UK Riots 2011: Looking back
Burning vehicles, smoking buildings, pillaged shops, fuelled masses and riot police in futuristic anti-riot gear. A government and it’s agents brought to their knees. Five days in August 2011.
On the morning of the 6th Tottenham, North London was it’s usual bustling self with its residents attending to their Saturday business. By nightime, Tottenham had been transformed into a scene of flames, rioting and looting. The next day, the wave of unrest spread to other London boroughs, Hackney, Enfield, Clapham, Croydon and more and then to cities located throughout England. Five people died. 3000 were arrested. “The worst riots this generation.” What the hell happened?
If you recall (if you could ever forget) it all started with the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29 year old father of three, by a police officer during a botched arrest. This happened on the 4th of August 2011. There was a lot of controversy surrounding Mark’s death. The police initially reported that Mark had fired a handgun but relatives maintained that he hadn’t been armed. Rumours spread that Mark had been assasinated. Throughout this period the police persisted in their silence. Understandably, the community was angered and in pain. To date, Mark’s family have still not received an official report as the Independent Police Commissioner (IPCC) investigation is still on-going.
A peaceful protest was organised for the 6th of August. At midday, representatives from the Tottenham police met with community leaders to discuss this and some have claimed that the police were explicity warned that the situation could blow up if not handled correctly. At about 5pm a crowd stood protesting in front of the local police station. They waited for a senior officer to address them but none appeared. Three hours later, patience was wearing thin and the crowd had become antsy. As the night progressed things esclated into property damage and looting. One account is that the crowd was sparked into violence when it saw riot officers beat down a 16 year old girl with battons, another that the crowd set two police cars alight after the futile three hour wait. The looting lasted till the early hours of the morning.
Admittedly, I watched most of this from the relative safety of my own home. The images I saw were surreal. The level of violence frightened me. It was as if the nation had been turned into a warzone with rampage spreading like a virus.
When I finally ventured into North London, Enfield was subdued. The streets were virtually empty apart from riot debris and a group of 30 white vigilante youth on parade. The Sony warehouse was still smoking, grey wafting billows that could be seen for miles. It left me shocked and cold.
I watched as communites pulled together to clean up the mess. The media and government blamed street gangs for the riots. I listened as the prime minister addressed the commons. He seemed to be taking the hard line and he did mean business as soon after an American ‘supercop’ visited to advise. William Bratton, an ex-police chief who had served in New York, Boston and Los Angeles, renouned for his “zero tolerance” on gang violence.
Well it turns out that laying the blame on the gangs was a bit too simple. Late 2011, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and Home Office released figures showing that only 13% of those arrested were actually affiliated with a gang though most did have a previous conviction.
In fact, the statistics produced a profile that was different to the one I was expecting. I knew most of the rioters were young men (90%) but I was surprised that the differential in race wasn’t so significant as 46% of those arrested were black while 42% were white (with 7% Asian and 5% were classified as “other.) It turns out that what they had most in common was poverty and a lack of educational achievement. 66% of them were under 25, a third of which were juveniles (10-17).
Okay, so we know the root cause of the unrest in Tottenham but what compelled the youths in other areas to kick off? As part of their study “Reading the Riots”, the Guardian and the London School of Economics (LSE) interviewed hundreds including rioters based in different cities. They found that 85% believed that policing was a major factor. Interviewees told stories of manhanding, assault verbal abuse as well as false arrests. Many felt they were being bullied and intentionally targeted by the police. Majority agreed that the riots were a means of revenge. Apparently, where remorse was shown it did not extend to the police force.
The Independent Riots Communities and Victims Panel (IRCVP) was specifically set up by the coalition government to look into the riots. It released its final report in March of this year. It also recognises a high level of disatisfaction with community policing. In London, one of the most reported issues was the excessive ‘stop and search’ of black males. In fact, Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) figures corroborate this, they show that the police are 28 more times likely to stop and search black men than any other racial group.
Poor police relations however doesn”t seem to be the only thing that the youth are upset about . The panel’s report also recognises deprivation as playing a key role. It devotes a whole section to the fact that deprived youth lack “Hopes and Dreams” for the future.
Our situation is this; the country is weighed down by economic pressures with a government intent on reducing its deficit at the expense of public spending. No sector is safe and business is stagnant. The unemployment rates for the demographic that participated in the riots (the under 25 year olds) stands at 1.01 million and indeed 49% of the rioters were unemployed.
The Education Maintenance Allowance is gone and university fees have trebled. Funding for many public services and community facilities such as youth clubs has been reduced or withdrawn. Not a pretty picture especially when put beside one where banks are being bailed out by the public and bankers are continuing to get bonuses in the millions for doing a poor and sometimes dishonest job. It is not suprising that there are not enough ‘hopes and dreams’ to go round.
Other reports such as the Church of England’s “Testing the Bridges” and “More cutbacks mean more riots?” a paper by an ex-government adviser Professor Peter Taylor-Gooby also point to austerity, cutbacks and high unemployment as factors leading to social disorder .
According to the IRCVP much of the looting was opportunistic and it proposes that advertising and brand goods contributed to its high level. It also suggests that police inaction at the onset of the riots caused the unrest to spread to the other locations with such speed.
The report is very thorough and space considerations prevent a full review but notably it states that there are about 500,000 families that fall into the ‘most disadvantaged’ category and proposes various social means by which they can be helped including better relations with the police. In March, the coalition government publicly acknowledged their findings and expressed the hope that their ‘Troubled Families’ programme would provide assistance to at least 120,000 of these families. It’s a start.
Over 15,000 people are estimated to have participated in the riots. During this 5 day period 5,000 crimes were committed. There were 1,860 incidents of arson and criminal damage, 1,649 burglaries, 141 incidents of disorder and 366 incidents of violence against the person. Victims suffered finanicially and emotionally and in some cases have the physical scars to prove it. The admitted cost so far in damages, compensation and policing is around the £300 million mark and I’m sure that’s a conservative estimate.
All the reports agree that we are at risk of future riots if the underlying social issues are not addressed. Instead of having the youth wage a war against us, we should maintian a war against the underlying factors that caused the riots. That is not to say that the rioters should go unpunished but it is much cheaper to prevent than it is to pick up the pieces afterwards. You can not attach a price to feeling safe in your own home. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens next.