The Common Good

Could the Riots in England Have Been Averted?

The rioting and rampages that spread across English cities last week have caused severe property destruction and raised public alarm. Writing in London's Guardian, community organizer Stafford Scott describes how he was among the group that on August 6 sought information from the police in Tottenham, a poorer section of London. They wanted an official statement on whether Mark Duggan had been killed by police bullets, as had been reported in the news.

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All we really wanted was an explanation of what was going on. We needed to hear directly from the police. We waited for hours outside the station for a senior officer to speak with the family, in a demonstration led by young women. A woman-only delegation went into the station, as we wanted to ensure that this did not become confrontational. It was when the young women, many with children, decided to call it a day that the atmosphere changed, and guys in the crowd started to voice and then act out their frustrations.

This event is what most media accounts have identified as the spark that set England on fire, which has caught the world by surprise. Yet, says Scott, "If the rioting was a surprise, people weren't looking."

My summer in Britain has been jarred by the outbreaks of turmoil and destruction spreading from London to Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool. A storm of criticism against the police followed -- thunderously amplified by politicians, even while they denounced it as criminality. Surely, the real meaning of these events will take time to discern.

There's a kernel in Scott's account that should not be overlooked. Assuming that his report is accurate and faithful, it is possible that an appropriate response to the women-led demonstration in front of a police station might have altered the turn of events. At the most basic level, police and security services need to be able to recognize such a peaceful, nonviolent initiative. No matter the depth of the underlying causative problems in the upheaval, in the background is a difficult fact: Police are often not trained in differentiating one nonviolent method from another. Although police services are increasingly trained in mediation, crowd control, and how to handle criminals nonviolently, here they allowed a demonstration to turn into a riot.

Philip B. Heymann's 1992 analysis of South Africa's long struggle against apartheid suggests that success in nonviolent action happens through a three-way relationship among the nonviolent challengers, the target group, and the military, police, or security services. If at all possible, Heymann concludes, the challengers should clarify their grievances, purposes, and demands, so as to minimize obstruction or interruption by the other two. This means probing not only the complaint of the nonviolent protagonists, but also examining the objectives and actions of the adversary and police.

In this case there may not have been an immediately evident and concrete target group, but Heymann's insight is instructive: Bring the police into the picture and treat them as part of a relationship. This may be hard advice for some people to swallow. Even so, in analyzing the riots in England, observers must ask whether the police understood that they, too, must be part of a relationship.

We must also acknowledge, however, that there is only so much that police services can do. A failure for decades to address larger social and economic problems make this sort of conflict almost inevitable. A number of distinguished researchers have clearly shown what underlies such a catastrophe. The findings of Sir Michael Marmot and Richard G. Wilkinson contribute a powerful larger frame for considering the turmoil of the English cities. Clinical data in Marmot and Wilkinson's Social Determinants of Health(2001) concerning well-being for modern societies, supports their contention that social pathologies (crime, high levels of imprisonment, mental illness, and poor health status) are more common in societies with steep maldistribution of wealth than where economic distribution has resulted in lesser gaps between rich and the poorest. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett explain in The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (2009) that income inequality correlates with thirteen health and social problems, such as unemployment and drug use. The World Health Organization's Commission on Social Determinants of Health urges countries to "tackle the inequitable distribution of power, money, and resources." Britain, along with the United States, are known to have the lowest rates of social mobility among the industrialized countries.

Whatever the subsequent, numerous lessons to be drawn from the wreckage in the English cities, it would be prudent to recognize that police (and diplomats and journalists) need formal training in understanding civil citizen action, and how to respond to it as part of a relationship. That alone, however, will not be enough, unless governments and the public address the underlying social and economic factors.

[This article appears courtesy of a partnership with Waging Nonviolence.]

Mary Elizabeth King is professor of peace and conflict studies at the U.N.-affiliated University for Peace and a Rothermere American Institute Fellow at the University of Oxford, in Britain. She is the author of A Quiet Revolution, Freedom Song and Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. During the U.S. civil rights movement, she worked alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. (no relation), in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

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