Editors in Collaboration: An In-Depth Look at 2011 England Riots
By Editors of The Windermere Word
On August 6th, a large riot broke out in Tottenham, North London, and the disturbances quickly spread to other areas of England, such as Bristol and the Midlands. The scale of chaos was unlike anything the city had ever seen. The riots lasted for five days, during which five people were killed, another two hundred injured, and more than $300 million worth of property was stolen or destroyed. Nonetheless, tragic as the riots were, they shed light on a number of social justice issues the citizens face daily.
A Death that Sparked Massive Riots
The sporadic violence that took place from August 6 to August 10 in England is believed to have been sparked by one man’s death.
Mark Duggan, a young 29-year-old father of four, was allegedly linked to Tottenham’s Star Gang. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) said that Duggan was shot dead during a planned arrest by the police in Operation Trident, which is responsible for investigating gun crimes within black communities. However, contrary to the police’s description of Duggan as a “gangster”, his friends and family described him as a “loving family guy”.
On Thursday, August 4th, a shot fired by a police officer from London’s Scotland Yard brought about the death of Mark Duggan, who was last heard of by his fiancée through a text message. “The feds are following me,” he allegedly wrote. Many media outlets reported that the gunfight started after he resisted police arrest and fired a shot at a police officer with a handgun. However, fragment ballistics showed the contrary – Duggan was indeed killed by police-issue ammunition, but the handgun retrieved from the scene showed no evidence of him firing any shot.
Shortly after his death, a supposedly peaceful vigil commenced in Tottenham, but eventually spiralled out of control. It was the beginning of the riots in England.
The most troubling question about Mark Duggan’s death is why he was shot in the first place. Until further investigation yields any solid evidence, many will continue to ponder whether or not his death can be tied to England’s long history of racism, for Duggan was of African descent.
Social Media Yielded as a Double-Edged Sword
Similar to the recent hockey riots in Vancouver, social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry Messenger played a large role in the riots. Our always-connected world made it easy for the rioters to organize and execute their plans with speed and efficiency. Within minutes of the beginning of the Tottenham riot, social networking feeds were abuzz with reports concerning the matter. It wasn’t hard for potential rioters to meet up and join in.
Earlier this year, social media sites such as Twitter were shut down in Egypt by its government as a result of massive demonstrations, but such drastic measures have not been taken in any other countries; governments seem to have realized that these networks can be used for peaceful purposes as well. Upstanding citizens have been using the same networks to organize large-scale clean-ups, and police officers have been able to monitor the riots’ movements in real-time and respond accordingly. Furthermore, Police was able to use social networking sites to apprehend suspected rioters and looters by posting pictures and videos online to ask the public to help identify them.
After over four days of rioting, the nation tried to get back on its feet, struggling to restore calm. Meanwhile, police worked around the clock to hunt down those involved in the riots. By Wednesday, August 17, already over 3,000 arrests were made by U.K. police. On the same day, London’s Scotland Yard said more than 1,000 people had been charged with riot offences.
Due to the extensive damage caused by the previous week’s widespread disorder, many politicians and innocent citizens whose lives were affected demanded tough punishment. They believed such “exemplary sentences” to be the best deterrence against further public order offences, regardless of the fact that a vast majority of the people who appeared in court aged no more than 25, with many between 11 and 17.
That being said, these sentences have provoked backlash from critics, MPs, and justice campaigners, who consider the punishment is retributive and too harsh. For instance, 22-year-old Anderson Fernandes was warned of a possible jail sentence by a magistrate judge; 23-year-old Nicholas Robinson had to pay for a £3.50 case of bottled water with six months of jail; and 22-year-old Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan was jailed for four years for Facebook incitement to riot.
“It’s dangerous when politicians try to do the sentencing,” said Lord McNally, Liberal Democrat Justice Minister. “How can this make sense? How does it compare with other crimes? This is not government. It’s a series of wild panic measures seeking to claw back popularity.”
Above all, did charged rioters express regret because they were caught? Or did they actually recognize the damage they inflicted?
Riots Rooted in Social Deprivation and Inequality
On August 11, 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron addressed the Parliament in an emergency session, condemning these “sickening scenes . . . of people looting, vandalizing, thieving, robbing, scenes of people attacking police” as “criminality, pure and simple”. The root cause of the countrywide mayhem and fear is, according to Cameron, the rioters’ “lack of individual morality and responsibility”. This view is largely echoed in the British political establishment. And like London Mayor Boris Johnson, some even went on to openly dismiss the need of examining the situation more objectively by taking a sociological approach.
Instead of portraying the incident as a simple matter of law and order and unreasonably tarnishing the entire nation’s reputation, different theories have been suggested on the causal factors of the riots in England. Perhaps the most controversial of them all is the suggestion that social deprivation and inequality are the underlying causes. To observers, this may seem fair and sensible. But to the people whose homes and businesses have been affected, this is just an excuse opportunistic criminals use to justify their looting and violence. So, which side is right?
According to Kids Company charity founder Camila Batmanghelidjg, many youths in Britain see little hope for their future in a society in which the “established community is perceived to provide nothing… It’s not one occasional attack on dignity, it’s a repeated humiliation, being continuously dispossessed in a society rich with possession.” Most of the cities where rioting took place are among the poorest areas in Britain. For instance, London’s highest and Britain’s 10th highest unemployment rates are both found in Tottenham, where arson attacks have reduced buildings to ashes and a regular borough to a war zone. And like other deprived areas, Tottenham is seeing anything but benefits from the massive spending cuts on public services.
On the other hand, a long history of social exclusion has fuelled strong police resentment. Christina Patterson of The Independent, a British national newspaper, said: “Too many black men have been killed by the police. Too many black men and women have been treated like criminals when they’re not. This is not the cause of these riots, but it’s there in the mix.” Statistically, killings of black men and women significantly outnumber those of white people in Britain, yet black communities have long been feeling discriminated against. The most glaring example would be Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which gives police the powers to search anyone in a designated area without suspicion. Last year’s analysis of government data by the London School of Economics and the Open Society Justice Initiative revealed that the number of stop-and-searches under Section 60 has massively increased since 2005. Naturally, one would assume that such ‘security’ measures could prevent outbreaks of youth violence. Unfortunately, whereas the use of Section 60 has only risen more than 300% over the last five years – which is already very shocking – its use on black youth rose by more than 650%!
So, was David Cameron right when he said that the looting and violence showed “slow-motion moral collapse”? Or is there more to it? Instead of pessimistically considering what happened as a sign of moral decline, it can be seen as a reminder of how important it is for the government to take poverty and social exclusion seriously. Even though opportunistic theft and violence terrorized the homes of many, no one can deny that the years of neglect and deprivation might very well have gone unnoticed by the rest of the world if it weren’t for these riots.
Days of destructive rioting and looting shook the entire Britain. The spark created by Mark Duggan’s death quickly developed into a fire of hatred, opportunism, and anarchism that engulfed London and other British cities. Although weeks have already gone passed us since the chaos, the wounded nation is still struggling to cope with the aftermath. In a city four thousand and some miles away from England, Vancouverites may be reminded by the news about the Vancouver Canucks riot in June. After all, they both consisted of looting, angry mobs, destruction, and shame felt by citizens afterwards. But the stigma of rioting is where the similarity ends. We experienced what uninhibited anger, vandalism, and anarchism could do to a city. However, it is incomparable to the England Riots that not only brought a “climate of fear” to British cities, but also triggered controversy and scrutiny over politics, social injustice, social networking, parenting, and – this is not joking – the existence of conscience. Skeptics may wonder if the violence had any real purpose. But if anything, it made the news, and people worldwide have actually started to examine the root causes of rioting and the social issues that may have haunted deprived British communities for a long, long time.