During the London riots in August 2011, the police lost control of parts of the city for four days, and thousands of people took part in destruction and looting that resulted in property damage estimated at least $50 million. A recent article in Social Forces examines the residential address of 1,620 rioters — who were arrested and charged in the London riots, to investigate potential explanations for rioting. I spoke with one of the authors, Michael Biggs, to further understand his findings, and whether they confirm or alter previous understandings of rioter motivation.
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Can you briefly tell us what the London riot of 2011 was and why it occurred?
It began during a protest against the police shooting of a young man of mixed race, Mark Duggin. Rioting quickly spread across several London boroughs. For four nights, the police lost control of last swathes of the capital city. Other English cities also experienced riots on a smaller scale. Why the riot occurred is disputed by scholars and politicians. According to some, the rioters were motivated by anger against brutal treatment by the police, along with grievances against rising inequality and cuts to public services. Other argue that the motivation was not protest but crime, as rioters exploited an unprecedented opportunity to steal consumer goods.
How do you know who rioted?
Fortunately for sociology, but unfortunately for the rioters, the police conducted a massive investigation in the months afterwards. In Britain, closed circuit television cameras are everywhere, and these were used to identify participants. The police kindly shared their data on 1,600 individuals who were arrested and subsequently charged with a criminal offense. Of course we didn’t have access to names or other personal information, but all we needed was the postcode of the individual’s residence. British postcodes are exceptionally detailed, and so we could match them with information from the Census, which provides comprehensive information on 25,000 neighborhoods in London. Our analysis looks at geographical variation within the city. We compare (a) neighborhoods where at least one rioter lived with (b) neighborhoods without rioters.
How does your study confirm earlier studies of riots and in what ways does your study change our understanding of riots?
Our study is the first to provide rigorous evidence for the importance of police legitimacy. Many riots, like this one, are triggered by an incident involving perceived police brutality. But such a triggering incident could just be a pretext. Surveys conducted after riots in the United States have shown that rioters have worse experiences with the police than individuals who didn’t participate. But attitudes expressed afterwards could be a consequence of taking part in the riot and rather than a cause. Our study, by contrast, measures police legitimacy from surveys conducted before the riot, which sampled the entire population. We show that rioters were more likely to come from areas where people didn’t feel that the police treated them with respect. This finding holds even after taking into account many other social, economic, and political factors.
We challenge the accepted sociological wisdom that rioting is not associated with poverty. In London, rioters tended to come from the poorest neighborhoods, as measured by unemployment, adults lacking educational qualifications, workers in the lowest-paid occupations, overcrowded housing, and so on. How do we reconcile this finding with studies of American riots in the 1960s, which reject poverty as an explanation? Most of the analyses considered variation among cities, rather than variation within a city. In addition, in the United States at that period, black people were overwhelmingly poor, which makes poverty and ethnicity very hard to disentangle.
What did you conclude from your study as to why the London riot took place in some areas of London but not in others?
Overall, three major factors explain geographical variation. First, rioters came from areas where people felt less respected by the police. Second, they came from poor neighborhoods. Third, rioters came from neighborhoods which were ethnically diverse or “fractionalized.” Don’t make the mistake of thinking that diversity is just another word for nonwhite — we are measuring whether people in the neighborhood are drawn from many different ethnic groups rather than one. This last finding surprised us. We interpret it in terms of social cohesion: more diverse neighborhoods are less cohesive, and so adults are less able to prevent youth from rioting. This interpretation is supported by the fact that rioters were less likely to come from areas with many charitable (or nonprofit) organizations, which is another measure of social cohesion.
What, if anything, does your study say to those who claim that there are “no-go” zones in London, where the police cede their authority to residents?
London doesn’t have “no go” zones. American cities have ghettos, where most residents are black and poor. London doesn’t have similar spatial concentrations of class and ethnicity. Police in Britain don’t routinely carry firearms and only a few criminals are armed. This means that relations between police and civilians aren’t fraught with violence. So while we find that variations in police legitimacy across London help to explain rioting, these were variations around a relatively high level of legitimacy.
What, if any, are the similarities and differences between the London riot and the recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri in the United States?
The riots in Ferguson also began with protest against the shooting of a young man by the police. But these riots manifested a stark racial divide: the rioters were almost entirely African American. In this sense, the Ferguson riots resembled the riots of the 1960s, though on a smaller scale. By contrast, the London riot was exceptionally multiethnic. Some ethnic groups were overrepresented among the rioters, like people of Caribbean descent. But no single group was in the majority. This makes the London riot especially intriguing for sociologists.
Heading image: Shop fire during London riots, 2011 by Andy Armstrong. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Not to be confused with 2011 United Kingdom anti-austerity protests.
|2011 England riots|
Firefighters douse a shop and flats destroyed by arson during the initial rioting in Tottenham, London
|Date||6–11 August 2011 (although copycat incidents continued after this period)|
|Location||Several districts of London, Birmingham, Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Nottingham, Bristol, and several other areas|
|Caused by||Escalation of events following fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan|
|Methods||Rioting, looting, arson, mugging, assault, murder|
|Resulted in||Shops, homes and vehicles destroyed|
|Reported fatalities and injuries|
more than 16 members of public were injured
186 police officers, 3 police community support officers as well as five police dogs injured
The 2011 England riots occurred between 6 and 11 August 2011, when thousands of people rioted in several London boroughs and in cities and towns across England. The resulting chaos generated looting, arson, and mass deployment of police and resulted in the deaths of five people.
Protests started in Tottenham, London, following the death of Mark Duggan, a local man who was shot dead by police on 4 August. Several violent clashes with police ensued, along with the destruction of police vehicles, a double-decker bus and many homes and businesses, thus rapidly gaining attention from the media. Overnight, looting took place in Tottenham Hale retail park and nearby Wood Green. The following days saw similar scenes in other parts of London, with the most rioting taking place in Hackney, Brixton, Walthamstow, Peckham, Enfield, Battersea, Croydon, Ealing, Barking, Woolwich, Lewisham and East Ham.
From 8 to 10 August, other towns and cities in England (including Birmingham, Coventry, Leicester, Derby, Wolverhampton, Northampton, Nottingham, West Bromwich, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, and Salford) saw what was described by the media as "copycat violence". Social media sites including Facebook also featured rumours of further disturbances or details surrounding known disturbances which were later proven to be inaccurate; for instance there were rumours of disturbances in the town of Dudley and at the nearby Merry Hill Shopping Centre, but no incidents in these areas were detected by police. Rumours of a hospital being targeted by rioters in Birmingham were also proven to be wrong, as were rumours of disturbances in the Heath Town district of Wolverhampton, which had witnessed a serious riot in May 1989.
By 10 August, more than 3,000 arrests had been made across England, with more than 1,000 people issued with criminal charges for various offences related to the riots. Initially, courts sat for extended hours. There were a total of 3,443 crimes across London that were linked to the disorder. Along with the five deaths, at least 16 others were injured[update] as a direct result of related violent acts. An estimated £200 million worth of property damage was incurred, and local economic activity – which in many cases was already struggling due to the recession – was significantly compromised.
The riots have generated significant ongoing debate among political, social and academic figures about the causes and context in which they happened. Attributions for the rioters' behaviour include such social factors such as racial tension, class tension, economic decline and the unemployment that it had brought, as well as individual factors like criminality, hooliganism, the breakdown of social morality and the development of gang culture.
Police shooting of Mark Duggan
Main article: Death of Mark Duggan
On Thursday 4 August 2011, a police officer shot and killed 29-year-old Mark Duggan during an intelligence-led, targeted vehicle stop procedure on the Ferry Lane bridge next to Tottenham Hale station. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) said that the planned arrest was part of Operation Trident, which at that time investigated gun crime within the black community. The incident had been referred to the IPCC, which is standard practice if death or serious injury follows police contact.
After the shooting, the media widely reported that a bullet was found embedded in a police radio, implying that Duggan fired on the police. Friends and relatives of Duggan said that he was unarmed. The police later revealed that initial ballistics tests on the bullet recovered from the police radio indicate that it was a "very distinct" police issue hollow-point bullet. The IPCC later stated that a loaded Bruni BBMblank-firing pistol, converted to fire live ammunition, was recovered from the scene. It was wrapped in a sock and there was no evidence that it had been fired.
On 13 August, the IPCC stated that Duggan did not open fire: "It seems possible that we may have verbally led journalists to [wrongly] believe that shots were exchanged". The bullet that had lodged in an officer's radio is believed to have been an overpenetration, having passed through Duggan's body.
At lunchtime on 6 August, a meeting was called by police between local community leaders, councillors and members of police advisory groups. In this meeting, police were warned several times that there could possibly be another riot similar to the Broadwater Farm riot of 1985 if local concerns regarding the death were not addressed.
On 8 January 2014, a jury at the Royal Courts of Justice concluded that Duggan was lawfully killed.
On Saturday 6 August a protest was held, initially peacefully, beginning at Broadwater Farm and finishing at Tottenham police station. The protest was organised by friends and relatives of Duggan to demand justice for the family. The group of some 300 people demanded that a senior local police officer come out to speak to them. When Chief Inspector Ade Adelekan arrived, he was met with boos and cries of "murderer", "Uncle Tom" and "coconut". The crowd stayed in front of the police station hours longer than they originally planned because they were not satisfied with the seniority of the officers available at the time. Rumours that a 16-year-old girl had sustained injuries after attacking police with a champagne bottle began circulating on social media. To date, the girl remains unidentified and the report unconfirmed. However the rumour alone was sufficient to further fuel tensions in the area.
See also: Timeline of the 2011 England riots
A peaceful march on Saturday 6 August in Tottenham was followed by rioting and looting, first in Tottenham and later in Tottenham Hale Retail Park. Rioting occurred shortly after about 120 people marched from the Broadwater Farm estate to Tottenham Police Station via the High Road.
The spread of news and rumours about the previous evening's disturbances in Tottenham sparked riots during the night of Sunday 7 August in the London districts of Brixton, Enfield, Islington and Wood Green and in Oxford Circus in the centre of London.
The morning of Monday 8 August was quiet, but by evening, areas across London were affected by widespread looting, arson and violence, with significant outbreaks in parts of Battersea, Brixton, Bromley, Camden, Croydon, Ealing, East Ham, Hackney, Harrow, Lewisham, Peckham, Stratford, Waltham Forest, Woolwich, and Wood Green. A man was found shot in Croydon, and died later in hospital. Another man who had been assaulted in Ealing died in hospital on Thursday 11 August.
Similar riots were reported outside London – notably in Birmingham, Bristol, Gloucester, Gillingham and Nottingham.
Following a greatly increased police presence, London was quiet on Tuesday 9 August, but rioting continued in Nottingham and Birmingham (where, according to the police account, eleven shots were fired at police, including at a police helicopter, and petrol bombs thrown at officers) and spread to Leicester, parts of the West Midlands and to parts of Greater Manchester and Merseyside in the north-west of England. On Wednesday 10 August, London remained quiet while hundreds of arrests were being made by the police.
Three men were killed in Birmingham in a hit-and-run incident related to the disturbances. Looting and violence continued in two locations around Manchester and Liverpool.
Throughout the rioting, many of the rioters failed to cover their faces. Some posed for pictures with stolen goods, posting them on social-networking sites.
Although London employs CCTV cameras to monitor crime and large events, reports indicate that citizen footage contributed more to capturing looters in action than the police force. Beyond the CCTV, looters were filmed and photographed with their faces visible. Police forces and investigators used websites like Flickr to find galleries of the looters to help solve and prevent cases of vandalism and further damage. Facebook pages were also created to identify looters.
Several interactive maps were implemented in the Google Maps website that showed satellite views of what was happening in the streets during the rioting. James Cridland, the managing director of the free media resources, created a Google Map that tracked verified locations of rioting. Channel 4 News also had similar maps that progressively tracked the damage in the streets as well. News channels also were able to utilise this public service to capture live footage on the streets and inform citizens of dangerous or crowded areas.
There were reports that the BlackBerry Messenger service was used by looters to organise their activities, and that inflammatory and inaccurate accounts of Mark Duggan's killing on social media sites may have incited disturbances. One of the many messages shared between users was the following:
"Everyone in edmonton enfield wood green everywhere in north link up at enfield town station at 4 o clock sharp!!!!," it began. "Start leaving ur yards n linking up with your niggas. Fuck da feds, bring your ballys and your bags trollys, cars vans, hammers the lot!!"
Research in Motion assisted British police in tracking rioters who used BBM, stating, "We comply with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and co-operate fully with the Home Office and UK police forces."
Increased connectivity among individuals has led to a greater ability to organise and execute massive gatherings. This has not occurred only with the riots in England, but with other collective gatherings such as the Arab Spring and the Egyptian revolution of 2011.
Much like BBM, the mobility of technology shaped the London riots. During the Tottenham riots of 1985, citizens had to head into a public place to voice their message. Yet, with access to Twitter as a communication medium, social media was used to rapidly spread messages of the riots.
Radio 4 criticised Twitter's contribution to the riots through greed and criminality.The Daily Telegraph described Twitter as being an outlet for promoting gang violence. Evidence shows that Twitter is powerful because tweets of individuals were inspired by news content. However, an article in Time magazine suggested BlackBerry Messenger was more to blame.
During the riots, Twitter accounted for four out of every 170 UK Internet visits on Monday 8 August. In addition, citizens also used Twitter to band together, after the destruction. The aftermath of the riots resulted in a disrupted city, yet Twitter was further used to maintain peace, with hashtags including "#riotcleanup". Evidence shows that people were tweeting and re-tweeting news related to the riots, not original content.
Other than BlackBerry Messenger and social networking sites, mobile phone operators T-Mobile and Orange prioritised police requests for information about the phones that were used to plan the riots that hit British cities. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, phone companies were required to hand over data about the locations calls were made from, the owners of phones, and lists of calls made to and from a particular handset.
Deaths and injuries
Trevor Ellis, a 26-year-old from Brixton Hill, died following a shooting in Croydon, South London on 8 August. His family denied reports that Ellis, who had come from the Brixton area to Croydon with a group of friends, had been involved in looting. By 16 December 2013, 13 people had been arrested in connection with the murder. All were later bailed and then released without action. On 16 December, the eve of Ellis's birthday, detectives opened up a fresh appeal into the murder, asking for witnesses to come forward. As of 2018, no one has been charged.
Haroon Jahan, Shahzad Ali and Abdul Musavir
On 10 August, in Winson Green, Birmingham, three men – Haroon Jahan, 21, and brothers Shahzad Ali, 30, and Abdul Musavir, 31 – were killed in a hit-and-run incident while attempting to protect their neighbourhood from rioters and looters. On 19 April 2012, a trial of eight men, each arraigned on three counts of murder, was held in the Crown Court at Birmingham before Mr Justice Flaux; the jury acquitted all of the defendants on all charges.
Richard Mannington Bowes
A 68-year-old man, Richard Mannington Bowes, died on 11 August after he was attacked while attempting to stamp out a litter-bin fire in Ealing on the evening of 8 August.
Bowes was attacked by members of a mob on 8 August 2011, while attempting to extinguish a fire that had been deliberately started in industrial bins on Spring Bridge Road. The attack inflicted severe head injuries which resulted in a coma. The assault was caught on CCTV and reportedly filmed on mobile phones by associates of the alleged assailant. The attack on Bowes was witnessed by several police officers, but due to the number of rioters they were unable to come to his aid until riot squad officers pushed back the rioters while being attacked to reach Bowes. A line of officers then held back the rioters as paramedics arrived. Bowes's wallet and phone had been stolen, and police faced difficulty in identifying him. He died of his injuries in St Mary's Hospital on 11 August 2011 after being removed from life support.
Many tributes were paid to Bowes, including Ealing Council, who flew the Union Flag at half-mast over its town hall and announced the launch of a relief fund in his name, and London Mayor Boris Johnson, who described him as a hero.
A 16-year-old male, later named as Darrell Desuze, who lives in Hounslow was charged with murdering Bowes, violent disorder and four burglaries. He appeared at CroydonMagistrates' Court on 16 August 2011, where he was remanded in custody until his appearance at the Central Criminal Court on 18 August 2011. His 31-year-old mother Lavinia Desuze was charged with perverting the course of justice. On 12 March 2012 at the Crown Court at Inner London, Darrel Desuze pleaded guilty to manslaughter, after previously pleading guilty to burglary and violent disorder. The following day the Crown withdrew the murder charge against him. After a trial at the Crown Court at Inner London before Mr Justice Saunders and a jury, Lavinia Desuze was convicted of perverting the course of justice after she destroyed the clothing her son wore on the day of the death. On 17 April 2012, Mr Justice Saunders sentenced Darrell Desuze to detention for a term of eight years, and Lavinia Desuze to imprisonment for eighteen months.
In London, between Monday afternoon and the early hours of Tuesday, 14 people were injured by rioters. These included a 75-year-old woman who suffered a broken hip in Hackney.
In Barking, East London, 20-year-old Malaysian student Ashraf Rossli was beaten and then robbed twice by looters emptying his rucksack. Footage of the second mugging, which appears to show the second set of muggers pretend to help him then proceed to ransack his rucksack, was uploaded onto YouTube. He suffered a broken jaw, requiring surgery. On 2 March 2012, two men, John Kafunda of Ilford and Reece Donovan of Romford, were found guilty of the robbery of Rossli and also violent disorder by a jury at Wood Green Crown Court. The sentences were quashed by the Court of Appeal on 29 November 2012.
In Chingford, East London, three police officers were hit by a car used as a getaway vehicle by a group who looted the Aristocrat store on Chingford Mount Road. Two of the officers were seriously injured and taken to hospital.
In total, 186 police officers were injured as well as 3 Police Community Support Officers. Five police dogs were also reported injured.
Ten firefighters were injured as the London Fire Brigade dealt with over 100 serious fires caused by the disturbances. The LFB also reported that eight of its fire engines had their windscreens smashed and that two fire cars were attacked.
Property and business damage
Vehicles, homes and shops were attacked and set alight. At least 100 homes were destroyed in the arson and looting. Shopkeepers estimated the damages in their Tottenham Hale and Tottenham branches at several million pounds. The riots caused the irretrievable loss of heritage architecture. It was estimated that retailers lost at least 30,000 trading hours.
The Association of British Insurers said they expect the industry to pay out in excess of £200 million. Estimated losses in London were indicated to be in the region of £100m.
On 8 August 2011, a Sony DADC warehouse in Enfield at Enfield Lock, which also acted as the primary distribution centre for independent music distributor PIAS Entertainment Group, was destroyed by fire. Initially, because millions of items of stock were lost, including most of PIAS's inventory, it was thought that long-term damage to the British independent music industry might result. On 18 August 2011, PIAS confirmed that their operations were back to normal. On 11 August 2011, London police reported that they had arrested three teenagers in connection with the warehouse fire.
The Financial Times reported that an analysis showed that 48,000 local businesses – shops, restaurants, pubs and clubs – had suffered financial losses as a result of the looting and rioting in English streets.
Personal attacks and thefts
A 15-year-old was accused in August 2011 of raping a 13-year-old girl while the riots were taking place. The prosecution described the incident as being geographically "close" to the riots.
Twenty-year-old student Ashraf Haziq was attacked while cycling along Queen's Road in Barking. The prosecution said that the victim was punched in the face by one of a group of 100 youths. His bike, PlayStation Portable and mobile phone were stolen. In September 2011, an accusation of robbery was made against 24-year-old Reece Donovan. The same month, a 17-year-old was accused in court of breaking the victim's jaw with an unprovoked punch. In February 2012 John Kafunda and Reece Donovan were convicted of stealing from Rossli, after being identified on camera pretending to help him.
Four London buses were set on fire during the riots, and other buses were defaced with broken windows and other minor damage.
On 9 August, Croydon's Tramlink was partly shut down due to damage inflicted along its route.Transport for London, London Overground and London Underground shut Barking, Peckham Rye and Harrow-on-the-Hill and Hackney Central stations. The train operating company Southern later announced that trains were not stopping at many stations in south London.National Express Coaches stopped serving Wolverhampton and suburban stops in the Birmingham area (but not Birmingham Coach Station itself) and Manchester (but not Manchester Airport).
Five Football League Cup games due to be played on 9 and 10 August were postponed after requests from police due to the riots. The games at Bristol City, Bristol Rovers, Charlton Athletic, Crystal Palace and West Ham United were all postponed, as they were all situated within a short distance of areas which had seen some of the worst disturbances. There was also uncertainty as to the Third Test cricket match between India and England, at Edgbaston in Birmingham, but the match was played.
The international footballfriendly match between England and the Netherlands at Wembley Stadium due to take place on 10 August was cancelled, as well as the international friendly between Ghana and Nigeria scheduled for 9 August at Vicarage Road, Watford.
Tottenham Hotspur's opening game of the 2011–12 Premier League season against Everton on 13 August was postponed. The League Two game between Cheltenham Town and Swindon Town, due to be played the same day, was also initially postponed until further consultation allowed Gloucestershire Police to provide the required resources.
See also: Timeline of aftermath of 2011 England riots
Following the initial disorder in Tottenham, the constituencyLabour MP David Lammy appealed for calm, saying that "true justice can only follow a thorough investigation of the facts" and that Tottenham had had its "heart ripped out" by the riots. He said that rioters were not representative of the local community as a whole and insisted that the Independent Police Complaints Commission must fully establish the circumstances of Mark Duggan's death. Lammy voiced concerns that the EDL and BNP were playing on the London riots and people's fears to advance their political motives.
Streatham's Labour MP Chuka Umunna condemned the violence in Brixton and Tottenham. Umunna called for the BlackBerry Messenger service, used by some of the rioters to co-ordinate their activities, to be "temporarily disabled" between 6 pm and 6 am BST.
The use of BlackBerry Messenger has led to arrests – a Colchester man was detained under the Serious Crimes Act for organising a water-fight through the service.
John Randall, the Conservative MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip said: "It’s a small minority of people causing the trouble. The events in Ealing brought it home, it’s just down the Uxbridge Road."Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP Diane Abbott called for the introduction of a curfew.
Newark MP ColonelPatrick Mercer called for the deployment of water cannon. In December 2010 Theresa May, the Home Secretary, had said that the deployment of water cannon by police forces on the British mainland was an operational decision which had been "resisted until now by senior police officers." On 9 August 2011, May rejected their use and said: "The way we police in Britain is not through use of water cannon. The way we police in Britain is through consent of communities." Ken Livingstone, the former London mayor, said "The issue of water cannon would be very useful given the level of arson we are seeing here." Scotland Yard said officers did not have any water cannon and if their use was approved they would have to be brought over from Northern Ireland.
May said: "I condemn utterly the violence in Tottenham... Such disregard for public safety and property will not be tolerated, and the Metropolitan Police have my full support in restoring order." She returned to the UK from holiday early to meet senior police officials on 8 August.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister's office added: "The rioting in Tottenham last night was utterly unacceptable. There is no justification for the aggression the police and the public faced, or for the damage to property."
The deputy prime ministerNick Clegg said that the riots were "completely unacceptable" and described the rioters as "needless and opportunistic".
London's mayor, Boris Johnson, who cut short a holiday in Canada to return to the UK on 9 August, said: "I'm appalled at the scenes of violence and destruction in Tottenham" whilst his deputy Kit Malthouse told a Sky News reporter that "criminal elements were to blame for the trouble."
Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the "terrible scenes of people looting, vandalising, thieving, robbing" and told rioters "You will feel the full force of the law. And if you are old enough to commit these crimes, you are old enough to face the punishment."
Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell called the damage caused in the London Borough of Croydon "sickening".
In a strongly worded criticism of what he deems to be a misplaced "hyper-sensitivity about race", dating back to the Macpherson Report of 1999, Civitas director David Green attributed the reluctance by police to use force to a fear of disciplinary action. He said that "officers in charge of a riot think it safer to wait for orders from the top".
In a public speech on 15 August, David Cameron blamed a "broken society" in "moral collapse" – broad societal change themes common to his party's election campaign theme Broken Britain.
The city councils of Manchester and Salford are reported to be investigating their powers for ways of evicting tenants if they, or their children, have been involved in violence or looting in their cities. The London Borough of Greenwich also stated on its website: "We shall seek the eviction of anyone living in council property if they are found to have been engaged in criminal acts."
Several countries issued warnings advising caution to travellers visiting the United Kingdom during the riots.
German far-left activists suggested using the riots as a role model to be applied to their political activities in Germany as well.