IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

After British riots, conflicting answers as to 'why'

At the heart of a debate is the question of what drove even some previously law-abiding Britons to steal.
Image: A woman walks past messages written on a boarded up shop that was damaged during the recent riots in Clapham, south London
A woman walks past messages written on a boarded up shop that was damaged during the recent riots in Clapham, south London, on Friday. Cathal Mcnaughton / Reuters
/ Source: The New York Times

Outside a London court last week, as those accused of looting and rioting in the most destructive and widespread violence in recent British history faced justice, a mother turned to her 11-year-old son, accused of theft, and asked simply, “Why?”

That question has been at the heart of a fraught national debate as Britons puzzle over what drove even some previously law-abiding people to steal, sometimes risking arrest for nothing more than bottles of water. The debate has often divided people into predictable camps.

The Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, stood up in Parliament as Britain smoldered around him on Thursday and railed against “mindless violence and thuggery.” His critics on the left blame deep mistrust of the police in poor communities, and income inequality they say will worsen as his government pursues sweeping cuts in spending and social welfare.

Some commentators have blamed modern society at large. The Daily Telegraph struck a popular chord when it blamed a “culture of greed and impunity” that it said extended to corporate boardrooms and the government itself. Many politicians, meanwhile, have lashed out at technology — including the instant messaging that encouraged looting — for whipping up the crowds.

Infinitely complex
But as more details of the crimes emerge, the picture has become infinitely more complicated, and confusing. In some of the more shocking cases, the crimes seemed to be rooted in nothing more than split-second decisions made by normally orderly people seduced by the disorder around them.

An aspiring social worker, Natasha Reid, 24, turned herself in after stealing a $500 television. Nicolas Robinson, a young engineering student who had never been in trouble with the law, grabbed bottles of water because, his lawyer said, he was thirsty.

The 11-year-old, the youngest looter arrested, stole a trash can.

At several of the riots last week, those perpetrating the violence had no ready explanation for their behavior. One young man, kicking trash cans into the street, shrugged when asked why. And the atmosphere in Hackney’s Pembury Road low-income housing projects was sometimes one of adrenaline-driven glee. Looters whooped as they stripped a convenience store bare, yards from the police.

Even some Londoners who had initially condemned the riotous behavior joined in. Bystanders had watched in shock as rioters lined up against police officers on Tottenham’s main street last weekend, setting fires and looting. The mood shifted dramatically, though, after officers moved in, dogs barking and horses charging. One man, suddenly emboldened, grabbed a box of pears from outside a convenience store. A woman carried off an armful of coconuts. Another man, seemingly conflicted, sprinted, then turned back briefly to snatch a crate of bottled water.

Clifford Stott, a social psychologist at the University of Liverpool who studies riots, says that behavior, at least, is not unusual. Bystanders, he said, often turn against the police when they themselves get swept up in a broad crackdown. “That confrontation makes them start to think that the police are wrong, not the rioters,” he said.

But he added that crowd dynamics are incredibly complex and cannot be readily reduced to blame people, or to explain away their behavior.

The condemnation of social media, said Pamela Rutledge, who studies the intersection of the media and human psychology, is equally glib. It is true, she said, that social media “accelerates behaviors because it creates social modeling — people see that other people are involved and they’re encouraged.” But, she said, these “tools” are not only in the hands of the rioters; the police, for instance, have used social media to inform worried local residents about the state of rioting in their areas. “You can use a hammer to build something or destroy it,” Dr. Rutledge said. “It’s just a tool.”

Rapid-fire decisions
Especially difficult to explain, both psychologists said, are the rapid-fire decisions behind the snatching of small and often cheap goods.

In Wood Green last weekend, where looters were allowed a free rein for four hours before the police arrived, some rioters set upon an eyeglass shop. And three men stood just outside a GNC, debating whether stealing the vitamins and food supplements was worth the trouble. “Shall I take this?” asked one as he lifted a tub of a nutritional supplement. “Nah, man, don’t bother,” his friends replied. He took it anyway.

So far, the police say more than 1,200 people have been arrested in connection with “violence, disorder and looting.” Of those, 725 have been charged and some are being handed stringent sentences by courts that run 24 hours in some areas. Many have prior convictions, and court records reveal that some were armed, or carrying quantities of drugs when arrested — the “criminals” that many political figures have blamed for the riots.

Others, like Ms. Reid and Mr. Robinson, are not so readily pigeonholed. Ms. Reid is a university graduate. She put her head in her hands in court, and her mother told reporters that she had been sobbing in her bedroom since her arrest over the stolen television. “She didn’t want a TV,” her mother said. “She doesn’t even know why she took it. She doesn’t need a telly.”

Mr. Robinson, the engineering student, was walking home at 2:40 a.m. on Monday when he looted a supermarket in Brixton. Mr. Robinson, the court heard from his lawyer, “got caught up in the moment” and was now “incredibly ashamed.” He was sentenced to six months.

The story of Chelsea Ives, an 18-year-old athlete who had been chosen to be one of the faces of London’s coming Olympic Games, has dominated the front pages of newspapers in Britain. She has been accused of burglary, violent disorder and throwing bricks at a police car, according to media reports. She was turned in by her mother, Adrienne. “I had to do what was right,” her mother told reporters.

Another woman listed on court documents was accused of stealing “six bottles of nail varnish” and a tin of food.

Dr. Rutledge said that in times of unrest, people craved clarity. “In the same way we want to blame social media, we want an answer to this. But individuals are individual,” she said. “So what if these people didn’t have criminal records? We can’t know what they were feeling.”

Dr. Stott said that people, in a rush to judgment, often latch on to the idea that a mob mentality has taken hold. “There’s an excitement and an intensity to those situations that are really quite profound,” he said, “and the tendency is to say, ‘Well, these people are upstanding citizens, like me, something must have gone wrong with their brains. It must be mob mentality.’”

But he said the theory that people in mobs become mindless had been widely discredited, and he warned that focusing on such a simplistic explanation would prevent an important national discussion about the underlying causes of the riots.

When faced with difficult questions about the role that policing, government policies, and societal ills might have played, Dr. Stott said: “You can see it becomes very useful to portray it all as just mindless. Why did that young man steal bottles of water? We may never know.”

This story, "," originally appeared in The New York Times.