Vivid images of London and other regions of the the United Kingdom filled with looters and rioters following the implementation of austerity programs recently dominated the international media. Shocking scenes were aired of buildings on fire, cars flipped over, windows smashed with broken glass littering the ground as young people ran off with televisions, computers and other stolen goods. These riots in the UK were more violent and aggressive than similar riots shown from Greece, France and the United States. A new report, backed by the UK government and released on 28 November, sheds some light into the motivations and aftermath of the UK riots.
What Makes People Join A Riot?
According to William G., a psychologist in Miami, FL, the same principles are at play in rioters that are present in “group think”.
“We see in our studies, looking at the groups involved, the backgrounds and family histories, the criminal records and the behavior before and after the event, these kids causing all the destruction are not prone to this behavior. Yes, there were nearly 53 percent of people in the U.K. that had criminal histories. Following the Stanley Cup Finals, the riots on Vancouver saw a similar 49 percent of rioters had criminal records. The remaining percentage had no behavioral or social indicators of being criminal elements.
We looked at the people and arrived at “de-individualism” as the culprit. What this means is that once a person joins a group, the give up their individualism and become a collective unit. This differs slightly from “group think” in that the people joining the riot are not trying to fit in. These people are caught up in a moment, in a movement, and stop thinking about their actions. The focus is on the actions of the group as a whole with which they associate. This is different from “group think” because in” group think”, the people make conscious decisions, where “de-individualism” they give up their decision making subconsciously.”
Behavior Following A Riot
Once the riot is over, the hysteria begins to fade, and reactions set in. In the words of Williams,
“For the individuals lacking criminal records, we see that they begin to feel regret and shame for what they have done. People will cry because of what they’ve done. They understand that what they did was wrong, many times calling for a parent or loved one to help them deal with the grief. With “group think”, we don’t see this pattern of regret. We see people returning to their lives, as if what happened in the group did not affect their lives.”
The reporting from London regarding the rioters appears to support William’s assessment. Reports of statements from people who couldn’t believe what they had done, of people calling for their mothers, of people crying at the harm and damage they caused, made their way into the media. These responses were deemed to be normal reactions on the part of those who were caught in criminal activities, such as violence and looting as shown in the below video, by the local police officers on the scene.
Is There Another Cause For Rioters?
When the Riots Communities and Victims Panel, or RCVP, released their report on the U.K. riots, 5 Days In August: An interim report on the 2011 English riots, the writers found a common connection between the rioters which had little to do with their individual personalities or tendencies.
Let’s take a look at some sections of the RCVP report. Page 70 states:
“The fact that many people abused society’s moral and legal codes when the opportunity arose paints a disturbing picture. This suggests that we consider the underlying reasons for some people’s actions. Most disturbing to us was a widespread feeling that some rioters had no hope and nothing to lose.”
The study suggests that people were motivated in different ways to partake in the riots. The connection of hopelessness allowed the group to coalesce into a common cause, with different motivations. Page 100 of the report then states:
“Many people who spoke to us were concerned that the riots were indicative of a wider collapse in morals and value
“On our visits, we asked what people needed to succeed in life. We were struck by a common theme, best described in one young man’s words: ‘people need hopes and dreams’. This sense of injustice, powerlessness and lack of opportunity weighed heavily in their minds. They did not feel they had a stake in society.”
The study takes the position that the rioters would not have joined the criminal behavior if they had believed that their actions would negatively impact their stake in society. The RCVP continues on page 105 by saying:
“People also talked about persistent low level crime and anti-social behavior that was not being dealt with – shopkeepers told us that they face constant theft which they no longer report. We were told that support for people to turn their lives around, especially for those who had committed serial low level offenses, was either non-existent or inadequate, especially for some young adults moving from the youth to the adult justice system.”
The conclusion reached is that if the state had maintained social support systems for young adults, these community outreach programs could have caught cases where low level offenders could receive reform education before committing more serious crimes.
Understanding the UK Riots
The escalation of the UK discontent to riots in August of 2011 had several causes, each of which played into the other, building into a complex web of motivation, de-individualization, missing social programs, and a lack of individual stakes to the larger society. The answer to the riots is far more complicated than the media suggests.
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