Beginning this past weekend, parts of Britain have been engulfed in unrest. Although this story was initially overshadowed by other news stories, including the debt crisis and the credit rating downgrade, it's started to get more attention by the American press in the last day or two. In case our readers haven't closely followed the situation in England, I'll start this post with a quick overview of events.
Last Thursday, Mark Duggan, a suspected gang member, was stopped in a pre-planned operation and then shot and killed by London police in a low-income and multi-ethnic neighborhood. This was exactly the type of neighborhood in which ordinary citizens already distrust elites, politicians, and the police. The killing exacerbated these fissures. And when the police presented its account of events surrounding Duggan's death, which suggested that he fired the first shots, the locals contested it, arguing that Duggan posed little threat to the police. To them, Duggan was unjustifiably murdered by the police.
The killing sparked demonstrations on Saturday, which then mushroomed into mob action in London and several other British cities, where there has been a wave of violence and destruction committed by what's thought to be young (often masked) rioters. Burned buildings and cars and police stations, smashed windows, looted stores and homes, injured people (even one death), these are some of the images that have surfaced from Britain in recent days. To this point, almost nine hundred have been arrested and about 370 have been charged with various crimes.
As expected, British politicians are concerned by these events. Prime Minister David Cameron cut short his vacation, recalled parliament from its summer break, and tripled the number of police (up to 16,000) on the streets to help restore order. Almost certainly, Cameron knows his government will feel the heat. British citizens wonder why it's taken so long for the authorities to quell the rioters and reestablish security on the streets. Some have called for stronger, more effective police tools to be deployed; others have even requested military support. Meantime, it's likely that Cameron's political foes will use the riots as evidence that harsh cuts in the welfare state provoke societal instability.
Cameron has stated that the riots and violence are "criminality, pure simple." And this is true, of course: The rioters have committed criminal acts. But this begs a larger question. Why have these people caused such violence and destruction? Cameron believes the answer is a simple one. The rioters are thugs and hooligans, and that's what societal miscreants do. Yohanes, in his post, makes a similar argument. I take a different position. Instead of assuming that all of the criminal acts have been committed by thuggish opportunism, let's relax that assumption and see this matter as an empirical question in need of an answer. Let me explain.
Sure, there are some common features among the rioters, the criminals. Most seem to be under the age of 20, are from poor areas, and have little formal education and few job prospects. But what we know about violent and destructive mob action, and the events in Britain most certainly qualify, is that not everyone is similarly motivated. People in mobs participate in crime for different reasons. Some are aimless, lifelong criminals, but others often aren't. And I think it's a mistake to confuse these two groups.
In the specific case of Britain, I don't doubt that many of the rioters are thugs, a bunch of troublemakers who took advantage of the atmosphere of protest and the apparent lack of policing. But based on the description of events and the testimony of British locals, it's likely that there are a host of other factors that have contributed to the riots. Here's a non-exhaustive list of possible additional motives: revenge (against police, police stations for Duggan's killing), thrill seeking (a way to obtain some personal gratification, pleasure for doing something illegal), material gain (looting), and political/economic grievances (a means to signal dissatisfaction against austerity measures).
The last set of motives, political/economic grievances, have been summarily dismissed by talking heads. However, a very recent and remarkably timely discussion paper reveals significant findings that shed light on this topic. Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans Joachim Voth explore the connection between austerity measures and social unrest in Europe during 1919-2009. An extended discussion of the paper is beyond the scope of this blog post. (I encourage you to read it). But here's a money quote from the paper's conclusion: "Expenditure cuts carry a significant risk of increasing the frequency of riots, anti-government demonstrations, general strikes, political assassinations, and attempts at revolutionary overthrow of the established order. While these are low probability events in normal years, they become much more common as austerity measures are implemented." To be sure, more research on this subject needs to be completed. But the fact there's already some compelling empirical evidence on the record should make us hesitant to dismiss these variables as unimportant to the current riots in Britain.
Take one example. If some of the rioters really have been lashing out with revenge in mind, and we do know that police and police stations have been targeted, then imprisoning them might not solve all the problems. After all, the revenge seekers are only those people who were audacious enough to act on their feelings of disgust and hatred. It's very possible that they travel in circles of people (friends, family, neighbors) who harbor similar sentiments about British policing. And those people, in turn, likely voice their angry views about the police to others, further widening and entrenching the seed of antagonistic relations between citizens and the police.
In this hypothetical, the Cameron government ought respond by working with local governments and police forces to find ways to stabilize and improve citizen-police trust and confidence. Indeed, a cursory read of British newspapers in recent days shows that citizens from ethnically heterogeneous and low-income areas believe they're victims of widespread discrimination and harsh treatment by racist and xenophobic police. Obviously, these issues should be and already are being addressed to a degree. But maybe they are much more consequential to the stability of British society than was previously thought. It's something to think about.