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London Riots – Lessons & Aftermath

By on 22/08/2011

London Riots – Lessons & Aftermath


The London / UK riots were the worst civil unrest to occur in the country since the 80s, the most surprising thing about the riots for me was that government and the law were actually surprised when they actually happened. The fatal shooting of Mark Duggan was just the catalyst for what eventually would have occurred sooner or later. It was a very strange time when the riots occured, I carried on with business as usual whilst the riots occurred, I went to what was initially an sold out BFI IMAX screening of Super 8 in the middle of  riots and only 1/4 of the people actually showed, I also ended up witnessing some of the violence on my doorstep in Camden, seeing mobile phone stores being broken into, windows being broken into and the following police retaliation against the rioters. As well as the extreme violence which occurred during the riots there was also a deep sense of community during and in the immediate aftermath of the riots – neighbours took on people whose houses had been damaged, communities on Green Lanes in London helping protect each others stores from looters, as well as the community clean up projects that volunters started to clear all the mess that occurred. I personally was helped by a stranger when I couldn’t get back to my flat and given a place to stay until it calmed down – a favor I then had to return on my way home when the violence kicked off again. The events of the riots will forever stay embedded in psyche UK society for many years and inspired me to write this article…..



I based much of this article around the themes of how riots start & how they are propagated in the brilliant article by D.D Haddock & D.D Polisby in the Cato Journal (vol 14, no.1) titled Understanding Riots. its a good read if you would like a very descriptive overview on the nature of riots and how they occur. In this article I will be compare the England riots to those in South Central Los Angeles 1992 after the result of the Rodney King trial, and how although the exoneration of the police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King (just like the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan at the hand of the police) were just the catalysts for the ensuing riots and the underlying causes behind them beyond the beating of Rodney King and their subsequent initial exoneration. LA also put many measures in place and did much investigation into the underlying causes of the riots in the aftermath, I will show how some of these measures could be transferable to the UK.


Mark Duggan

The damage caused during the riots as well as the injuries and loss of life was massive and its of great importance to bring to the surface the underlying causes of these riots, our government owes it to society to investigate and tackle these underlying causes without of course justifying the criminality that occurred

Understanding Riots

‘Understanding Riots’ states the first stage of a riot is the assembling of the crowd. Large numbers of riot prone people are required to mass spontaneously in one place whilst police cannot get together at a corresponding pace. The peaceful protest by the family of Mark Duggan served as the place for this to begin. The protest itself was peaceful, but it seems there was a small element intent of starting trouble.


After the riots started this spread of a small minority intent on causing trouble quickly grew to many people on the streets intent in rioting and looting. The spread of minority to majority view is put into process by what Understanding Riots calls “The Role of the Entrepreneur” – this is the person who risks arrest by casting the first stone. There are 2 considerations that the entrepreneur takes into consideration before doing this – the size of the crowd s/he is with and the size of the surrounding police – it doesn’t matter that most of the people initially congregating were not there to cause trouble – there is safety in numbers as there is less chance of getting caught. Once that first plane of glass is broken the looting begins. Recent research from scientists at RPI’s Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Centre recently published some research on how minority view can be become majority. They stated that  “when the number of committed opinion holders is below 10% there is no physical progress of ideas………once that number grows above 10% the idea spreads like a flame”. It was at this stage where the police were capable of ending the (relatively) small Tottenham riots rather than standing back and letting it grow. Questions need to be asked regarding the Metropolitan Police’s SOPs for conflict resolution and why they sat back and let this conflict escalate the way it did.


The next stage in the riot is the formation of action nodes. These are hotspots where rioters gather. This was initially Tottenham High Street, then spread to other parts of London and later over England. During the LA riots the media played a part in the formation of action nodes due to the fact that they were reporting live from each new riot location as it happened allowing more people to go to those areas and continue looting. In this respect the authorities in London learned from this by placing a media blackout on new riot nodes until hours after they were first hit to quell the flow of people attending. Now in the age of the internet and social media this was more difficult, we live in a connected age unlike that of LA in 1992, our mobile devices allow the instant collection and sharing of information making it difficult for the stopping of action node occurance. Social media did more good in informing the public as it did in the propergatiom of the riots – it has been unfairly blamed by government as being a cause of the riots more of which I’ll come on to later.


Now lets looks at the possible reasons for the riots occurring. One thing which is for sure is although the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan was not the reason for the widespread looting and destruction we saw over those few days it was the catalyst for them occurring.


Why did the riots occur?

The main reason being put forward as to why the riots occurred is social – youth of today are disaffected, there are no jobs, they see no future for themselves and thereby have nothing to loose, they feel like they have no voice and a lot of whom have not vote either. They are being pushed more and more to the fringes of society. The closing of youth centres are leaving the youth of today with nothing to do especially during these long summers. Tottenham recently closed all the youth centres in its area. When I was a kid there were plenty of after school clubs and play centres for the youth during the summer in Camden – off of my head I can count 5 that were within walking distance from my house during every school holiday. These places were a good output for local kids and kept us all out of trouble, gave us something to do with all that excess energy. These have all since closed and now all you get is kids hanging in the streets with nothing to do. There was one very interesting interview during the riots where this unnamed man put forward some interesting views regarding the causes of these riots



This is just the tip of the iceberg. I am by no means an expert sociologist but one thing that is for certain – the riots did not come as a surprise to me or  many others like it did to the government, which in part shows their disconnection from the so called  fringes of society today that they have had a part in creating – beyond the shear criminality (which were a huge part of the ensuing looting following the riots) these kids are trying to say something and this must be listened to – this is by no means a justification or condoning of the violence & looting that occurred, but now its time for government to listen, there are many more youth out there with exactly the same views that didn’t take to violence & looting and they need to be listened to


There are many more social and environmental factors that could also be attributed to the underlying causes of the riots. To build a picture of the current climate of the youth of today and those that feel marginalised by society – many more truthful than others. These factors cannot be seen as the complete view as to the cause of the riots per say – these factors have always been bubbling for a while, yet riots are episodic. Much like the LA riots the robbing and looting that ensued from the verdict of the Rodney King trial was not directed towards the courts system, the same with the London riots – his fatal shooting was the spark that lit the bonfire of underlying issues.


In the aftermath of the LA riots publications like Newsweek, Time and the Los Angeles Times did extensively researched articles on the route causes of the riots that were underlying in LA before the Rodney King trial. Suggestions made included economic deterioration of South Central LA, declining of living conditions, corporate restructuring and the people of the inner cities bearing the brunt of these changes leading to marginalisation and a feeling of powerlessness of the urban populace. The California Legislature Assembly set up the Special Committee on the LA Crisis to find the underlying causes of the riots and how to undo these issues. It produced a report called To Rebuild is Not Enough – in which it set out the underlying riot causes such as poverty, segregation, police abuse, lack of education & employment opportunities and unequal consumer services. It also set out the beginnings of the long-term plan to undo these problems


What Happens Next?

Our government needs to take a similar sort of approach and set up a similar sort of committee, with experts, local government officials, community leaders and lay members. A project like this is no easy feat and our government will have to face and own up to some of its own faults but it needs to be done. These issues need to be faced and doing so is no by no means a way of justifying the criminality caused during the riots. There have been interviews with the rioting youth where they compare their criminality to that of bankers, MP’s expense fiddling, police taking bribes from newspapers a lot of whom are getting away with it. They see wars being waged in foreign countries with billions of pounds of tax payers money being put into these wars whilst local communities are marginalised and are deteriorating.


Our government needs to get back in touch with society and the youth of today and bring them back in from the fringes of society. It seems like David Cameron is still has not learned his lesson from 2006 where he blamed Radio 1 Saturday night music (namely the Tim Westwood show) for encouraging people to carry guns and knifes, which lead to this response in the Guardian blog from Lethal Bizzle. Today still David Cameron seems to be misunderstanding the issues today by simply blaming shear criminality (which is most definitely a part of it) and technology as the reasoning behind these riots. By hiding behind Blackberry & Twitter is purely symptomatic – there is no point in going at the methods used to help use spread word on riots rather than trying to cure the causes of riots. MPs calling for the shut down of Twitter is totalitarian – it was just a few months ago that our government was praising the roll of Twitter and Facebook in the recent Arab Spring and were crying out at the governments of these countries for shutting down the internet during these uprising. Even more recently San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) shutdown its cellphone towers in the metro network to stop the protests following the fatal shooting of a man on platform by BART police officers. In Essex a 20 year old was arrested for trying to organise a water fight on Blackberry messesnger & facebook. These steps towards quelling free speech are dangerous – it seems to be leading to the imposing of rules that the use or social media to organise any sort of protest will lead to arrest.



In conclusion, riots and the looting that follows although in their nature complex & unpredictable will follow certain rules in the way they start. There are many lessons that the police and government have to learn from these and riots of the past. Although a huge part of the London riots were down to criminality which is being tackled – our police and government need to seriously investigate and tackle the underlying issues that lead to riots exploding in the first place as well as the initial police responses to riots rather than symptomatically attacking social media.



It was about a year ago that I wrote this article soon after the riots occurred. A lot has happened since then in the forms of protest – Occupy protested in St Pauls and other sites across the world, there was protests all over the US & Europe over ACTA SPOA and its related bills, the many student protests over fees, as well as the Congo election protests in Whitehall – it seems that taking to protests is now embedded in the psyche of the public. Since the events of last year there has been much bottom up investigation into why the riots occurred but not the top down sort of investigation that I was expecting (well more hoping) government would undertake a public inquiry to find the causes of these riots much like the California Legislature Assembly did in their report, but so far they have resisted doing this despite calls for them to do so. However the London School of Economics together with The Guardian have created a report called Reading The Riots – in this report they have interviewed rioters, residents, police and judiciary as well as an analysis of 2.5 million riot related twitter messages – aiming to look at without prejudice the causes and consequences of the riots as well as the lessons for public policy. They modeled the report created in the aftermath of the Detroit 1967 riots. There was also a 2 part documentary made using the testimony taken from the rioters as well as the police was was to air on the 19th July on the BBC, due to a court order on the day this was due to broadcast the show was not allowed to air. There has been uproar as well as many theories over why this has been banned the most occurring is that this is due to London not being seen in a bad light at the time of The Olympics. Whatever the reasoning the lack of public inquiry and the banning of the documentary based on the extensive research done through the biggest investigation so far into the riots says a lot about how government wants to the deal with the riots. Hopefully the show will be eventually aired soon. I have read the first part of the actual Reading the Riots report, a few things are apparent from reading this first part of the report: Twitter & Facebook were not used in any significant way by the rioters, whereas Blackberry Messenger was used extensively; there were many reasons behind the rioting including opportunism, the increase in tuition fees, the closure of youth services, the scrapping of education maintenance allowance, the shooting to Mark Duggan, extreme policing, inequality and greed; 81% of the rioters believe it will happen again within 3 years; gang members made up only 13% of those arrested which is contradictory to David Cameron’s statement that gang members were pivotal to the riots; the messages for the clean up campaign in social media were in far excess of the messages on social media used to incite the riots. The report is very extensive and part 2 will be made up of the interviews with police and judiciaries. The plan is then to later take the results to local community focus groups and start open discussions.

Despite it not coming from a government public enquiry – this report is the step in the right direction to finding the causes of the riots and to give the community the voice they need so that they are heard and this never happens again…..lets hope the documentary is aired soon.

By Tendai

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