How Likely Are Riots This Summer?

We spoke to an expert to find out.

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26 July 2016, 10:30am

A building burning during the Tottenham riots of 2011 (All photos by Henry Langston)

Last week, about 4,000 young people who'd gathered in Hyde Park "became hostile to the police", according to the police. A witness said that number was more like 300 or 400, but either way, a lot of people started chucking stuff at police officers, representing maybe the largest such incident since the London riots of 2011. That – as I'm sure you'll know – was when a peaceful protest escalated into violence and nationwide unrest after Mark Duggan was shot dead by the police. Now, the Met are reportedly on high alert after learning that gangs could potentially hijack a march on the 6th of August to commemorate the five-year anniversary of Duggan's death.

Anger towards the police is clearly still raging. The Black Lives Matter movement continues to pick up steam in the UK; minority communities are reeling from a Brexit campaign hijacked by hatred; police are still abusing their stop and search powers to target minorities; and, considering the government never commissioned an official inquiry to identify and address the root causes of the riots, it doesn't look like they're all that bothered about making any kind of serious change.

With the climate seemingly just right for another flare-up, I spoke to Dr Clifford Stott, who specialises in riots and hooliganism, to find out how likely riots are this summer.

VICE: How likely is it that there will be riots this summer?
Dr Clifford Stott:Well, it's obviously very difficult to predict when riots are going to happen. What we know, of course, is that the riots happened in 2011 last time, but prior to that there was some 30-odd years before we'd experienced anything like that. So if history's anything to go by, there's no reason to expect that something like that will happen this summer – but again, it's equally clear that something like that could happen. It's always possible. The fact they happen suggests they can.

In the most recent example of disordered violence in Hyde Park, young people fought with police. Do you think there's a lot of anger because of police violence, globally as well as in the UK?
The difficulty with those explanations is that those inequalities, those structures, are there all the time. And riots don't happen all the time. So one of the things that we know is that when crowds are policed in a particularly aggressive way – what we might call disproportionately – that plays a major role in whether or not conflict will escalate. We have to recognise that the origins of the 2011 riots lie at the end of a peaceful demonstration outside Tottenham Police Station. Mark Duggan was shot 48 hours or more before that. It wasn't simply the shooting of Mark Duggan that contributed to the origins of the riot in Tottenham; it was actually a whole series of incidences and events and circumstances, which included the failure to notify the family, and all of those failures were then amplified when somebody apparently began to attack a police car.

One of the dangers that we have here is that the expectation of disorder around the forthcoming demonstrations of Mark Duggan's death could lead to police practices that could actually bring about violence. Not because violence is somehow inherently in that crowd, but because we expect that violence is going to be there and we police it in ways that could be seen as confrontational.

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But the landscape at the moment does seem conducive to riots, right? There's so much anger among young people against both the police and generally against the state of British society.
But there's nothing inevitable about violence. What we have is a situation where people want to protest about illegitimate forms of policing. We live in a democracy, and they have every right to do that. What we know is that the police can do a lot to alleviate whether or not violence will occur, e.g. by engaging in dialogue with those communities. They can empower the avoidance of conflict. It's not the case that violence is inevitable: it's very much about how those crowds this summer are going to be handled. If they're going to be handled in the right way, then it's kind of likely we won't have disturbances at all.

If people are going to riot this summer, what do they stand to gain?
Martin Luther King described in a speech that the riot is a language of the unheard. He did articulate how riots are an opportunity for powerless people to become powerful, and it's that transition of power that is partly what the riot is about. In that sense, it can offer people an opportunity to be heard.

One thing important to recognise is that riots aren't random acts; they're targeted. When you look at the riots in Tottenham, [the targets were] mostly the police and places that have some association to the criminal justice system. Police stations, solicitors' offices, the courts. All of these things speak to the underlying belief of the people involved. They speak about the nature of their anger and who they see responsible for the injustice in their lives.

In terms of what they achieve, it's important to recognise that, in the short-term, people who participate in those riots believe that they're acting in a way that empowers them. The difficulty is that they very rarely do. In actual fact, the long-term consequences can be very negative. Did the riots in 2011 contribute in a positive way to addressing the conditions of those inequalities in Tottenham? The answer will be no.

Do you feel that sense of anger bubbling under the surface?
We've had a number of situations where riots have developed. Riots are already happening. The question isn't, "Will they happen or won't they?" It's more, "Will they escalate? Will they spread to the scale of 2011?" The danger is that we fall back on the language of irrationality with riots. The anger, the frustration. That frustration might bubble up to the surface. Riots don't just happen; they occur in episodes of interaction during crowd events between police and the people involved in those crowd events. The issue is that if these crowd events are handled in the right way, you won't see any major escalation.

But again, it might happen. Someone might get killed, someone might act in a particular way. It's very difficult to predict the unpredictable. We shouldn't assume riots are inevitable. We shouldn't assume that because of the background in anger, riots inevitably will develop.

Is it fair to say that rioting often coincides with economic uncertainty? If so, the pound plunging after Brexit can't be a good thing.
I think all of the research shows that riots occur in the context of economic decline, economic deprivation, inequality and social injustice. That much is true.

Should rioting flare up again, does that mean no one's actually learnt their lesson?
Riots can be avoided. And it's important that we learn the lessons from those riots. One of the problems from the 2011 riots was that there was no major governmental inquiry. In the Brixton riots, we had a government report. No inquiry was commissioned [this time around], so that inevitably means that opportunities to learn lessons were lost.

Thanks, Dr Clifford.

@its_me_salma

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