The 2011 riots ten years on: Four myths and the realities

'It’s important to reflect on what happened and how it happened. This is especially so, given the myths that surrounded these events. These are the same myths that surround all waves of riots.'

John Drury is Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Sussex. He was lead investigator in the ESRC Beyond Contagion project which drew upon multiple sources, including interviews with rioters, videos, and police data, to understand the spread of rioting and other collective behaviour

On the 10th anniversary of the biggest wave of riots in the UK in a generation, it’s important to reflect on what happened and how it happened. This is especially so, given the myths that surrounded these events. These are the same myths that surround all waves of riots.

The first myth is that any ‘spark’ can cause a riot if tensions are high. From Watts 1964 to Brixton 1981 to Tottenham 2011, there were certainly pivotal incidents, in which certain police actions crystalized years of injustice. But the 2011 riots didn’t start immediately after Mark Duggan was shot and killed by police in Tottenham Hale on Thursday 4th August. Rather, the first riot began on Saturday 6th, after the family had gone to the local police station. They had received no official communication from the police about the killing and had gone to the station to ask to speak to a senior officer. The conflict started after their requests were rejected and after police confronted people outside the station.

The second myth is that rioters are essentially existing criminals. In 2011, as a description of illegal activities, the term ‘criminal’ was clearly technically correct. But a different kind of claim was made by senior politicians when they stated that most of those who took part already had criminal records and convictions (and thus were already ‘criminals’).

The problem was that the figures on which these statements by politicians were based were arrest figures. Police sources inadvertently drew attention to the problems in using these figures to characterise the composition of the rioters in August 2011 when they acknowledged the pressure they were under to make arrests. In order to achieve some ‘easy wins’, police concentrated on targeting those who were already within police databases and/or under investigation and fitted the criminal profile of a potential ‘rioter’ or ‘looter’ in a particular area. Public statements that most rioters were already ‘criminals’ therefore treated as unproblematic the circular way that the data was produced.

The third myth is that of the ‘mob mentality’ – that people become mindless as they become part of a crowd. This is supposedly evidenced by the examples of rioters ‘destroying their own community’ and gratuitously damaging ‘local shops’. Yet the Home Office’s own data provide clear evidence that there was significant discrimination in rioters’ choice of targets. The ‘small independent retailers’ (which principally comprised convenience shops, newsagents and off licenses) so beloved of the media and politicians in the aftermath of August 2011 made up only 9% of the 2,278 commercial properties that were attacked in total. And there were very few (if any) deliberate attacks on private homes.

The fourth myth is that of contagion – that rioting spreads easily, like a disease, amongst anyone that comes into contact or hears about it. The obvious problem with the notion of ‘contagion’ is that it can’t explain why some people and not others join in with rioting, and why some cities riot and others don’t when there is a wave of rioting. There are two basic conditions that explain why some places riot and others don’t: deprivation and poor relations with the police. Our analysis found that, compared to those places that didn’t see rioting, those London boroughs that saw rioting had significantly more deprivation, many more police ‘stop and searches’, and more negative public attitudes to the police.

But it is true that an incident of rioting in one city can make rioting in other cities more likely. We need to explain not only which cities riot but when they riot. How does spread happen?

In the case of the 2011 English riots, we found that rioting spread through three different processes. First, in some cases people joined in because they identified with Tottenham and were angry about what happened to Mark Duggan. They wanted to punish the police for the injustice suffered.

Second, as police became seen as increasingly vulnerable, people who were hostile to police became empowered. Where people who are hostile to police see their peers and neighbours as similarly angry or empowered (or both), this can create a critical mass.

Third, while the police often present themselves as simply passively responding to rioting, we found evidence that their actions can inadvertently escalate or even cause rioting. Where police expected trouble locally due to rioting in other cities, they mobilized into communities, most of which had no intention of rioting but came out onto the streets out of curiosity or to challenge this ‘invasion’. Where police then intervened, it was against a crowd that not only felt aggrieved but also had the numbers and hence the power to fight back.

An extraordinary amount has been written and said about the 2011 riots. Unfortunately, much of this has been speculation and has lacked evidence. I hope some of the evidence summarized here contributes to a more informed debate about the legacy of these events.

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