Notes on the riots
There’s still commentary coming out on the riots and their aftermath almost faster than I can read it and reflect on it, but in the next two posts I’m going to try to pull together some of the better commentary on the English riots last week. The first post will look at the immediate circumstances of the riots, and the second one at some of the wider contexts.
Riots aren’t random.
The veteran criminologist Jock Young pointed out this week that riots follow a pattern:
The background of urban riots is almost formulaic. A substantial section of the population who are economically excluded, a situation of political marginalisation where there is no party or politician to speak for them and, then, the final straw, an act of police injustice – real or perceived. This was the background to the Rodney King riots in LA in 1992, to the Brixton riots of the 1980s, to the disturbances in the French banlieues in 2005, and to the 1985 riot in Broadwater Farm, Tottenham, where I was a lead investigator for the subsequent Gifford inquiry. And the media and political response is similarly predictable.
Several young men stood across the street from us, arms folded around their anger, muscles tensed to keep a hold of it. … I told them I could take down whatever they wanted to say, and put it up for them. Five of them all talked, more or less at once. There is the economy and jobs, stop and search, the way they feel they are permanent suspects in the eyes of the police, the repression, and to my surprise they said they wanted a Labour government back. When I said, “really!” one said all politicians are worthless but Labour are the best.
Other accounts tell a similar story – for example Paul Rogers’ piece on Open Democracy which put the English riots in the context of social disorder elsewhere, and an increasingly international generation of 16-30 year olds “who are experiencing or facing unemployment, and life-prospects that are far more limited than their elders.”
Economics has something to do with it.
The element that is underplayed in Jock Young’s succinct summary is that large numbers of unemployed and underemployed young people make riots more likely. Matt Cavanagh of the IPPR had some useful data on the growth of unemployment among 18-24 year olds, currently running at around 20% on average and – among black youngsters – at close to 50%. Actually, it’s worse than this:
Around ten years ago, roughly one in ten of 18-24 year olds had been unemployed for a year; according to the latest figures it is now one in four, and higher still among young men.
The rise in long-term youth unemployment (% unemployed over 12 months, by sex)
Political contention always becomes more acute when change is relatively rapid, and the chart above does give an impression of the speed at which youth unemployment has increased. Since this is UK data, it’s fairly obviously that absolute levels of unemployment will be much higher in areas of deprivation. And indeed, profiles of those arrested show that they are far more likely to be young, poor, and unemployed. On which subject, thanks to the Futurismic blog for pointing me to a mashup showing relative deprivation and locations of disorder:
One of the weaknesses of the Cameron/Osborne axis is that they think politically and not strategically, and this is shown clearly here. You don’t have to be a systems genius to consider that a government facing large and growing numbers of unemployed and underemployed young people might find it expedient – or even strategic – to find ways to expand the number of college places instead of capping them, and ensure that youth services continued to be supported. There are good economic arguments as well as social arguments for these policies, but the government, of course, has done neither. And despite the ill-informed commentary to the effect that the cuts haven’t started yet, in practice at local level – where youth services are largely funded and managed – these cuts have already been made.
Riots aren’t meaningless.
Jack Goldstone, the American sociologist who studies social disorder has an interesting take on the spark for rioting:
The key to understanding why people riot is not poverty–it is injustice. When people feel that their suffering is not their fault or bad luck, but is being imposed on them by the entire social structure being tilted against them, they get angry. They may seethe quietly, or feel despondent for long periods. But they also feel the need to strike out, should an opportunity arise. Violence allows those who feel powerless to gain a sense of empowerment.
Laurie Penny made a similar observation on her blog quite early on during the rioting:
Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night.
And in some ways they do get heard. Take this extract from an NBC blog:
Here’s a sad truth, expressed by a Londoner when asked by a television reporter: “Is rioting the correct way to express your discontent?”
“Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”
The TV reporter from Britain’s ITV had no response. So the young man pressed his advantage. “Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”
Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere.
It’s also worth noting – although I can’t find a reference right now – that in the wake of the 1981 riots, those areas which had rioted did better than those which hadn’t, partly because they got more attention from politicians. And it is probably worth adding that if injustice is a powerful driver of public disorder, then “exemplary” sentences and extra-legal and collective punishments (such as eviction) will create further trouble in the future, rather than deterring it.
The police have a problem. Several problems.
It’s striking how much the police are hated by the rioters – which was an undercurrent of last week’s disorder, from the first protest on. But perhaps it’s not that hard to understand. Consider this report by the journalist Dave Hill, from June this year, of a “community conversation” about ‘youth crime’ in Hackney. The biggest cheer of the evening interrupted these comments by Wayne Marshall of the Christian Life City church:
“There appears to be a disconnect between young people’s actual experience on the street of the police and what the statistics say,” he said. “There is a perception that the police are not on their side – on the side of law-abiding people – that the police are thuggish, that they’re pretty much another gang, that they are abusing their powers of stop-and-search and that they are treating people and speaking to people with such lack of dignity or respect that …” [At which point he was drowned out by applause].
And no matter how many times you read it, police handling of the initial peaceful demonstration by people wanting information about the circumstances of Mark Duggan’s death was offhand to the point of high-handedness. For all the talk of technology used in the riots, this was a form of protest that would have been recognised by the ancient Greeks: petitioners walking to the offices of the authorities to seek information. But they are kept waiting for several hours, an appropriately senior officer is not available, the police don’t invite the leaders of the demonstration into the building.
As David Cameron’s former speechwriter Ian Birrell wrote, the police “have stumbled from disaster to disaster in recent years, despite lavish funding and unyielding political support.” The funding and political support has been there for 30 years now, so it’s not surprising that the police’s sense of entitlement has ballooned, despite the cautious voices that remind us that policing is about consent.
The second problem is that tactics and doctrine designed to contain – or intimidate – largely peaceful protestors who agreed routes and timings of their demonstration with the police beforehand were utterly inadequate in the face of mobile, technology-enabled groups who were not so obliging. This was a form of assymetric conflict in which the police were hopelessly over-stretched by mobility until they were able to muster 16,000 officers (a huge number) on the streets.
Two points: the protesters had clearly learned from watching the police kettling other demonstrators over the past two years; and it’s hard to imagine that other demonstrators won’t learn from the rioters about the value of unpredictability. (Arguably groups as different as UK Uncut and the black bloc have already done so). But this does not represent a good public or social outcome in a country where the right to protest is apparently guaranteed, and where elites already seem to have difficulties hearing the rest of us.
The third problem is the role of the IPCC in appearing to protect the police from investigation rather than investigating them. The record is not good, and their misleading statement following Duggan’s death was reputationally damaging. But this is one of the features of the modern British state; organisations which are designed to invigilate end up providing air cover, as the Press Complaints Commission did in the earlier stages of the hacking scandal, and the Financial Services Authority did for the banking sector throughout the last decade.
The picture at the top of the post is of the ‘Why We Love Peckham’ wall, is from the Riots Cleanup website, and is used with thanks.