© 2023 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Report On U.K. Riots Looks At Possible Causes


Last summer, police fatally shot a young black man in London, sparking riots in some of England's largest cities. Four nights of upheaval lead to more than 4,000 arrests and left many asking, why did this happen? The British newspaper The Guardian set out to answer that question. With help from the London School of Economics, the paper sent researchers to homes, fast food restaurants, even prisons, to conduct almost 300 confidential in-depth interviews with those who participated in the riots.

I spoke with Paul Lewis, special projects editor at The Guardian, and asked him if these interviewees had anything in common.

PAUL LEWIS: Generally speaking, they were young. Generally speaking, they were men. But people have actually underestimated the number of women who were involved. But there is one thread. You could say most of them were poor. So those who weren't in education and for those who were of working age, 60 percent were unemployed. So, poor and marginalized.

NEARY: Well, what about the perception that these were race riots? Did your study find evidence to support that?

LEWIS: We didn't find these were race riots. And the people who were involved were very keen to say, no, this wasn't a race issue. And that goes for black, Asian and white rioters. So that's, you know, an interesting finding. I mean, many of the people who were involved were black. In fact, 50 percent of the people we spoke to were black. But even for them, it was rare to find any who felt this was a race riot.

Although they felt that their treatment at the hands of police often would be discriminatory along racial lines, they still felt that these riots were more than just about the color of their skin.

NEARY: You know, as the riots were going on and shortly afterwards, much of the discussion was about the fact that this seemed to be motivated really by a desire to just loot stores and that was taken as a kind of evidence of rampant greed, consumerism among the young. However, your research shows there were other causes, as well.

LEWIS: That's right. The rioters we spoke to were quite candid with us. Many of them said they saw this as an opportunity to obtain luxury items and goods that they couldn't normally afford. So that was a factor at play, but it doesn't explain the riots as a whole.

One thing we didn't expect to find was the degree of antipathy and frustration toward police. Stop and search was one of the issues that people brought up repeatedly. It really looked like rioting without a cause. It was very difficult to have a sense of why it was happening. But when we spoke to people who were doing it, they said they felt they were taking part in anti-police riots.

NEARY: Tell us a little more about stop and search and why that particular police technique would be so frustrating to young people.

LEWIS: Well, it's a controversial technique. It's controversial because it's discriminatory, and the facts are very clear on that, that if you're black you are much more likely to be stopped and searched than if you're white. But it wasn't just the fact that people were being stopped and searched. And 73 percent of the rioters we spoke to had been stopped and searched in the last year.

For many, actually, it was the way in which it was happening. And they often complained of discourtesy or rudeness from police officers or feeling that that they weren't being treated as equals. And that sense of frustration really fed into, for many of them, their hatred and anger toward police. And we saw that exhibited in the ways in which some of the people were rioting.

So there was a lot of attacks on police, on police cars. We spoke to people who'd broken into police stations. And that was a dimension to the riots that I don't think we were really fully aware of until we conducted the research.

NEARY: One other point that I thought was interesting in the way police have been reacting to your findings is a sort of sense of frustration that they were criticized for losing control of what happened back in August. And at the same time, they're now being criticized for being overbearing in these communities.

LEWIS: Yes, but actually, you know, maybe the two aren't mutually exclusive. There is an argument to be had that a more intelligent form of policing in the communities would prevent people coming out in this way. And equally, there's another argument that when you do have incidents of public disorder of this kind, you need to act very quickly to get officers on the street to prevent it from spreading. And I think that's been widely accepted now.

Whatever happens in the future, the rioters we spoke to, four out of five of them said that the riots would happen again. Most of them think that the riots will happen in the next three years. And I think whether police, government or journalists and academics, all of us really need to think hard about what these findings show and look forward to the types of things that we might do to stop it from repeating.

NEARY: Paul Lewis is special projects editor at the Guardian newspaper in London. He's overseeing a joint project with the London School of Economics to investigate the roots of last summer's U.K. riots.

Thanks so much for being with us, Paul.

LEWIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.