Who are the rioters?

by Aug 11, 2011All Articles

Who are the rioters? Young men from poor areas … but that’s not the full story. The crowds involved in violence and looting are drawn from a complex mix of social and racial backgrounds

Those involved in the riots and looting are from a diverse range of backgrounds and age groups. Photograph: Simon Dawson/AP
The crowd gathered outside Chalk Farm tube station at 1am on Tuesday morning was representative of those who had been at the frontline of other riots over the previous 72 hours.
Anyone who has witnessed the disturbances up close will know there is no simple answer to the question: who are the rioters? Attempts to use simple categorisations to describe the looters belies the complex make-up of those who have been participating.

Some who have been victims of the looting resent attempts to rationalise or give meaning to what they perceive as the mindless thuggery of an “underclass”. Others want an explanation of who has been taking part ñ and why.

In the broadest sense, most of those involved have been young men from poor areas. But the generalisation cannot go much further than that. It can’t be said that they are largely from one racial group. Both young men and women have joined in.

Take events in Chalk Farm, north London. First the streets contained people of all backgrounds sprinting off with bicycles looted from Evans Cycles. Three Asian men in their 40s, guarding a newsagent, discussed whether they should also take advantage of the apparent suspension of law. “If we go for it now, we can get a bike,” said one. “Don’t do it,” said another. Others were not so reticent; a white woman and a man emerged carrying a bike each. A young black teenager, aged about 14, came out smiling, carrying another bike, only for it be snatched from him by an older man.

They were just some of the crowd of about 100 who had gathered on the corner; a mix of the curious and angry, young and old. It was impossible to distinguish between thieves, bystanders and those who simply wanted to cause damage. A group of about 20 youths were wielding scaffolding poles taken from a nearby building site. They used their makeshift weapons, along with bricks and stolen bottles of wine, to intermittently attack passing motorists or smash bus shelters. A man in a slim suit stood on the corner recording the violence on his mobile phone.

Most of those he was filming had covered their faces. One had a full balaclava with holes cut out only for the eyes and mouth. “Is that you, bruv?” an older man, aged about 30, hands in pockets, asked the man in the balaclava. Recognising his friend, he laughed and added: “Fuck. Don’t stand near me ñ you’re going to get me arrested.” Seconds later there was a smash as the minicab office around the corner was broken into. Teenagers swarmed in, shouting: “Bwap, bwap, bwap.”

The arrival of a line of riot police from Camden, where a branch of Sainsbury’s and clothing stores had been looted an hour earlier, signalled it was time for everyone to move on. But there was no rush; the group knew from experience that police would hold back for the time being. “Keep an eye on the Feds, man,” said one youth.

Overheard snippets of conversation gave an insight into how the disparate groups were deciding where to go. One man said: “Hampstead, bruv. Let’s go rob Hampstead.” Another, looking at his BlackBerry, said: “Kilburn, it’s happening in Kilburn and Holloway.” A third added: “The whole country is burning, man.”
And as multi-ethnic areas from London to Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol burned, a myth was being dispelled: that so-called “black youths” are largely behind such violence.

In Tottenham on Saturday many of those who gathered at the police station to protest against the shooting of Mark Duggan were, like him, black. But others were Asian and white. By the following day, as the looting spread to other north London suburbs, there appeared to have been a slight shift in the demographic, which started to look younger. In Enfield most of those who gathered in the town centre were white. The youngest looked about 10-years-old.
Those taking part in the battles in Hackney’s Pembury estate on Monday included many women. Teenage girls helped carry debris to form the burning barricades or made piles of rocks.

One, with a yellow scarf across her face, was seemingly at the forefront. She helped set a motorbike alight, walking away with her hands aloft. Other women shouted instructions from the windows of nearby flats and houses. “Croydon is burning down,” shouted one woman who looked about 40, from her flat above a shop. Another warned the crowd when police were spotted nearby.

The mix was visible around the same time several miles south, near Peckham High Street. The fact that many youths covered their faces with masks made identifying them almost impossible. A few young men sculpted impromptu masks out of stolen pharmacy bags, making them resemble members of the youth wing of the Ku Klux Klan. An older girl with them reached into a bag and pulled out a giant bag of Haribo sweets. The atmosphere was akin to a school sports day or a visit to a rowdy open-air cinema. A few of them tried in vain to start a fire. The girl handing out sweets said: “Why don’t they do the hair shop, have you seen the products they keep in the back?”

When another group finished ransacking a pawnbroker’s and started cleaning out a local fashion boutique, an angry young black woman berated one of them. “You’re taking the piss, man. That woman hand-stitches everything, she’s built that shop up from nothing. It’s like stealing from your mum.” A girl holding a looted wedding dress smiled sheepishly, stuck for anything to say. Jay Kast, 24, a youth worker from East Ham who has witnessed rioting across London over the last three nights, said he was concerned that black community leaders were wrongly identifying a problem “within”.

“I’ve seen Turkish boys, I’ve seen Asian boys, I’ve seen grown white men,” he said. “They’re all out there taking part.” He recognised an element of opportunism in the mass looting but said an underlying cause was that many young people felt “trapped in the system”. “They’re disconnected from the community and they just don’t care,” he said. In some senses the rioting has been unifying a cross-section of deprived young men who identify with each other, he added.

Kast gave the example of how territorial markers which would usually delineate young people’s residential areas ñ known as ‘endz’, ‘bits’ and ‘gates’ ñ appear to have melted away. “On a normal day it wouldn’t be allowed ñ going in to someone else’s area. A lot of them, on a normal day, wouldn’t know each other and they might be fighting,” Kast said.

“Now they can go wherever they want. They’re recognising themselves from the people they see on the TV [rioting]. This is bringing them together.”
A late evening walk down the Walworth Road revealed that the Argos and various electrical stores had been smashed up. Police were sealing off banks and retail outlets with tape. A platoon of youths came in from Peckham in the early evening, a man still sweeping up the remains of his shop window said. They cordoned off the road before they began looting, which suggests some level of criminal organisation. A middle-aged Afro-Caribbean man explained that some young people were targeting Asian and Afghani shops, the result of petty local disagreements. And there’s no denying that a small minority are simply out to hurt people. A Chinese student, the same man said, had been set upon by a gang and beaten quite badly, simply for taking a picture.

All the same, there’s more than brute criminality here. When incidents like this happen the authorities are fond of saying that troublemakers have been bussed in from outside.

But there’s none of that here. Neither is there any sign of the anti-globalisation or anarchist crowds.This is unadulterated, indigenous anger and ennui. It’s a provocation, a test of will and a hamfisted two-finger salute to the authorities.

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