Psychologists say warped sense of community inflamed riots

Youths facing off with riot police. Credit: PA

A warped sense of community spirit inflamed the riots that swept across England in the summer of 2011, say psychologists.

Bitter turf-war rivalries dissolved as street gangs joined forces to form a "band of brothers" pitted against a common enemy - the police, research suggests.

The show of unity amidst the looting, violence and destruction produced feelings of euphoria that contributed to the disorder, the scientists claim.

Dr John Drury, from the University of Sussex, who led an ongoing investigation into the early phase of the rioting in the London districts of Tottenham Hale and Haringey, said: "This riot saw traditional post-code rivalries melt away in the face of a common enemy in the police, and the emergence of a new shared identity. Our research shows for the first time how that happened.

"Police forces and others may feel that they understand how gang mentalities work but our findings show that at times like this, a fresh sense of community can break down existing loyalties.

"We're talking to police forces and councils about what our research shows. We hope that those responsible for law enforcement and keeping communities safe will take stock."

The rioting that exploded between August 6 and 11 in 2011 was sparked by the death of Mark Duggan, a suspected gang member who was shot by police in Tottenham.

Local disorder quickly spread to neighbouring London districts and violence also erupted in other towns and cities including Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham, Leicester and Bristol.

Five people died, property suffered damage estimated at £200 million, and police made more than 3,000 arrests.

The psychologists studied YouTube videos and Google Street View images, looked at police reports and arrest records, and interviewed 41 rioters.

Dr Drury said: "People coming together in this location initially talked about feeling in danger, not from the police but from each other. They felt they might be stabbed. A lot of people in the interviews talked about this, but they also talked about this being transcended and then coming to form this new group for the first time.

"There was actually a new identity, a new collective sense of self amongst the rioters. That matters ... because if people are united for the first time then it's a basis for a sense of empowerment. If people all feel the same way and they expect others to feel that way, they expect to be supported and that gives them the confidence to take action."

A turning point came when the police chose not to respond to one of their cars being torched, said Dr Drury, speaking at the British Science Festival at the University of Brighton.

That "victory" generated a sense of confidence and a belief that the police were weak, encouraging the rioters to move onto other targets including a solicitor's office and shops.

Another key element in the mix was a shared sense of grievance over heavy-handed police tactics such as "stop-and-search" which provoked a desire for revenge, said Dr Drury.

"The emotions changed from anger to euphoria," he said. "Seeing the police defeated led to expressions of joy."

He said while men were in the thick of the fighting, the looting of shops was largely orchestrated by women.

After the riots ended there was some evidence that the rivalry between gangs in different districts was not as strong as it used to be.

One rioter who was interviewed said: "I saw the community coming together ... usually it's post-code gangs and that lot, like Hornsey, they have differences with Wood Green. But then again, when the riots came, I saw Wood Green and Hornsey people just walking past each other like it was nothing. Now, it's like I don't see a problem with any kind of area."

Dr Drury acknowledged that critics might reject the association of rioting with community spirit.

He added: "Our task is simply to understand and explain. Some of it might be shocking, but this is what we find."