People & Power: London riots
From: People & Power

English riots: people, police and politicians

This film deconstructs five days in August when England burned and asks whether it has now emerged from the ashes.

On the night of August 6, 2011, riots broke out in London. They would last for five nights and spread to cities across the country.

Paul Lewis, an award-winning journalist, lived on the streets for most of those five days, following the dramatic events for The Guardian newspaper and witnessing first-hand the disturbances.

For this film, he retraced his steps in a forensic deconstruction of the riots, getting first-hand accounts from rioters, residents and police officers alike and looking for the causes and consequences, which, two months later, are just beginning to emerge. 

Along with directors Dom Rotheroe and Nav Kandola and producer Mike Chamberlain, Paul investigates those five days in August when Britain burned and asks whether the country has finally emerged from the ashes.

Shaking the UK, shocking the world

Ostensibly originating in the fatal shooting by police of a suspected drug gang leader in Tottenham, north London, and subsequently seeming to degenerate into a lawless frenzy of opportunistic looting – the disturbances of August shook the UK and shocked the world.

The British media, especially the tabloid press, had a field day, blaming criminal hooligans, poor parenting and out of control teenagers and calling for a draconian response from David Cameron’s coalition government and the forces of law and order.

Others took the view that the riots were an inevitable response to austerity, cuts in funding for public services, social deprivation, racism and heavy-handed policing. 

But who was right? What really caused the English riots of 2011, what do they say about Britain in the 21st century (a country that is due to play host to the Olympics next year), and to what extent did they reveal aspects of British culture and society that rarely come to light?

Through Lewis’ personal video material, police CCTV footage, mobile phone archive and local TV pictures, this film attempts to piece together the unfolding drama of the five nights when England burned and seeks to answer some of the interesting questions raised; questions involving the role of the police and social media, the political motivations, or otherwise, of the rioters, and the extent to which racial tension and social deprivation played a part in exacerbating the unrest.

Where were the police?

The initial police response was criticised for being too soft – more standing back and waiting than wading in with riot shield and truncheon. 

In this film, we speak to the police who were on the raw end of the violence and mayhem and the local decision-making officers, who seemed reluctant to confront the looters, making for some of the most bemusing TV pictures of the affair.

As Lewis explains, the answer may in part lie in the fact that the Metropolitan Police, responsible for law and order on London’s streets, has suffered a leadership crisis in recent months – not least because of high level resignations over the Murdoch phone tapping affair. This, some believe, contributed to a lack of clear orders from the top.

Moreover, in the key area of Haringey, Sandra Looby, had only recently taken over as a new borough commander, and had struggled to establish a meaningful dialogue with the local community.

With relations deteriorating, the apparent reluctance of police to step in and contain the riots as they broke out gave the impression that the Met Police had lost control and authority. Some senior officers now admit this was a mistake that encouraged the spread of the riots.

Were the riots politically motivated?

Many commentators believe the riots were noteworthy for being solely criminal in intent, unlike other incidents of politically motivated ‘rebellion’ in British history. 

According to this theory, Tottenham aside, the other areas of anarchy seemed to have in common only the catalysing power of social media and a desire to destroy and steal, in contrast to previous riots where there had been something definable – religious or racial tension, anger towards the police – to spur on and inflame the disorder.

But this time, there was nothing specific to complain about – or so the argument goes. Pure greed, driven by a lust for consumer goods, was the principle motivation.

Cameron and others pointed to the fact that many of the charged rioters had criminal records. But we hear from rioters from diverse backgrounds who complain angrily about deprivation. They talk with eloquence about the consequences of cuts in welfare services since the coalition government came to power, in particular the recent axing of weekly payouts to help 17 and 18 year olds attend college.

They are also keen to explain their annoyance at the bankers and politicians, who have “begged and stolen their way out of trouble” in recent times. It is one rule for the ruling classes and the comfortably well-off middle class, they say, and another for Britain’s benefit underclass who are victims of hypocrisy on a massive scale. 

They concede that many of those arrested had criminal records, but for the most part these were for non-violent offences, and add that they are in any case regularly scapegoated by the police for society’s ills. In certain parts of London it is almost impossible for poverty-stricken and unemployed teenagers and young adults to avoid entanglement with the law. 

What part did social media play?

As Lewis moved around London on the first night of the riots, one of his most useful tools was social media. As well as being able to deliver real-time reports from the scene, through Twitter, he could see how it enabled other users to provide constant feedback and directions to trouble spots. 

As a first guide to what was happening or what might happen next, he followed the social media rumour and information mill. He explains: “Three teenagers cycling past stopped to look at the blood-splattered pavement. One looked at me and said: ‘Bruv, you the man from Twitter?’ He said he had been following updates from journalists about the riots, and told us to head to Edmonton Green, where there was a plan to attack shops at midnight.”

There is also a question about the part, if any, that ethnicity played in the riots. Whilst there was a racial mix of rioters, The Economist estimated that more than half of those identified on police CCTV in the London, Birmingham and Manchester riots were black.

However, as some have pointed out, this is merely a reflection of the ethnic make-up of Britain’s inner cities. In more prosperous areas, such as Ealing and Clapham, white and Asian rioters were just as much in evidence.

Are moral standards declining in Britain?

Although there was a widespread sense following the riots that the country’s moral compass had been misplaced for good, Lewis believes this is not the case. 

Admittedly, when a poor young Malaysian student was mugged immediately after suffering a violent attack by rioters (an incident caught on camera), it was a moral low-point. But, the fact that £20,000 (about $31,000) was raised by strangers on Facebook “to bring his Mum over to visit him” and to replace all that was stolen seemed to reveal the upside of moral collapse.  

Lewis’ journey takes him finally to Birmingham, where three young men were killed as they protected the property of the Sikh and Muslim communities there.

After his son was killed, Tariq Jahan became famous as he made a simple but impassioned plea for calm. His dignity in the midst of mayhem, appealing for the young men of his community not to take the law into their own hands and not to seek retribution, became a symbol of hope for the rest of the country and in effect signalled the end of a week of rioting.

Britain, he says, is not a place of hatred or simmering criminality, but its complicated ethnic mix and deepening economic and social problems have put pressure on everyone to redefine their relationships with each other and with the state. Only by recognising these problems and acknowledging the challenges faced by many of its people will the country avoid such disturbances in the future.


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