Getting to the root of the U.K. riots

A number of cities in the U.K. have been wracked by violent demonstrations by groups of youth. CBC News answers questions about the riots and what's fuelling them.
Police officers in riot gear block a street near the Hackney neighbourhood of London. More than 500 people have been arrested since violence flared on Aug. 6. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

As of Friday, more than 1,700 people had been arrested across Britain in response to the deadly riots that broke out last weekend and continued throughout the first half of this week.

Police in London have charged almost 600 people with violence, disorder and looting over the riots in Britain's capital. Courts in London, Birmingham and Manchester stayed open through a second night Thursday to deal with alleged offenders.

Due to an increased police presence and inclement weather, the country experienced relative calm Wednesday and Thursday.

For several nights, protesters torched vehicles and buildings while looting businesses and shops in various U.K. cities, including London, Liverpool, Nottingham, Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol.

Victims of the riots include three men in Birmingham run down by a car as they defended their neighbourhood. Detectives also opened a murder inquiry after a 68-year-old a man found in a London street after confronting rioters died of his injuries late Thursday. A 22-year-old man was arrested Friday on suspicion of murder.

Here is a look at some of the worst civil unrest to hit the U.K. in years.

When did the riots start start?

The riots first started on Aug. 6 in Tottenham, a low-income, multicultural neighbourhood in north London where 300 people had gathered to protest the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan. The 29-year-old man was gunned down in disputed circumstances on Aug. 4.

Duggan, who has been described as both a caring father and a criminal by the Guardian, was killed in an apparent exchange of gunfire with police when officers from Operation Trident, the unit that investigates gun crime in the black community, stopped a cab he was riding in. The Independent Police Complaints Commission, which is investigating the shooting, said a "non-police firearm" was recovered at the scene, but that there was no evidence it had been fired or that Duggan had fired a weapon at police.

An inquest into Duggan's death opened Aug. 9, but a full hearing will likely take several months.

The numbers

Notable figures connected to the riots:

  • 6 — U.K. cities where rioting broke out
  • 1,051 — Arrests in London alone as of Aug. 12
  • 591— Number of people charged in London
  • 11 — Age of the youngest person arrested
  • 5  — Number of fatalities
  • 16 — Civilians officially reported as injured in the riots
  • 186— Police officers injured in the riots
  • 6,000 — Number of police on duty in the areas affected by the riots on Aug. 8
  • 16,000  — Police on duty in those areas on Aug. 9
  • 1,000 — Citizens belonging to the English Defence League who are taking to the streets to deter rioters
  • 2,169 — Calls received by the London Fire Brigade on Aug. 8
  • 20,800 — Emergency calls received by the London Metropolitan Police Service on Aug. 8 (a 400 per cent increase over the average volume)

Where are they taking place?

After the initial flare-up in Tottenham, violence spread to several other areas of London, including the Croydon, Brixton and Enfield neighbourhoods, as well as a number of other U.K. cities including Nottingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Bristol.

What are the causes of the violence?

Although the initial outbreak of violence was linked to racial tensions and the shooting death of Duggan, it appears there is no single cause.

Some have pointed to unemployment, insensitive policing and widespread anger over the government's austerity budget, which will cut £80 billion ($129 billion) in public spending by 2015.

Others appeared to simply revel in the violence. "Come join the fun," one youth was quoted as shouting in the east London suburb of Hackney. Others have reportedly used BlackBerry Messenger service to encourage people to join the unrest.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said the riots were "criminality, pure and simple" and Nick Clegg, the country's deputy prime minister, said the violence was "opportunistic theft."

In an interview with the BBC, criminology professor John Pitts said riots are complex events and cannot be explained away as "just thuggery."

Most of the protesters reportedly come from poorer communities, and poor socio-economic conditions have been fingered as a factor in the riots.

"They have no career to think about. They are not 'us'," Pitts said. "They live out there on the margins, enraged, disappointed, capable of doing some awful things."

'The truth is that very few people know why this is happening.'—London journalist Laurie Penny

London-based journalist Laurie Penny said in a  blog post that "violence is rarely mindless," but is found in long-term resentment and disenfranchisement. Penny said it is easy to rush to quick, but incorrect, explanations for the looting.

"The truth is that very few people know why this is happening," she wrote. 

"They don’t know, because they were not watching these communities. Nobody has been watching Tottenham since the television cameras drifted away after the Broadwater Farm riots," she wrote, referring to similar violence that erupted in Tottenham 26 years ago.

Who is taking part?

Most commentators have said those who are rioting are primarily young people, a group faced with particularly dire economic prospects. More than one in five 16- to 24-years-olds in the area are out of work, compared to a nation-wide unemployment rate of 7.9 per cent, the highest level recorded since 1992.

Another 793,000 youths, moreover, are exempt from the official unemployment figures because they are economically inactive and are not in full-time education.

How is social media being used?

As in other recent riots or social uprisings, both in Canada and abroad, much of the attention has been focused on the use of technology.

It's believed small groups of youths used text messages, instant messaging on their BlackBerrys and social media platforms such as Twitter to co-ordinate their attacks in London and stay ahead of police.

The company that makes BlackBerrys, Waterloo-Ont.-based Research in Motion, said it would cooperate with a police investigation into claims its service was used to organize riots, the Guardian reported.

Authorities have warned social media users that they could be prosecuted if they are found to be inciting violence.

An e-petition calling for all people convicted of criminal acts during the riots to lose all government benefits had collected more than 75,000 signatures by Aug. 10.

What has been the response from authorities?

Prime Minister David Cameron said authorities were considering new powers, including allowing police to order thugs to remove masks or hoods, evicting troublemakers from subsidized housing and temporarily disabling cellphone instant messaging services.

The London police force has faced criticism that it simply contained the initial violence in Tottenham and waited a full 12 hours before intervening to try and stop it.

On Aug. 9, Cameron boosted the police presence in London from 6,000 officers to 16,000. He warned rioters would feel "the full force of the law." Cameron also said he would recall Parliament from its summer recess.

"Whatever resources the police need, they will get. Whatever tactics the police feel they need to employ, they'll have legal backing to do so," Cameron told reporters on Aug. 10. "We will do whatever is necessary to restore law and order onto our streets. Every contingency is being looked at. Nothing is off the table."

More than 186 police officers had been injured as of Friday.

In an interview with CBC News Network, British freelance journalist Dominic Valitis said Londoners were feeling both afraid and angry.

"Maybe a feeling that politicians aren't listening to them, that police aren't listening to them," he said.

Valitis said a walkabout by London mayor Boris Johnson turned into a "PR disaster" after local people started haranguing him about the crisis.

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