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’ 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. 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 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’.
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, 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%. Currently, 22% of 19 year old boys in England do not have a basic education, while this figure drops to 15% for girls. 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. 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%.
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. Perhaps the PM’s comment that the violence is ‘wrecking your own life’, further antagonises the very insecurities that cause youth to take part in such acts of civil violence.
 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
 Horowitz, Donald. 2001. The Deadly Ethnic Riot. Berkeley: University of California Press.
 Labour Force Survey, ONS.
 Offender Management Caseload Statistics; Ministry of Justice; England and Wales, data for 2010.
 British Crime Survey, Home Office; England and Wales, average 2007/08 to 2009/10.
 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.
 David Cameron’s Downing Street statement on the riots, 9th August, 2011.