Five years on and why the London riots could happen again

With few lessons learnt following the national anarchy of August 2011, the threat of trouble returning looms ever large

Camden, August 2011. Sat at his home watching breaking news reports of an outbreak of violence across London, Alex Stewart, an officer with the Met, phones into work to ask if they need him to go in for a double shift in case it gets “hairy”. 

“No, no, it’ll be fine, we’ve got it covered”, comes the reply…

It’s strange to consider something you’ve lived through as a historical event. Consigning something to the ‘past’ requires a degree of conclusion; and conclusion can only come with the perspective of having been suitably removed from the event by time; and this perspective can only come once the time the event occurred within is considered over. It’s far easier to contemplate, for instance, World War Two, the Great Fire of London or the Titanic as products of their era, from which all possible books have been written, all the documentaries filmed and at least some lessons learned. So, in this sense, it’s very strange to consider the 2011 UK riots as part of that weighty list.

Five years on, and a conclusive narrative for the following events is yet to be established. On Thursday 4 August, 29-year-old Mark Duggan was shot and killed by police in Tottenham Hale. Having heard nothing from the police for two days, a vigil of Duggan’s friends and family protested outside Tottenham police station on 6 Saturday, demanding an explanation from a senior officer. When no such explanation was forthcoming, sections of the crowd began attacking empty police cars, and this is the point at which ambiguity sets in. Overnight, rioting, looting and arson spread from the north east of London until it enveloped nearly every compass point and zone of the capital, and then beyond. The riots lasted until the following Thursday. Five people were killed, 3,000 arrests were made and an estimated £300 million of damaged was caused.

Those four days are seen as virtually an anomaly, a freak occurrence borne of an extraordinary set of circumstances leading to a temporary mania of lawlessness across the country. Though Duggan’s death clearly acted as a kind of touchpaper, it’s difficult to draw direct links from the anger his community felt to the motives of the rioters in Croydon, let alone those in Liverpool or Birmingham. 

How the hell did it happen?

“Tabloids started explaining the riots on day one and this is a problem,” Juta Kawalerowicz, co-author of Oxford University’s Researching the Riots paper, tells ShortList. “Whereas academic research needs time to collect reliable data, and I think that with this time, we gained a better understanding of these ‘irrational mobs’. But are the public aware of the emerging picture, or did they only get the ‘irrational mobs’ explanation?”

Tim Newburn, Professor of Criminology and Social Policy at LSE, was part of the core team that produced Reading the Riots, a collaborative research study between LSE and The Guardian which sought to better understand the riots by interviewing those who were directly involved. “There was at the time, and has subsequently been, far too little attempt to understand the riots,” he says. “It is always easier, more convenient, not to ask the difficult questions.”

Quite. The lack of accurate diagnosis is alarming. If we are to avoid repeating what is now the past, we must actually understand it. Can anyone conclusively say the problems of five years ago have been addressed, or rather that they truly came out of nowhere? Was it that simple? Are we actually living in a different context to 2011 or merely a continuation of it?

One aspect that seemed inescapable in the aftermath was the tendency of resorting to caricature when referring to the violence, with the widely accepted image of the rioters being essentially that of the ‘chav’ – the Burberry-clad, trainer-craving, working class youths who aren’t just associated with loutishness and criminality, but seem to actively seek it. Indeed, Kit Malthouse, the Deputy Mayor of London at the time, blamed a “feral youth”, in doing so applying a subhuman, animalistic quality, while historian David Starkey went even further, infamously appearing on Newsnight to claim that “the whites have become black”, disgracefully slandering black culture as inherently criminal.

This reduction of the rioters to a homogenous group of cultural criminals was certainly handy though, for it allowed their actions to be explained as sheer mindlessness and their collective concerns dismissed as pure opportunism, absolving lawmakers and other institutions (the police, for example) of all and any responsibility. “The overriding political desire seemed to be to move on from the riots as soon as practically possible,” says Newburn. “Admitting that there may be something underlying the disorder would have required a public policy response.” 

What started these riots? And what escalated it? Why are we doing this? I lost my son

The then Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, announced a panel survey in the aftermath, you may remember, but as the University of Sheffield’s paper Researching the riots points out, it was “pointedly directed at victims, not rioters, suggesting an official view that rioters did not deserve to be heard.” If these farcically simplistic caricatures are accepted, the ‘rioter’ - subhuman and inherently criminal – atypically operates to wider society and as such cannot be understood. Here the only long-term solution can be to punish perpetrators after the fact in the hope it proves sufficient deterrent for other would-be offenders (the wisdom of which we will dispute later), rather than seeking to address why they would want to riot so as to quell their potential and propensity to do it again.  Of the 270 interviewed for Reading the Riots, 81 per cent said they thought further riots would happen and 35 per cent admitted they would still get involved.

Another fundamental flaw in this clumsy analysis is that the make-up of the rioters and their various motivations is far more complex:

According to Newburn, “they were drawn from a wide range, primarily young – though older people were present too – male (between 80-90 per cent) and of mixed ethnicity. Those involved tended very much to reflect the nature of the communities in which the riots occurred – the poorer parts of main urban centres.”

This would correlate with research from the Institute of Public Policy, which found that youth unemployment and child poverty were significantly higher than the national average in particularly badly affected areas. While a study from Alex Singelton, Professor of Geographic Information Science at the University of Liverpool, found that 41 per cent of those who appeared in court on riot-related charges lived in England’s most deprived areas, while 66 per cent lived in neighbourhoods that had become poorer from 2007 to 2010.


Not so black or white

Were these race riots? Although the killing of Mark Duggan, a member of London’s black community, seemed to be the inciting act, Juta Kawalerowicz and Michael Biggs’ paper for the University of Oxford reject this theory, their research showing that “rioters came from no single ethnic group, and ethnicity did not shape their choice of targets.”

Their research too confirmed that rioters were more generally drawn from areas of economic deprivation, and also “from boroughs where policing had less legitimacy.” Interestingly, they also found wards that had fewer charitable organisations were more likely to produce rioters.  “I’ve no doubt that that initial demonstration outside Tottenham Police Station was 100 per cent about the black community feeling that a member of theirs had been effectively executed by the police, that was the way they saw it” notes an extremely frank Stewart. “At that point a lot of people who either saw it as a pretext to have a go at the police - and that’s in not in the sense of protesting against deaths in custody or violence - but just as an opportunity to fight the police. Others saw it as an opportunity to nick stuff. It’s impossible to say who fell into which groups.”

“I loved how Nick de Bois [the Conservative MP for Enfield North] rejected our findings in The Telegraph,” says Kawalerowicz. “He said that he looked (some?) rioters in the eyes and saw a lack of respect of other people.” 

Of those 270 interviewed in Reading The Riots, 85 per cent said policing was an important cause of the riots and 75% the death of Mark Duggan, while 73 per cent had been stopped and searched in the twelve months prior. Kawalerowicz notes of her and Michael Biggs’ findings: “we used data from a police survey which took place shortly before and found that rioters were more likely to come from boroughs in which residents had said they perceived a lack of respect from the police.”

I ask Stewart how aware the police are, or at least were while he was an officer, of how the public in deprived areas perceive them: “You have to understand, as a police officer, how much ingrained hostility there is in sections of the community, because of things that have genuinely happened in the past, and that is a huge gap to bridge.”


Anarchy in the UK - one of many stand-offs between police and rioters on that frenzied weekend

Could they have predicted the level of hostility they met, or how it would manifest itself? “There’s sensible holding of the police to account and saying ‘Look, you guys fucked up the past, and you need to prove to us that you’re not like that anymore’ which is absolutely right, and communities should hold the police to account like that, but there are people who don’t like the police, or being told what to do, who were piggybacking that to an extent. There are other sections of the community that don’t like the police because they themselves are engaged in criminal activity, and the police are the enemy in that respect. There are also a lot of people who see will always see the police as being ‘us against them.’ It’s a historic thing that the police have worked hard at redressing, but have not necessarily done enough, or - in some instances - have met an audience that are going to be unreceptive whatever you say. But in terms of an outpouring of anger - whether that anger manifested itself in rioting, or fighting the police or breaking into shops – the riots were unprecedented.”

We get onto the subject of Black Lives Matter, the activist movement in America which campaigns against what it regards as a systematically racist police force, and the alarming number of Black Americans that are shot or killed in police custody, and whether those concerns are evident in the UK.

“There are very definite questions about - for example - deaths in police custody, that still need to be looked at.” There have been 153 deaths of BAME backgrounds in police custody since 1990, while Reading the Riots notes that, despite making up 11% of London’s population, 28 per cent of the black community were stop and searched in 2009/10.

“There’s a significant element of mistrust around the IPCC [the International Police Complaints Commission, a body whose role is to investigate complaints against the police] at the moment. A lot of police officers are very hostile towards the IPCC and a lot of the black community don’t feel that they are sufficiently well served by the IPCC. That’s a body that should be able to bridge that gap and conduct investigations and resolve issues, that isn’t really trusted by either side.”

This sense of breakdown in communication seems key in the troubling chain reaction that can incite flash points. George Amponsah’s 2015 documentary The Hard Stop follows Marcus Knox-Hooke, a childhood friend of Mark Duggan and the man initially charged with inciting the riots, in his attempts to seek a piece his life back together after his prison sentence.

Speaking candidly in an interview around the film, Knox-Hooke talks of his frustration during the vigil on the Saturday when the police refused to give the assembled crowd an official response. “They told us to clear the streets, I said to myself: ‘No way.’ At the time, it was very busy because there was football on, there was police and Tottenham fans and I said to myself: ‘Before I leave this high road, I’m going to smash up a police car.’”

Though a 2014 inquest found that Duggan had not been carrying a weapon when he was shot - as had been claimed at the time - it was ruled a ‘lawful killing’, and the IPCC cleared the officers involved of wrongdoing. “Mark’s still dead,” said Knox-Hooke in the same interview. “There’s still a lot of unanswered questions.”


“This was not political protest, or a riot about protest or about politics. It was common-or-garden thieving, robbing and looting, and we don’t need an enquiry to tell us that.” (David Cameron, 2011)

“The dominant narratives were to treat the riots as simply criminal misconduct and nothing more; with greed as the overriding motivation,” observes Tim Newburn. “Of course both of these are true – much of what went on was criminal, and greed certainly played a part, but it is far from the whole story.”

In Reading the Riots interviews, participants talked regularly of the opportunity to get “free stuff.” Of the 2,278 commercial premises affected, 61% were retail and 22% sold clothing or electrical goods.

Having ascertained that a large majority of the rioters from more deprived backgrounds, there is danger here of drawing direct links or imbue poverty with intrinsic criminality. Indeed, it’s widely acknowledged that the rioters made up only a tiny fraction of the backgrounds they were drawn from and were in no way representative of them as a whole.

Everything they do, they make things harder for us, and then they wanna say they don’t understand why people are acting like this?

In rejecting the obvious falsehood that people from deprived backgrounds are inherently pre-disposed to crime, another inadequate one was accepted: there some people are inherently criminals, and it is irrelevant or incidental that they might be deprived.

This seemed particularly pernicious in the aftermath, where David Cameron backed plans to evict those involved from their council housing and an e-petition to withdraw benefits from anyone convicted of rioting attracted of 100,000 signatures and was floated by the then Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith.

These measures were obviously short-sighted (an entire family would have been punished by eviction if just one member had been involved) and above all, punitive. Anyone not reliant on benefits and council housing convicted of rioting would only have been punished once (through the judicial system) while those who were more reliant on the state could be punished twice.

This response seems to acknowledge that many of the perpetrators were from extremely poor backgrounds, but also assumed that plunging them into deeper poverty would be a viable, preventative solution.

The 2011 Newsnight programme Rioters In Their Own Words featured an interviewee named ‘Daniel’, who described his involvement as a reaction against the state (“I wasn’t there for the robbing, I was there for revenge.”) “Everything they do, they make things harder for us,” he says “Even when we do get benefits, they cut it down. Some people are trying to change their lives and go to university, and you’re raising the prices. People can’t afford to go, so turn back to selling drugs and getting arrested. And then they wanna say you don’t understand why people are acting like this?”

In 2011, there were 1.02m 16-24-year-old people out of work. One year earlier and there had mass student protests at the rising of university tuition fees, while Reading the Riots notes that “time after time, young people especially mentioned lack of opportunities, the cuts and the ending of the education maintenance allowance (EMA).” As it happens, Kawalerowicz and Biggs’ paper noticed a correlation between rioters and areas with fewer charitable organisations. In this way, these independent charities could be seen to be fulfilling functions not (or no longer) facilitated by the state, and the positive effects obvious.

A bleak picture is of youth alienation and disenfranchisement becomes apparent in this despairing cycle, where, with seemingly little or no perceived future to risk by getting involved in the rioting, the rewards are automatically higher. The renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote of the riots as ‘consumerism coming home to roost.’ “The objects of desire, whose absence is most violently resented … and the temptation to have them, grow by the day. And so grows the wrath, humiliation, spite and grudge aroused by not having them – as well as the urge to destroy what have you can’t. Looting shops and setting them on fire derive from the same impulsion and gratify the same longing.” 

With this in mind, all the sneering at the rioters, and their apparent desire for trainers and TVs, viewed as tacky and meaningless to those who could afford them, only ignores the violence and abandon with which they went about getting them; setting fire to many premises whilst walking about without so much as covering their faces. For many, it wasn’t an act of greed, as much as an act of defiance.

Moreover, to address the problems faced by those caught up in the trouble is not to reward them for their wanton destruction, but it is vital to protect the greatest victims of the riots. While franchises of the likes McDonald’s and JD Sports would have had hefty insurance schemes to cover their damages, many businesses weren’t so lucky. Reading the Riots notes that 213 small independent retailers were caught up in the riots - many of whom would have lost their entire livelihoods.

Tariq Jahan lost more than that. He lost his son, Haroon, killed protecting his shop from rioters in Birmingham. He gave a startlingly compassionate and moving on Sky News. “What started these riots? And what escalated it? Why are we doing this? I lost my son. Step forward if you want to lose your sons, otherwise calm down and go home. Please.”

To not address the reasons behind the riots would be to fail Tariq and to fail Haroon.

Could they happen again?

After such a visceral and violent manifestation of the underlying resentment many held towards the police in 2011, were there any attempts at bridge building with the communities affected? “I think there were policy decisions in the aftermath, things like the decrease in the stop-and-search that were probably seen as conciliatory gestures,” says Alex Stewart. “I think that, because of the nature of the job, they will always be unpopular to some people. I think the police have an extraordinarily difficult line to tread between being sympathetic and still doing their job effectively. How you go about negotiating that is not something you can go about trying to solve in a straightforward answer. ”

But how do you allay and respond to these tensions? “Put it this way, the police shouldn’t need to have a policy that says they are responsive to the community and that they listen to their concerns. That should be in the absolute philosophy of everything the police does.”

Another issue close to Stewart’s heart is the funding of the police themselves. He penned an impassioned article on his decision to leave the force in 2014, feeling cuts and an increase in working days left him unable to perform the job safely. “The shift pattern changes [around the 2012 Olympics] were turning point at which point people began to say ‘it’s beginning to get worse, it’s beginning to get harder, our strengths are going down, people are starting to leave.’. This that was met with a very hostile attitude from the management. I’ve been in contact with colleagues even today who are saying that things are still getting worse and that things are still harder. It’s not getting any better.

“We were stretched in 2011, but I also think the circumstances there were so extraordinary, that it would’ve stretched anyone,” he says. “There are fewer officers now and if something of the magnitude of the riots occurred again, there is no doubt that the Met would find it much, much harder to deal with.”

Which doesn’t bode well if Tim Newburn’s worries come to fruition:”If anything, the underlying frustrations and grievances felt by young people have almost certainly increased in the past five years,” says Newburn, who, when pressed on if there has been any positive policy response since 2011, answers with “certainly not in any sustained way.”

He’s not alone in his assessment. “Tension is recognised within the higher levels at the Met,” says Juta Kawalerowicz. “But the question is how to make sure that police officers on the ground are aware that, with each intervention that residents deem as unfair or disrespectful, their legitimacy is undermined. It is a lot easier to go for a quick solution such as buying three water cannons - as bought by Boris Johnson, then rejected by Theresa May - for policing future outbreak of public disorder but look at the US, where giving police heavy equipment does not solve the root cause for unrest.

“The Met published a report in which they recognised that policing of 2011 riots was flawed and this likely contributed to further escalation of violence,” says Kawalerowicz. “If the initially peaceful protest in front of Tottenham police station had been properly addressed, in all likelihood there would be no riots.”

I think some of the frustrations that were articulated by the Brexit vote were very similar to those being ‘voiced’ on the streets in the 2011 riots.

But as taut as the relationship between law enforcement and urban communities continues to be, there is an argument that much of the trouble could have been prevented had more been achieved at home, and that the biggest failings have come with the inaction of politicians themselves. Nick Clegg’s 2011 Riots, Communities and Victims Panel report made 63 specific recommendations, but David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham – where the riots started, writes that “The vast majority were rejected or went unimplemented.”

There were 3.9m children living in poverty in 2014-15, with the highest rates observed in London. The rise in university tuition fees was only a proposal in 2011, it has now been made full policy, and looks set to be increased again. In addition, the maintenance grant for those from low income families has just this month been scrapped. The benefits cap will be reduced by £3,000 this Autumn. Unemployment rose to 1.85m from April to June this year, and youth unemployment to 16 per cent. And this was before the uncertainty that has proceeded this summer’s decision to leave the European Union.

And so what about our recent friend Brexit, seen by many as another vessel for ‘under class’ disillusionment? While he doesn’t believe the vote to leave the EU increases the risk of further rioting, Newburn does concede that “some of the frustrations articulated by the Brexit vote were very similar to those being ‘voiced’ on the streets in the 2011 riots.” In the same way many found it inexplicable that the rioters would lay waste to their own communities, there has been similar disbelief that so many voted to put two fingers up to Brussels, possibly to their own detriment.

Home ownership rates in England have fallen to their lowest since 1986, leading to a spiraling rental market, particularly in London, and in turn; gentrification. Unless they own their homes outright, residents have to pay an increasing premium to stay in an area – an area they might have lived in throughout their lives – or else have to move elsewhere, their vacated homes filled by more affluent tenants, certain to foster resent. Hackney, Dalston and Brixton – three of the areas worst affected by the 2011 riots – have exponentially gentrified in the last five years, while the waiting list for social housing in Tottenham now stands at 10,000. “Anything which displaces young people from the neighbourhoods they have grown up in and which increases the income and wealth disparities that already exist can only but be a bad thing,” says Newburn.

Has the disillusionment, social exclusion, economic disparity, sense of injustice and distrust of authority quelled since 2011? Or has it been exacerbated further through swingeing cuts, precarious unemployment, decreasing opportunities for young people and aggressive schemes of gentrification? And what can should we do about it?

“Think seriously about reinvesting in creative, positive ways in our poorest communities,” says Newburn. “Ensure that there is proper family support in programs like Sure Start, as well as youth services and related provisions. Then focus on schooling, education and training. Frustration at the absence of decent life changes lies at the heart of the problem.”

The 2011 riots came ‘out of nowhere’ only in the sense that there was a complacent failure, or else a deliberate one, to properly assess our surroundings. The social unrest of the riots didn’t exist in a void. Those that participated ultimately threw the bricks, but there is certainly a sense that systematic failings goaded them into the throwing.

Five years on, and it would be a catastrophic mistake to continue as before, willfully oblivious, headlong towards disaster.