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The English riots: it wasn’t youth gangs

The recent riots in major English cities like London have seen the media focus on the involvement of young people. In particular, many media outlets have claimed that organised youth gangs have orchestrated…

A shop in Manchester city centre boarded after being attacked by looters. AAP

The recent riots in major English cities like London have seen the media focus on the involvement of young people.

In particular, many media outlets have claimed that organised youth gangs have orchestrated much of the violence, often using social media.

While teenagers and other young people have certainly been involved in much of the disorder, television and CCTV footage shows that people of all ages have taken part.

The Conversation spoke with Rob Ralphs of Manchester Metropolitan University, a criminologist with expertise in youth gangs.

Were the people who were rioting and looting gang members?

I was really disappointed that the BBC, of all the news channels, used the kind of sensationalist language in talking about gangs and warzones. There was a real strong emphasis on the fact that it was youth gangs and young people aged nine and 10.

That has been really exaggerated. Obviously my knowledge is about Manchester but I’m sure it is the same in the other cities. It is nothing to do with gangs, they are just using the term gangs very broadly. They are not orchestrating what is going on.

So who were the people involved? Was it just opportunistic behaviour?

It is copycat behaviour. On the news for the first couple of days from London and then Birmingham, there were scenes with no police there for an hour or two hours and people were just running up the streets doing what they wanted. And once the police were there we saw lots of pictures of the police just standing, literally yards from people who were smashing windows and looting in front of them.

I think that young people got the view that they can do it and that nothing is going to happen to them. There was a lack of police presence and even when the police were there, they were just bystanders and weren’t really doing anything.

It is copycat behaviour that has gone from one city to another. Even though the original riots started in London because of the young man who was killed by police, what has happened in other cities has nothing to with any kind of solidarity or anything like that.

I think also what has happened is that it is a unique time. It is 30 years since the riots happened in Manchester and London and Birmingham and Liverpool. About two weeks ago we had the 30th anniversary and there’s been a lot of local media coverage. That whole idea of rioting has been in the public consciousness again.

Then you’ve had all the uprisings in the Middle East as well. It is a combination of factors. It also occurred in the middle of the schools' and colleges' six week holiday. It is the third week of the holiday period which is always a time when there is more young people getting involved in anti-social behaviour.

Is it similar to what happened in France in 2005 when a young person was killed by police?

It is a similar thing. It is the same with the riots 30 years ago. There needs to be a catalyst which is quite often somebody killed by the police but then it is a series of copycat behaviour that spreads around cities.

I heard people talking about it today and the night before saying “Why has nothing happened in Manchester?” Manchester is arguably the second or third [biggest city in England] with Birmingham and it hadn’t occurred here and people were saying why? The young people feel that it couldn’t not happen in Manchester if it was happening in Leeds and Nottingham and so on.

Is there an advantage for police and government to say it was a youth gang phenomenon?

I haven’t so much heard that from the police and the government. It is more the media using the term gangs. That is something that has happened over the five or ten years, there’s been more and more talk about young people’s behaviour. It is again this idea that the young people involved are getting younger and younger, the media saying that children of nine, ten and eleven have been involved.

They are just guessing that, saying this person looks nine or ten when on many occasions they look more like 14 years old. They haven’t spoken to them and confirmed their age but it has then been reported as fact in the headlines.

There is a focus on young people but from what I have seen a lot of people in their 30s and 40s have been involved. It is just opportunistic. Yes, there’s a lot of young people involved but it isn’t just young people.

Manchester is renowned for a very serious youth gang problem. Is the gang problem still as bad in previous years or has the situation improved?

In terms of fatalities it has certainly dropped off. In the last five years there has been an average of one or two young people that have been murdered by gun crime and most have them have been confirmed to be non-gang related offences. In terms of firearm discharges, another indicator of gang activity in this city, the figures have gone down drastically. The police report a 90 per cent drop in gun crime in the last two years in Manchester.

Gun crime is not like it was at its peak like it was in the early 90s.

Do you think it is likely these things will happen again as the government spending cuts bite?

I think potentially yes. We talked before about how it is the middle of the school holidays. A lot of the projects I’ve been involved in would normally have funding for six weeks to carry out activities in the summer. They have either been cut completely or they only have activities running for two weeks.

The youth and community sector is one of the main sectors that has been affected by the recent cuts and the way the media are reporting gloomy prospects for young people in terms of the employment market, you can see how that kind of unrest will become a recurring theme.

It is also an interesting time for policing tactics. They have just announced that they are going to use water cannon and I think the police have been seen as being soft in their approach, just standing back and letting things happen.

I think we are going to see over the next day or two an increase in the police response. That might affect how often they occur in the future.