Originally published in October 2011
Following the police shooting of unarmed man, Mark Duggan, on August 4th 2011 demonstrations began in Tottenham and unrest spread as riots broke out on the streets of several UK cities – with causation being at the forefront of debate. The narrative created by the British government to try to explain the violence has been typical of previous riots. It is one of a ‘broken Britain’ where ‘mindless violence’ is being driven by individual inadequacy, and a culture of violence which requires increasingly authoritarian measures to deal with. How accurate is this narrative, and are there any other dimensions worth noting?
The seemingly random nature of much of the rioting is hard to talk about in concrete terms. However, it has been noted that no violence takes place outside of a ‘social context’ and may be meaningful to the person carrying it out, but perhaps not those looking on.  Moreover, what may appear as random or even self-destructive violence (rioters, after all, damaged their own communities) could be seen as an extreme form of alienation; emotions such as anger, disappointment and disillusionment which cannot be articulated, found another outlet in the riots. On another level, the rioting could be the attempt of these invisible communities to be recognised by “civilised society”. In one NBC report, a young rioter was asked if rioting really achieved anything, ‘Yes’, he replied, ‘You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?’
The tacit racial dimension of the condemnation of violence was exposed by the attacks on the ‘culture of violence’ that supposedly exists in some inner-city communities. This attitude was exemplified by the scandalous performance of historian David Starkey on BBC 2’s Newsnight programme on August 12th. He claimed that, ’The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion,’  making the explicit link between black people and violence. It should be noted that the use of the word ‘culture’ as a euphemism for ethnic difference is common in far right discourse.
The riots occurred in the continuing wake of the Arab Spring, and although comparisons between the revolutionaries and rioters seem overwrought, the similarities in the responses of decision-makers are not. The Arab dictators called those rising up against them ‘traitors’, ‘thugs’ and ‘dogs’ who were ‘destroying the country’. Prime Minister Cameron and others called the rioters ‘thugs’ and ‘criminals’ out to ‘destroy their communities’. Elsewhere, in their policy response, Mubarak took Egypt offline and blocked popular social networking sites while maintaining a strict curfew. Cameron, on the other hand, considered banning suspected rioters from social networking sites or even shutting them down at times of social unrest;  while ministers have been looking into wider powers of curfew.  The similarities are there.
Finally and probably most importantly, is the issue of what role deprivation, low living standards and lack of opportunity played in the riots. Some have noted anecdotally that the rioters are ‘not starving’ and have ‘little to complain about’ in regards to their living standards. After all, there were the common accusations that ‘they planned the riots on their Blackberry mobile phones’.
However, James Gilligan M.D., former director for the Study of Violence at Harvard Medical School has a strong response. He notes that it is not poverty in ‘an absolute sense’ or the ’lack of material things as such’ that causes violence, but relative poverty. The awareness of unfairness, inequality and subordination (to “the rich”, or the police, or the abundance of consumer goods without the ability to pay for them) can provoke the feelings of inferiority and shame that are some of the primary drivers of violence,  instead of some kind of standard or universal definition of ‘poorness’. After all, London, where much of the rioting occurred, has both the highest poverty and inequality of any region in the UK. 
Overall, any image of the riots will be incomplete, and this is no exception. However, we should challenge the hypocrisy of some narratives, the misnomer of ‘meaningless’ violence, their drive to score political points, their explicit racial dimensions and their inability to see the riots in a social context. Finally, and most importantly, we shouldn’t discount poverty, even if only in relative terms, from the discourse on the riots. Hopefully, this will add to the debate.
 Understanding the UK Riots, Al Jazeera, You Tube
 Quoted in Panic on the streets of London, Laurie Penny, Al Jazeera, 9 Aug 2011
 David Starkey claims ‘the whites have become black’, Ben Quinn, The Guardian, 13 August 2011
 Rioting leads to Cameron call for social media clampdown, Josh Halliday and Juliette Garside, The Guardian, 11 August 2011
David Cameron considers banning suspected rioters from social media, Josh Halliday, The Guardian, 11 August 2011
 England riots: Police could get wider curfew powers, BBC, 18 August 2011
 Gilligan, J., (1997) ‘Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic’, p.201
 London has highest rates of poverty and inequality in UK, Helene Mullholland, The Guardian, 19 May 2009
Originally published on 10 November 2011
In reader feedback to ‘UK Riots 2011′, we received comments that Alex’s argument was supported by the government report on the causes of the violence, which may be viewed here. Further, it was noted that the opposition were also to blame for espousing the same narrative as the government at the time of the riots, a no less important influence on public opinion.