Written on December 21, 2011
A social research inquiry by LSE and the Guardian newspaper found that widespread anger at people’s treatment at the hands of police was a significant factor behind the summer riots in every major city where disorder took place. The ‘Reading the Riots’ study, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Open Society Foundations, involved interviews with hundreds of people who participated in the disorder.
In its first phase, the study used confidential interviews with a total of 270 people who were directly involved in the riots in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Salford, Liverpool and Nottingham. Of the people interviewed, 85 per cent said policing was an important or very important factor in why the riots happened.
Professor Tim Newburn, head of the Social Policy department at LSE, who led the research team, said: “This is a pathbreaking study of the August riots in England. It reveals the anger and frustration felt by those who were involved in the disorder, in part a product of the unfair and discourteous treatment they feel they suffer at the hands of the police, but also reflecting the disillusionment many feel at the social and economic changes which leave them increasingly disconnected from mainstream society.”
Other findings from the first phase of the study include:
Rioters identified a range of political grievances, but at heart of their complaints was a pervasive sense of injustice. For some this was economic – the lack of money, jobs or opportunity. For others it was more broadly social – how they felt they were treated compared with others.
Many rioters conceded their involvement in looting was simply to down to opportunism, saying that a perceived suspension of normal rules presented them with an opportunity to a acquire goods and luxury items they could not ordinarily afford.
Gangs behaved in an entirely atypical manner for the duration of the riots, temporarily suspending hostilities with their postcode rivals. However on the whole, the role of gangs in the riots has been significantly overstated by the government.
Contrary to widespread speculation that social media was used by rioters to organise and share information, sites such as Facebook and Twitter were not used in any significant way. However, BlackBerry phones – and the free messaging service known as BBM – was used extensively.
Although mainly young and male, those involved in the riots came from a cross-section of local communities. Just under half of those interviewed in the study were students. Of those who were not in education and were of working age, 59 percent were unemployed. Although half of those interviewed were black, people who took part in the disorder did not consider these race riots.
The basis of the study was in-depth, primarily qualitative interviews with rioters. The primary aim of this aspect of the study was to understand who had been involved in the riots and what their motivations were, together with a considered analysis of the role of gangs and of social media.
A Reading the Riots report will be published in full on December 14 at a conference hosted at LSE. The second phase of Reading the Riots, which will be completed next year, will draw on interviews with communities, police and judges about their experience of the disturbances and their aftermath.
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