Reading the riots: one year on

A year after the English riots, Miranda Iossifidis and Philippa Thomas review the means by which scholarship and the media have reacted, disputed and converged in their responses. To what extent have these efforts been productive, and what voices are still to be heard? 

Philippa Thomas Miranda Iossifidis
30 August 2012

This piece is part of OurKingdom's debate on England's Riots

Why are we so obsessed with the English riots of 2011? What does this fascination with them as an event, as opposed to the continuing everyday struggles that led to them, say about contemporary society? And what of the desire to isolate them from the current political, economic and social context, which has only worsened since August 2011? According to commemorative events such as Paul Lewis’ “Reading the Riots: one year on”, they are already fixed - “those few days in August” - and we are trapped in an information loop of endless repeated images of buildings on fire, masked young people smashing windows and posturing to cameras. But if the riots provided a rare opportunity for us to listen to the voices of the people involved, what did they tell us, have we listened, and what has happened since?

The riots were transformed into a media spectacle as they were happening.  Initially captured in real-time by observers, this spectacle screamed out for interpreters who came thick and fast, while the voices of the agents themselves were crucially missing. Many establishment figures stepped forward to provide such accounts, to ill effect. One of the few lucid voices to emerge at this point, sociologist Michael Keith, asked for scholarship that “makes comprehensible … the social context in which the social order is so fragile that the actions of recent weeks are possible. We might ask about the riots’ chronology, their choreography … we might also ask about the sequence of events in Tottenham and the cast list of individuals involved both now and over the last three decades in that part of London, and we might finally ask just how we went from a protest outside a police station to nation wide mayhem”.

In explicitly seeking to understand the ‘causes and consequences’ of the riots and attempting to respond to some of these questions, Reading the Riots has to be applauded for its speed, dazzling multi-info-media resources and ambition. In seeking to fill what they surmised as a dearth of intelligent response from the mainstream media, the report has excessively lent toward journalistic bombast, yet is interwoven with nuanced and politically provocative elements, and shines when the narratives of people are allowed to come to the fore, instead of being overly curated or spoken for.  The split-structure, although designed so as to speak to key stakeholders in turn, defined by the project as rioters, police, court officials and judges, could not help but to isolate and reify those groupings - illegals vs. the legal system - further when the enquiry was concluded. 

A real opportunity for debate was presented when the initial report came out from the rioters accounts, with so many referencing the habitual ill treatment, racial profiling and harassment from police that they endured; crystallised in the police’s controversial and ambiguous ‘stop and search’ powers. This was picked up and batted about unenthusiastically by Theresa May and the Daily Mail, but didn’t seem to feed significantly into the later interviews with police and legal representatives, which focused on individualised narratives rather than the police force as a tool of the state. This focus on individual narrative was the weakness and strength of RTR as a whole. Undeniably, as a genre, great journalism feeds off vivid characterisations of ordinary people’s encounters with extraordinary events. Yet analysis, particularly in the second section, failed to really interrogate the failures of the English justice system and police force as social structures.

In his latest book, philosopher Alain Badiou considers that “today there are riots throughout the world, from workers’ and peasants’ riots in China to youth rights in England … [and] what they all have in common is that they stir up masses of people on the theme that things as they are must be regarded as unacceptable”[1]. What was unacceptable in Tottenham on August 4th 2011, was the death of Mark Duggan, yet another suspicious death in police custody, and the growing sense that the police force are not accountable for their often violent actions. As such, the first part of Reading the Riots explicitly aimed to instigate a “long overdue” full-scale public debate around the utility of stop and search, armed with the vivid statistic of there being only “one arrest for every 10 stops” and focusing on the discriminatory “deliberate targeting”, “heavily disproportionate impact on minority youth” combined with the importance of “fairness” in policing.[2]

The prominence of stop and search in the findings of RTR meant that police and government officials had no option but to respond in some shape or form. However, the debate refused to budge in other newspapers, despite the framing of the argument within their own terms; that as a policing method, it is ineffective. Community activist Justin Baidoo-Hackman outlined incisive practical goals in openDemocracy in September 2011, but criminologist Tim Newburn, lead researcher at RTR seemed somewhat resigned, conceding that “the practice has been controversial for decades, yet fundamental change appears all but impossible. Indeed, stop and search has become something of a sacred cow in modern policing”.

Rather than engage in a nuanced debate regarding police conduct and the practice of stop and search, the Daily Mail re-iterated the necessity of stop and search in principle, publishing a handful of polemic articles in response to RTR with the aim of undermining their findings. On the day of the report’s launch, they gave voice to the vice-chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales who replied that “it [the riots] was just common criminals taking advantage of the situation … to blame the police is the easiest thing” and defended stop and search along predictable lines of “the community” approving it.[3] Another article provocatively highlighted a quotation from RTR – that “most of the people we spoke to … agree with the principles behind stop and search, particularly to reduce the number of weapons carried in public areas of high crime” – and accused ‘the Left” of attacking the police and sensationalising the situation which was incomparable to their 1980s-style “heavy-handedness” and not warranting a contemporary equivalent of the Scarman report.[4] The Metropolitan police responded to claims of disproportionality and ineffectiveness made by RTR, stating that while the report “cites resentment of police tactics such as stop and search … but we want to ensure that it is only used in an intelligent, professional, objective and courteous way”.[5] This statement, and the Mail’s complicity, was an unseized opportunity for the debate to move forwards in terms of discussing racism and other police methods that may be more productive in dealing with violence. It also missed the chance for a more reflexive approach to evidence and fragile relationships with communities.  Let’s not forget that these riots started after a peaceful protest about the lack of respect and information given to Mark Duggan’s family, the Tottenham man killed by police bullets on August 4th.

At a public audience in Stratford after the Olympics, despite Theresa May announcing that she had asked the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) to review the use of stop and search by polices forces[6] at the launch event of RTR, the MET commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe continued to defend the practice: “we don’t end up with a negative response from those we stop and search”. Hogan-Howe frequently cites the UK’s skyrocketing jail population as a sign of a successful criminal justice system, rejoicing in the ‘clear message’ sent out by the punitive and disproportionate jail sentences received by rioters for minor offences, condemned by many.

The clear message is not that rioting is unacceptable, but that if you are powerless and do something illegal, you will lose part of your life to prison. However, if you are rich, connected and do something illegal like fiddle your expenses you will get a slapped wrist. Theresa May’s response to RTR was telling; she “‘rejected’ rioters’ assertions that the unrest was linked to alienation from the police or the government, dismissing concerns raised in the research report as ‘excuses’.” The somewhat belated, government appointed Riots Communities and Victims Panel report re-iterated the importance of reviewing best practice on stop and search as a recommendation, further stating that this “was not an issue simply raised by rioters. Individuals, young and old and from all backgrounds, told us it must be addressed to improve relationships between the public and the police.” Somehow in their final report they failed to mention stop and search specifically, shifted focus to the “500,000 forgotten families,” and reduced the issue in their causal factors to “suspicion of the police.”[7]

Repeatedly denouncing people taking part in the riots as ‘career criminals’, Theresa May consistently and predictably undermined any gestures she made towards the contrary and the injustice expressed by rioters in the report. Inserting her argument into the populist response to rioters as criminals, she said that ‘three-quarters of those who appeared in court in connection with the riots already had a previous caution or conviction”.[8] None of these articles, nor May, mentioned that the sampling method of the Reading the Riots report was largely based on people convicted during the riots,[9] (which comprises a minority of those involved in the riots) and that the proportion of Guardian/LSE interviewees who have not been convicted has not been stated. Furthermore, as Thom Brooks and others have pointed out, “the majority convicted have been found to have previous convictions because those with previous convictions are already known and easier to identify”.

On their website the Guardian refer to the riots as an ‘ongoing story’, but one can’t help but be suspicious of this open ended attitude. Riots don’t happen in a vacuum, but to those who have thus far been largely unaffected by austerity perhaps it seemed that way.  Speaking to his well-heeled audience at Westminster, one year on, Lewis claimed that the riots happened before austerity had been registered. But at the time of the riots youth services had just been cut by a very noticeable 75% in Tottenham where the riots began, EMA was to be cut, and the UK was four years into a recession. Perhaps austerity ‘hadn’t registered’ with the Westminister Skeptics, but what about the young people of Tottenham? 

One audience member complained that it seemed like the whole thing played out on Twitter, and Lewis responded that perhaps it’s because ‘we’ watched the events through the lens of Twitter - revealing the detachment of many, most tellingly the commentators. As the only young person on stage at the RTR launch event, and on Newsnight, former young mayor of Lewisham Jacob Sakil says of his involvement that “being a part of the public presentation allowed me to reflect and explain a view for many people who were interested in the riots yet did not understand the root reasons from the ground level. It provided me a chance to give an alternative view based on personal testimonies and first hand experiences where as many other views came from a professional capacity and not enough real understanding.”

These riots are often presented as a social puzzle: a one-off, a surprise. The rioters are presented as ignorant and opportunistic, angry yes, but politically naïve. The rioters’ reasons for their actions are presented as sort-of but not “properly” political.  Even liberal commentators wring their hands that the rioters didn’t smash up something ‘more politically symbolic’. Badiou astutely comments that the destruction of local amenities fuels the hostility of public opinion toward the rioters: “Look! They’re destroying the few things they’ve got! … Such opinion does not want to know that, when something is one of the few benefits’ granted you, it becomes the symbol not of its particular function, but of the general scarcity.”[10]

Commentators picking and choosing which forms of politics to recognise risks making what counts as ‘legitimately political’ the preserve of those of us who are the most confident to articulate our grievances in the way in which we can be most certain of being heard. What is the right way of expressing discontent in the UK in 2012? Like the enquiry into the Detroit riots of 1967 that inspired this study, what has been substantiated is not the imagined ‘feral underclass’ so vividly painted by government, police and the press, but people who are not without ambition, many of whom have bought into the idea of education as the key to social mobility and a better life, and who are very much aware of the changing times.

Just under 50% of rioters interviewed by the study were students, many cited the loss of the EMA, and the prohibitive rise in university fees, real material things which dramatically alter lives. The research and report have been important yes, but until the media and the state stop demonising the young and the poor and listen to what they’re saying as a rule rather than a one-off, such events will always seem like a surprise.

In his lecture to the Westminister Skeptics Society one year on, Lewis spoke about the complex reasons for the end of the rioting, one of which was a widespread belief among rioters that the police were about to start using rubber bullets and water guns on them, a rumour which was widely reported in the news at the time.  In this sense the media have always been involved in the progress of events rather than an unpartisan external body investigating events as they unfold before them. Paul Gilroy noted the importance of these kinds of interventions soon after the riots, claiming that “the difference between 1981 and now is that the relationship between information and power has been changed, and our tactics for understanding our defence of our communities have to take those changes into account. And that means that we have to think very carefully about how we engage with the media … We have to think about how technology can work for us. And media is not something transparent.” 

So, what does a journalistic approach to social research bring to our understanding of the riots, other than a wide reach to the general public, mainstream media, politics and television? Undeniably there is a compromise regarding academic rigour and methodology in contrast to other reports that have emerged in the past year. The journalistic emphasis on selling the story resulted in initial sympathy for the rioters transforming into praise for the police who get the last word, with the police regaining control of the narrative. Let’s not forget that one of the first comment pieces published by the guardian during the riots was firmly on the side of the police, debating how far they should go in terms of utilising weaponry to regain control of the streets. Furthermore, privileging certain narratives necessarily neglects other important issues. Ojeaku Nwabuzo, researcher at the Runnymede Trust and author of their “Riots Roundtables” report says of RTR that “there was very little further academic analysis of the role race played. Quite soon after the disturbances broke out we were concerned that race had been marginalised from the public debate … We gave young people specific skills to conduct research and or projects of their own. We found overwhelmingly that building frustrations around racism and race inequality was a significant in the outbreak of the riots." Tellingly, the best responses to the riots have been from the perspectives of people who have a stake in their localities. This is where the role of public sociology comes to the fore, bringing people together to talk and listen to one another. Giving young people the opportunity to research the issues foregrounded by the riots has resulted in the most imaginative and nuanced “report” we’ve come across so far: “Riot from Wrong” a documentary made by youth media collective Fully Focused.

More weight should be given to these narratives, which really stand out amongst the overwhelming piles of prose on the Guardian website. A modest video presenting fragments of conversations held across different communities contains some of the most insightful and political comments to be found, organised by one of RTR’s senior researchers, Symeon Brown. His recent ‘anniversary’ article in the Voice is a damning indictment on the past year and a warning to all those who continue to fetishise the riots as a past event, without addressing the urgent social issues of the present.

“So here come the journalists scouring inner city streets for the opinion of young black boys which will be back in vogue, but those looking for a story will find only cosmetic developments rather than the structural reform that should have taken place. They might also notice the faint trace of gasoline on the floor. Without real change, it only takes one match to light it.”

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Miranda Iossifidis and Philippa Thomas are MPhil/PhD sociology students at Goldsmiths, University of London



[1] Badiou, A. 2012. The Rebirth of History. p.21

[2] Newburn,T. 2011. The riots and policing’s sacrred cow. The Guardian, 06 Dec.

[3] Camber, R. 2011. Police fury over LSE’s bid to blame them for the summer riots. Daily Mail, 06 Dec.

[4] Bracchi, P. 2011. Apologists for the mob: how dare the Left wingers claim the summer looters were victims. Daily Mail, 11 Dec.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ball, J., and Taylor, M. 2011. Theresa May to review stop and search in wake of Reading the Riots report. The Guardian, 14 Dec

[7] Bawdon, F. 2012. Verdict on UK riots: people need a 'stake in society', says report. The Guardian, 28 March.

[8] May, T. 2011. The lessons SHE learnt from the LSE Reading the Riots report. Daily Mail, 18 Dec.

[9] Lewis, P., and Newburn, T. 2011.The Reading the Riots project: our methodology explained. The Guardian, 05 Dec.

[10] Badiou, A. 2012. Rebirth of History, p.24

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