Experts say 2011 London riots could be repeated: All it takes is a spark

Relaxation of Stop and Search reforms is a very bad idea, leading criminologists tell 'The National'

Fears of a societal breakdown grew daily. The police had lost control. Lawless youths held the streets. Electrical shops, clothes manufacturers and bars were being ransacked and set alight.

A trend that had begun in London quickly spread. Soon, rioters were rampaging through towns and cities across the country. Suddenly, everyone saw what things would look like when society broke down. It was a terrifying gaze into the abyss.

For four days in August 2011, this was Britain. A small protest outside a north London police station over the fatal shooting of a young black man spiralled into a nationwide moment of anarchy.

Five people died, damage worth £300 million ($419 million) was caused, 2,800 shops and homes suffered damage or arson and 1,292 people, mostly from ethnic minorities, received jail sentences totalling 1,800 years.

A commission was set up and media investigations began as the country reeled from a moment of pandemonium. On one side gangs were blamed, along with Twitter and Facebook for fanning the flames. On the other it was side heavy-handed, indiscriminate policing, lack of education, opportunity and jobs.

Today, as the 10th anniversary of the riots approach on August 6, the Metropolitan Police say they have learnt their lesson. The much-hated "stop and search" policy, which disproportionately targeted young black men, was reformed and there have been only five fatal police shootings since 2011, most of them terrorism-related. The Met has actively recruited non-white officers and sought to “professionalise” the force, educating officers in minority cultures.

Yet, there are fears that the worst riots in generation could happen again. All it takes is a spark.

Leading criminologists interviewed by The National said that the police reforms do not go far enough and societal bitterness lingers.

Every August concerns grow that the riots might return. This summer there is an additional element. The post-pandemic world will produce winners and losers, the latter possibly filled with resentment.

There is also the government’s crackdown on crime announced this week that includes the repeal of reforms to the hated police stop-and-search policy.

“It’s hard not to think what difference recruiting more minorities into the police will make, if they're still stopping young black boys at 10 times the rate as everyone else,” said Prof Ben Bradford, from University College London. “People closer to the ground than me are suggesting there might be significant problems this summer, although that is an annual concern.”

The leading academic on Global City Policing said that if there was less stop and search “it wouldn’t become a trigger point spreading these negative experiences of policing across affected communities”.

Tim Newburn, professor of criminology at the London School of Economics, suggested that nationwide riots “remain an ever-present possibility” and that “insufficient progress has been made to guard against the possibility of some repeat”.

The freeing up of Covid-19 restrictions this summer after nearly 18 months of lockdown could lead to large number of people on the streets meaning “the potential for confrontation rises”.

“There will be times in the coming months where the police will be confronted with difficult situations, then everything rides on are how well they handle those conditions,” Prof Newburn said.

In the muggy early evening of August 6, 2011 those conditions were firmly in place for serious public disorder.

Two days earlier, Mark Duggan, 29, a father, had been shot by armed police investigating gang attacks. His immediate family gathered outside Tottenham police station asking to speak to a senior officer.

Behind them lurked young men in hoodies and at about 9pm a few bottles were thrown and Duggan’s family left. Minutes later two police cars were set alight then the crowds built up. From then until dawn the Met lost control of the surrounding area as mobs went on an arson and looting spree.

The key co-ordination tool, little known to the authorities, was BlackBerry Messenger, which allowed simple, encrypted text messages with key information to rapidly pass among groups.

“Everyone in edmonton enfield wood green everywhere in north link up at enfield town station at 4 o clock sharp!!!!” read one widely circulated message. “Bring your ballys and your bags trollys, cars vans, hammers the lot!!”

By the Monday evening the messaging was in full flow, as was the rioting and, it became apparent, the police were struggling. Of London’s 32 boroughs, 22 were experiencing serious disturbances that were to become among the worst in the capital’s history.

Witnessing the scenes on television and using the simple but effective messaging service, the young and mainly impoverished took to the streets across England. From Birmingham to Liverpool, Bristol, Leeds and Medway in Kent, shops were looted and vehicles burnt.

Normal law-abiding youths found themselves drawn to the flames, unable to resist the temptations.

“It was literally a festival with no food, no dancing, no music, but a free shopping trip for everyone,” a 16-year-old London girl later recalled.

Few rioters were stopped by the police, who were struggling to cope.

That changed. By the fourth night, August 9, there were an extraordinary 16,000 police on London’s streets. Control was regained but not before the country was jolted to its senses by the murder of three Asian men in Birmingham, killed protecting their property.

Special court sittings ran through the night to process more than 3,000 people who had been arrested.

Initially the blame was put on criminal gangs, but the evidence showed that the rioters came from many groups, black and white. The biggest grievance among ethnic minorities was the alleged racial discrimination by police, especially with stop and search.

A Muslim man recalled being stopped by police in 2007 when he was 13. “One of them said: ‘Mate, why don’t you ask him where Saddam is. He might be able to help out’. They’re supposed to be law enforcement,” he told an investigation.

Politicians and police were shaken by the summer of anarchy, when they lost control of Britain’s streets. While the initial focus was on the rioters, later reporting suggested the police needed reform.

“The police is the biggest gang out there,” was a sentiment often expressed by unrepentant rioters. The Metropolitan Police says that reforms have been put in place, transforming the force.

“The Met has undergone enormous change and learning, implementing improvements,” the force told The National. “This is not the same Met as it was 20 years ago. We have made huge improvements in becoming a more representative workforce.”

Every officer received diversity training, “which promotes respect and understanding towards all communities”.

“Where we get it wrong we welcome scrutiny and expect to be held to account for our actions,” the statement said. “Racism isn’t tolerated and we champion equality and inclusion.”

However, a Parliamentary report released on Friday was highly critical of the Met for failing to tackle institutional racism in the force. The home affairs committee condemned “deep-rooted and persistent racial disparities”, and said that guidelines and recommendations had been largely ignored over the past two decades.

The report was also highly critical of the use of stop and search, staying it was used disproportionately on black people.

To the expert eye not enough police or societal reform has occurred to rule out a repetition of 2011. There have not been substantial changes “to the nature of police”, Prof Newburn said. “In the last few years we have seen very significant increases in stop and search and, indeed, the government announced this week its desire to loosen the shackles on police use of that power. That is a very bad idea.”

He also said that the “dreadful ratcheting up of divisive exclusionary language” over immigration and Brexit has led to an increase in hate-related crime.

“Riots are not a chemical combustion, they are far more complicated, the underlying conditions are always there,” he said. “It takes a lot of different factors to bring about a riot.”

If major disturbances did reoccur, Prof Bradford predicted a much more assertive police response.

“They will be much more prepared to be more proactive and to flood areas with officers,” he said. “You'd also like to hope they wouldn't get the stuff wrong in the beginning as well.”

Worryingly for the authorities, there are people who do not think they did any wrong in 2011 and for whom perceived injustices endure.

“I still to this day don’t class it as a riot,” said a man who was present during the Tottenham disturbances. “I think it was a protest.”

Updated: August 1st 2021, 7:45 AM