Breaking down riots: what exactly is smashing up our streets?

We are on to our third day of riots in the UK, and tonight the violence has come to Birmingham – apparently shops including Primark and Footlocker are being smashed and looted, places are being set alight, and there are rumours that things are kicking off outside of the city centre in Handsworth, Aston and Kings Heath, and possibly Wolverhampton. I’m worrying about my friends and students, and starting to wonder how long the riots will rumble on for.

So far there are a few explanations of what exactly is causing all the unrest. The original riot in Tottenham came after a police shooting and an unanswered call for information from the community. Coming from the right we have linguistic links to evolutionary arguments, with the rioters outlined using words such as animals, mindless, thugs and yobs. Rioting is viewed as an act of immoral abandon, a choice to bypass civil decency and unleash primitive instincts for violence and greed. The alternative view taking shape is that the riots are a social ill, a violent manifestation of the anger of an underclass trampled by the rise of big society. I’ve been turning things over and over in my mind, piecing together scraps of psychological and cultural theory to try to come to a personal understanding of what exactly is smashing up our streets.

Starting with the evolutionary argument, I think it is a serious error to consider violence to be a primitive instinct. Certainly it involves biological processes, at least when it takes place on a street level, but my experience raising my son has shown me that the 21st century uk is a place where young boys are fed an ongoing stream of weapons, destruction and rigid distinctions of good and evil – this quite possibly doesn’t lead to straight-forward immitation as social learning theorists believed, but what it does do is reinforce and continue to forge an irrevocable cultural normalisation of violent conflict. Aggression is structured as normal and even useful, so long as it is done by goodies to baddies. The aggression shown by a group of teenagers smashing windows or lighting fires will never be properly understood if it is dismissed as animalistic – it is entirely human, but lies outside of social sanctioning, in a fringe of cultural monstrosity. It is perhaps this confusion, this lack of coherence, which makes the causes of mob behaviour of great interest to social psychologists and social commentators alike – much more so than, for example, study of the mindset which would rationalise dropping a bomb onto a city, or the kind of social thinking which would legitimise torture or execution.

Traditionally, mob behaviour has been explained by social psychologists such as Zimbardo (him of the Stanford prison study) as deindividuation – a breaking up of the self. It is believed that the frenzied energy of the crowd combined with the anonymity the numbers and rapid movement provide merges the individual into the masses. The crowd feeds off adrenaline and fear, chaos ensues, and there is a breakdown in social order. Individual reflections on responsibility and self regulation are submerged and the individual becomes a part of the group. A parallel  perspective can be seen in the psychodynamic approach, where the atmosphere of the crowd allows the violent selfish id to overrule the restraints of the superego. In more recent research a lack of empirical support has suggested anonymity is not necessarily an important factor. It seems that rather than a total breakdown of the self and morality, individuals take on a social identity, where norms and morals are outlined in the moment by the speech and actions of others. It perhaps links to the evolutionary usefulness of such behaviour in times of uncertainty and ironically could also be understood as a more concentrated version of cognitive “short-cuts” which take place en masse during the distribution and reproduction of hegemonic narratives of primitiveness in the aftermath of riots.

Before I go on to look at the sociology, it is probably worth noting that various apolitical features which catalyse aggression and/or a loss of inhibition can make riots more likely. These include heat, darkness, and alcohol. Riots generally involve mainly young males. The only riot I’ve ever been close too took place one year at the Leeds festival – I’ve got vague memories of sitting outside our tent watching the distant rampaging slipknot hoodies having taken the decision that if one of the huge poles they were unearthing was going to fall on me I would rather know about it than not.

So, an explanation of riots as a pure manifestation of political unrest is simplistic, as it ignores the role of immediate situational factors. However, the following two sociological issues are relevant to the context of the riots this summer.

1) There is historical antagonism between the met police and the black community. A culture of stop-and-search, revelations of institutional racism, incidents where whole busloads of young men are stopped and contained for hours at a time, allegations of water-boarding of cannabis dealers – cuts to both community cohesion programmes, youth work and the police budget (I suspect diversity training won’t be high on the list of necessities) will exacerbate the issue, but this has a long documented history which goes back way further than Cameron. Put simply, we have a situation where individual police officers are cognitively primed by cultural norms to interpret black behaviour as deviant, and where rioters are primed by cultural norms to interpret police officers as adversarial. Watching the coverage of the riots on the first night, I was struck by the way a former met commander dismissed questions from a reporter as to why the police had not come out to engage in dialogue with the community when originally asked (i.e. before the riots started), by stating that this would have been useless as the community were not reasonable people. It is a deeply deeply rooted problem, and not one which can be solved by money alone, but we owe it to society, both the young men born into a world which tells them they can have and be anything, whilst simultaneously excluding and interrogating, but also to the police officers risking their personal safety to protect communities this week. We need radical community and police integration programs, not a stripping away of all current support.

2. The other crucial aspect to look at is the key feature once the riots spread – the looting. It is the looting which is probably the second detail after the violence which has led to a descriptive account of primitive animalistic behaviour. Once again, I would caution heavily against an interpretation of rampant greed as some sort of distant pre-human impulse, unchecked in only the most immoral and uncivilised. The same issues of early socialisation apply here: anyone who thought consumerism peaked in the 1980s hasn’t spent a christmas with a toddler recently. Surveying the present stash takes on a subtle nightmarish quality as one reflects that the vast majority of the latest influx of plastic is probably made by children for chidren. We are living in an age of extreme capitalism – of course our teenagers start stealing massive tellies when the opportunity arises, when happiness has been projected to them from birth onwards as something available for only £99.99 from all good retailers (rrp only) – why not take it for free when it is right there in front of you? No, they are not stealing bread, but in a society where the gaps between the haves and the have-nots is ever widening, and it is the have-nots who are doing the smashing and grabbing whilst the haves sit and watch the spectacle (tutting optional) on very similar massive tellies, then we need to move beyond the examination of individual morality to ask exactly who we are as a nation.


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