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The riots – one year on – why they are unlikely to be repeated in the same way

2012 August 4
by Paul Vallely

It is easy to forget, amid all the innocent euphoria induced by the London Olympics, just how different was the public mood a year ago when riots overtook the streets of England.  For five long hot days and nights police were overwhelmed. Disorder spread across the UK, from London to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Salford, Nottingham,Bristol, Leeds and even to quiet towns like Gloucester. Five people died, 4,000 were arrested and shops, flats and businesses were destroyed. More than £200m worth of damage was done in one of the biggest outbreaks of civil unrest for generations.

This weekend marks the first anniversary of the incident which initially sparked the rioting when the Metropolitan Police shot dead an unarmed black man they claimed was a gangster involved in a shoot-out with its officers. It is a salutary moment to consider whether unrest on that scale could happen again.

Certainly the intervening twelve months have brought no satisfactory answers to the many questions which surrounded the death of Mark Duggan and which prompted his family to claim the police were pursuing a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ policy that first brought protestors onto the streets.

No police officer has been charged with any offence arising out of the fatal shooting.  An inquiry by the Independent Police Complaints Commission is proceeding so slowly that the coroner conducting Mr Duggan’s inquest has angrily denounced the police watchdog for refusing to hand over evidence it has gathered and threatened to bring contempt of court proceedings against it. Even Scotland Yard has condemned its tardiness and the Duggan family have called for the IPCC to be abolished for institutional bias.  None of this does anything for public confidence in the police or their regulatory authorities.

Gloomier commentators predict that riots could reoccur, pointing out that many of the underlying factors which created the conditions for last year’s angry unrest remain in place. An official Government panel of inquiry blamed a range of factors including a chronic shortage of jobs for young people, poor parenting, a failure of the justice system to rehabilitate offenders, consumer materialism and youthful hostility towards the police.

A research team from the London School of Economics suggested, after extensive interviews with rioters, that a strong sense of unfairness was a major motivation of those who took part in the disturbances. Many contrasted the unethical behaviour of economy-busting bankers and expenses-fiddling MPs with the hopelessness engendered by their own lack of opportunities. Others attacked austerity measures which left the rich unscathed and hit the vulnerable hardest, with student tuition fees and the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance widely-cited causes of resentment.

There may be some truth in all that. But much of the justification also smacks of excuses to cover youthful indulgence in opportunist looting and an exciting opportunity to hit back at the police for years of routine insensitivity to young people on the streets. Too many feel the police view them as guilty until proven innocent.

Yet rioting on the scale of last year’s unrest is unlikely. The economy may have got worse over the past 12 months and cuts in police numbers may be on the cards in the areas of conflagration;Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds are all set for far bigger reductions than the 10 per cent mandated across England and Wales.  But the police have learned big lessons about the tactics need to nip in the bud such wide-scale violence.

They understand more about how to combat the use of social media like the BlackBerry Messenger by riot organisers. They have substantially refined tactics for deploying officers on the streets. The severe sentences given out by the courts to rioters have created a powerful deterrent to such behaviour. The change to the collective mood brought on by the Jubilee and now the Olympics could also be significant. Fears of a repetition of the events of last summer seem unduly alarmist.

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