12 Aug 2011

Why the rioters are just ‘ordinary people’

As courts work through the night to process hundreds of cases, Channel 4 News looks at who was involved in the riots. One psychologist says the issue is complex but it is “not mindless criminality”.

The Metropolitan Police said roughly half of 240 people who have appeared in court charged over the London riots were under 18.

Police across the country have arrested at least 1,600 people in connection with riots and looting. The Ministry of Justice says 796 people have appeared in court.

The full demographics of who was involved in the riots are yet to emerge, but in cases where the defendants’ ages are known, 83 per cent or 576 are adults and 17 per cent, or 122, are under 18.

Two-thirds of those who have come before magistrates have been remanded in custody and a large number have been sent to Crown Courts, which have powers to hand down prison sentences of more than six months.

Wandsworth Council has also issued what is believed to be the first eviction notice on a council tenant connected with the riots in Battersea.

They’re ordinary people like us. So it can’t be just sheer criminality. Dr Clifford Stott, social psychologist

Prime Minister David Cameron has condemned the violence, which was sparked by the police shooting in Tottenham on 4 August of 29-year-old Mark Duggan.

Liverpool University social psychologist Clifford Stott told Channel 4 News that “power and legitimacy” are the driving forces behind being drawn into the crowd psychology.

“We don’t know precisely how people got drawn into the riots.

“But in that context the power dynamic shifts. And the circumstances lead them to believe that that kind of behaviour is justifiable,” he said.

Unlikely offenders?

Those who have appeared at courts across the country have come from a range of ages and backgrounds.

They include a lifeguard, a charity worker and an aspiring social worker.

Eighteen-year-old Olympic ambassador Chelsea Ives allegedly threw bricks at a police car during the violence in Enfield on Sunday. Her mother reported her to police after seeing her in a news report.

Alexis Bailey, a 31-year-old teaching assistant at Stockwell primary school in south London, was arrested in a Richer Sounds store in Croydon late on Monday night. He was released on conditional bail after pleading guilty to burglary with intent to steal.

‘Ordinary people’

Dr Stott, who is an expert in crowd behaviour, told Channel 4 News that the incidents should not be seen as mindless criminality.

“When we see who is coming before the courts, it shows the inadequacy of any analysis in terms of viewing these events as criminality.

“We’re looking at people in the courts who cannot easily be seen as pathological criminals. Why it is that a previous ambassador could end up in this cirumstance?

“They’re ordinary people like us. So it can’t be just sheer criminality.”

He said the disorder needs to be viewed in light of youth unemployment and education opportunities.

“These people feel alienated from society. There’s a disenfranchisement.

“A lot of these kids are looting, but they’re looting because they wouldn’t have the opportunity to get those things any other way.”

But he noted that the complexities of the “social crisis” meant there was no easy solution.

“We can’t pretend that we can resolve these things simplistically. It is massively complicated and we can’t expect to have an answer within a few days.”