On the Riots

"Manhood Suffrage Riots in Hyde Park, 1866," by Nathan Hughes. Try for the life of me, I can't find more than a smattering of info. on this painter.

The courts have been busy. This from a judge:

 “In many cases these looters have operated on a wholesale scale. There were actually two men who had abandoned well-paid positions … to take up the obviously more remunerative occupation of looting”

 As they mete out what seems disturbingly arbitrary justice , I’ve been prevaricating over posting something on the riots, mainly because there didn’t appear to be much more to add.

 I suppose what concerns me most is what comes next. Will there be any real soul-searching or meaningful discussion? From predictably reactionary to depressingly hollow, Cameron’s response so far has not inspired confidence.

“The fallout is going to be interesting,” observed a friend back in London last week. “There’ll no doubt be a tsunami of political idiocy from all sides

“I think there’s a lot of denial going on about the extent of London’s underlying social problems. You have to say that kind of thing very carefully though or some smug twat will accuse you of justifying thuggery.”

He’s spot on. Taking my weekly hot spring soak last Wednesay night, I overheard locals excitedly chattering about the riots (baoluan -暴亂) and turmoil (dongluan -動亂). “England’s hardcore!” said my pal Xiao Lin, tutting in wonder. 

 I didn’t feel shame. Long before I left the UK, I’d abandoned the modes of thought that ground identity in nationality (oddly enough, a lack of “pride” in community and country has been posited as a factor in the destructive behaviour on display).

I did feel revulsion at some of the scenes I saw. But I was almost as dismayed by the reaction of so many people. I wish I could just dismiss this as idiotic grandstanding but it wasn’t just Piers Morgan (who, we should remember, staked his [cough]  reputation on exposing alleged army abuses), The Sun or – bizarrely – Glenda Jackson  who called for the army to be sent in.

 Across the board on Facebook, opinion seemed uniform. In some cases this came from friends who routinely lambaste the government, yet seem to trust them to oversee military mobilisation on English streets.

Some of these same people were vowing to protect their property and loved ones tooth, nail and 9-iron. Good luck swinging away out in the midst of the melee when the shooting starts. Bad-guy homing bullets have yet to be perfected.

And all of this, of course, leaves aside the precedent such an order would set. The rioters were not the only ones displaying ovine mentality.

The FB updates, including a couple of my own, were all using the same adjectives to describe the actions (“disgusting”, “disgraceful”), the same nouns for the actors (“scum” “vermin”). After a while, the barking became a bit overwhelming.  

It’s not that any of this is necessarily misplaced, just that it eventually descends into facile tautology. (I think it was John Humphrys’ “Lost For Words” which put me onto the practice of recasting suspect sentences so that that they convey the opposite of the original meaning. If the new sentence sound absurd, then it’s a good bet the first sentence is meaningless. The same applies to adjectives. You don’t hear of many “admirable” or “praiseworthy” rioters, do you?)

Fearful that even subtle divergence from the rigidly demarcated path would, as my friend had cautioned, see me labelled an apologist, I did something unprecedented and kept largely shtoom. I didn’t try to raise the following points in the many comment threads I saw. I will here.

From the prevalence of a mollycoddling “entitlement culture” invoked by the Right to the Tory-led cuts that are supposedly the source of all evil before their effects can even be discerned, the fingers are now pompously jabbing away.   

The BBC has given a fair overview of the gamut of opinion, some of it predictably ridiculous. What follows here is no attempt at comprehensive analysis but some thoughts that have been bouncing around my oversized bonce over the last couple of weeks as I’ve waded through the coverage.

 I’ve tried to make their presentation as cogent as this intrinsically confusing chain of events has permitted.

 The Police

i. The police and the “mob”

Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. I don’t think they can be blamed for their response once the violence had escalated as they were outnumbered and thinly-spread, a fact not lost on the looters.

Should more heavy-handed tactics have been applied earlier? If you saw your house, business or car burning, then you’d probably say “yes.”

Let’s leave aside the opportunistic criminality that snowballed from the original skirmishes and look how things started. A real problem appears to have been strategy.   

Dr. Clifford Stott’s seminal report on crowd psychology has been doing the rounds over the last week and it’s well worth a butcher’s. Stott says the police are still stuck in a time warp employing “classic” theory, which holds that through a loss of individual identity “the civilized lone individual descends ‘several rungs of civilization’ and in the crowd ‘is a barbarian.’”

This kind of thinking was long ago undermined by hard research. Initiatives employed at various football tournaments 1, for example, show that early police interaction with crowds helps diffuse potentially volatile situations.

That the mishandling of crowds can lead to legitimate protestors being drawn into violent disorder should be obvious. Examples can be found in the Poll Tax Riots of 1990 and the G-20 skirmishes of 2009. The unprovoked assault and manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson is a perfect example of how not to police.

Once again, I feel compelled to insert the proviso that nothing justifies last week’s violence but it’s clear that none of (what have been identified as) the best practice tactics was implemented.

The regular cops were not deployed in a manner that has been proven to work, riot police were visible before things got violent and the response to the first hostile act (a girl lobbing a rock) was disproportionate. Taken together, these things helped ignite the initial conflagration.

Swift force at the outset targeted at removing openly hostile individuals can be justified but it should be proportionate to the risk they pose, and always accompanied by an attempt to interact with the rest of the crowd. Indiscriminate or disproportionate use of force alienates people, changing group dynamics and engendering an Us v Them scenario. 

Those who called for the army to be sent in, or for skulls to be cracked, would do well to avail themselves of credible research, which, across the board, rejects such approaches.

 But then most of the people saying this stuff aren’t that interested in evidence-based research. Jumping on the bandwagon with mutually affirming Facebook Likes and played-out sound bites is much easier. 

 ii. Police and some personal experience

 In 1997 a friend of mine died in a police cell. He was 20. The police said that he had hanged himself with a shoelace. His lawyer was given access to the cell and attempted to get a lace through the grill where he was supposed to have hoisted the noose.

He folded up the cell’s bedding, stood on it and couldn’t manage it, despite being inches taller than the dead man. Only Superman could have pulled it off, he concluded.

A peaceful protest over the death of Marlon Downes followed outside Harlesden Police Station. Months later the coroner recorded an open verdict.

When a young man dies in police custody and this is the conclusion, the damage done to the image of the police is inestimable. When the young man is black, it just confirms almost every black person’s suspicions about the police being inherently racist.

The suss laws of the 1980s have never really gone away. Young men are routinely subject to harassment based on the way they look, dress, walk, talk or the fact that they are walking down the street more than two-strong.

It’s not just black men or even the “lower classes.” I was stopped many times as teenager for no good reason. Once, I was held on the street for 30 minutes and accused of stealing my bike. When it turned out I hadn’t, I was sent on my way with the observation that I was “lucky this time.”

Several years later I was punched in the ribs by a police officer for refusing to be physically lifted into the back of van after a friend had been found in possession of a joint’s worth of weed. “Looks like an ounce to me,” said one of the arresting officers, with not a twinge of irony.

On another occasion, I was confronted by an officer flanked by two WPCs as I tried to get into my house round the back, having locked myself out. The nonagenarian Pole a couple of doors down had called them after seeing someone skulking through his overgrown back garden and their response had been reassuringly rapid.

But as the officer proceeded to question me, was his demand that I extinguish my cigarette legitimate? When I refused, he asked me how I’d feel about being taken down the station for “creating a public disturbance” and “resisting arrest.” I looked at his colleagues in amazement. They could barely hold my gaze.

And these are just some of the more memorable incidents. 2

Yet for all that, I have been treated with great patience and kindness by police when I probably did deserve a slap. I once spent the night in a cell for drunk and disorderly and received no harsh treatment and no caution or fine, despite my aggressive behaviour. In fact the police were jovial and rather avuncular in releasing me the following morning even though I’d been a prize twat.

Unfortunately, instances of understanding and good communications with young people in the most problematic areas have for too long been the exception when they should be the rule. If one thing stood out in the recent disturbances as different from “the good old days” it was the utter contempt for the police.

 The Rioters

i. Fun

As people who have participated in riots have pointed out, the rush of playing real life cops and robbers is perhaps the single biggest motivator.

The thing is, this doesn’t shed much light on the causes, otherwise riots would be as sex and drugs; but it does help explain how so many get pulled in.

Descriptions of the rioters as sheep or “mindless” are understandable and accurate (I used them myself) to the point that they allude to people getting caught up in the moment, following the example of others, and not thinking about the consequences of their actions.

However current theory (Cf. Stott above) holds that the conception of a mob as one unthinking mass is wrong; intuition and experience confirm this for me. The kids goading the cops, fleeing and then regrouping were not mindless in the sense that there was no individuality. On the contrary, their actions (including the use of social media) demonstrate fairly sophisticated interaction between individuals.

Drawing on personal experience again, I’ve participated with others in foolish acts with potentially serious consequences without ever feeling part of an all-in-together group as such. These antics include forcing a weak door at a local secondary school, then nicking a bunch of completely useless crap, which we stashed and were too scared to come back for. Once we heard the sound of sirens, we bombed it, each man for his own.

I’m not proud of this but, to tell the truth, I don’t feel guilty either. It just seemed like fun at the time and, while the consequences sat dimly in the back of my mind, they were trumped by the buzz.

All of which is to say that, while I think some of the arguments about rampant consumerism are not without foundation, rioting and looting are at least as old and, dare I say it, natural as civilization.

 ii. Looting

Which leads me to this final(ish) point. Well, I’ve just made it really. The amount of commentary  that pointed to the looting being a new phenomenon as a concomitant of social disorder was surprising.

 From the Peasants Revolt to the Gordon Riots of 1780 (have a look at them burning furniture at Newgate Gaol as onlookers dance gleeful jigs around the bonfire – look familiar?) 3, taking advantage of turmoil to steal seems to be an atavistic human trait.

The quote I opened this post with is not from a judge presiding over one of the recent court cases but from an Assizes Court judge (now the Crown Court) in 1941.  As bombs fell over London and the Blitz was in full swing, it appears that Londoners were, overall, no more neighbourly than they were the other week.

Firemen helped themselves to goods as firebombed shops burnt down; bands of delinquents marshalled by Fagin-esque ringleaders snatched WWI medals and smashed gas meters for pennies; teenage girls stripped dead bodies of their clothes.

In an eight month period between 1940 and 1941, nearly 5,000 people were arrested for looting.

Joan Veazey, a vicar’s wife from South London wrote: “The most sickening thing was to see people like vultures, picking up things and taking them away. I didn’t like to feel that English people would do this, but they did.” 4

Oh, for the good old days!

Vague Afterword

 “The riotous politics of the poor therefore battered at the doors of the ‘polite’ public sphere.” 5

 Something that I’ve been stewing over is the way the disconnect (I’m not awfully fond of that word but am not sure what to call it) between the middle class and the urban poor (again, for want of better words) in Britain has become progressively worse.

I can’t really put my finger on what has happened but there seems to be a mutual distrust and dislike that was not so marked in times gone by. Perhaps it’s always been like that and we just grow old.

 “The meaner sort of people who have least interest and little judgment” 6 are scorned as chavs, feral, hoodies, scum, vermin etc. How do they see those who bestow these labels on them? Posh twats?  I’m not even sure they have a stock catch-all response, short of lamping their antagonist.

 I’m not sure what my point is here but something seems wrong when a whole section of society is perceived as being not much higher than brutes and is constantly castigated and ridiculed in this manner.


  1. At Portugal 2004 and Germany 2006, English police worked in tandem with local law enforcement to great effect. At the big open air broadcasts of games, groups of plain clothes and standard uniformed cops integrated themselves into crowds. Riot police were kept on standby for the high-risk fixtures but were always out of sight.

    In the event, they were not needed, the Portuguese reported not raising a single baton all tournament and of the 150,000 English fans present, only one was arrested for violence.

    Stott and others also report on Sweden’s success with dialogue police in the wake of violence surrounding the European Council meeting in Gothenburg in 2001.  

    A slightly different and perhaps more feasible practice is the use of violence interrupters as employed by the Ceasefire initiative to great effect in Chicago in 2007 and other disturbances in the U.S.

  2. When I was back in the UK from 2008-9, I made some extra sheckels by taking photos of local buildings and writing brief descriptions of them. While attempting to photograph Dollis Hill Synagogue on the fringe of Gladstone Park, I was cited under the Prevention of Terrorism Act by a Police Community Support Officer, despite having done nothing illegal.

    This plastic copper demanded that I give my details for some form she was filling out, which I resisted for some time, as I was pretty sure she had no right to make me do so. It looks like I was right, too, unless my snapping could be considered “antisocial behaviour.”

    Her blotter-jottering complete, she curtly informed me that I could see how my “case” was progressing within the next six months. This kind of inanity is apparently not uncommon these days.

  3. The riots ended when en route to torch Kenwood, the mob stopped for a couple of flavours at the Spaniard’s “where the publican and the Earl’s steward plied them with huge amounts of alcohol. Thanks to this, the rioters quickly collapsed in a drunken heap, giving time for the troops to arrive and arrest them.” More here.

    Another point interest is the two black or “mulatto” rioters who are mentioned in a lot of the literature. With the thousands of people who were kicking off, it’s interesting that two black men are prominent in this picture. One of them is bashing someone, while the other seems to be making off with some ill-gotten gains. Even in those days they were blaming it on the “immigrants.”

  4. Husbands also took the chance to get shot of irksome wives, dumping their corpses in the rubble of bombed out buildings. For this and more have a look at Gavin Mortimer’s excellent rundown of the shameful criminal activity during the war, here.
  5. Wood, A. Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England, Palgrave Macmillan, 2001, p.191.
  6. Ibid, p.192.

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