The England Riots: Part 4 – Joining the Dots

During the riots two years ago, every man and his dog had an opinion on the events that were unfolding before them.

Most of the time, the loudest arguments (though not necessarily ‘the best’ explanations) were the simplistic ones – the ones that offered only one cause. People were understandably angry, so pretty much the only explanation people heard were that the rioters were a plague of “feral rats” that escaped from the underclass and were let loose into civil society – oh, help us!

Well, after my first, second and third posts on the riots, I thought I would dedicate my fourth post to the various causes of the riots. I’ll then take a look at what has happened since. Do feel free to add anything you feel that I’ve missed out.

So, without further ado, here’s my two pence on the whole furor:

The Causes

Mark Duggan’s death

Mark Duggan

Whatever your beliefs on why people participated in the riots in the first place, you can’t deny the fact that Mark’s death, and everything that surrounded it afterwards, was the spark that lit the fuse in the first place. This is well documented in the film ‘Riot from Wrong’.

His death highlighted the fact that there is a tense relationship between the police and the community.

Police/community relations

– Deaths in custody/following police contact

When Mark was fatally shot, his loss of life represented yet another death following police contact or in police custody. According to an article, which was published on the Guardian’s website in 2012, 1,433 deaths have fallen into this category since 1990.

Mark’s family didn’t even know about his death until they saw it in the media. They wanted answers, so they decided to march peacefully to the police station to get some answers, but nobody bothered to come out to see them.

Sure, after an incident like this, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) investigates such complaints against police actions. But what is frustrating for many families involved is that first of all, these enquiries can take a while to be completed, but once they are, even though “a number of issues” are raised, more often than not, “no evidence of criminal offence” has been found. Or, if it has and the case is passed on to the criminal justice system, then a jury always finds the police officer ‘not guilty’. This just gives the impression that the police are above the law.

Stop and search

The police’s powers to ‘stop and search’ someone is also something which antagonises certain communities. Fortunately, I’ve only been stopped and questioned once, when I worked as a charity fundraiser. At one event I felt almost embarrassed that when asked if anyone had any problems with the police, I was pretty much the only person that didn’t put my hand up. In fact, I’m the person with an ‘I met the Met’ sticker on my wall after local officers came in to give talks at my primary school.

But imagine having to face this humiliating routine day in, day out, because of the way you look or the number of people you hang out with. Black and mixed raced boys are particularly affected by this, and you can tell from the way that they speak about the police that there is an animosity towards them. (Please do understand your rights if you do get stopped).

I do understand that there are higher rates of crime in certain areas, however the people that are consistently targeted – who have done nothing wrong – have a problem with the way they are being treated by the police.

So with all of this in mind, it’s not really surprising that there are tensions between the police and the community. When word quickly spread that a girl had been beaten up by the police in Tottenham, that’s when things really started to kick off, apparently. This was their chance to take out their aggression on the police and to attack them, showing a reversal in power.

It was also very apparent that a lot of the rioters weren’t protesting about the death of a man by police hands. Even when Mark’s family called for the violence to stop, the riots continued to spread. Quite a few of the rioters didn’t even have a grievance against the police. For a large number of the rioters, it was simply an opportunity to get something for free.

Opportunism/ Materialism

Some of the rioters were motivated by pure greed. They literally grabbed anything they could get their hands on, just because of the fact that it was ‘free’ and there were no apparent consequences for doing so.

People were having a field day walking into a store empty-handed, and walking out with all types of gadgets, clothes and products under the sun. There were stories of people, who were only passing by, but then got caught up in the frenzy and went along with everybody else, because everyone else was getting away with it.

All types of people got involved, and this included a millionaire’s daughter, an Olympic ambassador and an Oxford graduate, although he was later cleared of his role in the riots. Older people were also involved in the riots, and this even included a primary school assistant.

Gangs apparently set aside any differences and rivalries, so that they could take advantage of this golden opportunity.

Some people even had the nerve to attack other people, so that they could take their possessions.

One person took it too far. He attacked a man who confronted him over his actions. That man later died. Other innocent people lost their lives, because of the recklessness of others. All in all, five people lost their lives.

Greed really was the order of the day. But everyday we are bombarded with things that we ‘need’ and ‘must have’, but don’t really have the funds to get. The rioters saw this as their opportunity to get the latest products, and the police pretty much gave them the green light to do so.

Police tactics

I’m not sure why the police didn’t step in to stop the riots in Tottenham. They largely watched on while the rioters ran rampant around the area. But what I do know is that the police’s lack of action in Tottenham encouraged others to do the same.

And as more and more people joined in, it was obvious that the police force was stretched to its limit. There was a lack of police presence in many areas. People were angry that there was no one there to protect them.

Arguments were brought forward for the police to use rubber bullets, but then people said that this would only make the situation worse as some feared that gangs would fire back with real bullets. Others argued for water cannons to be used, but others said it was impractical to use these because of how big they were to move around and the nature of how quickly the riots moved from one place to another.

And since the police appeared powerless, rioters were free to do as they pleased. Maybe they did it because they had nothing better to do.

Cuts/ Lack of Opportunities/ Disengagement

Funding for youth services have been hit hard since the recession. According to an article on the Guardian’s website, cuts to youth services averaged 27% between 2010 and 2012. In the London Borough of Haringey, where Tottenham is based, the council decided in February 2011 to cut the youth budget by 75%. And as Tottenham MP David Lammy rightly predicted, this definitely had a “negative impact on young people”.

So, it’s the summer holidays and many young people have nothing to do. I’m pretty sure that the ‘excitement’ surrounding the riots seemed very appealing to some of them. You pretty much get a sense of this from an interview with two girls who took part in the riots for fun.

With ever-increasing university fees and the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance scheme in England, for some young people, their access to education was shrinking quickly.

Even if you graduated from university, it was, and still is hard to find a job. And the longer you are unemployed, the less employable you are. You are stuck. For black people – and in particular young men – the unemployment rate is quite high.

Or, if you’re fortunate enough to have a job, then more likely than not, you’re underemployed. Imagine the frustration you must feel, to work so hard for so long and to be promised so much, but then these dreams fail to materialise.

So if someone is not working, they are not in education, they feel like politicians don’t represent them and that nobody cares about them, then I’m sure they would feel disengaged. You’ll live by your own rules and norms. You won’t really feel bad about destroying your own community, because you don’t’ respect it – you are not connected to it.

But what made matters worse is that the media and politicians vilified these youths as an “underclass” and “feral rats”. And as one journalist mentioned in the ‘Riot from Wrong’ documentary, if you dehumanise someone, then you there is no need for you to try and understand their actions. The “hug a hoodie” days were long gone.

All of these causes are linked together, and I hope I’ve demonstrated how complex the situation actually was.

But what has happened since?

Data has revealed that although the rioters were largely “poorer, younger, and less educated”, there was a real mixture of ethnicities, which took part in the riots, contrary to what was peddled by racist people in the comments section in news articles. Older people also took part in the riots. It’s also clear that a number of rioters have not yet been caught.

Cases were quickly rushed through courts, and, to act as a ‘deterrent’, hefty jail sentences were handed out to those who were caught. The BBC said that the average sentence was 16.8 months, which is four times the average term handed out for similar offences. It’s some deterrent if new gangs were being formed as a result of the large numbers of rioters being sent to prison.

And how is it that a 17-year-old girl was jailed for eight months for stealing a bottle of Lucozade, but Lord Hanningfield was jailed for nine months in 2011 (but only served nine weeks) after fiddling almost £14,000 in parliamentary expenses? This is justice at its finest.

Another knee-jerk reaction to the riots was the clever idea to evict rioters from local authority housing. Thankfully, a number of councils ignored this directive from the Government. I guess the real reason for this ‘strategy’ is because people were baying for blood.

Speaking of justice, two years on since Mark was shot dead, the IPCC found that there was “no evidence to indicate criminality at this stage”.

Just as a side note about police actions, even up until this week, although the jury found PC Simon Harwood not guilty of manslaughter last year, Scotland Yard apologised to Ian Tomlinson’s family this week for his death in 2009. His family accepted the apology and said that that was “as close as we are going to get to justice”.

On a slightly more optimistic note, Home secretary Theresa May launched a public consultation last month in a bid to try and “get stop and search right”. Only time will tell what will happen next.

Despite the strong counter arguments against using water cannons, the police asked for funding to buy water cannons, just in case the riots the riots were to happen again. I guess the police want to be seen to be taking action.

Regarding reports, it was heart-warming to see that local people cared enough about their community to come together to set up their own inquiry into the riots, which devastated their community.

But with reference to another report, it was disheartening to hear that the ‘official’ findings by the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel has been completely disregarded by the Government.

My final post in this ‘riots special’ series will take a look at what could possibly happen in the future.


  1. Interesting piece.

    I think a lot of people underestimate how difficult it is to be in the shoes of a policeman from day to day let alone in a riot. Some want it both ways; they want to be protected but when the police do do their jobs, they criticise. I can’t even imagine having to walk out into the middle of a riot knowing that the majority of the rioters are so riled up they would have no problem seriously harming you. Yet we expected them to do so without applauding their courage. They have to make what could be a potentially life-changing decision in a heartbeat and then have that split-second decision scrutinised. How many of us make these types of decisions in our jobs on a daily basis. Police, doctors, firemen – truly remarkable people. And as in all areas of life generalisation means that when once does something contrary to public opinion, the whole group is seen that way. So for the one or twenty or a hundred police officers who deliberately target a racial group, there are thousands who don’t but are still tarnished with the same brush.

    The opportunism of society shone through as you rightly describe with people from all backgrounds been lured by the ‘get something for nothing’ scene. But for every rioter there were hundreds of people in London that weren’t drawn in to such behaviour. What makes them different I wonder?

    1. Thanks for visiting my blog and for leaving a comment!

      I agree with you, the police, and many other people who work ‘on the front line’, have to deal with a lot on a daily basis. Many of them do a tremendous job. Some others, however, abuse their power and unfortunately people pay more attention to ‘the scandals’ and as you said, then everyone associated with that group is tarnished with the same brush.

      And I agree with your question – what makes them different? And that questions applies in other life situations as well. It makes me wonder though, if there truly wasn’t a police presence and there was no way of getting caught, then how many other people would have actually joined in?

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