“The riots: A mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar” (Discuss)

Any Politics student from the 70s or 80s should recognise one of Jeff Stanyer’s favourite exam quotes. Events in London on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights were just that. Familiar: the usual refusal of government to accept any link between policy and violent reaction. The unfamiliar: the tactics and mode of organisation used.

Back in 1980 and 1981, the same old excuses and explanations emerged. Firstly, when in doubt, blame the police. They got the Scarman inquiry, which was predicated on the fact that they had done something wrong and something had to be done to put it right. Even then, there was no attempt to distinguish between what caused the riots and what occasioned them. The occasion for the riots to kick off was a misunderstanding over what the police were doing to a person injured. They were actually trying to help him, but the rapidly gathering crowd assumed that they had injured him. Rumour ruled.

What caused the riots was increasing disgruntlement with the position of what we now call the underclass, but then called the lumpenproletariat [a dangerous Marxist word not to be used after 1985]. A large proportion of this group happened to be Afro-Caribbean, so questions of racism were also involved. The police are the representatives of the state with which people come into contact on the street, and so are most likely to have confrontational contact (although people at the benefits offices also have a tale to tell).

Explanations of rioting were examined in John Benyon’s book, Scarman and After (Pergamon 1984), in particular by Stan Wilson. He argued that there were a number of ideological explanations. Revolutionaries weren’t interested in responding to riots, seeing them as proof that their dream of the final collapse of capitalism was taking place. Imagine if they had, as today, been able to watch riots plus a collapsing stock market. Unconfined joy!

Liberals (Taylor included social democrats in this category) see riots as an indicator of malfunctioning institutions, so the solution is always to be found in tinkering with the system. Sound familiar? Tuesday night the brighter politicians were saying how disgraceful it was, how brave the police were, but the riots were definitely an indication that Scarman hadn’t solved everything, that there was still racism and that Tory (sorry; ConDem) cuts were falling hardest on the rioting communities and youth who had had hope rudely snatched away from them, in the form of the EMA, SureStart, tuition fees etc etc.

Conservatives are living in the best of all possible worlds, so rioting has to be explained in a different way: it’s a conspiracy! They’re doing it for gain. They’re irrational. They’re doing it for fun. Or they’re copycats.

Conspiracy theorists have always argued that rioting will go away once the “leaders” are identified and locked up. Today we have a new version of this: it’s the technology. Lock up Blackberry! Suspicion of the new media, social networking sites, Twitter, Facebook etc can be indulged by Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells and turned into the argument that the internet needs policing. Look: it’s causing riots now!

The neo-liberals who have replaced the old conservatives understand the idea of doing things for gain, but it’s not a strategy for the lower classes, old boy. Both agree, though, that deterrence is the only possible answer… but the neo-liberals think that what you have to do is make the price of being caught higher than the gain to be obtained from looting. So fines, confiscation of assets. But unfortunately the perpetrators here don’t appear to have any money… Very well… take away their benefits! The old conservatives believe in locking them up. Problem is that the prisons are full, so where are they going to be put? The police, as personified by their blogs, believe that the problem is that the rioters know there is nothing that they can be punished with and that here lies the nub of the problem.

The big difference from the riots of the 1980s lies in the copycat riots in other cities. Whereas the riots in Liverpool took a familiar path, mostly confined to Liverpool 8, those in Birmingham and Manchester moved out of the ghettoes of Handsworth and Moss Side and attacked the major shopping centres. This is a clear escalation, and has led some commentators to write of the “shopping riots”. Very much a case of rioting for gain and a step in a dangerous direction.

Irrational? Well that can only be dealt with by superior tactics. Prevent crowds gathering, Contain crowds, or kettle them, rely on intelligence and tension indicators and go for water cannon and CCTV to put them in jail afterwards. Same problems as above. Monitor Twitter, Blackberry Messenger and even send warning messages using the same technology as the youth.

Doing it for fun??!! This is a version of irrationality, but somehow involves drug-taking and returns to the war on drugs, but without any resources for rehabilitation. Sir Herbert Gusset would teach them that fun it certainly isn’t.

Copycats? Simple. We just need to control the Media. It’s this 24 hour news business. They’re just doing it so they can watch themselves…and there were people on Tuesday night waving at the cameras… “Hello, Mum!”

We have been here before. The answer will ultimately emerge as a mixture of technology, tactics and institutional reform. The big difference this time is going to be: no money. Maybe some for the police, but times are hard. It will be difficult to blame police leadership because most of them ended up resigning over hacking. There really isn’t anyone left to fall on their sword. Enter an American Police Chief, stage left?

Posted by Bill Tupman (Honorary Research Fellow, Politics)

Photo courtesy of Chris JL.

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