The events that took place in August 2011, following the deadly shooting of Mark Duggan by a police officer, stemmed from a protest in the streets of the London borough of Tottenham. Only hours later the situation quickly turned violent and escalated to full urban riots that lasted over four days and spread to some other cities in England. Many people lost their homes and many more businesses suffered the damages (BBC, 2011). As stated by Geoff Andrews in Chapter 8 of our study material, the radical view that “the rioters are seen not as a ‘mob’ or ‘thugs’, but as alienated youth, protesting against their lack of opportunities” comes from taking into account not only the violent behaviour of the people who rioted but also from an understanding of social circumstances which have led a significant portion of the population to completely disregard the law (Andrews, 2014 p. 318). In this Essay the radical and conservative ideologies behind how these events are viewed and interpreted will be discussed, starting by an impartial account of what caused the riots, followed by a review of the conservative stance of the government and the public’s opinion perspective, the radical justification for rioting, as well as the historical roots of these ideologies and their contemporary ramifications, concluding with a summary of how they impact communities.
Riots are commonly defined and known as being a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd (The Oxford Dictionary, 2015).
On Thursday, the 4th of August, Mark Duggan was shot dead by police in Tottenham. Two days later, a peaceful protest of around 300 people takes place in the afternoon, claiming “justice” for Mr Duggan and his family. Riot officers and police on horseback are sent to disperse the crowd but come under attack soon after. Unconfirmed reports say the incident was sparked by a teenage protester and a police officer. That same evening violence erupts against the police as patrol cars are set on fire. Other fires erupt and riots lead to looting. In the following days, riots and lootings spread across other boroughs of London and other cities such as Nottingham, Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Leicester. Social media and, especially popular at the time, the messaging service BBM had been identified as the media of choice via which people would incite others to join in and riot; an article on The Economist will later coin the term ‘Blackberry riots’ (The Economist, 2011). A week after the protest, the metropolitan police say it arrested over 1,100 people, many people have lost their homes in fires, countless businesses suffered damages and people were trying to make sense of what has happened (BBC, 2011).
Three days after the riots began, the government issued its first statement. The speech was delivered by Prime Minister David Cameron, at that time the leader of a government coalition between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, in which he completely dismissed the riot as a political gesture and focussed instead on what he referred to as a ‘morally corrupt and broken society. Despite being the leader of the coalition of contrasting ideologies, Mr Cameron’s built his speech with his conservative political idea and his ideological assumption about what is wrong and what needs to be changed (Andrews, 2014 p. 312). His statement was clear in pointing out how the situation was not the product of racial issues in segregated communities, nor about the government cuts to welfare and neither was it about poverty. As Andrews points out, “his own position emerges from a critique of rival explanations” (Andrews, 2011 p. 312). This position allowed him to not recognise riots as a form of social protest but simply as acts of vandalism and violent behaviour alone, symptomatic of a society with a moral void. Particular emphasis was given to private property in that it seemed to have wider importance to the stability of society. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek explains in his documentary ‘The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology’, “Cameron statement highlights how the ‘ultimate sin’ was to take things without paying for them. So the Conservative solution: we need more police” (Zizek, 2012).
A year after the riots, an independent panel was set up by the government to study the causes that led to riots and concluded “that the riots were fuelled by a range of factors including a lack of opportunities for young people, poor parenting, a failure of the justice system to rehabilitate offenders, materialism and suspicion of the police” (Fiona Bawdon, 2012). Darra Singh, chair of the panel also added: “when people don’t feel they have a reason to stay out of trouble, the consequences for communities can be devastating” (Singh, 2012). This view is also shared by Zizek, as he carries on explaining the ideology behind the riots in his documentary: “man is not simply a product of circumstances and you have to see how these people live in practically ghettos and isolated communities, with no proper family life, no proper education and no prospect of regular employment” (Zizek, 2012).
In light of the verdict of the panel, how could the government response to these events be so detached from the underlying social issues that surround them? The answer lies in the historical root of conservatism. The book that is now considered a classic work of modern conservatism, written shortly after the French Revolution by Edmund Burke, titled ‘Reflection on the revolution in France’, divided the conservative ideology with four organising concepts: social order and stability can only be maintained by a natural hierarchy, rejection of the idea of popular sovereignty and preference for wisdom rather than reason as the basis of political change (Andrews, 2014 p. 304-305). Modern conservatism still has the same core ideas, and in addition, there is a belief that people should take care of themselves rather than expecting the government to provide welfare (Singh, 2013) and that consumerism should be protected at the cost of an unequal society. Therefore, riotous acts are seen by the government not as acts of political protest but as actions of pure criminality that require more policing (Cameron, 2011).
On the other end of this ideological spectrum, contemporary commenters, such as Camila Batmanghelidjh’s on The Independent, instead claim that the riots were ‘the natural human response to the brutality of poverty’ (Batmanghelidjh, 2011). Alex Hiller makes a similar point: “The shocking acts of looting may not be political, but they nevertheless say something about the beaten-down lives of the rioters” (Hiller, 2011). Even Zizek in his documentary explains that “it is the reaction of people who are caught in the predominant ideology [consumerism] but have no grace to realize what this ideology demands of them and thus, a wild ‘acting out’ within this ideological frame of circumstances is the result of a specific ideological constellation even though there seemed to be no apparent reason behind the violence” (Zizek, 2012). And riots have historically been an instrument of political and social reforms since the time of the French Revolution, as the roots of radical ideology can be traced back to the period of the French Enlightenment when political arguments, such as the ‘rights of man’, became popularised and spread through the population. These ideas stemmed from the notion of reason, progress and reform, which were considered revolutionary at the time when Europe was ruled by monarchies (Andrews, 2014 p. 301). The three organising concepts of radicalism are popular sovereignty, universal rights and social progress. Modern radicalism includes in its core values all of the radical organising concepts as well as a strong interest in helping the poor rise from their place (Singh, 2013). So when people take to the streets to voice their discontent, the underlying reasons and motivations have not changed since the time of the French Revolution as they remain social and economic (Andrews, 2014 p. 298). As Alex Hiller stated: “Consumer society relies on your ability to participate in it. So what we recognise as a consumer now was born out of shorter hours, higher wages and the availability of credit. If you’re dealing with a lot of people who don’t have the last two, that contract doesn’t work. They seem to be targeting the stores selling goods they would normally consume. So perhaps they’re rebelling against the system that denies its bounty to them because they can’t afford it” (Hiller, 2011).
As the government is guided by an ideology towards a direction that takes away from part of its population the ability to actively participate equally in society, this marginalisation inevitably leads to a lack of trust towards the system that creates more inequality and injustice. Increasingly police officers are seen less as active members of communities, available to help and solve problems, and more as enforcers of laws that these marginalised communities did not necessarily agree to (BBC, 2011). After the riots, when being interviewed by journalists, “Rioters identified a range of political grievances, but at the heart of their complaints was a pervasive sense of injustice. For some this was economic: the lack of money, jobs or opportunity. For others, it was more broadly social: how they felt they were treated compared with others” (Lewis, Newburn, Taylor and Ball, 2011).
In conclusion, as Andrews stated, “the meaning of ‘riot’ is often held in the eyes of the beholder at any given time” (Andrews, 2014 p. 288). Perhaps riots are a manifestation of a society that is evolving faster than its government is able to adapt, and the ideologies behind the narratives of each side are nothing but the ongoing tug of war between society and the government that rules it. In this essay, the riotous events that took place in London in 2011 have been discussed as well as the stance of the government and the public’s opinion, the roots of radicalism and conservatism and their contemporary ramifications, concluding with how marginalised communities are affected.
Definition of ‘riot‘ from The Oxford Dictionary [Online]. Available at http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/riot (Accessed 15 August 2015).
‘England riots: Maps and timeline’ (2011), BBC News [Online].
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‘The BlackBerry riots: Rioters used BlackBerrys against the police; can police use them against rioters?’ (2011), The Economist [Online]. Available at http://www.economist.com/node/21525976 (Accessed 15 August 2015).
Geoff Andrews (2014) ‘Reading the riots from Below, the radical case’ in Clarke, J. and Woodward, K. (eds) Understanding Social Lives, Part 2, Milton Keynes: The Open University.
Slavoj Zizek (Writer), Sophie Fiennes, Katie Holly, Martin Rosenbaum, James Wilson (Producers), Sophie Fiennes (director) (2012) ‘The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology’ [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Zeitgeist Films.
Fiona Bawdon (2012) ‘Verdict on UK riots: people need a ‘stake in society’, says report’, The Guardian [Online].
Available at www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/mar/28/verdict-uk-riots-stake-society (Accessed 15 August 2015).
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Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17525873 (Accessed 15 August 2015).
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Camilla Batmanghelidjh (2011) ‘Caring costs – but so do riots’, The Independent [Online].
Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/camila-batmanghelidjh-caring-costs-ndash-but-so-do-riots-2333991.html (Accessed 15 August 2015).
Zoe Williams (2011) ‘The UK Riots: the psychology of looting’, The Guardian [Online].
Available at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/aug/09/uk-riots-psychology-of-looting (Accessed 15 August 2015).
Simon Coates (2011) ‘Non-riotous Behaviour’ Analysis, BBC Radio 4 [Podcast].
Available online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b014pw7g (Accessed 15 August 2015).
Paul Lewis, Tim Newburn, Matthew Taylor and James Ball (2011) ‘Rioters say anger with police fuelled summer unrest’ The Guardian [Online]. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/dec/05/anger-police-fuelled-riots-study (Accessed 15 August 2015).