Were the riots inevitable?

7 August 2011

It’s become a cliche among many people that rioting is an inevitable consequence of deprivation and injustice. Last night’s rioting in Tottenham inspired a predictable – one might say inevitable – crop of examples on Twitter:

It’s because David Cameron turns a blind eye to corruption between Murdoch and Metropolitan Police that alienation makes riots inevitable. – derekrootboy

I don’t agree with riots but was inevitable when working classes are being fucked over like this. – mollymccowen

Riots inevitable in people who cannot express their anger in any other way. Historical precedents a-plenty. – Jos21

The riots were inevitable. That’s the first thing I said when I heard about the shooting. Anger and hot summer nights are a lethal cocktail – iheni

tottenham riots Soh dem mash up Tottenham, !!! Was inevitable after the shooting of Mark Duncan (sic). Wasn’t rocket science in my book – Mafia1065

Historically it’s inevitable there are riots when there are cuts like this – HelenReloaded

the climate in our country is terrible and riots were inevitable but the looting and destroying of places of work saddens me – evey_moriarty

This was inevitable..tory government. Riots. Protests. Cuts. Unemployment. Disaffected Youth. Strikes. Recession. Police Brutality. – xxlucyxlucyxx

When people are attacked by ideological cuts and suffer racism from the police, riots like this are inevitable. – PennyRed

Riots were inevitable given building unhappiness with the manner in which the police conducts itself – dr_rita39

The Guardian is giving front-page space today to a video from a week ago in which a young man from Haringey asserts that the closure of local youth clubs will lead to riots.

Dave Osler at Liberal Conspiracy skilfully avoids the i-word but you can tell he means it:

[S]uch is the degree of disconnect between all the major parties and the street that the chances of positive engagement are next to zero. There is instead the recourse of riot.

Back at the Guardian, Dave Hill offers a slightly more nuanced explanation:

In such a climate [of economic deprivation and government cutbacks], an event such as the shooting dead by police of 29 year-old father of four Mark Duggan on Thursday night is more likely to provide in some minds, especially young ones, a pretext, a rationale or an opportunity to jettison any respect for the law or regard for fellow citizens and let rip.

These widespread views about the supposed inevitability of rioting need closer examination.

Those who make the case for inevitable rioting are rarely speaking about themselves. Journalists and commentators on comfortable middle incomes are less likely to be seriously affected by a sluggish economy, government cutbacks and police thuggery than those at the bottom of the social pile even if they’re as angry about it as anyone else. They won’t be out at 5am torching John Lewis or looting the local Jigsaw.

Nor will the people in the Guardian’s youth clubs video or those discussing the rioting on Twitter. Many of these people are likely to be in very similar circumstances to those burning, looting and attacking the emergency services.

What’s notable about the Tottenham riots and rioting in the UK in general is the scale – not how large and commonplace riots are but how small and rare. Anecdotes suggest that people were coming from across London to join a riot just a few hundred strong in Tottenham. As some of those arrested give their home addresses in court this week we’ll see whether this can be confirmed. Rioting as an activity relies on the disinhibition and physical protection of strength in numbers. Tottenham by itself may have been too small a place to recruit a critical mass of rioters.

All of which suggests that the rioting in Tottenham may be far more about the those few rioters themselves than the society in which all of us live. Rioting stems not from the social grievances and frustrations of the many but from the desire for mayhem and the lack of self control of the few. Even in boom times the UK has around a million people unemployed and looking for work. Why isn’t there a riot every day of the week?

There are adequate good reasons to provide effective public services and social opportunities for people of all backgrounds without resorting to political blackmail: do this or riots will inevitably follow. Whether you want better student funding, good youth clubs or a competent and honest police service, public policy shouldn’t be run like a protection racket. Politicians should fear the masses casting ballots not the mob casting stones.

So people need to be very cautious when talking about the supposed inevitability of riots. If one person riots but the majority of his neighbours in exactly the same circumstances do not, that’s a matter of individual differences not social breakdown. The solutions to this kind of behaviour are found in psychology and criminology not politics.

Those who talk about the inevitability of riots show gross disrespect to the vast majority of people who live peaceably with their neighbours and abide by the law despite deprivation and injustice. They show disrespect to the rioters too. If some people can’t help themselves rioting they are put outside the proper demands of the community and the law, stripped of any meaningful citizenship. They’re robbed of their moral agency too – deprived of their ability to discern the right course of action whatever the circumstances and to act accordingly.

We need to have higher expectations of everyone than that.