Do riots work?
5 years after the Tottenham riot of 2011 the Guardian published a useful piece on Prof Tim Newburn’s view that conditions that were behind the 2011 events were now even worse.
Newburn who is a Professor of Criminology at the LSE and was central to the Reading the Riots project (in which I participated)produces some very interesting statistics. Given the Governments we have had since 2011 it is perhaps no surprise that the least well off in society are now even less well off in the main but the point is well made. I doubt too many who read my blog would disagree with the point that this is why we need a Labour Government even if we might debate what kind of administration this should be and how we get it.
My concern here however is to ask a rarely asked question: do riots work?
As a socialist and trade union activist I can think of many other aspects of what Charles Tilly called the repertoire of contention that might work better. But that is not the point. Riots have happened and do happen.
Two caveats need to be made. Firstly while historically, certainly in the UK, very few people were injured in riots, certainly property was destroyed. This was often the property of the well off and while they were no doubt unhappy not too many others felt such concern.
Modern riots (in some cases) may destroy the property of the less well-off, as was the case in Tottenham, and that is hardly working for them.
Secondly, historically, we can’t really be clear in many contexts if riots worked or not. The criteria and outcomes were neither defined or investigated in the way that Reading the Riots did.
A tweet on an earlier version of this piece suggests an important corrective. While George Rude saw in a riot the work of the crowd, and broadly progressive intentions and outcomes, E.P. Thompson was less happy with this formulation. He suggested that riots could also contain reactionary elements and the crowd involved in the Gordon Riots would be an obvious example.
I would take Thompson’s side in that debate (if only just) but underline the point above that while we may accept that reactionary elements can get involved in riots this doesn’t alter the fact that they happen and need to be understood
E.P. Thompson’s work on food riots points to the reality that the threat of a riot was often more effective than an actual riot. It could cause a reduction in the price of bread or the distribution of hoarded food. When riots did occur very much the same impact was to be found. Hidden food was seized and distributed at low price.
There were other, more obviously political riots, often associated with the Chartists. The Chartists were an organised political force that most certainly did not support riots. It was rather the wider Chartist crowd that participated in such activities, often after provocation from the authorities.
Little I would suggest was achieved here, except for the arrest of some rioters, (with modern surveillance techniques far more are arrested now).
A great deal more could be said and some of it can be found in my edited volume A History of Riots (CSP 2015).
When it comes to Tottenham 2011 the riot did not unfortunately succeed in getting justice for Mark Duggan though arguably it did help to keep that important matter on the agenda.
Another result was a regeneration project for Tottenham which broadly included a new ground for Spurs and new housing in some areas of Tottenham. In principle it might be thought this was a good outcome. The problem was and is that the housing isn’t necessarily for those currently living in the area and it remains unclear how many jobs the process will create.
So we might argue that the riot of 2011 had some kind of broadly positive impact but not particularly one those involved hoped for and would be likely to welcome now. There may well be plenty of historical examples of similar outcomes
Keith Flett is the Editor of A History of Riots (CSP 2016)