On 6 August 2011 a spate of rioting broke out, first in London and then in other towns and cities across England. To mark the tenth anniversary, this is an extract from Alwyn Turner’s book All in It Together: England in the Early 21st Century.
On Thursday 4 August 2011 an unarmed 29-year-old man named Mark Duggan was shot dead by police in Tottenham, north London. Such fatalities were becoming rare, for the number of deaths in police custody or following contact with the police was in sharp decline. But still there were controversial cases, and a shockingly low level of prosecutions for unlawful killing. In this instance there was a great deal of local anger, a belief that Duggan’s killing was unjustified and that the police response was woefully inadequate.
The following Saturday evening, fights between youths and police in the streets of Tottenham turned into a riot, accompanied by outbreaks of arson and looting. The next day there were further, worse disturbances elsewhere in London, and the disorder then spread to much of the rest of England, not just to the obvious big cities – Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester – but also to Basildon, Birkenhead, Cambridge, Chatham, Croydon, Derby, Gillingham, Guildford, Gloucester, Luton, Northampton, Nottingham, Oxford, St Albans, Salford, Slough, West Bromwich and Worcester, with minor incidents elsewhere.
There had been other street riots in recent months, but August 2011 was a different order of magnitude altogether. For five nights, it seemed as though social order had simply broken down in large areas of England. London saw the worst of it, with disorder right across the city. The prevalence of mobile phones – these were the first major riots of the social media age – meant that the disturbances were swift-moving, short-lived, seemingly random, with the police desperately trying to keep up with developments, as though playing whack-a-mole across the capital. By the third night, an extra 10,000 officers had been deployed in London (leaving some other forces short), and there was talk of using plastic bullets and water cannon, of calling in the army.
There were battles with the police, but there was also a level of criminality that went beyond anything seen in recent memory. Cars, lorries, buses and ambulances were burned out. Houses were robbed, passers-by mugged, people driven from their homes by fire. And there was looting on an industrial scale. Virtually every big-brand store had one or more branches ransacked, from Bang & Olufsen to JD Sports and Primark. Local independent shops were also targeted, some because there were electrical goods, jewellery or alcohol to be stolen, others just for the fun of it: there was no logic to arson attacks on a bakery, a restaurant, a newsagent, even a Greggs.
The incident that received the most coverage was the torching of the House of Reeves, a family-run furniture store in Croydon founded in 1867, where firefighters couldn’t reach the blazing building because of the mobs on the streets. ‘I have never seen such a disregard for human life,’ said a local man. ‘I hope they rot in hell.’ This had become destruction for its own sake. Internet retailer Amazon reported that sales of baseball bats rose by 5,000 per cent.
Five people were killed in the riots, hundreds were injured, thousands arrested. Magistrates’ courts sat through the night to deal with the surge of cases, and when that proved insufficient, video links were set up with police stations to run virtual courts. The headlines tried to catch the wanton violence: ‘Yob rule’, ‘Carry on looting’, ‘National Lootery’, ‘Anarchy in the UK’, ‘Rabble without a cause’.
There was, as ever, much earnest analysis of why this had happened, since it all seemed a little removed from the death of Mark Duggan. The truth was probably that, seen from inside a mob, a temporary breakdown of social order can be exciting, thrilling. Having the police on the defensive was simply fun, though lip service had to paid to loftier causes.
‘Everyone was on a riot, just chucking things, chucking bottles, breaking into stuff,’ enthused a girl in Croydon, although her friend hastily added, ‘It’s the government’s fault.’ It was an explanation that fell some way short of satisfactory. The austerity programme of the Coalition might have affected the response to the riots (‘The scale of government cuts is making it harder for the police to do their jobs,’ said shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper), but surely was not the cause. It did not explain, for example, the mob that gathered outside Birmingham Children’s Hospital, intent, it appeared, on arson, until seen off by staff.
And anyone inclined to see this as a rebellion of the dispossessed might pause at the reports that on Marchmont Street in central London, the only shop to have its windows smashed was Gay’s the Word, the country’s leading lesbian and gay bookshop; there was no looting there, just criminal damage. Nor was there to be a repeat of the rioting, even though government cuts bit harder in later years.
Inevitably, thoughts turned to the riots of the 1980s. The most serious of those had also been in Tottenham, where PC Keith Blakelock was murdered on the Broadwater Farm estate in 1985, but a local shopkeeper insisted there was no comparison: ‘That was contained on a housing estate, this is a hundred times worse.’ More apposite, perhaps was the spate of unrest in 1981, starting in Brixton, south London, and spreading across the country. That too had been at a time of economic difficulty, in the early days of a cuts-driven government (and in the year of a royal wedding), yet this felt different, and not just in scale.
‘Then, a sense of social injustice burned as fiercely as the buildings and the cars,’ wrote the Liverpool Echo in an angry leader column. ‘This time there is no oppressed, indignant and voiceless population. Social campaigners have been replaced with hooded thugs united not by injustice but by malicious intent, by boredom and by communication networks that are named “social” but sometimes can be anything but.’ The editorial was headlined: ‘Morons, criminals and feral copycats’.
Perhaps that slid too easily over the fact that the initial spark was the killing of an unarmed black man by the police. Yet there were many who agreed with a Brixton café owner: ‘It’s just an excuse to go shopping.’
The 1981 riots had famously coincided with the Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’, a bleakly beautiful protest song, reaching number one in the charts. This time, the top single was Cher Lloyd’s ‘Jagger Swagger’, a song of celebrity, status and success. ‘You should get some of your own,’ advised the lyrics. ‘Count that money, get your game on…’