11 August 2011
Although this week’s widespread looting incidents in London and elsewhere – not overtly political in nature – are best characterised as criminal, they do point to the existence of a country-wide sub-culture that glorifies anti-social behaviour. Regardless of the left/right divide over how best to understand what has happened, the fact that sustained and coordinated looting took place across the country, organised through social media, is a problem that must be addressed. Regardless of whether people see either the individuals involved or government policy as being most responsible, the solution must come through policy.
The fact that there are large sections of people in England who do not empathise or identify with mainstream society is a social problem in itself. While the rioters mostly acted for material gain, the pleasure they clearly gained from their behaviour suggests a complete disengagement from mainstream society. Even if this sub-class is held responsible itself for its own social problems, this situation will clearly not be reversed solely by these people themselves. Hence, policy solutions are needed to address these issues.
Some key observations:
1. The lootings were criminal, not political acts. The looters were apparently motivated solely by a desire for material gain, not by any political ideology. However, the fact that they were not political on a micro-level does not mean that there are no political solutions to these problems, nor that we stop seeking to understand on a macro-level what quickly became a grassroots social phenomenon. Attempting to understand why these riots so suddenly erupted nation-wide should not however lead people to justify, excuse or condone this criminal violence.
2. Social dislocation can be one cause of social strife. Anti-social and anti-governmental extremist movements arise in part because some sub-sections of society completely fail to empathise with mainstream politics, society and economic opportunity. The riots show that it is not just some members within Britain’s Muslim communities that need to be actively re-engaged into the mainstream. The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and other government departments must devise a policy to actively re-engage this apparent ‘dislocated generation’.
3. No substitute for local policing. As in the case of violent extremism and terrorism, one of the best solutions to this social-dislocation can be clear and effective local police work that builds trust within communities. Quilliam cautions that too many cuts to the police budget may endanger effective front-line policing, and reduce the number of ‘bobbies on the beat’. This will cost society more than the savings made in the long run. We also urge the IPCC to be firm and clear in its conclusions about what exactly happened to Mark Duggan in Tottenham, while acknowledging that the spread of the riots had little to do with this original spark. We however praise the police for their bravery and skill in successfully reducing the disorder and calming the situation.
4. Need for a unifying national narrative. Much of the looting in England seems to indicate a perceived sense of not belonging – regardless of the extent to which this social-disconnect actually exists in practice. Just as countering terrorism involves addressing perceptions of grievances as much as any grievances themselves, it therefore makes sense for society to invest in reversing this sense of not belonging too. Many social problems (from the recent riots to Islamist and far-right extremism) can be addressed through nurturing a more inclusive and open national narrative. Government strategy on National Cohesion lies with DCLG, and Quilliam urges DCLG to publish its plans for moving forward on this agenda so that effective work to counter these problems can begin.
5. Far-right trends currently seeking to capitalise on riots. Far-right movements such as the BNP and the EDL have sought to inject a racial and religious twist to the riots – and to propose their own preferred extremist solutions to these problems. Politicians, media and other actors should be aware that racialising discussion of the riots may in advertently empower such movements. It is noted that the most strategic and powerful interventions against the looters made were by Tariq Jahan, the father of a murdered Birmingham youth who urged unity across tense racial and religious divides, and by many immigrant communities in London who defended all in their neighbourhoods.
6. Role of social media. As in the ‘Arab Spring’ these events underscore the power of social media to organise, unify and mobilise large numbers of disparate individuals. This was clear both in the riots themselves and in the clean-up operations. While not necessarily a negative development, such social media does mean that what were previously random or isolated events (such as the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia or the shooting of suspected drug-dealer Mark Duggan in Tottenham) can suddenly become triggers for large, spontaneous social movements that take wider society and governments by surprise. Traditional state mechanisms must catch up with this trend so that they are not caught off-guard again.
James Brandon, Director of Research and Communications at Quilliam, said:
‘The riots are not political but they do have a political solution.
‘Regardless of the left/right divide over these riots, the mere fact that sustained and coordinated looting took place across the country utilising social media to organise is a problem that must be addressed. Either way the solution must come through policy.
‘The riots show that it is not just some members within Britain’s Muslim communities that need to be actively re-engaged into the mainstream. The Department for Communities and Local Government must urgently devise a policy to actively re-engage this apparent ‘dislocated generation’ and to tackle these
problems at the grassroots.
‘We praise police bravery in calming the situation down. We also urge the IPCC to be firm and clear in its conclusions about what exactly happened to Mark Duggan in Tottenham, while acknowledging that the spread of the riots across England had little to do with this original spark.
‘Far-right movements such as the BNP and the EDL have sought to inject a racial and religious twist to the riots. It is noteworthy that the most powerful intervention against the rioters made was by Tariq Jahan, the father of a murdered Birmingham youth, who urged unity across tense racial and religious divides with such dignity. We should resist simplistic attempts to racial-ise or religion-ise these incidents.’