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

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.

26 thoughts on “The UK rioters may be thugs, but that’s not all they are

    • You’re welcome! I don’t usually write about my day job, but every once in a while I can’t stop myself. :-) The twitter conversation was starting to drive me crazy and when I read Brand’s post it gave me a way into the topic.

  1. The latest news is that <blockquoteThe police watchdog admitted it may have misled journalists into believing that police shooting victim Mark Duggan fired at officers before he was killed.

    Mr Duggan, 29, was shot by officers last Thursday in Tottenham.

    His death sparked the initial riots in London. (BBC)

  2. I just do not buy all the spin I see going on… What is the whole “tea bagger” movement but a bunch of admittedly ignorant, racist or reactionary people wanting to change government but instead they always seem to end up empowering these huge corporations to destroy only the specific government agencies that might regulate, outlaw, or tax the companies and not a single effort is really made to change anything “better”.

    It’s not revolution as much simply more thinly veiled propaganda.

    Maybe I am overly paranoid but I think we are all getting played even the victims more often than not these days.

  3. Laura, I saw that report too. I am not surprised. The Met is really taking a beating this summer, and rightfully so, but I worry about the long-term consequences of police misconduct. So many citizens already mistrust the police, and this just confirms their beliefs.

    TeddyP, I will not start ranting about the unholy alliance of business and politics because if I do I will never stop. I’ll just say that I agree with everything you’ve written about this administration over the last year or so. We *are* all getting played. And the media’s mania with covering the salacious or ridiculous non-story rather than everything that is actually happening in this horrible horrible time is infuriating. When Michele frigging Bachmann gets treated like a legitimate candidate by the so-called serious press, we have truly gone through the looking glass.

  4. Laura, I saw that report too. I am not surprised. The Met is really taking a beating this summer, and rightfully so, but I worry about the long-term consequences of police misconduct. So many citizens already mistrust the police, and this just confirms their beliefs.

    It was the IPCC which was making that admission, not the Met, but obviously the Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson cases haven’t reflected well on the Met. They’ve also been criticised for kettling those who try to protest peacefully:

    Two activists have won their case against policing of the G20 protests, as the High Court ruled police containment was “not justified”.
    The judges upheld Hannah McClure and Josh Moos’s case that police used “violence” to control the Camp for Climate Action in London in April 2009.
    There was “no reasonable” justification for “kettling”
    (a href=”″>BBC)

    Kettling has, of course, been used, again rather controversially, during the recent student protests and

    More than 150 activists were arrested on the evening of 26 March despite holding what chief inspector Claire Clark described at the time as a non-violent and “sensible” demonstration. (The Guardian)

    Then there are the recent revelations about connections between the police and the News of the World (including some police officers allegedly receiving payments). There’s are also concerns about undercover policing:

    Three senior judges have ruled that the undercover police officer Mark Kennedy unlawfully spied on environmentalists and arguably acted as an “agent provocateur”.

    In a damning ruling explaining why they quashed the convictions of 20 climate change activists, the appeal court judges said they shared the “great deal of justifiable public disquiet” about the case. […] The judgment also made several criticisms of Kennedy, including that his deployment could have been construed as “entrapment”. It revealed Kennedy was part of a long-term programme “to infiltrate extreme leftwing groups” in the UK. Other court documents say the spy programme was called Operation Pegasus (The Guardian)

    Oh, and just a few weeks ago there was this:

    What should you do if you discover an anarchist living next door? […] the answer, according to an official counter-terrorism notice circulated in London last week, is that you must report them to police immediately.
    This was the surprising injunction from the Metropolitan Police issued to businesses and members of the public in Westminster last week. There was no warning about other political groups, but next to an image of the anarchist emblem, the City of Westminster police’s “counter terrorist focus desk” called for anti-anarchist whistleblowers stating: “Anarchism is a political philosophy which considers the state undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful, and instead promotes a stateless society, or anarchy. Any information relating to anarchists should be reported to your local police.”
    The move angered some anarchists who complained that being an anarchist should not imply criminal behaviour. They said they feel unfairly criminalised for holding a set of political beliefs.
    (The Guardian)

  5. Yes, it’s important to keep the Met & IPCC separate, thanks. Until you listed them, I hadn’t thought about how many of these cases there have been in the last year. And the kettling was really unnecessary and cruel. It’s so frustrating to compare the overreaction of kettling with the hands-off approach to the riots. It gives credence to those who thing that the object of the unrest is the important thing, not the unrest itself. Because the kettling was during events aimed at the government, right? The G-10 or whatever # they’re at now, and then the demonstrations against government cuts.

    That anarchist anecdote is frightening. Do they really not know the difference between a violent organization and followers of a political philosophy? This feels like we’re regressing to the 19th century. Of course, with 19th-C riots we eventually got some political reform.

    • Yes, it’s important to keep the Met & IPCC separate, thanks.

      In the interests of keeping things separate, I should perhaps have noted that I don’t know of any direct link between the Met and Operation Pegasus, but then, not much is known about it:

      the purpose of Operation Pegasus is described as “to infiltrate extreme left wing groups in the United Kingdom”. According to the papers, Mark Kennedy was authorised to join Operation Pegasus in 2003 — the year in which he started his deployment.

      That’s all there is to go on at the moment, but from that limited information, it sounds as if Operation Pegasus is some sort of over-arching operation to spy on the left in Britain run by the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (the unit Kennedy worked for). (Guardian)

      However, Mark Kennedy isn’t the only undercover policeman to have been identified and

      the fourth spy now to have been identified as an undercover police officer engaged in the covert surveillance of eco-activists […] is still a serving Metropolitan police officer (Guardian)

  6. The Guardian just posted a story on police anger at Cameron & the government and the way they’ve tried to shove all blame onto policing decisions. I find it interesting that in the Guardian poll they found that “People on lower incomes are the most likely to think the police are under-resourced.”

  7. I heard a discussion this morning (here in Oz) that compared the UK riots with the apprentice riots in London in the 18th century. What do you think? The commenters spoke about a comparable sense of disenfranchisement…

    About community support – I don’t know what has appeared on the news overseas but every bulletin I have seen here in Oz has had community interviews along the lines of “I understand their sense of disconnection” usually spoken by a local middle-aged woman and contrasting with the law and order comments of politicians. So there is a local community perspective/narrative that differs from the political one.

    I was wondering what your and other commenters thoughts might be on why the riotors and looters targetted local small businesses and not name brnd stores or moving into the richer areas?

    Re people on lower incomes and their belief in under-resourced Police; I was wondering if that is to do with how lives are lived on the street and in public spaces when you are lower income because that leads to more interaction with the police and plays into how safe or not you feel? This can be whether or not that is due to police brutality or police resourcing.

    So it is the third un-armed man the Met have shot…. I remember years ago a conversation between Victorian and NSW state police officers at an event I was attending – half jokingly the NSW copper said to the Victorian ‘if I promise not to nick anything will you promise not to shoot anyone?’ A comment on respective force cultures.

    • I was wondering what your and other commenters thoughts might be on why the riotors and looters targetted local small businesses and not name brnd stores or moving into the richer areas?

      It wasn’t just “local small businesses” which were targeted. To pick out just a few of the entries from a BBC timeline, on Saturday 6 August “Vision Express, Boots, Argos and JD Sports are among the shops affected” and on Tuesday the 9th:

      A police station in Nottingham is firebombed by a group of rioters. In the Bootle area of Merseyside a man is arrested on suspicion of vehicle theft after allegedly using a dumper truck to break into a Post Office. […] London Fire Brigade lists the major blazes is it fighting in the capital: 1. Timber yard fire ongoing in East Ham on Plashet Grove. Four fire engines and 20 firefighters on site. 2. Shopping centre and offices of four floors fire on Woolwich New Road. […] West Midlands Police confirm that a police station in Holyhead Road in Handsworth, Birmingham, is on fire.

      Another big fire burned down Sony’s “main distribution centre” (BBC). In Manchester a lot of the rioting took place in the city centre and Miss Selfridge (a name to be found on most UK high streets, I think) was one of the targets (BBC).

    • I was wondering what your and other commenters thoughts might be on why the riotors and looters targetted local small businesses and not name brnd stores or moving into the richer areas?

      They did. Not only they hit big-brand shops that Laura V mentioned above, much smaller groups also hit Chalk Farm Road/Camden Town, Bloomsbury, Sloane Square, Highgate Village, Swiss Cottage, Hampstead Heath and similar towns. On my way home from airport, my taxi was going through Chalk Farm Road, there were quite a few shops visibly affected. My favourite bookshop Offstage Theatre and Film Bookshop’s window was boarded up with glass shards still on the ground. A friend who works for Gay’s the Word (LGBT bookshop) in Bloomsbury said the bookshop was badly hit as well. There were smashed windows of three high street shops (Boots for instance) when I passed through Belsize Park last Weds. It’s not all shops, though. Major unlisted-in-the-media businesses are affected as well. Another friend said almost all Thomas Cook branches in affected areas saw their window fronts smashed. Cars were most badly hit. A friend’s husband’s car, parked in a locked court yard near the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm Road, was smashed then set on fire. Insurance companies are sobbing into their hankies as we speak.

      Re people on lower incomes and their belief in under-resourced Police; I was wondering if that is to do with how lives are lived on the street and in public spaces when you are lower income because that leads to more interaction with the police and plays into how safe or not you feel? This can be whether or not that is due to police brutality or police resourcing.

      Hm. I lived in Stoke Newington (Dalston), Finsbury Park and Arsenal. Like all parts of London: it felt safe on different levels and unsafe on other different levels. There was a tier of crimes: violence, burglary, mugging, rape, etc. Personal fears were related to that. For example: street violence – most groups of black and Asian youths from estates didn’t make me feel unsafe. White youths from estates were unpredictable and much more prone to violence, so they were scarier to me. Even more so when they were hooded. I’m sorry, but even now, when I see a group of hooded white kids I make a sharp U-turn. I won’t go near them. One group vandalised my bike in front of me while shouting racist crap (“Paki, go back to your fucking dirty country’ and “Come on, paki; show us what you’re made of, you fucking stinky paki bitch”) and another group subjected me to a brief round of ‘slap happy’.

      I didn’t report both incidents to the police because of my belief they wouldn’t bother. I honestly don’t know why or how I had that belief. I suppose I fundamentally understood the police would only make an effort if it was a serious crime or beneficial to them in a long run, such as it could be useful to Operation Whatever. I suspect most residents, particularly those who aren’t white, feel the same way.

      IMO, borough councils are heavily responsible. Most are crap and often disrespectful towards residents. Some councils mismanage finances and resources, which deeply affects all communities on different levels. Tower Hamlets, Haringey and Lambeth councils are notoriously badly-run and have been for years. Is it a surprise that riots happened in those boroughs last twenty years? I think not. The police, even with its flaws and all, constantly face the consequences of councils’ decisions, and all these encounters result in some local police forces nursing prejudices towards specific demographics who live in ‘bad’ post codes. There’s no denying that some police officers are bigoted as fuck, but there is definitely a disconnection between the residents and their borough councils and subsequently the police, hence dissatisfaction and frustration among residents. Budget cuts and mismanagement have a lot to answer for.

      As for the riots: IMO, there were four types: genuine rioters (reacting to a conflict within a demo or reacting in frustration), thrill-seeking rioters (reacting to a chance to taste ‘freedom’, e.g. do as they please for fun or a thrill, or both; class, age and race don’t matter), opportunistic rioters (organised groups to prolong an existing riot or spark a new riot for a political reason, same groups who were responsible for football hooliganism of the 1980s as a protest against multiculturalism) and opportunistic looters (taking advantage of chaos to take what they want).

      • Welcome back, Maili! And thanks for this. Ugh. Paki, huh?

        Your typology of rioters is spot on, in my estimation.

        I keep waiting to see what the BNP do with this, if they are able to leverage this genuine frustration into a political benefit. They’ve managed it before when the opportunistic dimension was clearer. It’s worrying.

        • Thank you! Yeah, I have been mistaken for every ‘non-white’ ethnicity there is. :D I was mistaken for a Thai (“Are you a Thai bride?” is one of five most asked questions), Singaporean, Chinese, Indian or Pakistani the most.
          It really does depend on what I wear, my make up, hair style, time of day, and where I am. In New Malden a couple of months ago, some thought I was half-Korean. Presumably because New Malden is home to a massive Korean community. In South Woodford last year, one said I should be ashamed for embracing western values, seeing that I’m a Russian Jew. Sod knows what made him think I was one.
          I’m still waiting to be identified as a Scot. So far my accent hasn’t clued anyone in. Dang. Will try harder next time. :D

          The English Defence League is the one that will succeed in channelling frustration into a campaign against people of Islam and certain other groups. They claim they are focusing on extremists only, but their actions over last three years say otherwise.

          • Thanks for sharing all that Maili. I live in Melbourne’s CBD and have seen street violence escalate over the past few years. The latest had me and one of the local homeless guys trying to scare off the guy bashing the street vendor and hoping the cops would turn up before the vendor choked on his own blood or the assailant turned on us. In that case it was mental illness not disconnection that led to the violence but that is a whole other story of untreated people abandoned to the streets.

            LIke you it is the groups of young white men that make me walk the other way. Here they come in from the suburbs to get drunk and act out. I sometimes think it is that they are drawn to the city to be seen as if they feel invisible in other places.

  8. All the scolding from Americans made my brain hurt. All the lectures seemed steeped in ignorance. Since the phone tapping scandal and the recent austerity measures (and accompanying student protests) were fresh in my mind, I didn’t see why anyone was surprised. This is how riots work. You yank the rug out from under an already underprivileged class, get your political corruption aired then have the cops do something stupid. By that point it’s like your husband telling you to calm down when you’re steaming–you blow the fuck up.

    I mean, shitty way to go about it, but that’s how impotent rage rolls. You can only fuck people for so long before they lash out.

  9. I’ve come back to this post several times, Sunita, each time intending to leave a comment and not doing so. It’s such an enormous and tangled issue with so many overlapping strands.

    I watched Question Time (a political discussion programme on BBC) the other night and I found myself feeling a sense of rejection of almost every point of view that was put, whether reactionary or liberal. I’ve tried to think about my reactions – especially the more emotional gut-level ones – and I think that the fact that the output of the rioting is mindless violence and looting has made people (myself included) not want to think about what the reasons for it might be. I suppose my gut says “how can something ‘mindless’ have a reason?”> even though my brain knows different. Do you know what I mean? A gut level rejection of any suggestion that there could be any ‘validity’ to this? I think a lot of people struggle with that and that’s why it is difficult for people to accept that it’s necessary to look at why as Brand puts it, these people feel “disconnected”.

    Assuming you can get past that deep-seated resistance to look at all at what is behind this, you then hit whole pile of difficult issues. Poverty, the underclass, race, the benefits system, consumerism, values. I wish this was as simple as how a certain group of people feel about the police but I don’t think it is. It’s about a huge chasm in our society that seems to be widening at a worrying rate and that’s looking increasingly difficult to breach, particularly when there is fundamental disagreement on how to do that and how some of these problems have arisen in the first instance.

  10. I suppose my gut says “how can something ‘mindless’ have a reason?”> even though my brain knows different. Do you know what I mean? A gut level rejection of any suggestion that there could be any ‘validity’ to this? I think a lot of people struggle with that and that’s why it is difficult for people to accept that it’s necessary to look at why as Brand puts it, these people feel “disconnected”.

    It’s “mindless” in the sense that it doesn’t have a clearly articulated goal, but it is “valid” in the sense that it is an expression of genuine feelings. About the police, about what society is becoming (and I completely agree with your assessment here), and about their disconnection from what regular politics is about now. That disconnection may not be justified in terms of each person’s actual social location, but if they *think* they are disconnected we need to understand where that comes from. It may be an idiosyncratic personality trait for some, but there may also be patterns.

    That said, it’s enormously difficult to separate out all the strands and make sense of them at the same time that everyone is experiencing the emotional upheaval that accompanies huge social events like this. I have to work very hard to do it retrospectively, and I’m a trained empirical researcher.

  11. @LauraV: As always, thank you so much for your contributions here; they are as good as a post in themselves and add a lot to my initial remarks.

    The New York Times had an article today explicitly addressing the emotional motivations of some of the participants, focusing on those who we wouldn’t expect to join in. It starts to get at some of what I’m working on.

    ETA: I singled out Laura for obvious reasons, but thanks to everyone who has commented. I think about this stuff every day but I don’t get to talk about it, and you are all helping me think more carefully and thoroughly as I revise the manuscript.

    • I’ve come across two more articles which I thought might be worth mentioning here. The first is by Peter Oborne, “the Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator,” and he suggests something rather interesting, given the right-wing slant of the Telegraph:

      It is not just the feral youth of Tottenham who have forgotten they have duties as well as rights. So have the feral rich of Chelsea and Kensington. […] For them, the repellent Financial Times magazine How to Spend It is a bible. I’d guess that few of them bother to pay British tax if they can avoid it, and that fewer still feel the sense of obligation to society that only a few decades ago came naturally to the wealthy and better off.

      Since I don’t know any of the “feral rich” and didn’t know any “only a few decades ago” either, I don’t feel I can comment on whether the rich have become more immoral. It does make me wonder, though, if maybe there are still “wet” Tories as well as “dry” ones and it also makes me wonder if UKUncut might have a broader base of support than I’d previously imagined it might have.

      The second article is by Jon Henley in today’s Guardian, about similarities between these riots and the ones in France in 2005:

      There were, obviously, differences. France’s rioters torched a lot more cars and did a lot less looting. But that was mainly because France’s marginalised classes tend to live out on the far outskirts of its big cities; their equivalent in Britain live in, or close to, city centres. “The reason they didn’t loot much in France,” said Fize, “is because where they were rioting, there weren’t any shops.”

  12. I saw that Oborne article and thought it was brilliant. As I said on Twitter, when the Guardian and the Telegraph agree on something, you know the world is upside-down.

    When I was writing this post I originally thought about making the comparison to the banlieue riots but then abandoned it because all I could find quickly were posts that emphasized the differences. But I agree that there are important similarities, and I’m glad to see that article.

  13. I had a work meeting yesterday and my collegue told me that her daughter living in Clapham had rioting but not fires all around her and that the local Debenhams was completely looted. The street her flat is in was littered with shoe boxes.

  14. I have the same impression as Maili re the BNP and the English Defence League. The BNP have been having a lot of internal and external difficulties recently whereas the EDL seems to be rather more active. During the riots

    The EDL claimed that about 100 of its members were helping to protect the streets of Enfield on Tuesday night.

    The league was also encouraging people to join a group of men in Eltham planning to guard their high street. (The Telegraph)

    Have you seen Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth’s article in today’s Guardian? They write that

    In a recent study, we focused on the link between austerity measures and unrest. We analysed a large number of countries, over almost a century, to unearth some empirical regularities. In two studies, we analysed unrest in 28 European countries from 1919 to 2009, and in 11 Latin American countries since 1937. What we found is a clear and positive statistical association between expenditure cuts and the level of unrest.

    To construct our measure of unrest, we looked at five indicators: riots, anti-government demonstrations, general strikes, political assassinations, and attempted revolutions. In a typical year and country, there are about 1.5 incidents of this type. The more you cut, the more incidents you get. By the time austerity measures hit 3% or more, the number of incidents has doubled. Interestingly, for the UK, the pattern is even stronger: for every percentage point of cut-backs, instability surges by more than it does on average in the rest of the countries. Importantly, these effects are in addition to the well-known relationship between lower growth (associated with more unemployment) and higher instability.

    While the pattern holds throughout our sample, the relationship is not deterministic – the chance of unrest goes up as governments retrench, but it is not guaranteed. Many incidents, such as police brutality, as in the case of Rodney King in LA in 1992, or the killing of Mark Duggan in London, can provide the spark that leads to a conflagration. One reason why times of austerity could create the right environment for massive unrest is, in our view, that cut-backs usually hit some parts of the society disproportionately more than others.

    Interestingly, tax increases do not have the same effect.

    • Thanks, Laura, I’m happy to see that study show up in the Guardian. I’d seen a link over at the Crooked Timber blog last week. We academics and other observers have been so focused on ethnic conflict that I think sometimes we forget that economic (bread) riots go back at least two centuries. In my own research on Indian riots the economic and class variables are the most robust explanatory variables, much more stable than the religious ones.

      I am clearly behind the times, so thanks to you and Maili for the EDL info. One of the knock-on effects of riots is that they send information about levels of discontent and potential participants, and you then see political organizations trying to capture that discontent for their own uses. The BNP used to do it with football hooligans (as did neo-Nazi groups in Germany and the Netherlands).

      • You may be interested to know that

        In an email obtained by the Guardian, Adrian Tudway, National Co-ordinator for Domestic Extremism, said he formed the view the EDL were not extreme after reading their website. […]

        In an email sent on 27 April 2011, Tudway told a Muslim group they should try opening up a “line of dialogue” with the EDL, who have been accused of staging attacks and directing hostility at British Muslims.

        Tudway wrote: “In terms of the position with EDL, the original stance stands, they are not extreme right wing as a group, indeed if you look at their published material on their web-site, they are actively moving away from the right and violence with their mission statement etc.

        “As we discussed last time we met, I really think you need to open a direct line of dialogue with them, that might be the best way to engage them and re-direct their activity?” […]

        Zaheer Ahmad, president of the National Association of Muslim Police, said: “There is a strong perception in the Muslim communities that the police service does not take the threat of right wing extremism seriously. This perception is fast becoming reality when communities witness an inconsistent, somewhat relaxed police approach to EDL demonstrations resulting in very few arrests and prosecutions.

        “The community perception is reinforced by the position of the National Domestic Extremism Unit which does not view EDL as right wing extremists.

        “There is a considerable body of independent evidence, which is growing at staggering pace, to highlight the serious threat of EDL to our communities.” (The Guardian)

        Which is all very interesting, given the rather tough line being taken on anarchism. Maybe anarchists have scarier websites?

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