A fresh look at the London riots


St Andrews lecturer Professor Steve Reicher has co-authored a new book, Mad Mobs and Englishmen, with an intriguing take on this summer’s riots. The Saint’s Catriona Furlong spoke to Reicher to learn more.


Catriona Furlong: Could you briefly describe the findings of your book?

Steve Reicher: Quite quickly we discovered that many of the claims that were made were just plain wrong.

When people riot, they don’t just go wild and do anything. They tend to target particular shops and particular types of people, and in a sense the patterns of what they attack and don’t attack reveals something about the way they see the world and their grievances about the world.

So we began to look at the London riots with that in mind. In particular we looked at the Tottenham riot, because that’s the one that started things off. And the more we looked at it, the more it looked like a classic anti-police riot.

It arose out of a background of deprivation in which people had tensions and conflicts with the police that grew up into a grievance.

That grievance is then encapsulated into a particular event, the shooting of Mark Duggan, attempts at peaceful protests come to nothing, because the police ignore the family, the communities, they try and drive people away and then a riot starts.

Once there is an anti-police riot and the police are driven out of the way, other people come in with other motives, they settle old scores, they loot for profit and so on. So in many ways there are a series of different events going on.


CF: What do you hope to achieve by publishing this book?

SR: We want to intervene in the debate.

Firstly, not only do we believe that the explanations that were given were wrong, but also they lead to the wrong types of solutions. If you ask the wrong questions, you’re not going to come to the right answers.

We need to look at the broader causes, and the problem there lies between groups in our society. Certain groups do feel treated unfairly, illegitimately, at the bottom of the pile with no way out. So in part, it’s to get a better understanding, because understandings lead to solutions.

More narrowly, I’m a social psychologist, and one of the things that strikes me time and time again is that when these things happen, the contribution of psychology is ignored.

People talk to political scientists, they talk to sociologists and so on. And that’s very important, I’m not decrying that at all, but our work helps us understand the nature of rioting itself, and how informative riots are. If you think they are just an explosion, you kind of dismiss them. But looking closely at riots, and what goes on in riots, is an excellent way of understanding the perspective of those communities.

In a sense its like gold dust being thrown away by saying “just don’t look at it, don’t pay any attention”.


CF: What do you think will be the long-term consequences of the reaction that society has had to the riots?

SR: What happens next depends upon how we react at this point. There’s a wonderful quotation from a man called David Sears, after the LA riots of 1992. He said: “often when riots happen, people say it’s a wake up call, but then somehow they press the snooze button”.

Part of the danger is the explanations which say ‘people are mindless, they’re just criminals, its got nothing to do with the issues of how our society is organized’. If you rule all those things out, in effect you’re pressing the snooze button, you’re ignoring the lessons to be learned.

And so, whether we are in the same position in 10, 20, 30 years time or not depends very much how we respond now. And how we respond now depends very much on how we make sense of what actually happened.

And that is why we’re trying to intervene in that debate.


CF: Lastly, perhaps to tie this together, how do you think the riots relate to the social movement and mass protests we’re seeing across the globe and even in St Andrews at the moment?

I think there are a whole series of forms of collective action and collective protest, which at one level, of course, do have similarities. Clearly in some sense they do relate to the nature of the recession and the notion that the responses to the recession are profoundly illegitimate.

Remember it was the failure of peaceful protest at the beginning, in Tottenham, which led to the riots themselves. Whereas in the occupy movement, and in some of the other movements, there is a greater belief that some of those types of tactics can work.

The government wants to say its ridiculous to say it’s got anything to do with the recession. Well the simple fact is, there is systematic data to show that disturbances, riots and so on, are more likely when there’s recession. That data is incontrovertible.

That’s not to say recession mechanically leads into rioting, you still have to ask the question: “Well what does the recession mean in people’s lives? How do they understand whether it’s legitimate or illegitimate? How do they react?” And those processes are rather different from the rioting compared to say the occupy movement, but there are elements in common.

And so, in a sense, they come from the same source, they just go down different paths because of different direct experiences and different notions of the efficacy of different types of tactics.



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