Sunday, 7 August 2011

Predicting a riot

A long time ago, when I studied history at university, we spent a couple of weeks on riots and civil disturbances in eighteenth-century England.

We discussed the seminal works of Marxist historian E. P. Thompson, especially his stimulating notion of a moral economy of the crowd.

There was a sense of balance - of justice - in any given community, and disorder was the natural result where factors led to an unbalance.

So, I asked, what about the Gordon Riots or (nearer to home for me as a Brummie) the Preistley Riots?

Oh, came the response, that was just bigotry.

It was then the realization came that people with political opinions tend to find exactly what they want in any civil disturbance.

Radicals and leftists find underlying socio-economic causes for certain riots, and mass vulgar prejudice for others. In turn, conservatives from Burke onwards tend to see any civil disturbance as being a failure of "law and order".

The actual riots are rarely predicted; but when they happen, people with political opinions tend to immediately know why they happened - what really caused them.

There was a riot last night in Tottenham. By the early hours it had spread down the road to Wood Green. It started outside a police station; it ended with the reported looting of consumer goods. A police car was set on fire; and so was a bus and (it seems) some buildings.

The great historian Conrad Russell once pointed out that before one posits causes, one must set out the effects one is actually seeking to explain.

And with many civil disturbances there are a range of effects which one seeks to explain: from conscious protests and articulated grievances to arson and mere vandalism. No one ideological model seems to provide a full explanation: demanding justice does not add up to looting; insufficient policing does not explain the concentration of people outside any police station.

In fact, civil disturbances are invariably used to validate political opinions which people already hold; no conservative or radical will ever say, "Gosh, that riot changes the way I think about society. Perhaps my principles or my policies are wrong?".

In this respect, civil disturbances are profoundly reactionary: they tend to reinforce rather than challenge views which already exist.

There were many causes of what happened last night in Tottenham and Wood Green; but that is just because a lot of rather different things happened. Accordingly, there may be a limited extent to which there is a single "solution" to what is seen as the problem.

But there is a general rule - few people accurately predict civil disturbances; and afterwards, few people have any doubt as to why they happened.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.


Andrew Tindall said...

my understanding is the original protest was over the duggan shooting, and the riot was sparked, inter alia, by a police attack on a protester, and that then a second wave of rioting had broken out for what seems to have been unrelated to the original intentions of the protest, and instead being pretty much for looting and damage.

of course, in any public event, there are many actors, and it would be ridiculous to pretend everyone at every point in the night was acting with the same intent and reasoning.

Plato said...

Spot on and great post - many thanks.

The King of Wrong said...

I think the vast majority don't know - and more importantly don't care - why riots occur, only that the police need to intervene to protect their lives, their posessions, and public order.

The reasons - excuses - for riots, or any other violent crime, are frankly irrelevant to the fact of it.

Sandrine Lopez said...

Yes, hindsight is always a wonderful thing. But in light of recent student 'riots', I do ponder if those doing the looting and destroying property are actually connected to genuine protests, or are they just opportunist thieves and vandals. And why is the genuine, often still peaceful protesters are those arrested and/or hurt, while the 'destroyers' seem to get away with what they do?

David Gerard said...

@The King Of Wrong - the vast majority of people wanting certainty rather than risking learning is, nevertheless, not a justification for deliberate stupidity. It fails at both consequentialist and deontological reasons.

To that end, here's a useful study that will need repeating here: Detroit: Revealing the roots of a riot.

And here's an article which, with a modicum of search and replace, will save pundits a lot of time: Why The Bombings Mean That We Must Support My Politics. HTH!

iszi said...

I think the Kaiser Chiefs can predict a riot.

Sandrine Lopez said...

The King of Wrong said:
"I think the vast majority don't know - and more importantly don't care - why riots occur, only that the police need to intervene to protect their lives, their possessions, and public order.
The reasons - excuses - for riots, or any other violent crime, are frankly irrelevant to the fact of it."

But are the police also learning nothing about the fact their intervention is adding to the conflicts? A few years ago, I would have said police invention required straight-away in response to scenes like we saw last night. Now I have to confess not being as sure. Police presence, yes. Monitor and intervene where necessary if people are being hurt. Let the Fire Brigade put the blazes out, and the Ambulance services tend to injured, but stand well back and see if things are getting any worse. The more intervention there has been in recent times, the greater the problem - during & after - seems to have been...

allnottinghambasearebelongtous said...

"But there is a general rule - few people accurately predict civil disturbances; and afterwards, few people have any doubt as to why they happened."

Well, you could say the same thing about tornadoes. People know exactly what causes them but few can accurately predict exactly when and where they'll happen.

But your point about post riot analysis simply validating already held political opinions is a good one and is probably common to criminology as a whole. This compromises any serious attempt to understand such behaviour.

Sandrine Lopez said...

David Gerard said:
'To that end, here's a useful study that will need repeating here: Detroit: Revealing the roots of a riot."

Very interesting piece! Thank you for posting that link.

Steve Jones said...

I'm tempted to say, what is history (and its brothers subjects with "scientific" credentials), other than a series of subjective interpretations based playing to people's preconceptions and reinforcement bias. Otherwise why is there such a political rainbow of historians? I rather suspect the "story" ending of the subject's name is telling. What we have is a group of people who rather want to tell a compelling narrative. It's not that I think it can be any other way - possibly the most deluded of all were those Marxists I recall who viewed history as an inevitable progression through a set number of socio-economic conditions.

That said, riots are surely like earthquakes; we might not be able to predict exactly when they will occur, or how big they will be, but for sure we know where they are likely to happen. Just what can be done to eliminate them is something else. Indeed it might not even be desirable as the alternative may be all-too oppressive. London has a history of riots over many hundreds of years, and a great many can't be seen as purely a rational group reaction to any particular set of events.

David Farbey said...

Normal life, at the level of civil society, relies on the consent (or at least, on the absence of active dissent) of the majority to maintain the status quo. We like to think that normal life is pretty rock solid, and that things will be much the same tomorrow as they were yesterday and are today. Events like those in Tottenham last night remind us just how fragile our "normality" is, which is why such events are just as disturbing as some natural disaster, or some deliberate act of politically motivated violence.

Tim said...

'...few people accurately predict civil disturbances.'

That's because the trigger itself is usually spontaneous.A person was shot and many years ago Cynthia Jarrett was killed.

The trigger opens the floodgates and allows all sorts of other reasons to gush in - poverty, unemployment, racism etc. It's like a perfect storm rather than there being a single factor.

I thought there might be some future riots after the spending review - billions of pounds of welfare cuts will increase social tensions to pressure cooker levels. All that will be needed is the trigger.

Zarathustra said...

Good article. It summed up a lot of what I was thinking while reading the various blogs and tweets this morning.

We know that a guy was shot by armed police. At presence we've no idea whether he was a criminal waving a gun or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We know of reports that a girl was beaten with police batons. At presence we've no way to confirm or refute the claim.

In the absence of knowledge, bloggers and tweeters will fill the void with their own personal Theory of Everything. The overwhelming majority of them were nowhere near Tottenham last night.

Ann Kittenplan said...

I was going to post a link to the Detroit study but someone got there before me. One source was @kevglobal via @bengoldacre. Credit where it's due :-) Headline in the Detroit Free Press "The Non-Rioters: A Hopeful Majority"

Christine Burns said...

I think it can be dangerous to place as much weight on effects as on causes.

When any civil disruption occurs then a window of opportunity is opened for criminal opportunism which has no necessary connection to the causes of the original disturbance.

To understand a riot I think you need to get into the heads of the people who first came together to protest.

Almost as soon as that gathering takes place, however, there is an opening for others to become involved, with probably very different motives. As mayhem then builds there are then additional opportunities which suck in those with purely criminal motives.

The King of Wrong said...

@David Gerard:
Another study that 'explains' a riot, just like the regular stories trotted out by economists to explain stock market movements, or the 20/20 hindsight that makes wars inevitable, and with as much validity: none whatsoever.

Broad trends, sure, poverty and mistrust between communities and the police, economic factors and standing armies, but in the end the event comes down to a single random spark and then chaotic interactions between a huge number of actors.

There's a very simple test: if economists/politicians/military historians/geologists/clairvoyants can accurately predict market moves/riots/wars/earthquakes/lottery numbers, why aren't they billionaires? Because if they can prove a talent for accurate prediction, or even anything above the noise floor, I can monetise it even if they don't know how.

@Sandrine Lopez:
Yeah, I think Met tactics could use some work, but I think they're doing a pretty good job... and I wouldn't want to have to do it.

David Gerard said...

Yeah, I got the Detroit link via @kevglobal (Kevin Anderson).

andreasmoser said...

I went to Tottenham today (I used to live exactly where the riot started, just around the corner from the Police Station) and took some photos:

Sandrine Lopez said...

The King of Wrong said:
@Sandrine Lopez:
Yeah, I think Met tactics could use some work, but I think they're doing a pretty good job... and I wouldn't want to have to do it.

No. One has to praise the 'thin blue line' otherwise we probably would have total lawlessness and chaos but - having just watched the news - it does seem the Met Police *did* need to communicate even if they did not have all the answers... the *due process* which David Allen Green quite rightly trumpets as necessary for true justice. They seemingly ignored the family and friends of the shot man, when even a meeting to say "We're looking into it. This is what we think happened but it is all subject to investigation" and - perhaps more importantly - talking to them to find out what they knew too. Is this too much to ask of our police - our upholders of law - in an area where surely community liaison is highly important because tensions were known?

Martin Craig said...

In July, 1991 as a public health worker, I wrote about the Meadow Well Estate in North Tyneside: 'This is an estate on a knife edge. If any more services are withdrawn, it could be plunged into chaos.'

This 'prediction' was based on four main factors; a workforce of around 50 public sector staff had been reduced to less than 6, a popular youth club had been shut down & padlocked, male unemployment was accelerating exponentially and the area where I worked had become a no-go area for police, buses & taxis.

My report was of course ignored & rioting broke out on September 9th 1991, following the death of two teenage boys in a police chase. Popular history suggests that their deaths were the cause, or at least the trigger for the riots. But a week earlier, underground telephone cables that linked the local police station to the County Police HQ had been destroyed in what seems like a rehearsal - they were destroyed a second time at the start of the riot, seriously hampering the police response. I make no political claims, but suggest that most riots are mulifactorial, opportunistic, that there are links to public dissatisfaction and that they provide a golden opportunity for unrelated criminality.

guthrie said...

From what I have read it isn't the police's job to deal with the investigation into the shooting, it's the IPCC, so complain to them about communication issues, the police being prevented from speaking because they are the subjects of the investigation.

Sandrine Lopez said...

guthrie said:
"From what I have read it isn't the police's job to deal with the investigation into the shooting, it's the IPCC, so complain to them about communication issues, the police being prevented from speaking because they are the subjects of the investigation."

But was that communicated to the original protesters? If no notice is being taken of you, for whatever reason, particularly at a time of mourning and/or anger, it can seem as if you are being ignored, even deliberately shunned...

Could not the IPCC even appreciate that, and allow some comment - not necessarily harmful to any investigation - to be made?

Akheloios said...

Some work had been done on mob dynamics, while there may be a very valid reason for any protest, as that protest becomes larger, rather than it remaining a rational collection of individuals, it becomes a rioting mob.

As the number of people involved in a protest grows the likelihood of violence breaking out increases. When you have a critical mass a riot occurs and no rational explanation can be found, as peer pressure and the rush of power any individual feels when part of such a mob overtakes the self control of anyone.

This isn't to say that the average person is a rioter in waiting, just that when the right circumstances come together a mob sparks and there's very little that anyone can do about it.

The only thing you can do is to prevent a sizeable number of people gathering in any one place to protest. Now this has been taken by right wingers to mean a ban on any gathering of x or more people. The Tory legislation of the 90s comes to mind. However that doesn't prevent protests, it only creates a groundswell of resentment that makes any protest worse. The only way I can see to prevent riots is to not do anything so heinous that large number of individuals are so aggrieved that they feel they must mount a large scale protest. Or at least put procedures in place that allow a quick and direct method for aggrieved individuals to seek explanation or redress, which certainly didn't happen in Tottenham, where a group of people, who felt marginalised by the system had no immediate redress from the police that had just shot and killed on of their own (I'm not assigning any guilt to the Police here, the evidence has not yet been made clear, just acknowledging the fact that the people involved didn't feel they had any legal recourse, especially after the Tomlinson débâcle).

There are exceptions to the rule of course, the recent Egyptian protests were (apart from some very unpleasant, and small, groups) peaceful in the face of extreme intimidation and violence by the police. Though the mob tendency seemed to be valid on the other side in that case, with massed camel charges by the supporters of the status quo.

But TL;DR - whenever you have large group of people who have a (what they believe) a legitimate grievance, the chance of a riot is proportional to the number gathered. There's nothing you can do about it as it's basic group dynamics, not human rationality at play. You have to either diffuse the situation before a mob reaches critical mass, or better not do anything that evokes such emotion in such numbers, and not simply blame the riot on the individuals involved.

Forgot the word verification, so I don't know if my original comment went through, if it did, sorry, please delete this copy.

Sandrine Lopez said...

And we awaken to another night of 'copycat' destruction and looting that seems far removed from the original protest, at least on face value.

There was a quite frightening news item on the NBC World Blog:

- that suggests the riots were the only way to get heard, after peaceful protests that went unreported or were ignored by the media. I would very much like to think that this is not the case. Perhaps someone who represents the media would like to comment? Is your attention only gained when bad things happen. Are you fuelling resentment because a tinderbox isn't a news item until it bursts into flames.

Pity the future if this is truly the case...

guthrie said...

Sandrine - the comments on Police blogs suggest that your average copper doesn't have much respect for the IPCC, and it seems that many of the IPCC staff don't have a clue about policing or anything else for that matter. So you might expect them to try and communicate, but bear in mind the managerialism that rules this country now. This means that it wouldn't be ok for a policeman to slip out the front to the protestors and pass word on, you have to have a proper statement by some high heid yin in front of the media.
In fact havn't the IPCC made comments to the media? But they're a hierarchical bureacratic organisation like everyone else, so think that all that matters is the media. Who in turn will only report on topics they find interesting.

Interesting point by Martin Craig above.

Jennifer Jones said...

Is it not the case that the opportunistic looting is an outcome rather than a part of the riot, and as such, not so much one of the things that needs explaining? When the police are overpowered or disabled, general lawlessness ensues from elements already disposed to such behaviour. I'm not sure that's terribly controversial, otherwise there'd be no need to have a police force in the first place.

Possibly there may be an argument to be made that property crime in general tends to increase with socio-economic injustice, but I think that's by the by.

As for the riot itself - ie the violent opposition to the police (the embodied symbol of the state and enforcers of state policy), it's difficult to find an example that *doesn't* correspond to a sense of injustice (Gordon Riots and Priestley Riots included).

So I'm not sure that your point is terribly well made, Mr Kent.

Dr Dan Holdsworth said...

I reckon what we might be seeing here is a few only loosely connected things. Firstly, there's a lot of public anger because Things Are Changing. What is happening is that under the previous government a lot of money got aimed at the poorer sections of society for whatever reason; much of this was borrowed money. Now the borrowing tap is being slowly closed, that money isn't going where it used to be going, and the recipients are feeling annoyed. A lot of them are getting generally angry, and want to have a good shout about it.

Secondly, there are a few people who see a protest as a really good opportunity to have a proper go at the police. So, when they reckon a place is ready to riot, they go stir it up so that the mob thus created can be used as cover for a good riot.

Finally, there are those who view a riot as a really great opportunity for a spot of looting (and these are fellow travellers with the second lot). Community anger may be swelling, but it isn't actually the angry locals who do the rioting and looting; they're just the dumb rubes who get revved up into going on the rampage so the other lot can get what they want.

A bouncer I knew years ago had some words of wisdom regarding crowds and fights. He said that in his personal experience, only a tiny minority of people actually want to fight. Most are what he called "back liners"; they'll make noise and defend themselves if threatened, but they aren't the problem. Identify the problem idiot who's fighting and get rid of him, and the rest will quiet down in no time flat.

Mat Anonymous said...

Nick Clegg predicted it :)

Dr said...

David - For what it's worth, I hold people like you largely to blame for the reluctance the police now have to deal with this disorder with the robustness it requires. Your demonisation of the police at every opportunity has hammered them to a point where they no longer feel confident using their powers.

I hope you're proud of yourself.

janefae said...

Hmmm. Not sure i am quite as convinced by this post as i take time to digest it.

On the one hand, as someone brought up in Psychology, i applaud the attempt to refuse to ascribe cause without empirically validated data and experiment.

On t'other, that is an incredibly wide point that can be tossed in the general direction of almost every "soft science" going, including history and economics.

Why is the economy going pear-shaped this week? Haven't the faintest, if you require me to provide explanation at the level you seem to be here.

What caused WWII? Who knows...

There are no absolutes in such areas...but there are narratives that can be retold and tested against common sense and even if we don't come to 100% consensus around a particular topic - still less arrive at "predictability", that doesn't mean the debate is meaningless...pointless.

I'm with Christine on this one. The reason riots and the like continue and escalate are often very disconnected from the original reasons why they kicked off.

Its not pointless to look at initial causes: nor is it pointless to analyse the course of a riot in order to identify most likely factors that need dealing with in future.


Colin Flavin said...

I really enjoyed this article and it actually gave me something to think about. I would agree, responses have been reactionary fueled by our prevailing politics.

It's quite fascinating that we revert to entrenched positions, just making a meeting of minds all the more difficult when trying to understand these complex social problems.

Left/Right positions divide us, the gulf appears massive but 'class' as the salient issue, I'm sure we can all agree on, no?

skidmarx said...

Peter Linebaugh, a student and comrade of E.P. Thompson,wrote the following of the Gordon Riots:
‘for the first time an international proletariat directly attacked the imperial ruling class at its major institutions’
Your teachers may have been less sophisticated than Thompson and his kind.

nepacific said...

The general similarity of the hockey riot here in Vancouver a couple of months ago to the larger and more obviously political riots in London make me think that frustration and a sense of getting the short end of the stick make young men want to smash things -- and then crowd dynamics take over.

I also think that in both cases, easy access to consumer goods one sees all the time but can't afford plays a role, granting an irresistible feeling of empowerment.

outsider said...

You are right.
But what we thought was happening in Tottenham seemed to change as it spread and developed. Post 1981 type riots were predictable at some time, though I would have guessed next year rather than this.

As events unfolded, however, what we got was not really riots at all but rather, in the main, something that was not predicted: that antisocial teenagers who had long discovered that the juvenile law makes them virtually untouchable, took their chance to push this to its logical extreme.
Maybe the recent riot in which the police did little to stop people attacking shops and banks in Piccadilly made the penny drop for them.
I note that the Prime Minister said that if people were old enough to loot they were old enough to be punished. "The Magistrate" seems to doubt this. We shall see.

Connor said...

You cannot say why the riots are happening! Purely because there's so many different reasons! Mainly it's an excuse for young people. A small minority of people want to get there point across, that's who we should listen to. Not these gang members that are angry because they hate police. You see the reality is, the BBC will only show the bad bits on the young peoples behalf, they need to make it look completely outrageous. The last thing they want is people seeing the truth and joining the younger generation! obviously robbing and burning shops is a disgrace, but do not be brain washed by the news and government speeches! They show footage and views that they want you to see! If any of you watched the M.P's talking last night! They was calling all of them criminals, and agreeing that rubber bullets where necessary, is it just me or would this cause chaos! These young people are inexperienced they would surely react to this! These M.P's seem to want violence as the first thing they relate to is the rubber bullets.. They need to reason with themselves because there undoubtedly corrupted!

Neil Howlett said...

There is actually research about how riots happen. Roger Ball at UWE in Bristol has been taking an oral history of the Southmead Riots of 1980 which followed directly the famous St Paul’s riots. 30 years on it is now “history” and amenable to non-political academic research. I attended a very interested talk by him of what he was told by those involved, which was also attended by one the Police Officers who had been there too.

PS I see today a 70 year old man has been arrested – will they be blaming his parents and his education?

PPS I'm restraining the urge to go round an smash up a few very very expensive houses in righteous indignation at being lectured again by Mr Blair on how right he was and how perfect the world would have been if Gordon hadn’t spoiled it.