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Our Crime: UK riots

Updated Thursday, 5th April 2012

What caused the summer 2011 UK's riots? Start the debate by putting your views across.

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MARY JANE KEHILY:  I’m Mary Jane Kehily.  I’m Professor of Gender & Education at the Open University.  With me today are Richard Hester and Rod Earle, they’re both in the Health and Social Care Faculty at the Open University, and collectively we’re going to be talking about young people and criminal justice issues. 


NEWSREADER ON RADIO (Also subtitled)

The capital, er Peckham, Lewisham, Hackney, Bethnal Green, Beckton, Walworth, Ilford, Kilburn, Clapham, Camden, Croydon...

LUKE: Seeing where you live hit like that, to see the fires across, you know, various kind of areas, obviously on Twitter it was the number one trending topic, on BBM 'Lewisham's getting hit, bus on fire in Peckham, shops getting looted in Brixton', the BBMs were just coming through like crazy.

LUKE: Even though it's not a physical thing you can see it just looked like adrenaline and their blood was just pumping so much, it just looked like their eyes were just lit up, like, they were just so in the moment of what was happening, I think, and I think that's what everyone was feeling at the time, it was just a buzz.

(UGC of riots)

WOMAN: Best day ever! This is Hackney for you!

AYMEN: But there was this one woman, and she was just repeatedly lighting Molotov cocktails and throwing it at the police, like she was in Baghdad or something.

INTV: Do you think there was any political motive?

AYMEN: Absolutely none.

BOY IN UGC: Take my picture, in front of them!

AYMEN: Opportunistic would be the word. As soon five, six of them were doing it that increases to a mob in a second, and then, strength in numbers, they-, they were just doing whatever they want.

(UGC of looting)

CHUD: That was a brilliant example of the way we live now 'cause a guy came out with quite a big telly and then he saw some other guy with a bigger telly and kind of put his TV down, "Right, I want one like that guy.

INTV: What do you think was going through the heads of-, of the guys doing it at Currys?

KARL: Financial gain, definitely.

GIRL IN UGC: Well we getting our taxes back.

KARL: The trainers that you couldn't afford, that day you could afford it.

(UGC of burning bus)

BUS ALARM: This bus is under attack, Please dial 999, this bus is under attack please dial 999, this bus is under attack, please dial 999

MACIEJ: I saw stupidity and anger, to make a statement.

INTV: What is that statement?

MACIEJ: Well the statement is, well, let's-, they don't want to be managed that way, they don't like the way that system works. They feel overall injustice.

SIMON ON UGC: I think this is important for people to really get into the thick of it and see what's really going on.

INTV: Most people filmed what was happening in front of them, tell me why you decided to film yourself as the action unfolded.

SIMON: It made it so much more real, the fact that it was literally at the top of my road, I felt as if it-, it involved me as much as I, you know, probably didn't want to be involved in it. I was-, I was pulled in.

SIMON ON VIDEO: You just hear the noise, you know, this is people's houses, it's people's houses, local businesses. I'm going to try and stop this one, this is-, this is-, this is literally on my-, on my doorstep, it's literally on my doorstep.

SIMON: To know that people have, you know, strived to build up a business and in five minutes or so a group of people can just tear it down, I just didn’t want it to continue.

Mr X: Look at the whole planet, the planet's rioting. And next time you're going to be involved, mate, and your cameraman, you're going to be rioting too, mate, when you realise what's happened.

RICHARD HESTER:  Okay, I mean one of the things that strikes me about the riots is the question about why, what caused the riots.  I mean do you have a view on that Rod?

ROD EARLE: Well one of the peculiar things about them was this sense that even amongst I think the academic community amongst criminologists and sociologists there was this sense of what just happened?  There was a, you know, huge event in a sense the largest outbreak of urban disorder in English cities for quite some time, and a sense of out of what did this come? So I think it posed a lot of questions and those questions are still being put, but I still find them to understand.  I don’t know, you know, even having sort of looked at them, and there was of course then a sense of what sense is going to be made of them and by whom. So, you know, we had the Government I think not having a major enquiry as had happened in all, most of the previous disorders, but then the London School of Economics in partnership with The Guardian newspaper launched this very interesting project Reading the Riots.  And that material is beginning to appear now and I think that and other research perhaps giving us some of the ways into understanding what did just happen.

MARY JANE KEHILY:  Yes, I suppose one of the surprising things is that we associate rioting with social protest with a certain form of disenfranchisement with a certain form of, you know, poverty and oppression that it has that historical link with people riot when things get really bad and they have to.  But I suppose the surprising thing about the recent round of riots was that they were characterised by a very different kind of dynamic, and so the tabloid press were very quick to read that as greed, avarice and all that’s wrong with consumer society.  And so there were stories about people rioting to order and wanting the biggest telly or whatever it was, and so I suppose one of the things that we’re all struggling to make sense of is the character of the riots that it’s a very different character that we’re dealing with, we’re living in different times, and so the ways in which we might interpret those events in the past no longer apply to the present.

RICHARD HESTER:  I mean as usual this seems to have been associated with youth, young people, you know, youth riots and so on, I’m not quite sure the degree to which that was the case.

ROD EARLE:  Yeah, I mean again, you know, it happened in a lot of different places didn’t it?  So I think that sense that there were probably a lot of different sort of riotous events and may have had their own sort of different character, but I think there was a sense, and that’s again a perennial issue isn’t it, a sort of a crisis, you know, the need to sort of put it in the context of youth and of the sense again of sort of the country going to the dogs because the youth, the young people are not behaving in the way they should or used to.  I think there was a sort of an element of that.

MARY JANE KEHILY:  Yes, I thought one of the things the programme did very interestingly and revealingly was comment on the need to represent the riots, so the riots are spectacular in themselves, but that it’s the reporting of them, the stories that are told, and that kind of spectacular display, you know, of fire and confusion and looting, and the need to represent that visually by various people who are there.  So, you know, the representation of the event becomes as important as the event itself, and that seems very significant.  I think the other thing that the programme demonstrates very well is how there is a real buzz and a real atmosphere and one person talked about keeping the party going, so it was this real kind of ecstatic party atmosphere, you know, and I feel that that gets written out of quite a lot of accounts in trying to understand it and rationalise it.  We forget about how in terms of effect, in terms of emotion, it’s a real high.

ROD EARLE:  Yeah.  No.  I think that yes came across quite strongly in those immediate accounts, because that was another element of the programme wasn’t there of the person who’d sort of come out of and got swept along in the events and this sense of sort of, you know, riding this wave, you know, the kinetic effect.  It was exciting and I think those are things that are almost hard to acknowledge in retrospect isn’t it, in this making sense of it, those have to sort of drop out of the picture.

MARY JANE KEHILY:  I just wanted to mention, you know, the markers of the riots, stores like JD Sports, they seemed to be first in line, Carpet Right, LIDL, PC World, like these are big chain stores.  They kind of dominate our lives, they’re everywhere, and they’re even in place in retail parks in between places now and, you know, is it significant that?

RICHARD HESTER:  I think it’s significant JD Sports and PC World in there, because they are classically commodities that have some value attached to them, which is more than their use, and they’re easily transportable.  You can take a pair of shoes or you can take all these getting rather large these televisions, but you can take a television or an Apple iPad fairly easily, and they’re very expensive.  And traditionally theft or a robbery and looting have been for small easily transportable high value goods, so there’s no surprise there.  But the symbolism, the symbolism of the goods is interesting.

It’s a paradox really actually, and I think this relates to what Zygmunt Bauman talks about these frustrated consumers.  They are in a sense drawn into a ever consuming society, which doesn’t necessarily point the finger at the dispossessed, but by virtue of the fact that you haven’t got legitimate means in order to get all this stuff that’s meant to make you feel albeit for a moment satisfied then when an opportunity like this happens the police are suddenly not there, it’s a carnival atmosphere, hey let’s party, let’s get as much as we can.  And I mean people they weren’t I don’t think anyway vandalising B&Q, garden centres and this sort of thing or DIY stuff.  It did seem to connote nicely with the idea of a sort of hyper-consumerism.

ROD EARLE:  Well I think the carpet shop was interesting wasn’t it?  Because I think, you know, there was a sort of sense you could break in, maybe get a laptop out of there, but nobody was going to run away with a great roll of carpet thinking great I’ve got the stairs carpeted now.  It was the sort of sense of, you know, the retail park was targeted.  I think there was talk wasn’t there about sort of the extent to which sort of messaging services might sort of allow people to sort of coordinate a kind of looting sort of expedition as it were and that that was sort of certainly some of the story that came that immediately afterwards the sort of sense of aggressive shopping, this was looting, it was just about materialism and consumers.  But I didn’t feel that takes us very far and has been a way I think of sort of dismissing some of the significance of the events. still feel they were significant events. 

The team are debating some of the themes from the BBC Three/Open University co-production Our Crime.

People read the riot in many different ways - some believe it was opportunistic and mob mentality, whilst some believe it was an expression of anger towards the authorities. What is your interpretation of the rioters' motivations? Is prison the answer to punishing the rioters? Share your views in the comment areas.


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