1 November 2014

Riots in England: Summer 2011

Britain’s urban rioting of August 2011 strengthened the hand of the state, the police and the political right.

The riots were not the work of a single social group with one cause. The spark for the initial Tottenham riot was the police shooting a young black man sitting in the back of a taxi. Matters were made worse when the authorities claimed that he had fired at them when in fact he hadn’t. The situation was further inflamed by the police refusing to discuss the death with the dead man’s family, who were peacefully assembled outside the police station in a small demonstration made up of relatives, friends and community leaders.

A local ethnic riot of rage in Tottenham could not have spread across the land, engulfing several English cities, particularly London, if the country hadn’t been a tinderbox waiting to go up in flames.

In parts of London and then some other British cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham), the young unemployed - impoverished, and alienated, but brought up in a society in which consumer possessions were elevated to the purpose of life - revolted and sought to steal electronic goods, designer clothing and much else from High Street stores. An orgy of rioting and looting ensued.

In the mayhem criminals and criminal gangs entered the fray engaging in systematic looting, arson and mugging of passers-by – and in a couple of cases, murder. The situation was further compounded by the creation in many parts of London of a macabre carnival atmosphere as shop after shop was looted and burnt; and funseekers from all social backgrounds joined in.

Some on the political left might even feel an element of Schadenfreude in seeing the poor and the excluded taking to the streets to vent their anger. But the rioters, save for a few small contingents of anarchists, lacked any kind of conscious political purpose. The rioters and looters’ target was not just large commercial property, but also that of private individuals and small traders. The hooded youths were smashing up their own communities in which they obviously felt they had no stake.

Inevitably, the target of much of the violence was the police; for it is the police whose job it is to physically bend bodies so they cooperate with the social order, a social order which is so unfair to so many. But no society can tolerate rampant criminality; so the police with widespread public backing suppressed the riots. By the end, armoured vehicles appeared on the streets of London and permission had been given for discharge of plastic bullets, though these were not used.

After the 1981 riots – the only riots comparable in modern British history - the left still existed as a political force and Tory “wets” still present in the government were apprehensive about a full-scale junking of the post-war consensus. None of that applies today and the reaction of the state has been one of enhancing repression and eschewing any form in social understanding in favour of punishment.

The riots restored the empathy between that "moral majority" and the police. The G20 demonstrations in April 2009 and the killing of Ian Tomlinson had seriously weakened people’s perception of the police, but that has now been forgotten. Opinion polls showed overwhelming support for the police, much more so than they did for the governments handing of the crisis. The future for civil liberties is bleak. When in the future peaceful demonstrators are beaten by police, sympathy beyond small liberal circles will be slight.

Popular punophilia: public lust for punishment

The state reaction to the rioting was swift and brutal, symbolised by the police battering-ram used in dawn raids to smash in the front doors of alleged looters, all eagerly filmed by TV film crews. The police adopted a policy of arrest, detention and the denial of bail to anyone allegedly guilty of any riot-related offence, however trivial.

Magistrates’ courts sat in twenty-four hour sessions dispensing rushed summary justice for the thousand or so people (mostly young, unemployed men) who were arrested during or after the riots. The charges are various: theft, burglary, possession of stolen goods, violent disorder, assault, resisting arrest, etc.

The law was perverted in two ways in its dealing with people arrested during the riots. First, those defendants who pleaded guilty to even minor offences received custodial sentences of around six months when normally such misdoings would incur fines or community service. A penalty supplement was added for crimes committed during the riots. Below is one typical case reported by The Guardian:

At Camberwell Green magistrates, Nicholas Robinson, 23, an electrical engineering student with no previous convictions, was jailed for the maximum permitted six months after pleading guilty to stealing bottles of water worth £3.50 from Lidl in Brixton. He had been walking back from his girlfriend's house in the early hours of Monday morning when he saw the store being looted, his lawyer said, and had taken the opportunity to go in and help himself to a case of water because he was thirsty

The severity of sentences for offences committed during the riots was later approved by senior judges. Thus opportunist theft against commercial retailers during civil disorder was regarded as more serious than the burglary of residential property. The pro-business bias is obvious.

The severity of sentencing led to some interesting contrasts. Shortly after Nicolas Robinson was jailed for six moths for stealing a bottle of water, Rebecca Balira was jailed for the same length of time for keeping a Tanzanian woman as a slave and assaulting her.

Second, some 60% of those pleading not guilty in court were remanded in custody rather than being given bail. In normal circumstances only around 10% would be remanded. The accused were incarcerated before trial, not because they might abscond, interfere with witnesses, etc, but simply to punish them. This is contrary to to the basic rule: innocent until proved guilty.

The scenes of rioting have engendered fear and anger among ordinary people, so there is a popular demand among the public to crack down rioters and looters with 70% of the population supporting harsher sentence for offences committed during the riots. However, the behaviour of the government and magistrates is itself undermining the the independence of the judiciary as judges respond to political pressure from the state and the government. One judicial official even went as far to describe emails from civil servants requesting exemplary punishments as “directives” to impose stiffer penalties on riot-related offences.

But this kind of arbitrary severity is unlikely to be effective. In the next six months a thousand young men will emerge from prison, angry, unemployed and in many cases homeless. So the fuel is being made for yet more disorder.

Children and the riots

Among those arrested and charged during and after the riots were 269 children. Over 40 percent of these children had been held in pre-trial detention: a majority (some 60 percent) had no previous criminal record. According to Britain’s obligation under international law, the imprisonment of children should only be considered as a last resource. Instead children were used as pawns in Cameron’s law-and-order populism.

Britain has the highest rate of juvenile incarceration in Europe.

Welfare and social housing

The lust for punishment of riot-related offenders is not satisfied by long prison sentences. Government is promoting two further measures with much popular backing. Local councils are being encouraged to evict the whole family of the offender from their social or council provided housing. Thus not only is the offender to be made homeless, but his (or her) whole family. Such collective punishment (i.e. of the innocent with the perpetrator) is contrary to every principle of justice. At the time of writing, several evictions are under way, but none has so far been endorsed by the courts. The second policy is to withdraw unemployment and other social security support from offenders. To date, legislation to do this has not yet been passed.

England is thus currently caught up in a hysterical loss of proportion. Opportunist thieves who picked up looted goods from the street or entered already broken into shops face many months of imprisonment and loss of social security entitlements on their release. If they live in social housing, they and their families risk being thrown into homelessness. It is pure folly to think that such measures will improve the social fabric of so-called “broken Britain.”


Since the riots the Cameron government has declared war on gangs and gang culture. It is true that a minority of those involved in the rioting were members of criminal gangs, but the majority were not. They were opportunistic thieves.

Suppressing gangsterism in Britain’s poverty ghetto estates is no easy task. Yet every step that has been taken so far has or will strengthen the gangs. Two thirds of those imprisoned as a result of the riots have been incarcerated for the first time in their lives. Evidence is already emerging that many young men in prison are joining gangs for their protection, a practice likely to continue after they leave jail.

On release from jail, nearly all the former prisoners will be unemployed; and if the government fulfils its plans to remove public housing and welfare benefits, many will be destitute. The only source of support for these miserable people will be by way of association with criminal gangs.

Is the Cameron government aware of these rather obvious points? They probably are, but they also know, if they want to win populist recognition for being tough on crime, there is no need to worry about rising crime rates.

And the future?

Apart from strengthening the hand of state repression, what the riots have done is to confirm the process of the Americanisation of the under-class. They become utterly impoverished; its youth violent and totally excluded from society. The “moral majority” demands and justifies ever increasing punishment against them. The idea of a “working class” as a class “for itself” has gone. The political right wins.