Craig JacksonBy Craig Jackson, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology.

The five days of rioting and incidents that occurred in the UK provide many with evidence that our cultural morals are at a low point. And why should it not – when large groups of people take part in positive acts, we are quick to reassure ourselves that society is “ok” and that we are good people. Look at the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana, Live Aid, or the coming together following terrorist atrocities. Equally then, we should be open to the idea of analysing what state society is in when group-behaviour and mob-rule goes the other way and is destructive, rather than creative.

For a period of almost one week, parts of the UK suffered from rioting and looting, following the death of 29 year old Mark Duggan who was shot by police on Thursday 4th August. Riots began following a peaceful march that weekend to a police station near the family of Mr Duggan, that appeared to be taken over by a violent group. Rioting, damage and looting then spread that night throughout Tottenham, then to other parts of London. By Monday the disturbances had gathered pace, and by Tuesday, rumours of rioting spreading to other major UK cities were proved true. Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham, Liverpool and Wolverhampton all suffered from city centre disturbances. By this point, the disturbances were no longer associated with the death of Mr Duggan but had transformed into looting and criminal damage. Five deaths occurred throughout; a young male, Trevor Ellis was shot in a car in Croydon; Richard Bowes (68) was beaten when trying to put out a fire, and possibly the most disturbing was the deliberate murder of three men in Birmingham protecting local businesses – Haroon Jahan, Shazad Ali, and Abdul Musavir.

One of the main arguments people now have concerning the UK moral decline is because of the young ages of those involved in some of the most horrifying incidents we saw. However, although experts at the time were quick to point out that the rioting was the preserve of younger people, and the “youth problem”, court and police statistics show that approximately 60% of those involved were 20 years or older and therefore should have known better. Looting was not a youth crime in this case. Additional confusion arises because of the variety of people who became involved. Looters ranged from the traditional underclass, angry and un-empowered through to trainee social workers, models, teaching assistants, and even an heiresses. This broad societal cross-section of looters has confounded many and still poses the question as to why such people could get swept up in the damage and opportunistic looting as they did. This question is a fairly simple one to answer – mob-rule and the seductive power of being on the winning team (however short-lived it may be) can be so alluring for some that they do not think rationally about the pros and cons of their choices, and believe the “anonymity of the crowd” will protect them. For others with nothing to lose, the allure is even more understandable. When the reality of the situation was made clear to rioters via the police and media, that cctv and forensic evidence would be used in the hunt for them, that appeared to be the greatest deterrent  that finally saw calm on the streets.

The media also appeared keen to demonise social networking and text messaging – particularly the Blackberry message system – by claiming that rioters were using them to coordinate their attacks. My investigations into this at the time of the riots showed that social networking was not being used for significant strategic advantage by the rioters. In fact I remain convinced that sites such as Twitter actually came of age as a force for good and provided some reassuring evidence of anything but a moral collapse. Almost all users of Twitter who commented on the riots were against what was being done, and it provided a platform whereby people felt they could state their anger or despair at what was happening in their communities or in the UK at large, in a safe way, with no fear of retribution from rioters or looters. After rioting in London, the #riotscleanup stream on Twitter had as many as 45 comments made each second. On the first night of rioting in Birmingham, Twitter was being used by local people to plan to meet up the next morning and commence a clean up of damaged areas with #brumriotscleanup. The collective message of the tweeters was a defiant one; “you can riot every night if you want to, but we will be back each morning to clear it up”. The broom and brush became the new symbol of defiance and gave a clear message to looters that they were now on the back foot – this was “community by consent”.

Despite the rioting, looting, and (we were subsequently informed) attacks on the police by gangs using handguns in Birmingham, the riots were relatively short-lived and quelled by threats of firmer policing and prosecutions. It should be remembered that while the police were facing criticism for not being harsh enough on the rioters, the disturbances were quelled without a single shot being fired by police, water cannon, or use of CS gas – and the policing by consent model was proved right. I myself witnessed first-hand the benefits of the calm policing approach in the press conference given by Chris Simms, the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police, the morning after the three Birmingham murders. In appealing for calm in the light of potential racial tensions following the triple murder, Sims was able to use the public revulsion at what had happened in order to appeal for calm and to avert further violence. It was as if the deaths had provided a breathing space for everyone to pause and consider the gravity of what had happened in Birmingham. And into that space came the unassuming and quietly noble figure of Tariq Jahan, the 45 year old father of one of the murdered men, Haroon. Speaking the very next day of his loss, his composure and selflessness impressed many. Buoyed by the crowds and tv cameras around him, he could have easily called for revenge and been backed by a community and a viewing public at large who were angry with the looters and who wanted a swift ending. Instead his words, questioning why communities were killing themselves, then telling people to go home unless they wanted to lose their sons also, was stark and noble. The public rally later that week saw five thousand people of all faiths meet to express their regret at what had happened in their city. Such meetings were not isolated just to Birmingham, although the gathering in this city was touched with more loss than anywhere else.

Other elements of the media also helped to bring about the moral outrage of the community; the powerful video of the young overseas student in London who was punched before his backpack was rifled through by “good Samaritans” while he was dazed, was another goal in the game of morality-football against the looters. This was not a riot born of political motives or anger, but wholesale looting and pillaging. Spurred on by repeated tv coverage of such callous acts, other citizens felt motivated to take direct action – creating Walls of Love outside damaged shops, with many using thousands of post-it notes with positive messages written on them to sure up the beleaguered and battered business owners. The silent majority was expressing itself in words, colour and language. These notes looked quite reminiscent of the notes left at ground zero or following the Japanese tsunami. Powerful and silent images. Other shops saw the plywood boards that had replaced the broken windows receive “positive vandalism” – creative artwork with anti-looting messages, like post-it notes written on a large scale. Clearly this was a “low-tech” response to what many thought at the time had been high-tech coordinated rioting.

The public response to the riots has no doubt seen a triumph for the silent majority over a minority who destroyed their own communities. How we think about civil disturbance in the future will no doubt have been changed, and possibly the way the police gather evidence and combat such incidents will also be influenced by what happened last month. The latest debate in this saga now revolves around the courts and criminal justice system – with many experts questioning whether or not the sentences being passed to looters are proportionate and consistent. An outraged and angered public do not want consistency in this matter – but they do want punishment for those involved and they want it to be publicised too. That desire for retribution and restoration through the criminal justice system is itself not morally incompatible with the high-ground the citizens have occupied throughout the riots. It is preferable to lynch mobs, vigilantism and kangaroo courts – which, knowing human nature, would no doubt be the next stage of justice exacted by angry citizens if the riots had not come to the relatively moralistic end that they did. To deny the citizens of the justice they waited for would be anything but moral.

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Craig Jackson

Craig Jackson

Head of Psychology Division at Birmingham City University