The riot act

The fatal shooting of suspected gangster Mark Duggan by police in Tottenham, London, in August 2011, sparked riots that went on for five days, between August 6 and 11. The destruction quickly spread to neighbouring areas and also spread to other cities, including Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham, Leicester and Bristol. Five people died, property suffered damage estimated at £200 million, and police made more than 3,000 arrests.

Observers were surprised at the euphoria and perverse sense of ‘community spirit’ that emerged during the looting, violence and destruction that was part and parcel to the unrest. Bitter gang turf-war rivalries evaporated as street gangs joined forces to form a ‘band of brothers’ pitted against a common enemy – the police.

An investigation led by Dr John Dury of the University of Sussex into the early phase of the rioting in the London districts of Tottenham, Hale and Haringey, discovered that traditional post-code rivalries melted away, to be replaced with the emergence of a new, shared identity.

The police have always assumed they understood gang mentality, but Dr Dury believes that in times of heightened emotion and excitement, a new sense of community will override existing loyalties. More than that, the riots represented a textbook example of disparate people coming together to combat a common enemy.

The team looked at YouTube videos and Google Street View images, they examined police reports and arrest records, and they interviewed 41 rioters.

Initially, people talked about experiencing feelings of danger – not from the police, but from each other. A lot of people in the rioting talked in the interviews about the fear of being stabbed, but they also talked about coming together to form this new group for the first time, of forming a new identity, a new collective sense of self.

When circumstances conspire to unite people for the first time, it also generates a sense of empowerment. When everyone starts to feel the same way and they discover others feel the same way, they expect to be supported – that gives them the confidence to take action, no matter how anti-social or destructive.

Some people would describe the experience as being ‘caught up in the moment’ or ‘being carried along with the crowd.’ The same or similar feelings are present in large groups of football hooligans or protest marches that turn violent, where individuals become submerged in the larger organism of the group. After the event, they often question why the acted as they did, but where there is a common enemy, the feelings are more profound.

During the Tottenham riots, a turning point came when the police chose not to respond to one of their cars being set on fire. That perceived ‘victory’ created a sense of confidence and a suspicion that the police were weak. This belief encouraged the rioters to move onto other targets including a solicitor’s office (ironic if you think about it) and shops.

Another key element in the mix was a shared sense of grievance over heavy-handed police tactics such as ‘stop-and-search,’ which had already created a mind-set for revenge. Charged emotions changed from anger to euphoria – seeing the police were defeated led to expressions of celebration.

And then a totally unexpected behaviour emerged… While young men were engaged in the thick of the fighting, young women busied themselves looting shops.

After the riots ended, the team found evidence that the rivalry between gangs in the different districts was not as strong as it used to be. One rioter said ‘I saw the community coming together… usually it’s post-code gangs and that lot, like Hornsey, they have differences with Wood Green. But then again, when the riots came, I saw Wood Green and Hornsey people just walking past each other like it was nothing. Now, it’s like I don’t see a problem with any kind of area.’

I’m struggling to see this as a positive, but if the result is less street-violence in the future, I suppose it must be.

The findings were reported at the British Science Festival at the University of Brighton.

 

Copyright Andrew Newton 2017. All rights reserved.
Photograph courtesy of Press Association.