Youth Riots: Riots, Reactions and Social Change

In the aftermath of major events it is not necessarily the immediate reactions which always prove to be the most lasting or influential, even as they may give a certain ‘colour’ to the ways in which incidents are interpreted. The urban riots of 2011 are a case in point: the immediate commentators, often police officers, journalists and politicians dealing with the immediate consequences, tend to lead in defining what the riots were really all about and, not least, fitting the riots into their pre-existing accounts of what is really wrong with Britain today. Accordingly, the earliest commentaries threw up some familiar ‘culprits’ ‘mindless violence’ and ‘simple criminality’ as the cause of all the trouble.

What these contending analyses share is an a priori rejection of the idea that there either is, or could ever be, any account of the disturbances supplied by the participants themselves which conferred any purpose or meaning upon them. The allegation of ‘mindless violence’ instantly strips any meaning from events which were themselves triggered by a race-involved police shooting incident which was compounded by police mis-management and poor communication (the kind of incident that, for at least three decades has been the main cause of race rioting in the USA) whilst simultaneously denying that those involved could ever provide any legitimate explanation. No credible social scientist could ever be comfortable with such an analysis.

But, of course, we have been here before; riots are not unknown in Britain and the responses to them have often left a profound imprint upon our social and public policies. To take a couple of our more recent riots: Brixton 1981 and the Prison ‘disturbances’ which first broke out in HMP Strangeways in 1990. The immediate reactions of our aforementioned opinion leaders to both events primarily emphasised their violent and criminal aspects. It was only later, that more considered analyses surfaced, in the form of judicial inquiries by, respectively, Lord Scarman and Lord Woolf. Both were fundamental in reshaping aspects of our criminal justice system: Lord Scarman in re-establishing the basis for an accountable system of community policing and Lord Woolf in emphasising (for the first time) that justice had a vital part to play in the governance of prisons, offender management and rehabilitation.

Subsequent events may well cause us to question how well either conclusion has stood the test of time, but what both reports also shared was the sense that the perspectives of those at the centre of the riot activity – and in many cases their grievances too – had to be taken seriously. In 2011, by contrast, any attempt to understand the riots was not so much forgotten as denied. It is this, perhaps above all the evident sense of polarisation in the willingness to understand, which prompted the Guardian and LSE to launch their Reading the Riots research initiative to reinsert what was lacking, evidence and analysis, into the riot debate.

However, the other notable tendency surfacing in the riot analyses concerns the apparent preference of commentators to see in the riots the tell-tale signs of their own preferred explanations. So riot explanations were grafted onto some of the leading accounts of the ‘state of Britain’ today: they were a sign of ‘Broken Britain’, or evidence of the ‘feral’, disaffected and demoralised youth of today, or of the influence of anti-social street gangs and a warning of what might happen on our streets if the police were not present in sufficient numbers to keep a robust lid on things.

None of these particular interpretations could ever capture in their entirety the mixed, and often ambivalent involvements that different people had with the riots: it was partly opportunism, partly bravado, partly peer pressure, and maybe even recklessness or retaliation for perceived grievances. Many others became involved in the rioting for precisely the kinds of reasons that others held back. But the Government, undeterred by growing evidence that its estimates of gang-involved young rioters were far too high, eventually settled upon street gangs as the common denominator.

Thus the riots became important for the opportunity they provided politicians to roll out their preferred new policies. They became, on the one hand, a key justification for the deployment of a new strategy ‘to end gang and youth violence’; a strategy, moreover, which unhelpfully sees youth violence as simply a lifestyle choice rather than as a product of deprived, unjust and brutalising environments. On the other hand, the riots became a pretext for deploying baton rounds and water cannon to the police for future public order maintenance, something that forward-thinking police officers did not ask for, knowing that they would still have to police those very same communities in the wake of any future disorders but lacking the consent or the sense of justice which Scarman and Woolf, in their own ways, considered essential.

*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society

Prof Peter Squires

Prof Peter Squires

Criminology & Public Policy University of Brighton

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