‘Instead of giving up their wealth to control their deficit, the burden has been put on the masses. There are pressures in crisis and it’s evident that people would protest in such a situation.’ No, not Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, but, ironically, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad’s verdict on August’s urban unrest in English cities. No doubt, he’d also watched events unfold on live television and they certainly were shocking. Buildings and businesses set on fire, shops looted, homes burgled, citizens attacked, several people killed – including three men in Birmingham trying to defend their property – and the police attacked in the streets and forced to retreat. For four nights there really was panic on the streets of London as well as Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham and Gloucester.
The police crackdown was large-scale and swift, using CCTV images and other information to track down and arrest more than 3,000 people across England, almost 65 per cent in London. By 24th August, 1474 people had appeared in court; 22 per cent were under the age of 18 and 90 per cent were male. Magistrates Courts in London opened all hours to deal with the influx, dispensing stiff ‘deterrent’ sentences. Since then, there has been no recurrence, prompting the Prisons Minister to suggest that it was ‘an exceptional event’ that would lead to ‘a one-off increase in prison numbers’ – already at an all-time high.
Unsurprisingly, politicians and commentators turned quickly to the causes, though there was no agreement amidst a chaotic swirl of possibilities. Prime Minister David Cameron argued that the problem was not poverty, unemployment or severe deprivation but a lack of morality and abdication of responsibility on the part of rioters, looters and some parents. Cameron returned to his old pre-election theme of Britain as a ‘broken society’ in need of fixing. Ed Miliband spoke of irresponsibility as a wider social malaise, taking in bankers’ bonuses, the MPs’ expenses scandal and phone hacking at the News of the World. When rich and powerful people ignore their responsibility to society, don’t expect the poor not to follow suit. There is, inevitably, more than a hint of party political positioning in such arguments.
Sociological research and explanations were generally not seen as relevant. Indeed, on 9th August, London Mayor Boris Johnson didn’t want to hear any ‘economic and sociological justifications’ for the riots. He and many others agreed that a return to ‘robust’ policing and longer, deterrent sentences would bring order back to the streets. However, in a newspaper article just 5 days later, Boris radically changed his mind arguing that ‘We must look into the minds of the looters and the robbers, and try to grasp why you would dip into the backpack of a young man you were pretending to help’. He also noted that ‘The overwhelming majority, of course, came from the lower socio-economic groups, from the ranks of those who have been left the furthest behind’ and that ‘these young people have been betrayed … by an educational system and family background that failed to give them discipline, or hope, or ambition …’. Another key factor, he said, was that ‘… the police lost control in the first few hours’.
The new, more sociologically aware Mayor told us that ‘the explanations will turn out to be more complex and more various’. I can only agree. The evidence to date suggests that no single-factor explanation will be satisfactory. We can best appreciate this by questioning the two main explanations on offer. “Britain is a ‘broken society’.” Well, there is little or no evidence for this assertion. The disorder was confined to England and did not spread to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. Broken England? Maybe, but then why did other major cities escape? Sheffield, Leeds, Hull, Bradford, Plymouth, Southampton, Leicester and more did not join in. Why not? The broken society thesis seems over-generalized.
“Poverty and unemployment are the main causes.” As Boris notes, a majority of the younger participants came from ‘lower socio-economic’ groups and this does suggest some sort of correlation. However, as our students are taught to repeat parrot-fashion, correlation does not equal causation. Is poverty and deprivation significantly worse or more widespread in Hackney and Handsworth than in Hull or Bradford or Glasgow? Not really. The first batch of cases coming to court also shows that a minority of looters and rioters had jobs, were earning a living and yet still got caught up in the free-for-all. Their involvement can’t be explained by the poverty thesis.
The first thing to recognize is that there was no unity to the events. For some, the police’s fatal shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham and the failure of police to speak to his family and friends showed high-handedness, even arrogance. On top of existing resentment that stop-and-search practice disproportionately singles out young Black men, this triggered protests (but not riots or looting) against discrimination by the Metropolitan force. On the other hand, some of the subsequent rioting and looting was clearly quite well organized and gang-related, leading to concerns about the use of social networks. Another type of looter was the pure opportunist, stealing from damaged shops ‘just because they could’ – a sort of illegitimate late-night shopping. And of course, experienced burglars were able to use the riots as a screen to carry on their ‘normal’ activities – court records show a significant number of those charged with burglary did have previous convictions.
In parts of London, other local groups saw an opportunity to show the police that ‘we’re in control and we can do what we like’, as one young woman told a reporter. By setting fire to cars and using them to block roads to the police, some of those people who genuinely have been ‘left behind’ in the race for wealth and prosperity, got to experience control over their lives that is normally elusive. Still others were attracted by the undoubted excitement of the events. We shouldn’t underestimate this aspect of the disorder, which can be quite intoxicating, especially for young people during boring school holidays.
What we can conclude is that on the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th August, a variety of participants with a range of motivations coalesced into a frenzy of rioting, looting, burglary and arson. But Boris is partly right again: the response of authorities also matters. In using standard ‘public order’ policing tactics (seen on live TV), the police were perceived as weak by some, who were emboldened to take advantage. In one sense the Prisons Minister is correct: this was a ‘one-off event’ brought about by a combination of several factors. But it doesn’t follow that disorder will not recur. Wherever there are longstanding, underlying grievances, a mutual loss of trust between social groups and authorities, a triggering event and the opening up of opportunities for action, there remains the potential for urban disorder. But every element of this equation can be worked on to reduce that potential if, like Boris, politicians and policy-makers can get beyond simplistic ideas of social causation.
Keen (and old) music lovers will know that the title of this piece is the chorus line from The Smiths (1986) single Panic by Morrissey and Marr.
Chapter 6, Cities and Urban Life, covers urban unrest on pp. 225-6. Theories of crime and deviance can be found in Chapter 21, Crime and Deviance. There is also some useful material on social movement theories on pp. 1011-21, including Blumer’s theory of social unrest on pp. 1011-12.