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London Riots 2011: A Greed vs. Grievances Debate?

There is no single explanation for such a complex event as social unrest.  

Arguments circling around what lies beneath the London riots of 2011 can be categorised into socio-economic analyses on the one hand, and social psychologists’ explanations on the other.    

Socio-economic explanations argue that the London riots express and highlight long-standing social tensions between the haves and have-nots.   

Hackney, where the unrest started, is undeniably an area where unemployment rate is high and where communities are ripped apart between, no offence, the black and the white.  

No wonder, as the arguments go, the black are the socially repressed and economically deprived.   

The stop and search conducted by the Metropolitan Police who are, no wonder again, largely white has infuriated the local black youth.  

In BBC reports, locals say the treatment of police officers towards the black is unacceptable because the police treat these people as if every one of them were a criminal, a drug dealer or a member of a gang.  

The violence and pillage committed by rioters therefore carry socio-economic messages as well as political implications.  

What lies behind the scenes are social and economic grievances endured by these people.   

The riots are an expression of the have-nots demanding economic opportunity and social mobility from government policies and authorities, and also social discontent characterised by alienation and blunt hatred.  

Rioters want to draw attention to and raise awareness about the disparity between the rich and the poor, defined along ethno-racial lines.  

Political ramifications of the current situation point towards Conservative government’s massive cuts on government deficit and hence budgets for social welfare and education.  

This socio-economic account cannot be dismissed, particularly if we take a look at the triggering event.  

Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black Londoner was shot dead by a policeman, and it remains unclear whether Duggan and police officers exchanged fires.  

It is reminiscent of the Broadwater Farm riot of 1985. Cynthia Jarrett’s death, an African-Caribbean woman, from heart failure in 1985 when the police raided her home sparked the 6 October riot which resulted in a policeman being stabbed to death.  

A march began from that area on Saturday to commemorate her death.  

Another explanation of the current rioting has more to do with greed.  

It is hard to say Duggan’s death provided an opportunity to loot shops and department stores, but it is easier to see the contagion as a ‘copycat criminal act‘ where greed is certainly a motive.  

The scale and scope of violence, hence, are perhaps better explained by a social psychological analysis.  

The BBC reports that Professor John Pitts, a criminologist who advises several London local authorities on young people and gangs, says looting makes ‘powerless people suddenly feel powerful’ and ‘the bigger crowds confronting the police realise that they are in control’.

At some point, this goes back to the previous arguments on socio-economic factors.  

Some rioters are reported gloating about stolen items. Showing off to the rich what we can do, they say.  

And yet it is difficult to separate grievances-driven motives from sheer opportunistic theft.  

Psychologists argue that the process called ‘deindividuation’ emanates from a large crowd where each individual is unlikely to be identified and arrested.  

‘Morality is inversely proportional to the number of observers. When you have a large group that's relatively anonymous, you can essentially do anything you like,’ according to Dr James Thompson, honorary senior lecturer in psychology at University College London.(BBC)  

The whole grievances account crumbles if one can proof that rioters comprise both the deprived and the middle class who simply want to have more valuable goods in their lives or, worse, fun and excitement.  

This does not necessarily mean the aforementioned accounts together offer sufficient explanations for what has rocked Britain.  

Questions remain.  

If the riots are truly about greed ‘and’ grievances, why did they spare Harrods, New and Old Bond Street and Regent Street, to name a few?

Why did they indiscriminately burn down some people’s shops and houses who are highly unlikely to have connections with authorities?

Is the mob mentality simply some kind of hooliganism aimed to simply disturb government authorities?  

One thing to be certain however is that each rioter may and does have different motives from one another.  

For now, it is safe to draw a conclusion.  

Social discontent is not to be discounted and a grievances argument can help us understand the event. Social tensions at least constitute an excuse for the demand from initial protesters in front of Tottenham High Road police station.  

The violence which has escalated from that, however, requires psychological analyses into rioters’ mentality of which greed might be just one component.

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