Are the riots likely to happen again?

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“What if the riots happen again? Next summer! While the Olympics are on!” This was a fear expressed frequently by the British Elite after last summer’s riots. In their eyes, it’s one thing England burning while only English people are there to see it but imagine if it happened during the Olympics, when the global great and good are there to witness it! They have reason to worry. 80% of rioters interviewed by the Guardian’s Reading the Riots survey predicted riots “would happen again”, 70% of them said before 2014 and there’s no reason to think they’re wrong.

For riots to start, you need three things. Firstly, a sense amongst people, particularly young men in urban areas, that the way they are treated is unfair. As Thomas Carlyle said, “the feeling of injustice is insupportable to all men”. There are plenty of reasons for young people to feel that society is unfair and these have become more numerous since last summer; the budget’s minimum wage freeze for under 21s and tax cuts for the rich are just one example. Many rioters interviewed last year described the Olympic Games themselves as a vanity project they resented, a festival for the rich in a time of austerity. One rioter from an Olympic borough threatened “if the government tries to take the piss [and] things don’t get better … 2012 is not going to be successful. There’s not going to be a good Olympics”. Looking at what has happened since then, there is every reason for this man to think the government has in fact, “taken the piss”, and his prophecy will come true. The anger for riots is there.

Secondly, people need to believe that you cannot change things by working within the system. Will waiting for the next election, signing a petition, attending a protest or complaining about the police to the IPCC change anything? Through working hard, educating yourself and applying for jobs will you be able to rise up within the system? Many young people’s experience tells them otherwise. The Student protests failed, petitions are ignored and social mobility is a myth. None of this has changed between last summer and now and so the second requirement for a riot, a feeling that there is no alternative, is present.

Thirdly, people need confidence that, by working with others, they can mount a serious challenge to those they see as oppressors. Contrary, to Cameron’s “broken Britain” narrative, for riots to happen you need a certain sense of community togetherness. People don’t riot on their own but as a community. Therefore the community needs to share a common anger and identify a common foe, in this case the police. When this happens people know when they act, others will follow. Many rioters last year spoke of a rare sense of unity, a truce in gang rivalry, young people working together to make money and assert their power over the police. For the rioters not in prison, last year’s riots were highly successful. The ones who didn’t get arrested made some money, had some fun and made what they see as a political statement. For days, they had the police on the run and if they did that once they know they can do it again.

The conditions for a riot are there. All that it needs is a spark. This is the unpredictable bit. Something needs to happen which symbolises why people are angry. It takes a lot for this to happen. Last year, people did not riot when Mark Duggan was shot by police. Nor did they riot when his family were not informed of his death, or when a peaceful protest outside Tottenham police station was ignored. These events built up anger but it was only after hours of standing around that the police attempted to disperse the crowd and attacked a teenage girl that the riot began. In other words, the authorities need to be consistently incompetent to incite people to riot.

Even if all these conditions are met and a potential spark takes place, the authorities can still rely on their last line of defence, the Great British weather. The fact that nobody riots in the rain explains a great deal of British history. Given then that David Cameron is ideologically incapable of addressing young, inner city men’s sense of injustice and hoping that the police don’t do anything incompetent and violent is like hoping Nick Clegg keeps a promise. It seems our best hope, if we want to avoid last summer’s turmoil, is to pray for rain.

By Joe Lo.


Further Reading

The Guardian, Reading the Riots: Investigating England’s Summer of Disorder

Steve Reicher and Cliff Stott, Mad Mobs and Englishmen: Myths and Realities of the 2011 Riots