At the time, politicians and many commentators dismissed the riots as ‘criminality pure and simple.’ The government refused to conduct any investigation into the causes.
Now a study has been carried out by the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Guardian newspaper which involves interviews with 270 rioters.
The project collected more than 1.3 million words of first-person accounts from rioters, giving an unprecedented insight into what drove people to participate in England’s most serious bout of civil unrest in a generation. Rioters revealed that a complex mix of grievances brought them on to the streets but analysts appointed by the LSE identified distrust and antipathy toward police as a key driving force.
Of those interviewed, 85% cited anger at policing practices as a key factor in why the violence happened. Other factors cited included anger at the government over cuts to benefits and the educational maintenance allowance (EMA), which is aimed at keeping teenagers in school.
Many of the young people involved had been on protests against the tripling of university tuition fees and removal of EMA. The government argued that the rioting had to do with gang culture. However, the report reveals that for four days, there was an effective truce between gangs as they were united in fighting with the police.
Many rioters conceded that their involvement in looting was simply down to opportunism, saying that a perceived suspension of normal rules presented them with an opportunity to acquire goods and luxury items they could not ordinarily afford. They often described the riots as a chance to obtain “free stuff” or sought to justify the theft.
Contrary to widespread speculation that rioters used social media to organize themselves and share “viral” information, sites such as Facebook and Twitter were not used in any significant way. However, BlackBerry phones – and the free messaging service known as “BBM” – were used extensively to communicate, share information and plan riots in advance.
Four out of five participants in the unrest think there will be a repeat, with most believing poverty to be a factor.
The Metropolitan police’s internal report on the riots, released last week, appeared to identify simmering tensions with police. Citing community feedback about the riots, the report concluded:
Either the violence was spontaneous without any degree of forethought or … a level of tension existed among sections of the community that was not identified through the community engagement.
The Met said it welcomed the research that provides an insight into why the riots occurred “so that police and society can do everything possible to prevent a recurrence.”
Photo: Cover of The Guardian newspaper