The UK rioters may be thugs, but that’s not all they are

by Sunita

I’ve been reading accounts of the riots in London and other English cities with both an emotional and an analytical eye. Emotional, because it’s painful and disheartening to see a country I love engulfed in this kind of social disorder. Analytical, because this is what I do in my day job. I study how race and ethnicity affect and are affected by politics, and I’ve written a book manuscript on riots, which I’m currently revising because it’s been requested by a top university press. I’ve been working on this topic for over a decade. In the course of my research I’ve collected data on riots across time and space, so I can bore you with details about collective violence from the Bristol (England) riots of 1831 to the New York draft riots of 1863 to Hindu-Muslim riots in India in 1992/3.

Newsflash, instant experts: collective violence in the UK has an old, complex, and storied past. Some of the greatest historians of the 20th century have produced classic studies, from micro-analyses of specific riots to sweeping books that cover centuries. There’s an excellent book on 18th-century London called The London Mob. Bill Buford (you may know him better from his stint as Mario Batali’s kitchen slave) wrote a compulsively readable account of English football hooliganism. Taken together, these studies provide a great deal of insight about the underlying cause of violent behavior as well as the psychological motivations of individual participants.

Given the amount of speculation out there, it seems both ironic and fitting that one of the best articles I’ve read on the riots is by Russell Brand. Yes, that Russell Brand. He doesn’t claim to be an expert on anything, but he has some terrific insights, better than a lot of the people I’ve heard on mainstream media outlets. You should, as they say, go read the whole thing (it’s even on The Guardian’s website now). But I want to reiterate a couple of points he makes:

However “unacceptable” and “unjustifiable” it might be, it has happened so we better accept it and whilst we can’t justify it we should kick around a few neurons and work out why so many people feel utterly disconnected from the cities they live in.

The point isn’t that a bunch of thugs or hooligans used the outpouring of anger to go out and steal electronics and trainers. Of course that happened. But why did so many people participate, and why did it spread? Bad decisions made by the police contributed to people’s sense that they could get away with it, so what might have started out as a group of super-motivated participants turned into something bigger. But even the less committed still had to decide to go out there and participate, and collective violence entails short- and long-term risks. Did anything motivate them besides the desire for free stuff? I think Brand’s take on this is spot on:

I found those protests exciting, yes because I was young and a bit of a twerp but also, I suppose, because there was a void in me. A lack of direction, a sense that I was not invested in the dominant culture, that Government existed not to look after the interests of the people it was elected to represent but the big businesses that they were in bed with.

There is a lot more anger out there among the rank and file population than elites want to believe. It’s so much easier to write them off as immoral yobs. But with this many participants, the speed with which the violence spread, and the duration of the riots (four days is a long time in the riot calendar when the violence isn’t orchestrated), it makes sense to look at more complex motivations.

One factor I haven’t seen discussed much is the extent to which the non-participants have some sympathy for the motivations of the participants. We’ve seen lots of people deploring the violence. But if no one sympathized with the rioters, there would be far fewer of them, because some at least would worry about how they would be treated by their friends, families, and neighbors. There are two types of social support they might be receiving:

(1) No support from non-rioters but lots of support from each other. This is possible but not very likely, unless the rioters don’t interact with anyone but each other. These aren’t sociopaths, they’re relatively normal people with a taste for collective violence (and TVs and trainers, but we emphasize the loot too much and the other interests not enough).

(2) Tacit support from their friends, family and neighbors, or at least forgiveness when they do come back. This is more likely. Consider what Brand said about his background:

I had a Mum that loved me, a Dad that told me that nothing was beyond my reach, an education, a grant from Essex council (to train as an actor of all things!!!) AND several charities that gave me money for maintenance. I shudder to think how disenfranchised I would have felt if I had been deprived of that long list of privileges.

In other words, Brand wasn’t hugely privileged, but he wasn’t bottom of the heap, either. The majority of these rioters are likely much the same. Riots aren’t peopled by the very poor, but by people slightly higher on the socioeconomic scale (along with a healthy number of participants from various social strata who just like the violence). They may not have had “proper”middle-class upbringings, but there are people at home who love them and who share or at least understand their anger and disaffection, even as they deplore their actions.

Preventing the riots themselves wouldn’t have been that difficult; almost every major riot occurs because of bad or tardy decisions about the deployment of force (it doesn’t have to be deadly, but it has to be quick and effective. Police dogs are extremely threatening, for example). But understanding the deeper causes of participants’ decisions to take to the streets is more complicated.

I can’t tell you the specific motivations of these rioters without a lot more information. But based on a decade’s worth of research, I can almost guarantee that there are a lot of people behind them who wouldn’t have rioted themselves, but who sympathize with their feelings. And as bad as the riots themselves were, that reservoir of unspoken anger and potential solidarity is worse. Because the best predictor of whether or not a riot will occur is whether one occurred in the past. And now a lot of unhappy people know how many others are out there who feel the same way.

I’m not excusing this behavior. I’m trying to understand it. I don’t agree with him completely but I think he’s on to something, so I’ll let Russell Brand have the last word:

Why am I surprised that these young people behave destructively, “mindlessly”, motivated only by self-interest? How should we describe the actions of the city bankers that brought our economy to its knees in 2010? Altruistic? mindful? Kind? But then again, they do wear suits, so they deserve to be bailed out, perhaps that’s why not one of them has been imprisoned. And they got away with a lot more than a few fucking pairs of trainers.

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