Riots and randomness: the search for an explanation

There is no consensus about how to classify what went on, but "randomness" is unlikely to be the ans

Although Tower Hamlets got off relatively lightly compared to other parts of the capital like Croydon, Hackney and Haringey, it was not spared from last week's disorders. A few days ago, I paid a visit to Roman Road in Tower Hamlets to see for myself where looting had taken place. One shop, Zee & Co, part of a small South Asian-owned retail chain which stocks designer clothing, had around £600,000 worth of stock removed by around 100 young people, mainly male but some female. So far, one 15-year-old caught on CCTV has been arrested and can expect a custodial sentence when he attends the youth court next month.

Why did this event and others like it happen elsewhere in London and other towns and cities in England? This is the $64,000 question that everyone from politicians and social commentators want the answer to. I think part of the puzzlement is that so far there has been no consensus about how to classify what went on. For example, it obviously wasn't a race riot in the conventional sense of either people from different ethnic groups battling it out on the streets, or a specific ethnic group fighting with the police.

Nevertheless, there was a racial component -- the death of a 29-year-old black man, Mark Duggan, who was shot by police marksmen in Tottenham -- which set off the disorders. That said, it is extremely doubtful whether all of those young people -- white, black and Asian -- caught up in the looting in Roman Road or many other parts of the UK would have known much or indeed anything at all about this incident.

But the riots certainly had something to do with the acquisition of high and low value goods -- the Guardian's veteran political commentator Michael White dubbed them "retail riots". Whatever else this and similar incidents replicated in the capital and elsewhere in England (but not, interestingly, in Scotland or Wales) mean it certainly demonstrates the centrality of consumption in people's lives in an advanced economy like the UK.

Taking a slightly different line, two academic commentators, Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth, writing in the Guardian, very sensibly suggested that it is important to distinguish between incidents that spark unrest, and underlying causes which make it likely. Analysing data on unrest from 28 European countries between 1919 and 2009, and in 11 Latin American countries since 1937 they conclude that there is a strong statistical correlation "between expenditure cuts and the level of unrest". They end the piece with a warning that although social unrest is very hard to predict in terms of timing, things can go dramatically wrong, and the Weimar Republic, Germany's first experiment with democracy, is cited as an example.

On the other hand, historian Leif Jerram, writing on Oxford University Press's blog, argues that disorder in urban areas has been a semi-regular occurrence. He cites gang violence in Glasgow and Manchester between the wars, the anti-Semitic riots in Liverpool in the post-Second World War period, the moral panic about violence between Mods and Rockers in British seaside towns in the 1960s, and so on. Jerram then goes a step further and suggests that terrible as the recent disorders have been, "maybe they're just one of those random things that happen in all sorts of societies from time to time". He adds:

Because by crisis-ifying this, we may in fact be playing right into the hands of those who seek to dismiss whole chunks of our society as being sick or evil or criminal, and thereby avoid having to include them in our vision of the future. Equally, by crisis-ifying it, we might be playing into the hands of those who advocate huge government programmes of interference and intervention where it is unwarranted, ineffective or unwelcome.

I quite like the idea of "randomness" as an explanation of some things that happen in the city. However, in the case of recent rioting and looting in some parts of the UK, I don't think this is the place to start. Far better to assume, as Ponticelli and Voth argue, that there are causes and then try and find out what they are.

For example, we know that most looters were young people -- although the behaviour of older people caught up in the disorders also requires explanation -- so therefore it seems sensible to look at the behaviour of those involved in terms of age, ethnicity, gender and social class. My guess also is that explanations will vary to a greater or lesser extent even within different parts of London -- that is, there will be interesting differences between what happened in Hackney, Haringey, Islington and Tower Hamlets. But I would be very surprised if there were no explanation, and that randomness had to be invoked as the major explanatory variable.

Dr Sean Carey is research fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (Cronem), Roehampton University.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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