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Editor's Blog

Rage and riots: the Mexican wave that began in Tunisia

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Social scientists have got to stay honest, or else what's the point? So, confession, some of us may have initially downplayed the role of the police in causing the riots this summer. We thought their absence was a key issue, but maybe that wasn't true in any simple way. The information now emerging from the Guardian's research, in partnership with the LSE and supported by the Joseph Rowntree and Open Society Foundations, is revealing that many rioters had been angry with police abuse of power for some time and seized the opportunity of police absence to get their own back.

Whilst I would not change what I said here in my article "Riots, aggravated shopping and 30 years of opportunism", I now want to agree with Gary Younge in The Guardian when he writes today, in an article entitled "Indifferent elites, poverty and police brutality – all reasons to riot in the UK" that:

"First, the rioters were far more politically conscious than even many on the left, myself included, first thought......This in no way romanticises their actions. Looting is opportunistic, and most of those involved freely admit to being opportunists.... One should not overstate the case: stealing trainers and burning police cars are not the hallmarks of political sophistication. But then nor are riots. They are the crudest tool for those who have few options. By definition, they are chaotic. Rich people don't riot because they have other forms of influence. Riots are a class act.

However, these youngsters were not devoid of political consciousness either. Many, including those who live outside London, knew of the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan, and 75% cited it as an important or very important cause of the riots. They were also considerably more likely than the public at large to say poverty, inequality, government policy and policing were behind the riots.

The second theme to emerge from the report is that the rioters' primary grievance is not the one most of us imagined. The general assumption, among those who believed political causes both existed and mattered, was that the driving force for discontent was economic... Indeed, the government's high-handed moral pronouncements were particularly hard to take given the recent behaviour of our political and financial elites: a corrupt political class embroiled in phone hacking and expense scandals, and a disdainful financial sector where failure brought huge bonuses......

Almost three-quarters of interviewees said they had been stopped and searched by the police in the last year; 85% said "policing" was an important or very important cause of the riots. Just 7% believed the police do a good job in their area.

But in all the interviews, the apparently mutual contempt between rioters and police comes through. Tales of petty harassment, abuse and humiliation were commonplace. One told the story of a looter who stole a television so he could throw it at the police. 'It felt like it was on a leash for years and … we've come off the leash and just responded in that way basically', says one interviewee."

Gary Younge had in August written that the riots were ultimately political, in a piece entitled "These riots were political. They were looting not shoplifting". The recent research, based on 270 interviews, records an endless litany of complaints about police abuse of power, police racism, police behaving like an anti-social gang, and sheer police hostility towards black youth. The riots consequently acted as a catharsis for the build-up of anger and frustration, and sometimes pure personal hatred. It seems they became a perfect opportunity to take revenge, especially in the absence of police that week in August.

If we only allowed a fraction of this to be true, and any criminologist like myself who has been involved with research on police racism, or on strikes, riots and demonstrations, or worked closely with police, or have friends and family who are police, would say this was probably the tip of a much bigger iceberg and quite likely to be an understatement. The level of police racism in this country has long been played down and probably covered up. I myself have refused to disclose explosive 'restricted access' research data to the media - like journalists, academics have to protect their sources. 

Therefore, I have to agree with Gary Younge when he writes today in the Indifferent elites piece linked in above: 

"In a year that started with the uprisings in Tunisia and is ending with police raids on occupations protesting inequality across the globe, only a naïf would understand these disturbances as a random, isolated moment of mass social deviancy particular to Britain. It would be like claiming that the two black athletes who raised their fists on the podium during the Mexico Olympics in 1968 engaged in individual acts of protest in no way related to the students in Paris, the massacre in My Lai or the passing of the US civil rights act.

The 2011 riots would probably win gold as the year's most destructive, least coherent protest of disaffected youth against indifferent elites, economic hardship and police brutality. Rioters were more likely to give the finger than clench the fist. But what this report makes clear is that they belong to the same category of protest."

For further evidence in detail, see two other stories published in today's Guardian:

English riots were 'a sort of revenge' against the police

A fire lit in Tottenham that burned Manchester: the rioters' story

Of course, you do not have to be at the bottom of the food chain to feel rage against the unbelievable arrogance, ignorance and incompetence of the authorities currently overseeing the decline of Britain as a country worth living in, but I want to give the last word today to a commenter on Younge's Indifferent elites piece today, LoveisEternal, because s/he sums the situation up well:

"I witnessed the riot in Brixton first hand. The stuff I saw seemed borne from rage - incoherent rage. I watched a gang pull the shutter off a shop window with their hands, smash it up but not take anything. They then blockaded the road, attempting to smash the windows of the slowed down cars and pull people out. Eventually they pulled some guy off a bike, beat, kicked and stabbed him. 

There seemed no logic to this other than a desire to inflict damage and pain. But you only want to hurt others (random strangers basically) to that degree if you are full of pain and hate. This was rage pure and simple. So where was that level of hate and anger coming from?

This study suggests it came from humiliating interactions with the Police but this ignores the fact that a lot of seemingly random strangers and shops were attacked.

My feeling was that this anger and hate came from a whole lot of stuff - but mostly simply what it does to you to grow up and live in the most brutal parts of London, Birmingham etc. These are places where vulnerability is not really an option. Where violence is commonplace and the fear of violence always present. If you’re lucky you’ll have good parents or some figure who you can guide you through it - if not then well.. good luck. This pressure per square inch at the bottom of society is something that people like Cameron and Osbourne have no visceral experience of at all.

It was interesting to note how quick the media and politicians were to elide the rage expressed, and in particular dismiss any connection with the various ‘Days of Rage’ that prompted the Arab Spring. Yet one interpretation is that the global economic downturn and austerity measures have triggered some Mexican wave of discontent rippling around the planet. In Arab countries it was clear who was oppressed and who was oppressing- so the movements for change had a discernable political agenda and aim. When this wave hit England, our most alienated members of society (young, unemployed men in inner cities) rose up in fury but couldn’t articulate why they felt this way, who was responsible or what they wanted. It descended into a mass grab for designer goods.

This inarticulacy I think is largely a result of A) at how skilful Western politicians have become at facilitating the agenda of big business whilst reassuring us they are on our side. We can’t join the dots as to why daily life is such a struggle for most of us- whilst others get richer and richer B) How much the GBP have colluded in their own enslavement - e.g. 3m people buying the Sun - a paper that exists only to facilitate the agenda of its billionaire owner.

Everyone knows that bankers bust our economy through their malpractice yet still ended up with massive bonuses - few could explain how this is just or why politicians have done nothing to stop it happening again. Likewise few could explain why 8 out of 15 youth clubs in the deprived borough of Haringey should close to pay for the bankers’ excess. It’s hard to parse the injustice of this system fully - it’s so complex now - and even if you could it’s not clear how to fight it. Yet we carry the anger somewhere in our psyches."

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