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From postcode rivals to riot partners: the psychology of the 2011 rioters explained

A new study on the psychology of rioting has explained for the first time how postcode rivalries dissipated and rioters formed new allegiances as a shared sense of community emerged during the 2011 riots that spread across England.

Psychologists at the University of Sussex, Keele University and the University of St Andrews analysed 41 interview accounts with rioters, as well as police reports, media accounts and extensive video footage, in a study which should become critical reading for those interested in crowds and the spread of behaviour. 

The research, called ‘The evolving normative dimensions of riot’ shows for the first time how the 2011 Tottenham riot evolved from an anti-police protest about the death of Mark Duggan, to violent disorder which saw rival gangs join forces, into looting. It then spread across London and to other cities. 

The riot saw participants crossing into other gangs’ territories. For example, some would not normally venture onto Tottenham High Road because of intense rivalries. 

One interviewee said: “The police are the biggest crime ever. It doesn’t matter where you’re from anymore. So, who’s the greater evil? Your enemy’s enemy? Your friends.” 

Another added: “Half the people who did the riots weren’t even from our area. They come to help us. I mean if it was a gang wise, why are people from Hackney coming down to Tottenham to help us.”

Dr John Drury, Reader in Psychology at the University of Sussex, said: “This riot saw traditional postcode rivalries melt away in the face of a common enemy in the police, and the emergence of a new shared identity. Our research shows for the first time how that happened. 

“Police forces and others may feel that they understand how gang mentalities work but our findings show that at times like this a fresh sense of community can break down existing loyalties. 

“We’re talking to police forces and councils about what our research shows. We hope that those responsible for law enforcement and keeping communities safe will take stock.” 

The researchers, including Professor Clifford Stott at Keele University, constructed a timeline from existing post-event accounts and then populated and cross-referenced with almost 200 items of evidence. 

These included government and independent reports, academic publications and written accounts in local and national media. Sixty online videos, along with numerous photographic sources, were cross-referenced using Google Street View and other sources to determine locations and timings. 

Timelines and real-time reporting on blogs created during and after the unrest, and contemporaneous Twitter messages, provided additional evidence. All of these sources were cross-referenced with comprehensive data on sites, times and types of crimes related to the disorders in Haringey provided by the Metropolitan Police.

The researchers found that on the night of 6-7 August 2011 in Tottenham: 

  • The death of Mark Duggan took on a social significance as it occurred in the context of longstanding antagonisms and a sense of disempowerment. 
  • The escalation in violence revolved around perceptions of the indiscriminate police use of force against a young woman who was knocked to the ground as she approached the police line. It was an incident that appears to have transformed sporadic attacks into a concerted collective confrontation, driving police back. 
  • The shared historical experiences of antagonism with police appears to have allowed the participants to understand that they shared a collective identity against the police.

Dr Drury continued: “The riots originated from a peaceful protest outside Tottenham Police Station while the family of Mark Duggan were speaking with the police. After the talks broke down some low-level violence broke out. When the police were seen to use force against a girl, the protest action escalated into disorder. 

“It became clear to the participants that the police were outnumbered and unable to enforce the law other than to protect the police station. This emboldened the crowd, and at the same time a sense of shared identity was emerging.

“That was sparked by the fact that Mark Duggan and his family were known to large numbers of the people present, and that many also shared a sense of resentment caused by police policies such as ‘stop and search’.

“The shared identity strengthened and postcode rivalries were overlooked. The violence grew. The looting appears to have emerged partly from opportunism in the face of perceived police inability to control the situation but also, and importantly, a desire to provoke the police. The looting saw former rivals collaborating.”

A rioter added: “Personally, I didn’t plan to rob anything. But we were just there and we were provoking the police, if you want to put it like that, we were provoking the police. We weren’t really stealing anything.”

Another said: “I saw the community coming together…usually it’s postcode gangs and that lot, like Hornsey, they have differences with Wood Green. But then again, when the riots came, I saw Wood Green and Hornsey people just walking past each other like it was nothing. Now, it’s like I don’t see a problem with any kind of area.”

The majority of participant testimonies came from 41 interviews collected as part of the Guardian/LSE Reading the Riots project. Other eyewitness accounts, including those of police officers, were found in official reports, newspapers and academic literature.

By: Brendan Murphy
Last updated: Thursday, 14 June 2018