9 Aug 2011

Britain in the grip of riots – but why?

After three nights of riots, looting and arson in London and across Britain, Channel 4 News looks at who the rioters are and why they are taking to the streets so violently.

Why are there riots? (Reuters)

They are the worst riots in Britain in living memory.

Hundreds arrested, millions of pounds-worth of damage done and thousands of people living in fear about where the riots will strike next.

The violence began in Tottenham on Saturday after Mark Duggan, 29, was shot dead by police on Thursday 4 August. But the disturbances have since spread as far afield as Liverpool and Bristol.

Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Steven Kavanagh said resources are “stretched to a level I have never seen before” by the escalating violence as law and order unravels.

But riot experts told Channel 4 News the pressure has been building in the UK for years.

There’s been a sense of watching a slow train crash ever since the credit crunch. Dr Paul Bagguley

Dr Paul Bagguley of the University of Leeds, who researches the sociology of protest, said he had often been asked if there would be riots in the wake of spending cuts, rising unemployment and increasing social inequality in Britain.

He told Channel 4 News: “There’s been a sense of watching a slow train crash ever since the credit crunch.”

While the riots in Tottenham were sparked by Mr Duggan’s death, since then a wide range of people have become involved in many different places – both in London and across the UK, in cities like Liverpool and Birmingham.

Dr Bagguley said people often have different reasons for rioting but one of the main factors sending them out was very simple: because they were doing nothing else.

“They did research in the riots in America in the 1960s and the only statistically significant thing was simply being available,” he said.

In London, this has meant that many of the rioters are young men and even children, either unemployed or still of school age. Eyewitnesses suggested that the crowds varied – a mixture of youths, more organised, older men, and even women and children.

Some are possibly in gangs, some are onlookers swept up in the moment, and others, Dr Bagguley said, are there because everyone else is.

“People are looking round and seeing people like them doing it and getting away with it. People don’t do these things if they think they are going to get caught,” he said.

Many have been disgusted by how prominent looting has been in the recent riots, but Dr Bagguley said looting was the “least risky” part of rioting.

“There used to be food riots in Britain and this is like a consumer version of that. People are bombarded with adverts and products that are desirable but they don’t have legitimate ways of obtaining them,” he said.

Channel 4 News reporter Keme Nzerem spoke to Leon Douglas, founder of the youth charity Streets to Life, who said the rioters were having a ball while looting – they were getting goods for free.

Others believed that the riots and looting were part of a wider message to politicians.

Richard Wilkinson of The Equality Trust told Channel 4 News: “People are so afraid of saying anything about the background factors in case it excuses this.

These are just kids who feel society is s*** and they don’t have much more analysis than that. Richard Wilkinson, The Equality Trust

“There is no doubt arson is terrible, and people made homeless or people with their lives at risk. But we must look at the background factors.

“The fact that the kids themselves don’t have a clear understanding of the background factors is no more relevant than bankers who don’t know why bonuses are so much more than they were 20 years ago.”

He said this kind of rioting was inevitable in a country which has major inequality issues, and where trust has recently broken down in the authorities. The gap between the richest 20 per cent and poorest 20 per cent in Britain is twice as big as in Sweden, Norway and Japan.

“I think the lack of respect for authority is understandable in the wake of stuff on the press, MPs, the bonus culture. There’s a lack of hope, unfairness, which doesn’t really know where to go – so you smash a few windows, grab a few things, show some hostility by burning stuff,” he said.

“These are just kids who feel society is s*** and they don’t have much more analysis or criticism than that.”

And hopes that the violence will end soon could be premature, Dr Bagguley said.

“There were riots like this a few years ago in France. They went on for a month,” he said.