My Only Conclusion About the London Riots

I have been trading worried emails with London friends all week, and trying to think of something to post here about the violence.

I knew not to say, as many have, that it had to do with the coalition government’s cuts in services, because those cuts haven’t started yet.

I was going to say it had to do with typical young male behavior and lack of meaningful roles and socializing forces for them, but then I learned that many rioters were female.

I was going to say it showed how angry Britain’s African-descended community feels at the white majority, but then I learned that the rioters were from multiple races and ethnicities, as were the victims.

I was going to say it was just about poverty, and then I learned that many of the looters were working class, middle class, even upper class.

In the end, the only thing I know for sure is that if this had happened in the states, there would have been dozens of more deaths because everyone would have been firing guns at everyone else.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

23 thoughts on “My Only Conclusion About the London Riots”

  1. One other thing that would be sure if it happened in the states: we would only see black rioters on TV.

  2. In US, rioters would have had far less confidence that shopkeepers and homeowners did not have guns. Perhaps this would have made them feel less free to run wild?

  3. In US, rioters would be far better armed. Perhaps this would have made the cops feel less free to enforce the law?

  4. If it was the US, then there would be no G-d D-mn rioting because we are inured to police getting away with murder. This is as close to justifiable as there is. The guy had a gun. He was a criminal who was the target of a special op. Only two shots were fired and, so far, it does not appear any police have flat out lied.

    In the US, this would be a model for police restraint and the media/politicians would be praising the police instead of calling for an investigation.

    We are sheep. (When a Harvard professor can be arrested in his home for nothing, the President can observe that the cop was stupid, and the weight of public opinion forces a retraction then, you know, this country fundamentally believes in fascism – or a significant percentage of the population does.)

  5. In the US, rioters, shopkeepers, property owners and police are all likely to be armed and equipped with itchy trigger fingers. So I think that Keith’s simple conclusion is on the money. I watch the footage, thinking of droogs and football hooliganry of other days and am thankful, for the sake of my friends who live not far from one of the riot zones, that American-style household armories are not common there.

  6. To my parochial way of thinking, it all seems very similar to the Stanley Cup Riots in Vancouver a little over a month ago. Police need to update their strategies, but there is no broader political point other than that human nature is going to remain decidedly imperfect forever.

  7. I thought this was supposed to the the reality-based community. Rioting in the US has happened at a rate on par with what the UK has experienced (that is, a handful of major examples since the national wave in the late 1960s). With very rare exceptions, firearms have not featured heavily, on the part of either the authorities or the rioters. Looting, arson, and physical attacks (individual and small-group assaults, often with found weapons such as bricks) have, just as in London and the UK sites. Also just as in the UK, US riots are invariably sparked by incidents of police use of force in already angry communities, at which point a very small population of opportunists takes over.

  8. So the rioting seems a mystery since it’s so broadly-based, eh? Well, there’s this, and maybe this. Perhaps it’s not such a mystery after all.

  9. “… because those cuts haven’t started yet.”

    Why don’t the market theories of rationality apply here? We expect investors to price expectations into financial instruments. Do we regard the rioters as too stupid to apply expectations to social instruments?

    This came out harsher than I intended. This is the third or fourth time in the past few days I’ve seen this argument presented as axiom. I’m really asking if there is some difference between the anticipation of changes under a government program of austerity, and the anticipation of changes in financial markets?

    Understand that this comes from my fear of a significant portion of the US population deciding that they don’t have a significant stake in the US future and deciding to change that future violently.

    I can see a few groups who could form the core of forcing the changes (given: minority of the population, but would guess that the rioters fall under the ‘few bad appples’ category as well): the radical of the Tea Party republicans (perception of social changes that deprive them of their expectations of civil society), Militia movement (well armed, perception of racial changes that deprive them of right place in social hierarchy), working class laborers (perception that shift in balance of power with corporations removes their membership in the middle-class).

    As a counter, I see several historical counter examples that made it as far as violence, but didn’t actually destroy US civil peace: John Brown (unless you categorize him under a more general abolitionist rubric, know nothings, anarchists, American Communist movement during the depression, Lindbergh and the isolationists, etc.)

    When I hear the ‘hasn’t happened yet’ argument stated as axiom, I’m reminded of the Dred Scott decision that removed the ability of Congress to regulate slavery in the territories and States. It could be argued, at that point, the expansion of slavery ‘hadn’t happened yet’, but the expectation that it would was enough to elect Lincoln, and led to the Civil War.


  10. I’ve had a thought floating around about this for a while that I can’t quite organizing, so I’ll throw it out half-baked. It has to do with public knowledge. There are things that everyone knows and isn’t talked about (private-public knowledge) and things everyone knows that is talked about, and the bridge between them is interesting, and causes massive changes.

    Think about the Murdoch empire revelations. Most of what was happening was known, and has been for years. It wasn’t until a public discussion about it happened that things got rolling. This happens a lot in politics, as partially seen by people obsessing about narratives and Your Liberal Media, and so on. It happens in families, with folks with drinking problems, etc.

    I think something similar happens with riots. There’s a tipping point that requires a lot of independent people to start working together. Think of Egypt, and how the strategies of repression work. I think it happened in England in a similar way. (Note: I’m not making a moral case here at all, just talking about the dynamic.) Frusteration (and I think this goes to Mawado’s point, I think future austerity policies are priced in), opportunism, and the feeling of lack of hope boils up and needs to build up a small head of steam, and then you’re off to the races.

  11. As other commenters have noted, there seems to be a remarkable absence of all these shooting deaths you predict in the riots that America has had–to discuss the ones I’m familiar with, not in the New York and DC riots of the 1960s and 1970s, or the Rodney King riots. We do know that in LA and DC, multiple shopowners protected their property by standing guard with rifles and shotguns. Since the fatalities tended to involve lootersor nearby residents getting trapped in the fires that they or others had set after the stores were stripped clean, this may well have saved lives, not cost them.

    Is there a wealth of evidence from other cities, of which I am unaware, about mass gun homicides during riots?

  12. Megan, as my link above will tell you, there were 35 deaths from gunfire in the Rodney King riots (out of 53 deaths total). The article even lists them individually. Now, I’m not sure if one can compare the Rodney King riots to the riots in London directly, but I’d hardly call that a “remarkable absence of shooting deaths”.

    It honestly would surprise me if there wasn’t a stark difference between the UK and the US; historically, the UK has had a disproportionately low incidence of gun violence and the US a disproportionately high one, for whatever reasons.

  13. Megan: Katja’s point is apposite, let me make two others

    (1) There is no question that the greater amount of violence in American riots (American anything) is not driven *only* by guns. As James Q. Wilson pointed out, the population adjusted rate of fistfights has been an order of magnitude higher in NYC than London going back well into the 19th century, longer before the era of assault rifles etc.

    (2)That said, even Katja’s data likely understates the gun-attributable deaths in the L.A. Riots. Len Berkowitz’s studies decades ago showed that simply being primed by the sight of a gun makes people more aggressive, for example they would give greater electric shocks in experiments to other people. And that was just seeing a gun, not being out in the streets having guns fired around you and at you. To the extent that gunfire scares and angers people, some “non-gun” deaths (e.g., a crowd beats to death someone who has brandished a gun) in riots likely are in part due to presence of guns whether the body in the morgue has a bullet in it or not.

  14. My ire at the frustrating circularity of the gun debate got the better of me here – apologies. Katja is right; many of the 1960s and some other US riots involved substantial firearm death. At the same time, many have not – the 2001 Cincinnati riot and the 1991 Crown Heights riot amongst them. And to another point in the thread, there is no evidence whatsoever that private ownership of arms in the US deters either riots as such or has any influence on the overall dynamics of a riot once it’s started.

  15. From what I’ve heard the rioters in London are overwhelmingly male, teenage to early twenties, and quite disproportionately if not overwhelmingly black while “asians” in Limey-lexicon have been underrepresented. Once a riot exists there is opportunity for lots of people to loot, but we can still say it’s typical male behavior (less than 100% of murderers are male, but it’s still an overwhelmingly male activity). And people can be reacting to cuts they expect to take place in the future (though some possible arguments about social services may be impacted).

  16. Austerity means more than social service cuts. It means economic contraction and job losses. Those things don’t need to be anticipated by disaffected youth, they have already happened.

    Deprived young people in the UK have been drafted into a war against invisible bond vigilantes and chimerical hyperinflation. It is not a war they ever sought. It is a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.

  17. In England, defending your property against burglars results in harsher prison sentences than the burglar gets.

    As for the spark that set off these particular riots, I think that the initial shooting was more like Rodney King than like anything else. The “tinder” was the culmination of a number of earlier protests that were dealt with rather harshly by the police (the tactic called “kettling” will figure prominently in any research you do) as well as a number of incidents during protests where police were seen beating protestors and not punished in any way (the folks filming the police were prosecuted). In short, the “us versus them” attitude kept ratcheting up the tensions, and the shooting was just over the top.

    Notice all the masks and hoodies being used to hide the identities. With cameras on every street corner, I expect that there will be lots of prosecutions once there is time to view and analyze all the videos.

  18. To change the question: do modern communications (mobile phones, social networks) make riots more likely? A few years ago, there was a problem in Spain with young people boozing in the street in crowds assembled by mobiles. The same technology, applied to a widespread sense of grievance, makes for a flash crowd almost like those in Larry Niven’s teleportation stories.

  19. “many of the looters were working class, middle class, even upper class.”
    OK, but what percentage are we talking about here? Certainly the location of the riots puts them squarely in working class neighborhoods.

    I don’t want to jump to conclusions either, but riots in the US have been about race with a strong helping of class. I work with troubled teens and there is nothing many of them would enjoy more than getting in on the action of a riot. As it stands, one of their main entertainments is getting drunk/high and looking for trouble out in the streets. Why is this?

    Roughly, many of them have poor role models at home, for a variety of reasons. Single parents struggling to maintain control. Parents whose work hours leave them unattended for much of the day. No hobbies – no sense of purposeful behavior. Substance abuse and anger management problems in the family. Little education among parents and a sense of frustration at perceived life-options available. Nihilism about their role in larger society and its institutions.

    This is a lot to untangle. Every case is different, yet themes emerge. But I’ve been incredibly frustrated by the language that some in the conservative British government have used to frame the riots.

    David Cameron: “if you are old enough to commit these crimes you are old enough to face the punishment.”
    Home Secretary Theresa May: “This is sheer criminality, and let’s make no bones about it.”
    London Mayor Boris Johnson: “It is time that people who are engaged in looting and violence stopped hearing economic and social justification for what happened.”

    I understand the frustration, and the need to reiterate the rule of law. But “sheer criminality” is not an explanation; pretending it is one is an excuse to not do the reflection that social problems require. We don’t need to pretend we know the exact cause of the problem. But we do need to discuss it. We need to form hypotheses and debate their validity. When we resort to explanations that are nothing more than descriptions of behavior, we learn nothing about ourselves and our society, and we miss an opportunity to avoid such problems in the future.

  20. On any Sunday AKA tipping points. I think the lesson is that lots of people (almost all of them young) can go for a bit of pillaging and burning (remember first you pillage then you burn). One the authorities have lost control, people who only obey the law because of the risk of arrest can run free. The trigger doesn’t matter much (there have been riots triggered by local sports franchise victories).

    OK there is also conformism and many do whatever everyone else is doing whether it is abide by the law or riot.

Comments are closed.