Can you predict a riot?

In Uncategorized on July 25, 2017 by kmflett



Can you predict a riot?

The tragic death of Rashan Charles after an encounter with a police officer in Kingsland Rd, Hackney on Saturday suggests an uncomfortably familiar story. Let’s hope the investigation into what took place doesn’t follow the same familiar pattern of lengthy delays and official obfuscations.

In the meantime, understandably, protests have taken place and once again some in the media have suggested there could be a riot. One suspects that for the likes of The Sun any democratic protest can be described as a riot

Many will be familiar with the Kaiser Chief’s song I Predict a Riot. It is a question I and others researched after the 2011 riot which followed the still problematic death of Mark Duggan in August 2011 in Tottenham.

Living in Tottenham I have a personal and representative interest in such matters but my researches were mostly directed by a conference I organised on the History of Riots at the Institute of Historical Research in 2012 which was later published as a book by CSP.

It is a vast subject and a conference can’t cover more than a few issues but central to it was what can be learnt from the history of riots.

In North London after the 2011 events there was been no shortage of investigations into riots. There was an official Government riot panel, a citizens inquiry and the Reading the Riots project sponsored by the Guardian and the London School of Economics.

This last had some historical framework around it- mainly the riots in American cities from the 1960s on- but otherwise an historical understanding was absent.

When history has been referred to it often used to underline the unsurprising but unhelpful thought that while riots in history may have had important reasons, contemporary ones by definition do not.

The problem with this view is that when you do look at the history of riots the key thing is that while the causes may differ the actuality is very similar.

A crowd gathers, a melee occurs, windows are broken, occasionally properties are burned and even more occasionally people are actually hurt. That is hardly something to celebrate, but nor can it be ignored or simply brushed aside.

It is not the most effective form of protest, but when it takes place, it underlines that something has gone very wrong indeed

Likewise historically, and again this point has contemporary echoes, the State has been quite reluctant to intervene. A local figure of authority- a judge for example- arguing with rioters that they were better off not rioting has possibly had more impact than the use of force.

Definitions of what constitutes a riot-even before the Riot Act was abolished in 1973- were less than clear on what exactly was supposed to happen in the hour between its reading and the authorities actually dispersing any remaining rioters.

Equally problematic was how much force could legally be deployed- again echoed recently in debates about whether the use of water cannon would be appropriate.

The issue of whether a riot can be predicted has become one of some importance in legal and financial terms.

Historically a division is drawn between the causes of riots- food shortages, local political issues and national protests, the nature of the riot that ensues and its predictability.

It has been an issue recently because at the moment only the police have the power to determine whether a riot has taken place or not.

If they decide it has then they, or the State, are liable for any costs that have arisen has a result of damage to property. If it has not then insurers must carry the liability under policies which exclude riot from being a cause of paying out insurance money.

I doubt if the police look too carefully at history books to determine the matter. Rather they will look at their budget.

None of this of course is of much help to unfortunate people like Rashan Charles or those who seek to find out the truth about why and how he died.


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