Indifferent elites, poverty and police brutality – allreasons to riot in the UKThis summers social unrest in Britain was destructive and incoherent but, as our study shows, it was still aform of protest Gary Younge, The Guardian, Monday 5 December 2011 At the beginning of August, in a fit of collective pathology, thousands of young people across Britain took to the streets and started breaking into shops, stealing and confronting the police. What triggered this is a mystery. But whatever it was, it wasnt politics, poverty, alienation or despair. That would be making excuses for bad behaviour and imply a humanity to which the rioters had no right. For the riots were not the work of mostly disaffected teenagers but a "feral", "uneducated" "underclass" who somehow managed to outwit the police for thebest part of a week using new technology. Venal, entitled and irresponsible, they adhered to values entirelyunfamiliar to the British political establishment.Beyond the growth of gang culture and the demise of individual responsibility, no credible broaderexplanations were offered for their behaviour. If the problem had been rooted in politics and economics, thesolution might have resided there also. But for the government, this was the work of criminals; the onlyeffective remedy was punishment.Four months later the absurdity of the official response to the riots is painfully clear. It took a while. Giventhe spontaneous, geographically diverse and inchoate nature of these disturbances, there was never acredible single cause. Even if there had been, there were few among the rioters who would have been in aposition to articulate those grievances. The journey from the margins to the mainstream is a perilous one,which few make intact without losing their voice.The governments narrative may have been ridiculous, but in the absence of a counter-narrative, manybelieved it plausible. The impression of unclaimed chaos and the shots of burning cars, devastatedshopkeepers and hooded youth lent credibility to claims that this was nothing more than young hooligansrunning amok. "A riot," said Martin Luther King, "is the language of the unheard." Now, thanks in no smallpart to a study undertaken by the Guardian with the London School of Economics, weve had a chance tolisten.We already knew the government was wrong about the causes. "At the heart of all the violence sits the issueof the street gangs," claimed David Cameron at the time. The governments own research later showed thatonly 13% of those involved in the riots were gang members, and even then, most were not operating as agang. Paradoxically, if anything, the riots temporarily tempered gang activity, as rival gangs set aside theirdifferences so they could participate freely in the looting. Poverty was clearly a factor. Ministry of Justicefigures revealed almost two-thirds (64%) of the young rioters lived in the poorest areas and 42% relied onfree school meals. "There is nothing so dangerous as a man who has nothing to lose," wrote James Baldwin."You do not need 10 such men. Only one will do." With youth unemployment rising to 21.9%, Britain isproducing thousands.
But in the absence of any demands, organisation or even slogans, even those who argued that these riotswere political in nature struggled to fathom what the nature of the politics were. Thanks to the research, twoparticular themes have helped correct some initially flawed impressions. First, the rioters were far morepolitically 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 admitto being opportunists. When asked how he heard about the riots, one interviewee said he got a message onhis BlackBerry saying people were "getting free stuff out and about", so he joined in. One should notoverstate 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 arechaotic. Rich people dont 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 wholive outside London, knew of the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan, and 75% cited it as an important orvery important cause of the riots. They were also considerably more likely than the public at large to saypoverty, 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 usimagined. The general assumption, among those who believed political causes both existed and mattered,was that the driving force for discontent was economic. Everyone from the UN to Nick Clegg had predictedsocial unrest if the austerity measures were pushed in time of recession. Indeed, the governments high-handed moral pronouncements were particularly hard to take given the recent behaviour of our political andfinancial elites: a corrupt political class embroiled in phone hacking and expense scandals, and a disdainfulfinancial sector where failure brought huge bonuses.Cameron characterised the moral collapse that made the riots possible thus: "It is a complete lack ofresponsibility in parts of our society; people allowed to feel the world owes them something, that their rightsoutweigh their responsibilities and their actions do not have consequence." He could just as easily have beentalking about bankers.Economic issues were important. The cause most often cited for the riots was poverty (86%), butunemployment (79%) and inequality (70%) featured prominently too. Few guessed, though, that this tinderin the box was lit at least as much by the long arm of the law as the invisible hand of the market. Almostthree-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 goodjob in their area.But in all the interviews, the apparently mutual contempt between rioters and police comes through. Tales ofpetty harassment, abuse and humiliation were commonplace. One told the story of a looter who stole atelevision so he could throw it at the police. "It felt like it was on a leash for years and … weve come off theleash and just responded in that way basically," says one interviewee."And what was the leash; who was holding you on that leash?" asks the interviewer. "The police."In a year that started with the uprisings in Tunisia and is ending with police raids on occupations protestinginequality across the globe, only a naïf would understand these disturbances as a random, isolated momentof mass social deviancy particular to Britain. It would be like claiming that the two black athletes who raisedtheir fists on the podium during the Mexico Olympics in 1968 engaged in individual acts of protest in noway 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 years most destructive, least coherent protest of disaffectedyouth against indifferent elites, economic hardship and police brutality. Rioters were more likely to give thefinger than clench the fist. But what this report makes clear is that they belong to the same category ofprotest.