UK riot blamed on outsiders

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.

Tottenham High Road riots
Burnt out cars lie in the road after riots on Tottenham High Road on August 7, 2011 in London. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
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.

Tottenham High Road riots
A fireman stands outside a burning building after riots on Tottenham High Road on August 7, 2011 in London. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
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.

5 thoughts on “UK riot blamed on outsiders

  1. Andrew W

    Er, right. Rather than your ‘research’, how about look at some facts? The youth in Enfield congregated around Enfield Town Station. I saw with my own eyes the majority of groups form after getting off the trains and buses (ironically, predominantly the 192). Of course they were joined by local kids, but the original ‘spark’ did not come from within Enfield town.

    This isn’t the 1980’s anymore. Your research is outdated and ill-informed.


  2. From what I saw at the Stokes Croft riots of recent in Bristol it was exactly the same. There were large groups of about 300-400 people, mostly locals that had came out to just watch or make sure none of their property got damaged. The only ‘outsiders’ were the 160 riot police drafted in from South Wales who had no geographical idea of the area and often charged the rioters/protestors towards places like St. Pauls (same place as the riots 30 years previous) – where police relationships aren’t exactly great and only imflamed people not wanting trouble in their area.


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  4. Sean Carey

    Andrew W. and Neka, thank you for your comments. Andrew W. The key point I made about the riot in Tottenham and similar incidents is: “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 (my emphasis).” The problems in Enfield took place on the second night (there are reports overnight of other disturbances in Brixton, Dalton, Leyton and Walthamstow). In other words, there is a primary incident and then secondary (and successive) events. This is not to say that this pattern will hold for all time, merely that it looks to me that what has happened in Tottenham is primarily a local event although with some very deep underlying structural patterns regarding dissatisfaction with policing, economic circumstances, and very importantly the absence of local grassroots political players, who step in and restrain young people. The last factor is of considerable importance, as the other elements are present in many areas of the UK – and not just in metropolitan areas — but not all have had or are likely to experience “riots” or other forms of disorder.


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