to recruit staff from each of those areas but, to do this requires a sustainable funding stream.

We have a number of funding applications out there but we are not going to sit down and just wait for it. We are delivering a range of programs aimed at facilitating a change in mindset regarding violent behavior to those in custody for violent incidents. This helps us raise those elusive pounds, provide employment opportunities, increase our network for interruptions whilst achieving positive changes in attitude with the guys we work with in custody.

One SOS trustee, Graham Boylan, arrived in London at 19 years old with £50 to his name, and twelve years later, owns eight successful companies, including six gyms in four different countries, with over one hundred staff.During times of austerity, a dynamic and innovative approach is required for any not-for-profit organisation. As such Featherstone has brokered several partnerships in the youth arena with organisations such as The Safety Box, The Rise Up Project and the Bravehearts Initiative among others, in addition to recruiting a well-connected and extremely supportive team of trustees/directors. An interesting cast of characters in their own right, their substantial support has helped the project move forward.
Graham has been amazing, as an SOS Trustee he has provided full access to his companies’ resources, office space, web developers, computers, merchandising, absolutely everything which has literally saved the charity tens of thousands of pounds.
The final Trustee, Patrick Vickers is somewhat of a paradox: two law degrees, a national chess champion as a child, rugby player, former Goldman Sachs hedge-fund manager, former Wall Street trader, Director of Talent Relations with the Cagewarriors brand, and professional mixed-martial arts fighter. Patrick is working to build a portfolio of corporate partners.

Regarding the riots, Featherstone explained that effective mediation could have intervened before events kicked off:

I am speculating, of course, but knowing what we know about how violence is transmitted and the actions that ignited this event, I can say that little communicative gestures on the part of the police may have changed the course of these events. Five lives were lost, but if information had been volunteered, if a third party was on hand to mediate, that might not have been the case.
Interviewing for this article, hours after the presentation under the Martin Luther King, Jnr. Memorial, Featherstone adds:
If ‘a riot is the language of the unheard,’ then I hope the right people were listening.