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Reflections on the 2011 English Riots

Should we be so surprised that the death of young black man at the hands of police in London ultimately led to the violent disorder in London, to be followed by similar scenes in other parts of the capital and other cities? We have been here before for instance in 1981 and 1985. Part of the context is also similar with the increased use of stop and search powers by the police over the past decade that have disproportionately affected ethnic minorities. Between 2004-05 and 2008-09 stops and searches of ethnic minorities increased by over 70 per cent to more than 310,000 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2010/jun/17/stop-and-search-police), although a review in 2007 had led to a significant reduction in its use at the beginning of 2010 (http://www.hrw.org/en/node/91417/section/9). Journalists speaking to young people in London and Darcus Howe’s account of his grandson’s experiences on the BBC news suggest that stop and search remains a major issue. However, since Saturday things have moved on considerably.

How might we make sense of these waves of public disorder that periodically occur in the UK? Contrary to what John Brewer President of the BSA asserted in a letter to the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/11/sociologists-offer-unravel-riots) crowds are not irrational. Crowds don’t have minds so they are neither rational nor irrational nor do they express emotions. Rather crowds are aggregates of individuals, who have often gathered there with friends, sharing some characteristics, motivations and identities, but differing radically on other dimensions. Their feelings, motivations and rationalities will differ according to their views about what is unfolding before them, and change in the light of what they see and hear. Crowds are complex differentiated and evolving entities, they are the effects of many individual and group actions and interactions. This does not mean there is no pattern, but that once we get beyond the surface and the newsworthy actions that pattern is often complex and dynamic. What is the most important general pattern in this case is the shift from a conflict with the police in Tottenham to looting in several locations around the country so that looting became the dominant tactic. The key question becomes looking at the reasons for this. Very quickly these riots developed from a community’s grievances about the police to a more generalised pattern of disorder.

The role of looting seems to have been distinctive becoming a standard tactic. Looting typically involves a more diverse section of people than those in direct conflict with the police. It is more opportunistic and seen as a lower risk activity than directly attacking the police. Whilst face-to-face attacks on the police usually involve young male protagonists, looting often involves women, children and older people as well. In the past food riots in the UK occurred in response to rapid rises in bread prices and local people responded to what they say as unfair prices rises. This looting is often of large chain stores as well as small local businesses that may not be seen as part of the local community. There are now many more small portable high value items that can be easily looted such as mobile phones and other portable electronic devices, although clothing, and large TVs have also featured, but people have also looted alcohol, cigarettes and bottled water. These are all strongly marketed and advertised, so this may be an opportunity for those who cannot normally afford to buy them or they may simply be taking the opportunity. What started as a riot around a death in the context of a police became a kind of ‘consumer society’ riot.

Who is involved has generated a lot of debate, but as in many previous riots it is a large cross-section of local communities (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/09/london-riots-who-took-part?intcmp=239). Ages seems to range from children to adults in their 40s, men and women. Some of those appearing in court have been in employment including a 31 year old teaching assistant arrested for looting. The initial conflict in Tottenham appears to have been largely made up of people from the local Black community like Marc Duggan, but as the rioting and looting spread then it became more socially diverse. Hence one cannot easily read off the riots from the social positions of those involved in them. However, there are many themes repeated through some media accounts of these of a generalised hostility towards the police and the current government especially amongst the 50 per cent or so who seem to be aged 18-24 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/aug/11/uk-riots-magistrates-court-list). Nevertheless it would be wrong to take this as implying that there is some clearly articulated grievance or political agenda that is currently apparent. The prominence of young men aged in their late teens and early twenties is as readily attributed to ‘biographical availability’ as anything else if previous studies of riot participants are anything to go by. Young men in this age range are more likely to be on the streets in the places and times at which riots take place as they are more likely to be unemployed, and not to have family commitments or other urgent demands on their time.

Besides looking at what happened and why, who was involved and what their targets and tactics were, it is also important to begin to examine the response of the forces of law and order. Initially the police seemed both overwhelmed and using inappropriate tactics. I don’t think any blame can be attributed here as politicians have been trying to do. In contrast I think this was in some ways a new kind of urban riot phenomena for which the standard police operating procedures and tactics were not prepared to deal with. Most public order policing is managerialist. The police seek to manage crowds at political or sporting events where violence may occur and where the locations, numbers, composition and actions of the crowds are to some degree predictable. All of those characteristics were lacking in this instance. The crowds involved were smaller hence making use of many standard tactics like charges of mounted police irrelevant. They were more mobile, and where they would appear next was unpredictable.

The initial response of the criminal justice system has been swift and draconian. The kinds of sentences being handed out so far would be unthinkable and shocking to a European and even American audience. Sentencing someone with no previous convictions to six months in prison for looting £3 worth of water seems entirely disproportionate (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/11/uk-riots-courtrooms-country?intcmp=239). How does this compare with those MPs whose inappropriate expenses claims were dealt with simply by being asked to hand the money back. Only a tiny number have been prosecuted for fraud. However, the courts are not neutral they are under considerable political pressure and are merely continuing a long British tradition of handing out punitive sentences to those involved in riots. Interestingly no one has yet been charged with the offence of riot with most of the public order offences being dealt with under less serious categories.

One of the principal themes emerging in the political and media debate is the return of the underclass (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14488486). This is a theme from 1980s conservative thinking about poverty that blames the poor for their position due to the ‘moral degeneracy’, absent fathers, welfare dependency and routine criminality. Perhaps the problem is not the culture of the underclass but the degenerate culture of the upper class. From initial media reports it is clear that many involved in the riots and looting are not unaware of how bankers wrecked the world economy and were bailed out by tax payers, the apparent impunity by which MPs fiddled their expenses and mixed with senior News International staff who are now under arrest in connection with phone hacking and bribing police officers.

Posted in sociology.


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