Riots have the appearance of disorganised and confusing events, lacking clear definition and structure. They seem to be a kind of sudden rupture which is only uncertainly related to its immediate environment – life in Brixton or Southall or Toxteth. No longer quite predictable and intelligible in the manner of ordinary, uneventful social affairs, riots invite being described as ‘meaningless’ and ‘senseless’. Familiar recipes for interpreting and controlling phenomena cease to work properly. Indeed, some riots apparently constitute a rude rejection of the commonplace processes by which people try to make sense together.

A sudden fault in relations can make the contexts and meaning of social behaviour newly and disturbingly problematic. In such a disastrous situation, there is usually an urgent attempt to review what has taken place so that ambiguity can be reduced and normality restored. In particular, there may be an effort to rebuild a sense of social reality because it is that sense which has been most acutely upset. When the old certainties fail, an opening is made for people to offer competing declarations about the real moral, political and historical import of what has happened. It is perhaps only in crisis that a number of those declarations become plausible, and the competition between them can add to confusion.

It is most difficult to understand or appreciate disorder. Interpretative schemes are generally orderly themselves and are designed to impose order on what they describe. In the main, those who analyse riots would claim that they have an authority to do so. They are reluctant to retreat uncomprehendingly, stating that they are baffled or that the riots are fundamentally absurd. Riots may be messy and fluid, but commentaries tend to unearth a simple pattern underlying their surface. The bulk of social scientists and political writers would actually claim that it is their special competence to identify structures which are invisible to the layman.

Order will appear when the correct framework is used. Defining and discarding what is superficial, the framework cannot readily be contradicted. Riots have been made to reveal themselves as the signs and effects of unemployment, oppressive policing, monetarism, immigration policy, family breakdown, deficient schooling or corrupt mass media. They may be linked with other effects to acquire historical coherence. Very rarely will the underlying pattern so disclosed permit the presence of more than one major design. Neither will it be depicted as contingent and changing. It is portrayed as permanent, sovereign and irreducible. As Stan Cohen, in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, has observed of a number of current explanations of delinquency, ‘a single and one-directional historical trend is picked out – commercialisation, repression, bourgeoisification, destruction of community, erosion of leisure values – and then projected on to a present which ... is much more complicated, contradictory or ambiguous.’

In time, some of these reflex arguments may come to appear rather suspect. There will probably be a great gap between present conjecture and future analysis. Indeed, there is not enough solid material to provide sensible answers to most questions about the English riots. It is important to recall that later research on the American civil disorders of the 1960s contradicted many of the suggestions that were first made to explain them: the disorders were not organised by leaders, it was not possible to discover elementary differences between rioting cities and cities where there were no riots, outsiders were uninfluential, and those who participated were fairly representative of the surrounding population. But the research was published when the immediate crisis had passed and the basic interpretative frameworks were not practically challenged.

Ironically, too, those who take part in riots may themselves seek a defensible explanation of what they do. Meaning is rarely established at the beginning of an event – it is more often bestowed retrospectively. Moreover, meanings in use at a particular time may not be substantial or convincing enough for subsequent accounts. Rival arguments about the real character of riots can be monitored and assessed by those who make the riots. They may be incorporated to become motives for action. Just as Eldridge Cleaver discovered that his raping of white women had really been a political accomplishment, so others can give significance to their own conduct and learn what it was they had achieved. Much of this explanatory work is pursued on the borders of respectability: people continually acquire and employ vocabularies of justification in order to accept their own acts. After all, rioters do not often riot: most of their activity is mundane and conventional enough. Few rioters would actually applaud wholesale and perpetual lawlessness.

What seems to be evident about the English riots is that they are dramatic processes. Enacted in public spaces and increasingly in front of cameras, noisy and turbulent, concentrated on conflict, sometimes made vividly grotesque by fires, they are an almost theatrical politics. The forms which they take have something of their own history and rudimentary conventions. Behaviour is shaped and scripted as it evolves. And there is only a meagre stock of scripts for staging a civil disorder. The manner in which clusterings of people initially form, communicate with one another, move uncertainly, loot and fight in England now is similar to scenes rehearsed in Victorian England and contemporary Ulster. Indeed, models and metaphors of action have become unusually accessible in a world reported by television and re-created in film. The riot has acquired an archetypal form which is known to those who produce it. Each new generation may have to rediscover and stabilise the rules of rioting, but if the riots continue, it is likely that they will achieve an ever more ritualised cast.

The seemingly furious exchanges and unbridled aggression of football supporters are rule-bound and orderly, a series of largely symbolic challenges and acts. Supporters put on a show of conflict which is more akin to the ceremonial bantering of heralds than fighting à l’outrance. Riots in 18th-century England and France also acquired conventional forms, a language of gestures and moves known to the adversaries, and a set of constraining regulations. Social historians have referred to them as ‘collective bargaining by riot’. Conflict in civil society has almost never been unrestrained: it is a form of association or relationship which develops into an intertwined conversation of disciplined threats and acts. So alienated may hostility become from physical assault that it is translated into a set of symbolic tokens. In Radical Chic and MauMauing the Flak-Catchers, Tom Wolfe has described how Californian administrators were exposed to ‘Mau-Mauing’, a mock-demonstration held far away from the ghetto audience but within reach of a City Hall which was to give money in aid. And Murray Edelman, in a book entitled Politics as Symbolic Action, has contrasted the public belligerence of union leaders with the private quiet of negotiation. It is as if strikes and fighting were a latterday myth, frequently invoked but infrequently animated. If there are many more riots in England it may be supposed that they, too, will assume a show of violence increasingly confined.

What is also evident is the importance attached by outsiders to rioting as a dramatic accomplishment. There would seem to be a tacit argument that all that energetic symbolic work could not be performed without a clear purpose. Riots are held to convey meanings which are as grave as the disturbances they create. They play an iconic role, reproducing in miniature the crises of the larger society. They are rarely dismissed as trivial.

Riots are written about by those who attach weight to ideas, intentionality and thoughtfulness, for whom things do not just happen. Riots are seen by them as part of a scheme: vehicles and signifiers of meaning about the world. A riot thus achieves a solemnity which is quite imposing. It is made to say so much. It was Stanley Cohen again who declared that readings of adolescent rule-breaking have possibly foisted an excess of significance on their subject. Adolescents have become agents and bearers of history, encapsulating and signifying some central theme. Punks become a bricolage of anarchic ideas, skinheads embody traditions of working-class resistance, and schoolboys reject the Forster Education Act and the disciplining of the masses: ‘The symbolic baggage the kids are being asked to carry is just too heavy,’ Cohen remarks, ‘the interrogations are just a little forced.’

It is probably the very fact of the riot that has created the chief response. Riots constitute vital benchmarks in conventional histories. They are extraordinarily pictorial representations of the workings of change and transformation. The storming of the Bastille, the taking of the Winter Palace, the Peasants’ Revolt, Captain Swing, the Gordon Riots and Watts tend to be reconstructed as a series of memorable tableaux, punctuating the flow of events and creating major divisions between what went before and what came after. They give structure to human time. Indeed, they and allied markers are remembered time.

Riots conform well to particular apocalyptic conceptions of history. Much religious and political thinking is interlaced with a chiliasm which is more or less suppressed and more or less residual. Riots tend to reawaken ideas of disorder, crisis and decisive transformation. The Left is especially given to scanning the world for crises which announce the coming of a new order: it has ‘tended to present every stage of the transformation of modern capitalism as being a “crisis” and more often than not [has] labelled it the “final crisis”.’* It is as if riots cannot be innocent of profound meaning. They have been appropriated to do political and ideological service for numerous organisations in Britain. As warnings, omens and sanctions by proxy, they have been used by schoolteachers to emphasise the consequences of education cuts, by councillors to indicate the effects of monetarism, by unions to talk of unemployment. Indeed, the English riots have become a symbol in general political rhetoric, enclosing a vision of what should be avoided. Thousands of miles from Brixton, the President of the Canadian Labor Congress was reported to have said the ‘street violence that has engulfed British cities will spread to other countries unless monetarist policies are reversed’. Very few have proposed that riots are not invariably intended to convey sober meaning and political lessons. Very few have considered the possibility that some riots may be modelled on the carnival or Saturnalia, that they may be fun. David Matza claimed some years ago, in his book Delinquency and Drift, that criminologists have taken delinquency rather too seriously, casting it as the fateful pursuit of those intent on profit or a grim lawlessness. He claimed that since Frederick Thrasher wrote The Gang in the 1920s, people have strained to avoid defining rule-breaking as pleasurable. So too with the riots. Not many have concurred with one of the Councillors for rioting Wood Green, who wrote in a letter to the New Standard: ‘The best way I can describe it is rather like being in the middle of a swarm of bees. There was the same excitement and happiness as on an unexpected feast day.’

The most prominent explanation of rioting has probably been the rate of unemployment, but discussion has been very superficial, as if a simple allusion to unemployment were enough to satisfy curiosity. Some argument has endeavoured to fix an almost barometrical relationship between rioting and the price of corn, the business cycle or unemployment. Disorder is represented as a galvanic response to movements of price: a relationship which does exist on occasion. But not always. Held to explain the behaviour of poor people in 18th-century France and England, it was not discernible in England between the wars. Neither is unemployment a simple state to which rioting is a simple and appropriate answer. Many rioters are not unemployed and many unemployed do not riot. Between joblessness and civil disorder there are a number of different chains of consequences which mould and filter conduct.

The English riots have so far been produced in those inner-city areas where unemployment abounds, especially amongst the young, the working-class and the black. In turn, it becomes instructive to examine what little is known about the way in which young, urban working-class males use up their time and reproduce their lives. A persistent theme, several centuries old, is the problem of managing long swathes of inactivity in a crowded environment and with relatively few resources. Schooling occupies only a portion of some parts of the week. Unemployment exacerbates the problem.

Many middle-class pursuits are not taken to be sensible cultural options. They are not often considered by the lower working class. Urban adolescents tend to be intensely parochial, not going far from their home territory, having to exploit possibilities immediately about them. Rather than remain closeted at home, they tend to hang around in each other’s company, living publicly and visibly, and ‘doing nothing’. Doing nothing has been skilfully explored by Corrigan in Schooling the Smash Street Kids. It consists of a gregarious milling and waiting, occupying street corners, hoping for ‘something to happen’. That ‘something’ can come from without, or it can be coaxed into existence. It is any kind of excitement which eases the pains of inaction: throwing stones at a bottle, bantering or petty crime. It can be the mock-combat of the football crowd which represents an eventful escape from the ordinary and banal, an occasion to be discussed, and an opportunity to test and display character. Crime is typically trivial and hedonistic rather than instrumental and calculating. It, too, offers a little excitement. In View from the Boys, Howard Parker has described how boys in Liverpool 8 would career around in stolen cars, chased by the police. Sheila Welsh, in unpublished research on London adolescents, has discussed how they occasionally telephone the police to complain about themselves, await the arrival of the patrol cars and flee, exchanging ridicule as they do so. Theirs is a series of game-like exchanges whose rules are reasonably well-established and understood: there are rudenesses and acts which the police would not countenance, and the adolescents largely refrain from committing them. The police, too, may seek relief from the monotony of what is often a most boring job. They may also attempt to inject excitement into their work by rushing to incidents, patrolling areas frequented by those ‘doing nothing’, and swapping insults. In all this interaction, tacit limits tend to be accepted. There may be some conflict about the control and ownership of public space, adolescents and police contending with one another, but a conventional order has been constructed. Young, working-class policemen and young, working-class males have built something of a symbiotic relationship. It is inherently precarious and unstable. But both sides have found it amusing and useful enough. Of course, there are artful and strategic features of such policing. Constables may find it politic to exert control by banter. Indeed they have few other resources. Management by riposte may be their major resort.

The English rioting has signified what may be no more than a temporary breakdown of that social equilibrium. The tacit rules have been broken. Instead, only the vaguest overt principles now appear to regulate relations between the police and particular groups of youth. Physical violence has replaced name-calling. I have suggested that such violence may be short-lived and it will almost certainly become more orderly. It will probably return to the earlier equilibrium. But there has been an appreciable transformation in many areas.

Initial sources of disturbance vary from place to place and there is often an amplifying process which leads to conduct in one place influencing conduct elsewhere. What seems to have been a partial catalysis of change is the adoption of ‘aggressive patrol’ tactics by police forces in cities such as London and Liverpool. Crisis policing is employed to manage critical crime rates. It was directed against a spate of car-radio thefts in Liverpool and against street robberies in Brixton. Such work can generate an impressive increase in arrests. It can also dampen the rates of reported crime. It is one of two unsatisfactory answers to an insoluble dilemma of policing: how may active thief-catching be done without estranging innumerable people? The incursion of outsiders who are not committed to a complicated peace-keeping or watchman role can force a sudden redefinition of relations on adolescents. Aggressive patrol work is intended to be an emergency response which is conspicuously productive. It is not founded on banter and discretionary enforcement. As Morris and Heal argue in Crime Control and the Police, ‘the legitimacy of aggressive patrol strategies has been questioned on the grounds that they alienate citizens and in particular minority groups.’ That alienation has palpably occurred. Yet people do fear crime, they do complain of being under-policed, especially in poor areas, and visible street crime is abundant in those very areas where equilibrium once perilously existed. Pryce, for example, has described the makings of a hustling, primitive, organised criminality in St Paul’s, Bristol. Howard and Parker documented extensive and increasingly professional theft in Liverpool. Pratt has illustrated the growth of ‘muggings’ in Brixton. The breaking of the symbiosis between police and youth was further advanced by a rampant unemployment which aggravated the problems of doing time on the streets. Unemployment engendered bitterness. And it was experienced disproportionately by a black population which had never been incorporated into the regulated game of peacekeeping. Blacks have tended to resist the limits set in banter. Some, indeed, cast the police as actors in a Manichaean struggle. Police work turns towards the dramatisation of a solid social order: it is bent on symbolising an overarching moral scheme. It may have been maladroit in Liverpool and Brixton, but its alternative strategies were slight and accident-ridden as well.

Aggressive patrol was not involved in all the riotous incidents. It is only an illustration or theme in the disequilibrium. Many of the American and some of the British disorders were certainly explained by their participants as replies to clumsy policing. That the offensive incidents were misreported or not unusual itself underscores the extent of disturbance. Elsewhere, unemployment and territoriality have been embellished by an aggressive racialism which itself destroyed the order of the streets. This racialism may prove to be little more than the substance of yet another cycle of expressive deviance which will pass. Teddy Boys, Spivs, Cosh Boys, Mods, Rockers and other have appeared, disappeared and reappeared in a long procession of deviant types. They have characteristically attained distinctiveness and vitality by physical or symbolic conflict with another, carefully chosen group. There is a twinning of deviance: Mods and Rockers being linked together in Siamese fashion. With the emergence or return of each group, there has been a tendency to identify it as an indelible part of the social scene. Selves, appearances and postures are actually more lightly assumed than their adult observers believe. Adolescents play with identity without the seriousness of middle age: for many, the role of rioter may prove to be a brief toying with a dangerous self.

In the past such toying would end with courtship, pairing and a departure from the gregarious milling of the streets. Its end would be hastened by a movement into the adult world and a leaving behind of childish things. It would be made particularly attractive by the wish to differentiate symbolically the experience of one generation from that of its successors. Behaviour that is imitated by younger brothers loses its attractiveness. What recession and unemployment may achieve is a retarding of that process as young men are forced into prolonged inactivity, dependence and frustration.

Rioting may come to signify an attempt to gain symbolic control over areas and lives in which people feel they have lost mastery. It can become a reply to the experience of oneself as an object moved around by external forces. Violence has been a frequent resort of those who are denied a substantial identity in the world: it is a vehicle for prowess, assertiveness and a new set of standards for gauging character.

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