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London riot act


It might be said that a society's response to a riot is just as important as the events that precipitated it. In August this year, Britain experienced some of its worst urban violence in over thirty years. As images of wanton destruction by youthful offenders were broadcast across the globe, a nation seemed enveloped in bewilderment and confusion. Yet in little over three months, a uniquely collaborative project by the London School of Economics and The Guardian has attempted to provide robust empirical research to identify the causes behind the rioting. The 'Reading the Riots' project is generating ample debate currently in Britain. But the broad themes that it explores are likely to resonate beyond British shores too.

In the immediate aftermath of the riots, the rush to political judgment was clearly evident. Figures on the Right were swift to attribute blame to a lack of individual responsibility and moral decay. It was, as UK PM David Cameron put it, 'criminality, pure and simple'. Others on the Left, such as the former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, tried to forge a link between the government's austerity measures and the behaviour of the miscreants. But the truth is multi-layered, neither simple nor pure. All credit to the Reading the Riots study for boldly bringing out this facet to the surface with dexterity.

Inspired by a collaboration between academics and journalists relating to a study of riots in the American city of Detroit in 1967, this initiative involved conducting first person interviews with 270 London rioters. But unlike the Detroit study, which mainly used quantitative research techniques, a qualitative framework based on in-depth interviews was felt more appropriate. In total, over 1. 3 million words were collated. Separately, over 2. 5 million tweets were analysed. Martin Luther King famously observed that a riot is the language of the unheard. If so, the Reading the Riots project has then given those voices a platform.

Several findings warrant close attention. Of prime importance was the degree of exclusion felt by the rioters. For some, the lack of economic opportunities fed into a deep well of grievance. For others, the exclusion took on social connotations - perceived slights and social alienation morphed into a broader antipathy. Poverty was identified by 86 per cent of the participants as an important cause, while unemployment was cited by 76 per cent. Although half of those interviewed were black, the rioters did not primarily consider the disturbances as 'race riots'. More than race, the underlying subtext appears to hinge on class and substantive inequalities. Of course, none of this is to romanticise or provide a justification for criminal conduct - rather, the aim is to probe deeper into whatever set of prevailing circumstances led rioters to pursue a course of action that could ultimately have grave consequences for many.

The extent of resentment that the rioters harboured towards the police is another critical aspect. Many cited policing attitudes as a significant underlying catalyst. The police shooting of Mark Duggan, which triggered initial disturbances in Tottenham, only exacerbated pent-up anger. About 73 per cent of those interviewed had been wantonly stopped and searched in the previous 12 months. In statistical terms, these suspects were eight times more likely to have been stopped and searched than the average Londoner.

An independent UK government panel set up in the aftermath of the riots, and which took evidence from affected communities and victims, concluded there was no single cause for the riots. But in its findings, also released recently, it urged the police to conduct stop-and-search processes with more sensitivity. "Where young lawabiding people are repeatedly targeted there is a very real danger that stop and search will have a corrosive effect on their relationship with the police, " it noted. Granted that the police often discharge their duties in testing circumstances. And, after much reform, that attitudinally there has been progress towards better policing over the past few decades - nonetheless, there is room for greater improvement.

From a comparative perspective, the themes identified by this new study in the UK should be of interest to policymakers in India too. The triple cocktail of spiraling inflation, rising commodity prices and deeply sharpening inequalities in India could also lead to a combustible brew of disaffection among sections of Indian society, if left unaddressed for too long. For the most part, Indians have preferred to agitate through the ballot box. But the central and state governments would do well to avoid relying completely on this premise as a future indicator.

In the UK, given the difficult economic climate and ensuing public spending cuts, the big challenge for the Tory-Lib Dem coalition will be to fashion a convincing narrative of hope over despair for such youth. With youth unemployment crossing the 1 million threshold, none of this will be easy. But a failure to address the causes of unrest is only likely to beget further unrest in the long term. That is a message from the riots - that the UK government should grasp the 'fierce urgency of now'. It is one that governments elsewhere ought to heed too.

The writer Rishabh Bhandari is a London-based lawyer

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