Why riots don't happen

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The killing of Mark Duggan in 2011 sparked an unprecedented wave of civil unrest across many towns and cities in England. A new study from LSE has looked at why some areas succumbed to violence but other almost identical areas remained calm.

On August 6th 2011, riots began in Tottenham, north London, following the death of a local man Mark Duggan in a police shooting. The civil unrest quickly spread to other parts of the capital and across towns in England, lasting for four days in total. When order was restored, five people had died, millions of pounds worth of property was damaged, and around 15,000 people were involved.

Professor Tim Newburn of the Department of Social Policy collaborated with the Guardian on Reading the Riots, a unique project which aimed to understand the causes and consequences of the civil unrest. But for Professor Newburn, a different question emerged during the project: why did some towns succumb to rioting and disorder while others stayed calm?

Professor Newburn said: “If we say that the social, political and economic causes for the 2011 riots were the result of marginalised, disaffected, young people who felt abandoned by mainstream society, and had fraught relations with the police, not many commentators would say that situation has changed significantly. But there haven’t been any riots since 2011, and they remain relatively rare, so this research was about understanding why.”

In the midst of the larger study, Reading the Riots, small-scale field work was conducted in two urban areas, Chapeltown in Leeds and St. Pauls in Bristol. Professor Newburn said:  “Ostensibly, both of these places look like the type of place where riots could occur; they have high levels of social deprivation, a history of poor relations with the police, and have experienced riots in the past.”

On the weekend of the riots there was a shooting in Chapeltown where a young man died, which heightened tension within the community and increased the likelihood of unrest. But despite some relatively small incidents, full scale disorder was avoided.

Professor Newburn found that relationships between local people and the police were the key to maintaining peace. He said: “At the moment when the risk of riot seemed to be at its peak, a group of well known young black men, who had high credibility both within the community and with the police, worked to defuse the situation.”

“They advised the local police commander to hold the riot police back, as it would likely only inflame the situation. Neighbourhood police were deployed instead and they worked alongside local citizens to talk the tension down."

“In Chapeltown, the building blocks for a riot were already in place, and after the young man’s shooting, the flashpoint was also there. But the police-community interaction helped to manage what was happening on the streets.”

The study suggests that embedding neighbourhood policing and building positive, personal relationships within the community is vital during the tense moments when violence threatens to erupt. Professor Newburn said: “One of the side effects of the austerity and reduction in public spending of recent years has been to undermine neighbourhood policing. But these contingencies have proved invaluable in volatile situations.”

Professor Newburn also took away a broader experience from his work on the English riots on how effective research can be conducted in this context in the future. Funding for the study was almost immediately approved, and the research team had completed the first phase of the study within four months after the riots occurred.

Professor Newburn said: “There is clearly a need for rigorous social science research for events like the riots. But my fear is that universities are not set up to deal with immediate research, and it is still as difficult to get quick funding. So I think the real issue is about being able to react to these truly momentous events that affect all of our lives.”

Posted September 2016

Further information

Tim Newburn is Professor of Criminology and Social Policy in the Department of Social Policy and worked on the Guardian and LSE's Reading the Riots special project.

Reflections on why riots don’t happen by Professor Tim Newburn was published in Theoretical Criminology in August 2015.

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