By Sean Carey
The explanation of the riot that happened on Tottenham High Road in north London last night after a march to protest the killing of a local 29-year-old black man, Mark Duggan, who was shot by police marksmen on Thursday evening, has followed a predictable pattern.
The local MP, David Lammy, was quick to point the finger at unnamed people from outside the area who hijacked the otherwise legitimate, peaceful protest from the Broadwater Farm estate, scene of a 1985 riot, to the Tottenham Police Station.
The Daily Mail, the paper of Middle England, also gave details in its story of events about “unconfirmed reports [that] suggest a group of around 150 youths arrived in the north London suburb from 4 p.m.”
This evening (Sunday), trouble is reported in the neighbouring area of Enfield, where a police car has reportedly been vandalised and windows smashed on the high street. The local MP, Nick de Bois, has also blamed “outsiders.”
But how true is the “outsider” hypothesis in accounting for riots? In the UK in the early 1980s, people often thought that “outsiders” were responsible for disorders simply because a large crowd would gather when there was an incident which then developed into a riot. Commentators put two and two together and reasoned that the rioters could not all have been local. But research I was involved in strongly suggested that the people who were present on the streets at the time rarely came from outside the area, especially on the first night of disorder.
Indeed, my investigation into the relationship between how different ethnic groups in different parts of London used streets and other public spaces in the mid-1980s made it apparent that loud police sirens often drew local people, who were in their homes, places of work or out shopping on to the streets, to find out what all the fuss was about.
Of course, the presence of people on the streets or other public spaces does not necessarily lead to rioting. However, throw into the mix grievances about how the police was mistreating people from identifiable groups — particularly minority ethnic groups from which the police service did not recruit members and especially in areas of high unemployment and social deprivation with relatively weak grassroots political leadership — and there was a high risk of a riot breaking out.
Today, the situation is slightly different – people’s ability to contact to others by mobile phones and new social media like Twitter, as well as the presence of 24-hour news channels like the BBC and Sky, does mean that outsiders will get to know about an incident much more quickly than they did hitherto.
The possibility of people from outside being pulled into the scene of a riot because of a combination of motives — grievances with the police, the excitement involved in throwing stones and petrol bombs and the opportunity for looting otherwise hard to obtain consumer items, which allows young men and women to make some money by selling them on — means that outsiders might well play a part in how the social drama unfolds over time.
But to repeat, even with new media this does not happen in the first instance. Rioting takes place in specific areas, where local social and political grievances are most keenly felt. It’s all too easy to blame outsiders bent on “mindless violence” when the truth is that there are both specific local and structural reasons behind the type of disorder that affects particular urban areas of the UK.