The London Riots, a Psychiatrist's Perspective
In 2012, one year after the London riots, I wrote a blog for the Huffington Post UK, and longer academic paper, where I tried to interpret the terrible events of 2011 London’s burning through a psychosocial perspective.
As you will read in the blog, republished below, I lamented that, one year on at that time, there had been no attempt to understand the youth’s suffering that had led to the protest, and that all the events were brushed under the carpet as a public order problem.
Unfortunately, 10 years on and the situation has not changed: lessons have still not been learned, and there is a clear concern that the same factors operating then can make the same events happen again today.
In the meantime, it has also become apparent that the response of the courts was unduly harsh, with custodial sentences given to people, often kids or youth, even if some had never committed a crime before. These included a student jailed for six months after pleading guilty to stealing bottles of water worth £3.50, and two men jailed for four years for inciting riots on Facebook, although no disorder occurred.
Nothing has changed since Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables: Jean Valjean went to prison for five years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family.
Exactly a year ago, hundreds of kids misbehaved really badly, so why has nobody asked the question? Have we — society, government, family — done something wrong? Why the loud silence?
Oh, sorry, I forgot — they are they just nasty little rioters, and should go to prison. There is nothing else to ask. Where is the reflection, the understanding, the questions?
Those arrested during the riots mainly came from deprived areas and had the poorest educational backgrounds. They set fire to their own communities, and looted consumerist goods − plasma TVs, “branded” fashionable electronics and expensive shoes. Why did they do what they did?
Parents in a bedroom
When our kids misbehave badly, we reprimand them. Sometimes we even punish them. We give them time-out, we ground them, we take away toys and gadgets — just temporarily. Then, we go back to our bedrooms, and we ask ourselves: what have we done wrong?
Every time, we ask.
The more serious the misbehaviour, the more serious the asking. Was it something in the way we educate them when they were toddlers? Were we too harsh? Were we too liberal? Were we not affectionate enough yesterday? Were we not affectionate enough 10 years ago?
Exactly a year ago, hundreds of kids misbehaved really badly, so why has nobody asked the question? Have we — society, government, family — done something wrong? Why the loud silence? Oh, sorry, I forgot — they are they just nasty little rioters, and should go to prison. There is nothing else to ask.
Please don’t take me wrong. I am not implying that illegal and violent behaviour should go unpunished, or that we should have a soft approach and send everybody back home with a gentle rebuke. Some of the actions were terrible: widespread rioting, arson and looting occurred, along with injuries to the public and police, and the death of five members of the public.
But why the silence? Where is the reflection, the understanding, the bedroom questions? Those arrested during the riots mainly came from deprived areas and had the poorest educational backgrounds. They set fire to their own communities, and looted consumerist goods − plasma TVs, “branded” fashionable electronics and expensive shoes. Why did they do what they did?
Many have discussed the role of social and economic factors in the origins of the riots. We would like to contribute to this debate by proposing a formulation of these terrible events from a psychosocial point of view. We believe that psychiatrists, as “specialists of the mind”, may help understanding what has been repeatedly described as “mindless” violence.
At the margins of society, at the margins of emotions
We would like to propose that two mechanisms were operating in the rioters’ minds during those terrible nights: a lack of social identity, and a lack of inner understanding of their emotions and of what their emotions meant. The lack of social identity led to frustration and anger, and the lack of inner understanding led to the violent expression.
One thing these riots were not: they were not a politicized form of protest.
A defining feature of politicised protest is that participants are able to identify with a cohesive social group, to argue a political position, and to express clearly their needs and their requests to the rest of the society. In contrast, the peculiarity of the English riots lies in their confused and disorganised nature, and in the absence of any attempt not only from the rioters to express a common social message, but also from the commentators to identify one. The riots started as a social protest against the police, but ended up as a spontaneous, collective robbery — a highly disarticulated form of social protest with a message to society that was very contradictory and difficult to decrypt.
We would like to propose that this indicates a failure of the English rioters to see themselves as a social group, and as having a “social identity”. Perhaps because of a lack of ideological background, these young people — living in areas of high unemployment and in a country with the lowest level of social mobility in Europe — failed to understand their position in society, in relation to either the people around them or to their own past. Additionally, we would like to propose that the stealing of consumerist goods — shoes, clothes, electronics, mobile phones — constituted an attempt to obtain such a social identity.
Marcuse got it all wrong
The American philosopher, Marcuse, believed that the most marginalised members of the American society (such as immigrants and students) were the last revolutionary force, able to counteract a consumerist society. The English riots highlight, to the contrary, that the most marginalised members of the society aspire to consumerist goods: to the flamboyant ostentation of branded accessories — the “bling-bling” of the hip-hop culture.
However, this creates tension and confusion: on the one hand, the “socially excluded” would like to share the goods (the “symbols” of the community) and, on the other hand, they know that they will never be part of the community that can afford those goods. This desire, constantly unfulfilled, leads to a sense of frustration and resentment. On this occasion, unable to understand these inner emotions, people just turned into violent looters.
Perhaps even more tragically, by destroying shops and stealing goods in order to “belong”, the rioters confirmed that they were not part of the society, and thus increased their social exclusion. How can we break this vicious circle?
What can we do?
Our psychotherapy training teaches that a good and successful therapist should show himself to the patient as “present, involved and invulnerable”.
We would like to propose that a healthy community, which tries to integrate its marginalised members, should try to show these same characteristics: “present”, meaning knowledgeable of the community members in difficulty; “involved”, meaning interested in helping the pursuit of the individual and social goals of the community; and “invulnerable”, meaning trustworthy, and morally coherent, in how we deliver on our promises of equal opportunities, personal development, social mobility, and respect of the law.
But showing concern is not enough — although it is a start. Practical steps can be delivered to improve social inclusion.
For example, recent research in the USA has shown that social and psychological intervention can improve social belonging in ethnic minorities. The results of these studies show a positive association between an increasing sense of belonging and improving academic achievements in the Afro-American population. These interventions are focused specifically on a student population, and so perhaps this is when and where we need to start: in our schools.
Social belonging is a primary requirement to allow people to live a meaningful life in the community, and this — not sending kids to prison — is the major deterrent that a civilized and emancipated society can offer to prevent violence and riots.