Civil violence: three steps to understanding the ‘mindless criminal’

Posted by Jaideep Gupte, Research Fellow, Conflict, Violence and Development Cluster, IDS

Last weekend, twitter and various internet blogs lit up: London was under attack. Television news repeatedly showed bewildering scenes of riotous mobs on the rampage, shops being looted and buildings on fire. As the violence spread from Tottenham to several neighbourhoods across the city, ‘copy-cat criminality’[1] and mob frenzy were blamed for the continued violence. However, as public order in other cities, including Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool, also broke down, it became harder to pin the violence on mindless criminality alone.

The BBC hosted a lively exchange between Edwina Currie (former Conservative MP) and West Indian columnist Darcus Howe.[2] Currie de-linked the present spate of civil violence in London from the violent rioting in Brixton in 1981, arguing that while deep-rooted racism was almost a ‘respectable’ trait in the 1980s, this was not the case now. And that youth violence today, regardless of race, is fuelled by a disconnect with society in general. In a hypothetical scenario she painted, a youth would turn to violence just to have ‘the trainers that Mum won’t buy me’ and through a lack of respect for private property, that is, not recognising the distinction between ‘what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours and I don’t touch it’. In response, Howe pointed out that young Black men continue to be a disenfranchised cohort, who are stereotyped by the police through their stop-and-search powers. Howe also indirectly questioned why that mother would not (or could not) buy running shoes for her son, or what meaning the concept of private property had for someone who had none.

These views characterise an important debate in understanding civil violence: whether it is perpetrated by mindless criminality, or whether there is a more structured anatomy of a riot. So how are we to understand the London riots? Here is a 3-step approach to understanding the ‘mindless criminal’:

Step 1 (at the macro-level): Right at the top of the list must be a recognition that civil violence, a term used to describe associated acts of violation and destruction, carried out as a sign of defiance against a central authority or between opposing groups of people, can occur in societies which we consider to be ‘modern and progressive’. There is no inherent fail-safe mechanism against the outbreak of civil violence in a modern democratic system, or in fact, any political system. Research on civil violence[3] shows us that violence can be a powerful (and emotive) mechanism to gain access to credibility and authority – for disenfranchised cohorts, this often is the most tangible means of asserting one’s identity or even gaining acceptance into social groups. This recognition keeps us from viewing the London riots as an outlandish anomaly, and in doing so, from justifying it as such.

Step 2 (at the meso-level): much has been reported about how the London rioters are destroying communities and neighbourhoods, the very fabric of society. So a second step would be to unpack why it is that shops and restaurants, often owned by known community members, were so predominantly targeted – was it because of the possibility of ‘stealing watches’, as per the clip shown repeatedly by the BBC? Quite possibly. Evidence from around the world suggests that looting and thievery form an integral part of civil violence. During the 1992-1993 riots in Mumbai, a city in India very prone to outbreaks of civil violence, for example, the police reported rioters hording mosquito repellent, cloth, TV sets and other items with a relatively low street-value. In London, it was predominantly ‘trainers…booze and fags’.[4]

Another reason for the looting might simply be that shops and restaurants are naturally the most ‘visible’ businesses from a street-view. And as such, might be seen as symbols of an economy that brings prosperity to some, but excludes others. The commonality between the various modalities of civil violence – rioting, arson, stone/missile throwing – is that they are all very ‘public’ forms of violence. There is no point in rioting in a private hall, hidden from public view. Riots, fires and scenes of stone pelting create powerful images of public disorder, which convey much more than the physical impact of the violence – they carry a message to a wider audience.

The act of looting, as much as the loot itself, is therefore of value to the looter – it symbolises defiance, identity and even (perversely) ability. These acts of violence can play important roles in signalling one’s ‘merit’ – something of tremendous importance to a disenfranchised teenager.

Step 3 (at the micro-level): Why don’t individuals ‘free-ride’? This is a simple question posed by Horowitz,[5] who asks why individuals with grievances don’t let others be violent on their behalf, and free-ride on the outcomes of the social turmoil. This question holds even though the risk of getting arrested is much lower when in a mob, since in the least, the risk of injury is still much higher in a riot. That is, why haven’t the London rioters sat back and watched, rather than instinctively taken part in the seemingly illogical acts of violence? When asked in this manner, the question seems to present the obvious answer – because there was a logic to perpetrating the violence. If the violence is against visible symbols of the prosperity that you are not a part of – if shops and restaurants are places you will never be able to provide custom to, or get a job in – then they seem distant from the turmoil of one’s own everyday needs. On the other hand, emotive acts of public violence can, and do, provide a sense belonging.

Viewed through this 3-step approach, it is evident that the London rioters are perhaps not the mindless criminals they are being made out to be. But neither can the recent events simply be seen as a spontaneous uprising of highly disenfranchised and emotive youth. While the riots need to be understood in the wider contexts of social, political and economic inequality, it also needs to be recognised that there is a certain structure to these acts of violence. The seemingly ‘mindless’ violence can in fact have very structured, even instrumental, underpinnings.

As per the Currie-Howe debate, here are some basic statistics to help you make up your own mind: unemployment in the UK for 16-24 years olds is up from 17.90% in the early 1990s to 19.70% in 2010, while London continues to have the highest unemployment rate for this cohort at 22%.[6] Currently, 22% of 19 year old boys in England do not have a basic education, while this figure drops to 15% for girls.[7] Black young adults (16-24 years) are four times as likely to be in prison under sentence, than White young adults, and almost eight times as likely as Asian young adults.[8] Nevertheless, the number of burglaries and violent incidents with injuries have dropped significantly since the 1990s – from 1.8 million burglaries in 1995 to 0.7 million this year, and from 2.4 million incidents to 1.2 million over the same time period. 50% of adults surveyed in 2000 believed that the crime rate was increasing, this figure has dropped to 28% now. And while 24% of adults reported being very worried about being the victim of violent crime in 2000, this year the figure has dropped to 13%.[9]

A final parting comment – both the Prime Minister and the Acting Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police are vociferously broadcasting a heavy-handed approach to bring the criminals responsible to justice. Research shows that prolonged ex-post policing (measures which increase police activity after the act of violence) can be linked in the long-run to an increase in social unrest.[10] Perhaps the PM’s comment that the violence is ‘wrecking your own life’,[11] further antagonises the very insecurities that cause youth to take part in such acts of civil violence.


[2] Newsnight 8th August 2011 – can be seen in the UK at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b013dv5k.

[3] Gupte, Jaideep. 2008. “Linking urban vulnerability, infra-power and ‘communal’ violence: extralegal security and policing in South Central, Mumbai.” In 9th Annual Global Development Network Conference on Security for Development: Confronting Threats to Survival and Safety Brisbane, Australia. Available at http://cloud2.gdnet.org/cms.php?id=document_download&document_id=13873

[5] Horowitz, Donald. 2001. The Deadly Ethnic Riot. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[6] Labour Force Survey, ONS.

[7] DfE publication based on matched administrative data, England; data for 2010. Taken from www.poverty.org.uk.

[8] Offender Management Caseload Statistics; Ministry of Justice; England and Wales, data for 2010.

[9] British Crime Survey, Home Office; England and Wales, average 2007/08 to 2009/10.

[10] Justino, P. 2007. Carrot or stick? Redistributive transfers versus policing in contexts of civil unrest. MICROCON Research Working Paper 3, Brighton: MICROCON. Available at http://www.microconflict.eu/publications/RWP3_PJ.pdf.

[11] David Cameron’s Downing Street statement on the riots, 9th August, 2011.

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8 responses to “Civil violence: three steps to understanding the ‘mindless criminal’

  1. Pingback: Civil violence: three steps to understanding the ‘mindless criminal’. «

  2. Richard Jolly

    Helpful and interesting. It seems a mistake to imagine that everyone joining in the violence or not joining is motivated in one way alone. Many may be free riders emotionally or politically to the events they observe . Your warning of the long run dangers of the heavy handed approach are well taken.

  3. Meanwhile, in the US “from 2005 to 2009 … African Americans saw their wealth drop by 53 percent … The declines have led to the largest wealth disparities in the 25 years … Median wealth of whites is now 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households”, and Tiger’s caddy is just way overboard.

  4. I believe that there are several factors which have contributed to the current situation in the UK.
    - Successive governments have removed disciplinary powers from community figures that used to wield some authority. School teachers, police and parents can be and are accused of criminal activities if they even argue with children. As a result, many inner city children are completely out of control.
    - The English justice system is totally ineffective. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act places such onerous requirements on police that the odds against being punished for a crime are very much swayed towards the criminal. As a result, police waste vast amounts of time arresting the same few criminals again and again, taking them to court and seeing them released with a suspended charge if any charge at all.
    - Police are still forced to spend the majority of their time in filling out activity logs and other forms. This is a result of the Blair governments “improvements to the public services”. All that achieved was to divert all staff in the public services from their useful work to filling out forms to describe the work they should have been doing. Amongst other events, this produced the multiple failures in the Child Protection Services.
    - Police forces report their success rate by the numbers of “crimes” that they solve. Motoring offences seem to get the same rating as catching drug dealers. So its common to see groups of police manning speed traps where they can log tens of “crimes” every day, but equally common to see drug dealers outside schools with no apparent police presence in the area. I am convinced that statistics of Police performance are regularly doctored to convince the population that crime rates are much lower than they actually are.
    - Current educational standards in many parts of England are abysmal. Large numbers of schoolchildren graduate without being able to read and write their own language to any acceptable standard. They are equally unskilled at mathematical subjects. As a result they are virtually unemployable.
    - The English welfare state system is much too generous. People of all ages seem to be able to access “benefits” which give them a higher income than if they worked. As a result, many people choose not to work in the knowledge that the state will support them.
    - The media promotes the ownership of designer label goods as being positive. Almost every newspaper and TV station describes some “star” or “personality” by what they wear rather than what they do. They extoll the virtues of designer label goods from dawn til dusk, regardless of how appropriate or affordable these goods are. Kids are brainwashed from infancy into wanting them.
    I simply don’t believe that these rioters have any connection to the “Arab Spring”, the global economic situation or anything of similar complexity as I believe the majority are too stupid and lazy to try to understand these events.

  5. Catherine Dom

    So entirely agreed with the short-sightedness of the heavy-handed approach and so-called strong message from Cameron & others. I found that as scary as the riots – but don’t live in London. Still…

  6. Pingback: From Poverty to Power by Duncan Green » Blog Archive » London riots; Simon v Ehrlich – the rematch; What now?; drought lessons from Ethiopia; China and the Congo; quotas work; food prices at your fingertips: links I liked

  7. Jaideep Gupte

    Thank you all for these insightful comments (here and via email). Have taken them onboard to fine-tune future analysis. Now with the media’s attention on the sentencing, I wonder if handing out tough sentences simply to showcase a firm political response can have a counter-intuitive impact – since not only does a justice system that is seen as ‘excessive’ lose its sense of moral legitimacy, but in the long-run, it also loses its ability to instil in all of us a feeling of safety.

    Further analysis of the sentencing to follow.. JG

  8. Thanks for sharing your insights on urban rioting, Jaideep – it’s always good to get some perspective on these things.

    The Guardian are collecting data on the sentencing, which you might be interested in following – they seem to be taking the line that the rioters were mostly poor, young and unemployed:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/18/england-rioters-young-poor-unemployed.

    There was also an interesting article in today’s Independent, where a City financier predicted that violence iwas likely to ensure from Britian’s rising inequality… http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/i-predicted-a-riot-city-sage-who-saw-there-was-trouble-ahead-2340317.html

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