Last week, a group of young people halted the humdrum happenings on London’s Oxford Street. Wearing masks and tracksuits, they gathered at JD Sports to nick some stuff – or, at least, try to.
It all started with a viral clip that did the rounds on TikTok and Snapchat, encouraging users to take part in an “Oxford Circus JD robbery” at 3pm last Wednesday (9th August). As “hundreds” of teenagers congregated outside the sports shop, hi-vis-jacketed police charged to the scene.
Then four mounted officers arrived. Was the plan to gallop into JD and scoop up some teenagers in a giant butterfly net? Whatever the tactic, the flooding of the scene with dozens of coppers worked – no Air Max were harmed, or indeed nicked, in the making of this social media prank.
By 8pm that day, the Met said it “issued 34 dispersal orders and arrested nine people.” In a statement they elaborated further: “Four people were arrested on suspicion of breaching the dispersal order, one person was arrested on suspicion of going equipped to steal, one person arrested on suspicion of assaulting a police officer, and one person was arrested on suspicion of a public order offence.”
A lot of suspicion from the boys in blue, then. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan was also concerned, saying he was “worried about this nonsense we have seen on TikTok encouraging people to go to Oxford Street”. Home Secretary Suella Braverman, never one to mince her words, brayed that those who participated “must be hunted down and locked up”.
No doubt a particular type of Middle England voter will have been reassured by her hard-as-nails approach. Bravo, Braverman. Just like the apparent “criminalisation” of those possessing nos canisters in March, or her wafty claims that asylum seekers are to blame for “drug supply and usage”, last week’s nonsense allowed her to default to the Conservatives’ emergency, struggling-in-the-polls playbook: tough on crime, even tougher on mass groups of bored kids acting up in the holidays.
The streets will be safe, crime will go down, the government’s wobbly ratings will be restored. Yeah, right.
We’re not talking about the Capitol riots at the White House, here. This is a daft, no-harm-done act by young people, bored and restless at the height of a summer blighted by shit weather, in a time when everything costs too much and nothing is fun anymore. Obviously, steaming in en masse to steal stuff from a shop isn’t anyone’s best idea. But nor should it be pathologised as the kind of criminality that leads to young people being hunted down and locked up.
Since the Tories took power in 2010, youth services in England and Wales, such as council-funded football teams, youth centres and art classes, have suffered a staggering billion pound decline in local authority funding, according to the YMCA. Also in that period, more than 4,500 youth work jobs have been cut, while 750 youth centres have closed. All of these were invaluable in giving young people a sense of belonging away from street corners and teaching them life skills.
And then there’s youth unemployment. Currently, we’re at a “historically low level”: 482,000 young people aged 16 to 24 were unemployed between March and May this year. But that’s an increase of 23,000 from the previous quarter, and an increase of 48,000 from the previous year. And that’s during a cost-of-living crisis, where everything from food to cinema tickets to public transport is costing more in “rip-off Britain”.
Things aren’t looking so bright when it comes to education, either. Between 2020 and 2022, when the pandemic meant schools were closed for long periods, working-class students were adversely negatively affected by the alien concept of studying from home. Where upper- and middle-class students might have had access to personal laptops, quiet study areas and support from well-equipped parents, those from lower-income households, or students with key-worker parents working around the clock, didn’t have such a smooth experience when it came to at-home learning.
As for university students, it’s a similar story. Right now, the benefits of attending uni in the first place are questionable, with one in five Russell Group students considering dropping out due to the rising costs of living. There’s a “national housing shortage”, making digs nearly impossible to secure, while Rishi Sunak is busy attacking supposedly “low value” degrees like the arts, humanities and English. To stick the boot in further, the prime minister is also reportedly planning to announce funding cuts to foundation-year university courses which, the Guardian says, are “popular among those from disadvantaged backgrounds who lack academic qualifications”.
If you’re surprised by a group of kids heading to JD Sports after a social media call-out, it’s time to wake up. It’s not the rioting youth we should be scared of. What should be keeping us up at night is a government that doesn’t care about the youngest and most vulnerable members of the population. We can’t hunt them down or lock them up. But we can vote them out next year.