The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


It's mindless for leaders to denounce the violence in London instead of fixing the problem

While many are outraged at the violence committed against shops and homes throughout London and across English cities over the past three nights, it is senseless for city leaders to sow further division and resentment by dismissing young looters as "pure criminality", especially when the systemic causes have been hidden in plain sight for decades.

Kerwin Datu

Cities: Birmingham, Liverpool, London

Topics: Crime and security, Youth and education, Social conflict

St John's Hill, Clapham Junction, after looting during London's riots. Photo: Stephen Richards (
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I will not denounce the actions of looters and arsonists in London and other English cities over the past three nights, not out of misplaced sympathy but because the public denunciation of violence is itself an act of political theatre, distracting leaders from bringing the events of the past three nights to a close.

While I sympathise with the many innocent residents and shopkeepers who have lost their homes and livelihoods, and who are entitled to the strongest personal feelings, I believe it is the responsibility of professional urbanists to understand the systemic aspects of the violence, to learn how it ought to be prevented in the future. This is not least because such events are fundamentally urban in character, and expressive of social problems typical of many cities around the world.


To recall, last Thursday in Tottenham, a depressed North London suburb, a 29 year old black man named Mark Duggan was shot dead during a police operation targeting gun crime in the city's black population. This in a community that remembers the Broadwater Farm riots, where 26 years ago African-Caribbean mother Cynthia Jarrett died of a stroke during a police raid on her family, sparking a riot that saw policeman Keith Blakelock hacked to death by machete.

... the public denunciation of violence is itself an act of political theatre, distracting leaders from bringing the events of the past three nights to a close.

On Saturday, Duggan's family and local community marched to Tottenham Police Station, seeking to know why they had to find out about their son's death through the media rather than directly from the police force. After four to five hours of stonewalling by local officers (who could say little anyway while the death was under investigation), the family's representatives walked out of the station unsatisfied. Embittered youths broke out in a riot, attacking police officers, vehicles, shops and homes in the area. As word of a breakdown in social order spread through Blackberry and text messages, violence emerged in two adjacent suburbs, Wood Green and Tottenham Hale.

Sunday night was characterised by violence of a more opportunistic character, with gangs converging on commercial areas in Enfield further to the north, and Brixton in the south of London, famous for race riots and police killings in the 80s and 90s.

The Metropolitan Police Service, known as Scotland Yard, introduced temporary powers in four boroughs, permitting stop-and-search without permission. Yet this merely inflamed tensions, and when a youth in nearby Hackney was stopped on Monday afternoon, its streets too soon overflowed with violence.

As it became clear that police could do little to contain the violence, copycat lootings and arson proliferated across London, again concentrated in the commercial areas of depressed suburbs, and emerged in Birmingham's town centre, in Liverpool, Bristol, and other smaller English cities.

However the opportunistic looting in most areas must be distinguished from some of the clashes in Tottenham and Hackney Central, slightly more political in character, where youths made a more deliberate show of confronting police, and taking revenge for what they see as persistent harassment and racism by the force.


London's police forces have an ignoble tradition of cack-handedness when it comes to juvenile delinquency and civil disobedience. The memories of the Brixton riots, of the shooting of Brazilian student Jean Charles de Menezes, and many other deaths by police hands are invoked by local community leaders on a weekly basis. More recently, the protests during the G20 summit at the height of the financial crisis were marked by riot officers batoning participants and passers-by at whim, resulting in the killing of Iain Tomlinson, a 47 year old white newspaper vendor who was walking in the area.

The legal system has done little to discourage police brutality; a 2010 report showed that despite 333 deaths in police custody since 1998, not a single conviction had been handed down. The youths of Tottenham and Hackney are politically literate enough to know this history, and perceive it as proof that the forces of law and order have no interest in their human rights.

... looting is not so far removed from societal norms that it cannot be understood ... it is a behaviour that becomes normal for key groups under specific conditions.

As police behaviour and tactics come under increasing scrutiny, it seems that the force has also lost the self-confidence and fortitude it needs to respond effectively to mounting disorder. It does not help that the Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner resigned last month over the News of the World phone hacking scandal, leaving the force increasingly headless and inexperienced. Nor that the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Mayor of London were all off on holidays and reluctant to return.

So instead of a disciplined response, we saw riot police waiting around for a plan to coalesce while looters had their way with footwear and electronic stores before their eyes. The only effective policing seemed to be by shopkeepers themselves, very often Turkish or Bangladeshi in origin, who united to confront potential looters in parts of Hackney and Whitechapel. That they were so effective in shooing them away shows how opportunistic and noncommittal much of the violence was, and how impotent the police forces on the streets were allowed to become.


Several popular discourses have rapidly emerged, many of them plainly wrong. The basest of these called for looters to be shot on sight; more moderate were calls for mass arrests, water cannon, military intervention, immigration and birth control. For many the reaction was simple disbelief, expressed in the phrase, "how could they do this to their own communities?" For others the overt consumerism of the looters was appalling, with this from Twitter: "The Youth of the Middle East rise up for basic freedoms.The Youth of London rise up for a HD ready 42" Plasma TV."

The left-wing impulse was to blame the budget cuts of the conservative coalition, though this is easily dismissed by the long-term history of youth unemployment and police racism which both long predate the current government and financial crisis.

Perhaps the most widespread view was that London was witness to "mindless" or "pure criminality", a phrase so smug and self-reassuring that it suggests no further analysis is warranted. Certainly the proliferation of looting, arson and copycat crime proceeded far beyond any possible political motive of retaliation against the police.

But those who assume these acts cannot be made sense of should be aware that there is a well-developed tradition of making sense of them, especially in the wake of race riots in the twentieth century and Hurricane Katrina. Through sociologists such as Enrico Quarantelli and legal scholar Stuart Green, this research encourages us to consider that looting is not so far removed from societal norms that it cannot be understood, but that it is a behaviour that becomes normal for key groups under specific conditions.

These include a "concentration of disadvantaged people subject to everyday perceptions of vast differences in lifestyle; a subculture tolerant of minor stealing along with everyday organized youth gangs involved in serious crime such as drug dealing; and a local police force that was inefficient and corrupt."

So much is immediately explained — the materialism of the looters, the seemingly perverse way of avenging police brutality, even the speed at which new lootings appeared to organise themselves.

This is all so bleedingly obvious once stated plainly, which is why many black community leaders have written expressing their great surprise that the mainstream should be so surprised themselves. Trinidadian broadcaster and Brixton resident Darcus Howe told BBC how his 15 year old grandson has lost count of the number of times he has been stopped-and-searched without cause.

Youth worker Camila Batmanghelidjh wrote in the Independent of a teenager who once "cared so little that he would smash his head into a pane of glass and bite his own flesh with rage." Hence how youths have the 'temerity' to attack their own communities. What might look from the outside as a homogenous 'depressed' community is itself divided between a working population and an underclass who feel so alienated from themselves that alienation from their neighbours is perfectly to be expected.

When large numbers of teenagers have been allowed to fall into such nihilistic depths for so many years, the greatest mindlessness is that of politicians and police leaders resorting to namecalling and assertions of moral superiority, their soundbites and catchphrases endlessly parroted through the broadcast media.

As outraged as anyone may feel, the bottom line is that if you want to express a personal opinion, then denouncing looters as "pure criminality" is one way to go about it. But if you are a leader whose responsibility it is to fix the problem, then it is your duty to embrace them as part of the solution.

When the Broadwater Farm riot ended in 1986, politicians built a swimming pool to make amends. Let us not continue to be so dismissive. What is required are jobs, especially in the unskilled and low-skilled bracket, and lots of them; perhaps nothing short of the revival of London industry will do. Also needed is accessible education and early childhood support, which both Labour and Conservatives are responsible for undermining for several years. And above all, our respect for our common humanity, however offensive that possibility might seem to us today.


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