Last summer’s riots centre stage during Law on Trial

This post was contributed by Guy Collender from Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations

The fear was tangible. Office workers scurried home early, shops were boarded up, and watching the nightly news became a habit borne out of anxiety. Are the riots still spreading? When will order return to the streets?

The rioting in England last summer sparked much soul-searching. Is our society broken? Can we expect more looting and violence on our streets? Or were the activities of those four nights last August an aberration?

Politicians, the police, commentators and the rioters themselves quickly rushed to varying conclusions to explain what caused the outbreak of civil disorder, which quickly spread across London and to other cities, including Birmingham, Nottingham, Liverpool and Manchester. David Cameron spoke about “criminality, pure and simple”, Ken Clarke blamed a “feral underclass”, and others blamed the police, government cuts, inequality and marginalisation for causing the anger and violence that erupted during those summer evenings.

All these issues and the drama of the riots were re-visited during a talk at Birkbeck about a pioneering research project to understand the lives and motivations of the young people out on the streets, and fill the void left by the absence of a major official public enquiry. The talk on 20 June was one of the highlights of Law on Trial – a week-long series of events organised by Birkbeck’s School of Law about crime, order and justice.

Professor Tim Newburn, of LSE, explained how the unusual and rapid research collaboration between The Guardian and LSE (funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation) began, and he shared its findings based on one-to-one interviews with 270 people involved, or close to, the riots.

Newburn summarised the results of the Reading the Riots study, which were printed in The Guardian last December. The majority of those involved in the riots were young (65% were between the ages of 10-20); 79 per cent were male, and their main activities were identified as follows: anti-police (24 per cent), looting (40 per cent), criminal damage (14 per cent), and as observers (22 per cent).

The rioters’ accounts revealed how many regarded the events as exciting (“the best three days of my life”), an opportunity to loot, and a way of expressing their widespread anger and hostility towards the police. Many of the young people also spoke about poverty, austerity and the lack of opportunities. Of the adults prosecuted for rioting, 35 per cent of them were claiming out-of-work benefits (as compared to 12 per cent within the working age population).

Newburn said: “It has come to an extremely bad position where young people talk about this [the riots] as an exciting opportunity. The sheer widespread mass looting that occurred is of a completely different order.”

Emphasising that “there is no simple explanation” for the riots, Newburn listed a range of reasons, including a “broad sense of disenchantment”, “a substantive experience of social marginalisation”, and “a sense of diminishing opportunities in modern England.” He also warned that riots are “more, rather than less, likely” in future because the conditions that caused them in the first place are still present, and may even be deteriorating. Almost 40 per cent of those interviewed said they would get involved again in future. This is a sobering thought indeed, especially as the eyes of the world will be focused on London this summer during the Olympics.

Results from the second phase of the Reading the Riots study, based on interviews with police officers, defence lawyers, victims and vigilantes, are to be published in The Guardian in early July.





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