What causes urban riots?

Location of verified riots, up to 6.00am 9 August 2011

British leftie, Brendan O’Neill, takes an unsympathetic view of the UK rioters in this article, London’s burning: a mob made by the welfare state. He dismisses popular explanations like racism, characterising the rioters as “welfare-state mobs” who are destroying their own communities.

Painting these riots as some kind of action replay of historic political streetfights against capitalist bosses or racist cops might allow armchair radicals to get their intellectual rocks off, as they lift their noses from dusty tomes about the Levellers or the Suffragettes and fantasise that a political upheaval of equal worth is now occurring outside their windows. But such shameless projection misses what is new and peculiar and deeply worrying about these riots. The political context is not the cuts agenda or racist policing – it is the welfare state, which, it is now clear, has nurtured a new generation that has absolutely no sense of community spirit or social solidarity.

Harvard economist Edward Glaeser (author of my last book giveaway, Triumph of the City) has a long interest in the causes and consequences of urban violence. In this paper, The Los Angeles riot and the politics of unrest, Professor Glaeser and colleague Denise DiPasquale examined the tragic history of post-war riots in the US (H/T Christian Dimmer, @remmid).

The LA riot of 1992 – sparked by the police beating of Rodney King – lasted three days and resulted in 52 deaths, 2,499 injuries, 6,559 arrests, 377 buildings completely destroyed and 222 seriously damaged. Seventeen people died and 400 were arrested in the two-day Miami riot in 1980. In 1965, a six-day riot in Watts resulted in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries and 800 buildings damaged or destroyed.

DiPasquale and Glaeser examined the causes of rioting using international data, evidence from the race riots of the 1960s in the US, and Census data on Los Angeles, 1990. Their empirical results suggest high levels of ethnic diversity and unemployment among young black men, combined with the “sheer size” of LA, all help to explain the 1992 riot.

However they found little support for the notion that poverty is a major determinant of which cities riot. Nor did they find a connection between high levels of migration – a proxy for social capital – and rioting. They conclude that rioting is driven to some extent by the probability and size of punishment. An increase in the probability of arrest, they say, lessens the probability of a riot and its size. Individual costs and benefits matter.

We find some support for the notions that the opportunity cost of time and the potential cost of punishment influence the incidence and intensity of riots. Beyond these individual costs and benefits, community structure matters. In our results, ethnic diversity seems a significant determinant of rioting, while we find little evidence that poverty in the community matters.

Brendan O’Neill says the intrusion of the welfare state in the UK over the past 30 years “has pushed aside older ideals of self-reliance and community spirit”. The most striking thing about the rioters, he says, is how little they seem to care for their own communities – the violence is not political, but merely criminal:

It is entertaining to watch the political contortionism of those commentators who claim that the riots are an uprising against the evils of capitalism, as they struggle to explain why the targets thus far have been Foot Locker sports shops, electrical goods shops, takeaway joints and bus-stops, and why the only ‘gains’ made by the rioters have been to get a new pair of trainers or an Apple laptop. In past episodes of rioting, for example during the Brixton race riots of 1981, looting and the destruction of local infrastructure were largely incidental to the broader expression of political anger, byproducts of the main show, which was a clash between a community and the forces of the state. But in these new riots, smashing stuff up is all there is. It is childish nihilism.

O’Neill’s worry is the destruction of the sense of community by dependency (his message isn’t that different from Noel Pearson’s analysis of the plight of aboriginal communities e.g. see When welfarism takes over, disaster will follow). O’Neill says:

Nurtured in large part by the welfare state, financially, physically and educationally, socialised more by the agents of welfarism than by their own neighbours or community representatives, these youth have little moral or emotional attachment to the areas they grew up in. Their rioting reveals, not that Britain is in a time warp back to 1981 or 1985 when there were politically motivated, anti-racist riots against the police, but rather that the tentacle-like spread of the welfare state into every area of people’s lives has utterly zapped old social bonds, the relationship of sharing and solidarity that once existed in working-class communities. In communities that are made dependent upon the state, people are less inclined to depend on each other or on their own social wherewithal. We have a saying in Britain for people who undermine their own living quarters – we call it ‘shitting on your own doorstep’. And this rioting suggests that the welfare state has given rise to a generation perfectly happy to do that.

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29 Comments on “What causes urban riots?”

  1. mdonnellan63 says:

    Totally agree with O’Neill’s take on this (from the comfort of my palace in Melbourne’s hipster belt), but wonder why the welfare state has managed to get its tentacles on so many people. Do we blame planners for creating crappy housing estates to house those dispossessed by slum clearances and freeways? Destroying local communities and allowing global capital to get away with whatever suited them. I’m betting that BNP, other right wing groups and Murdoch’s press attribute the riots to lax immigration policies. Stand by for another shift to the right. Globally. Howard, Thatcher and Bush (jnr) will look centre-left before too long.

    I’m just going off to buy some tinned food and start digging my panic room.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Won’t need to be a shift to the right if more progressives would take note of O’Neill’s position and realise that a lot of what’s supposed to be progressive actually isn’t – in fact it’s having the opposite effect.

      • mdonnellan63 says:

        True, but building resilient communities to stave off dependance on state welfare doesn’t necessarily benefit the State, the Market or global forces. And those communities have to build themselves from within – maybe the damages inflicted will be the catalyst to fix things up – people turning up with brooms to clean up the mess looks like a pretty good start. Maybe the riots will galvanise local communities against drug and trash culture – I hope so.
        But there’s still a risk that the (Authoritarian) Right (and/or Left) will exploit the situation to consolidate their position(s).

  2. Michael says:

    Interesting article. It certainly seems that at least some people on welfare aren’t making use of opportunities and engage in criminal behaviour (I know of at least a few examples). What intrigues me is the simultaneous instances of extreme poverty (by Australian standards) and people who seem to be pretty comfortable living long term on welfare. Obviously the system treats some people better than others.

  3. TomD says:

    Had a feeling while watching the news reports and the behaviors of the participants that something along the lines of antisocial activity and self acquisition of stolen goods was a factor at play.

    However, if welfare statism did indeed play a role, this should not be taken as a negative against welfare per se.

    The way social welfare is applied and functions from state to state seems to differ considerably … maybe the British model is a bit out of whack and hopefully not from political correctness and ignoring some of the truths at play in our multicultural societies. We should not forget that states without basic welfare programs (particularly surrounding health, accesss to food and life’s basics) do seem to be ignoring the plight of those who are suffering.

    The trick seems to be achieving the right balance between social welfare ‘safety nets’ and wider compassionate policy making (particularly that helping create education and opportunity) … AND fostering self reliance and strong community cooperativeness, life and awareness. An awareness hopefully based on appreciating & enhancing the qualities of the place you live in and sufficiently caring about those you live around (both during and BEYOND major crisis events such as floods, earthquakes and the like when people most tend to pull together and help others out).

  4. Oz says:

    My bet is that there is not one regular church goer amongst the rioters and looters

  5. wizofaus says:

    Brendon O’Niell’s “leftie” status is highly questionable at best.
    Anyway, my only comment is that if anything, the availability of welfare in the UK is far far more restricted than it is in most other social democracies, so blaming the riots on that seems fairly illogical.
    I think more interesting (for this blog) would be a discussion towards the degree to which poor urban planning has a role. E.g., is the a meaningful relationship between very high population densities and where the riots are occurring? I’m all for increasing densities moderately in Australian cities, but can it get too high, such that “crowd mentality” is more likely to take over unless the built environment and infrastructure (including public spaces) is designed more far more thoughtfully than probably often is the case in inner urban areas in the UK?

    • Alan Davies says:

      “Brendon O’Niell’s “leftie” status is highly questionable at best”.

      That might be because of articles like this where he doesn’t come out with the usual line. According to Wiki, he “began his career at…..Living Marxism, the journal of the Revolutionary Communist Party”.

      There is research that finds density is a factor – agglomeration lowers the cost of ‘bad’ things as well as ‘good’ things. My general position however is that non-physical factors are almost always far more important. Should look at this.

      • wizofaus says:

        Key word there is ‘began’! Sure, he does still tend to write for more politically liberal audiences, but I don’t see anything obviously left-wing about most of his more recent pronouncements.
        I’m not sure non-physical factors are *far* more important. One significant ‘physical’ factor is that public spaces that *were* available to many of these areas (youth clubs etc.) have been unavailable in the last few months due to budget cuts.

        • Alan Davies says:

          No way I can see the physical environment, whether youth clubs or density, is up there as a causal factor beside such fundamentals as income inequality, racism, ethnic heterogeneity, education, welfare dependency, community bonds, (intangible) social services, unemployment, police shootings, lack of hope….etc. The physical environment is the stage, so it’s got a role (bad pun!), but it’s not the play.

          • Siobhan says:

            In that case, perhaps you are overlooking the role of physical environment in making people aware of income inequality.
            Last time I was in London, some 20 years ago, it was already obvious that parts of London had become weirdly skewed, inhabited by the rich and fabulously rich on the one hand, and the welfare dependent on the other. One of the reasons they have trouble finding teachers for their schools is that teachers find it really hard to live in London on teacher wages, and really hard to afford the exorbitant cost of British rail if they live further out.
            Public housing keeps a group of grindingly poor people housed in London, where they come face to face daily with the wealth of others.
            The physical environment is tangled up in the factors you allow.

          • Alan Davies says:

            Siobhan, this piece in The Age today echoes some of your sentiments.

            I allow the physical environment is in the mix (see my point about density in an earlier comment), but I think we have to look at the wider context, at the underlying forces. Hence my metaphor of the stage and the play.

            There is a stark geographical distinction by income/deprivation (see here), but that’s the symptom — social and economic forces, some of which I mentioned above, created it. This is an important distinction because it underlines how physical solutions will only have a small role in addressing the problem because they don’t go to the fundamentals.

          • wizofaus says:

            But it may well be the physical factors are the ones governments can most easily fix.
            If nothing else, at this point in time, ideological extremism (on both sides of the political fence) seems to me an almost impossible barrier to trying out other solutions.

  6. kymbos says:

    O/T, but I’d love to see you write about this as a follow up to your house size pieces: http://theage.domain.com.au/mcmansions-downsized-as-buyers-realise-small-is-good-20110810-1imvm.html

    • Alan Davies says:

      Hah! Maybe juxtaposing housing ‘excess’ with the conditions underlying the riots is connection enough. As it happens, I’ve already been talking to Stockland and have a very interesting speech James Quinn gave to CEDA recently. I’m awaiting some info from them on their Selandra Rise development that I wanted to tie in before going into print. I do hate being trumped.

  7. Tanya says:

    Something that no-one seems to talk about is that unemployment payment is a way of providing low incomes to people INSTEAD of providing jobs. Governments seem to think that they are saving money by cutting jobs and providing unemployment benefits.

    What they are doing is creating a disengaged class of people who, at the same time, are exposed to mass messages about the ‘joys’ of consumption and who also see the corrupt way that people in positions of power behave. I would never excuse the appalling behaviour of the rioters, but until we really understand what is going on, we will never be able to fix the problems.

    There are plenty of areas that need more jobs, such as well-funded community centres, learning-needs staff at schools, um, the health system….but are we as a society willing to pay for them? I once heard unemployment benefit referred to as unemployment compensation- a compensation that is provided because since the 1970s we have been unwilling to pay for jobs for everyone. If we just boot people off welfare, they will have even less to lose, and you could expect more anti-social behaviour, but clearly welfare dependency isn’t good either.

  8. heritagepoliceman says:

    How can the current riots be a cause of the welfare state, when its been around in the UK since 1949 ? Similar riots in the US certainly dont occur because of welfare dependency seeing as they have little welfare – high unemployment and structural (geographical) concentrations of poverty and race segregation seem more likely to breed discontent and a feeling of being left out. This is what happened in the largely Arab / black ‘Banlieues’ of Paris in 2005 and 2007.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Welfare is not the best term. My interpretation of O’Neill is he’s conflating a whole bunch of things under that term, including low penalties for criminal behavior and poor enforcement practices.

      There have been other riots in the UK:

      1958 – Nottingham race riots, (Nottingham, England)
      1958 – Notting Hill race riots, (Notting Hill, London, England)
      1975 – Chapeltown riot Leeds, West Yorkshire ,England
      1975 – Chapeltown riot Leeds, West Yorkshire ,England
      1975 – European cup Final 1975, Leeds United riot in Paris
      1976 – Notting Hill Carnival Riot (London, England)
      1979 – Southall Riots, (Southall, West London, England)
      1980 – St Pauls riot, April 1980, (St Pauls, Bristol, England)
      1981 – Brixton riot of 1981, (London, England)
      1981 – Toxteth riots (Liverpool, England)
      1981 – Moss Side riots (Manchester, England)
      1981 – Chapeltown riot Leeds, West Yorkshire, England
      1981 – First Handsworth Riot, (Birmingham, England)
      1985 – Brixton riot of 1985, September 28, (London, England)
      1985 – Second Handsworth Riot, September 11, (Birmingham, England)
      1985 – Broadwater Farm Riot, Oct. 6, (London, England)
      1987 – Chapeltown riot Leeds, West Yorkshire, England
      1989 – Dewsbury riot
      1989 – Leeds United riots / Birmingham
      1990 – Poll Tax Riots, (London)
      1990 – Salford, (Greater Manchester, UK), July
      1991 – Carlton leach riot, Essex, England
      1995 – Brixton riot of 1995, (London, England)
      1995 – Hyde Park Riot, July 1995, Leeds, West Yorkshire
      1995 – Manningham Riot, June 1995, (Bradford, West Yorkshire, UK)
      2001 – Harehills riot Leeds, June 2001, West Yorkshire, England
      2001 – Bradford Riot, July 2001, (Bradford, West Yorkshire, England)
      2004 – Boston, Lincolnshire.
      2005 – 2005 Birmingham race riots in Lozells, Birmingham, United Kingdom.
      2006 – Download Festival Riots, Donnington, UK
      2008 – UEFA Cup Final riots in Manchester, United Kingdom
      2009 – Riots in Birmingham, United Kingdom
      2009 – Football violence before, at and after a Carling Cup match.
      2010 – Student riots in London
      2010 – More student riots in London
      2011 – Riots in London which spread to other cities in England, 4 killed

      See here.

  9. sten says:

    an interesting visualisation of the riots and their context here: http://futurismic.com/2011/08/10/this-is-london/

  10. Alan Davies says:

    That visualisation fits either (a) the view that welfare dependency is a key structural cause or (b) the view that poverty is a key structural cause. The Rabid Right say the Loony Left go for (b) and the Loony Left say the Rabid Right go for (a).

    • wizofaus says:

      Or you can accept that welfare dependency is a key structural cause, but the reason for this is the lack of funding for programs that help people get off welfare, rather than easy availability of welfare (as I’ve said already, welfare is much more easily available in most other OECD nations).

  11. Johnyboy says:

    Well its due to a number of factors. I think the main factor is the hearts and minds of there people are just like the rich. If you read the stuff about wealth. You never surrender and you fight for everything. There is no wrong but to win. Thats the message they give out. Morals are just in the way of things. If you do not succeed you do not matter. What is success? Its a big mansion with a couple of cars and alot of babes lol.

    That simplified world is what they strive for. I think that the media glorify violence and we see tv programs and business news that promote this.

  12. Michael says:

    Interesting article “People feel like they’ve got a stake through their heart” by Guy Rundle: http://www.crikey.com.au/2011/08/11/rundle-people-feel-like-theyve-got-a-stake-through-their-heart/

    “The short answer to the Right’s self-serving construction of these events would be to say that they are easily falsified by looking at where and when they don’t and didn’t happen. The first and obvious candidate is Scotland — these aren’t British riots, they’re English riots. Why? Because Scotland and Northern Ireland are separately governed for the purposes of domestic spending, and in both cases, the Tories’ cuts have been resisted. People still have a stake in society and riots when they occur have an older political form i.e. sectarianism.

    Furthermore when you look to the places where “PC” parenting, policing blah blah has occurred — i.e. Scandinavia, Netherlands etc — you find not merely an absence of riots, but also an absence of the sort of anomie that fuels Britain. Why? Because they’re less unequal places. People still feel they’ve got a stake in their own lives.”

  13. Johnyboy says:

    Why the riots. I think its got to do with the hopeless position of people and the mindset.
    I have read alot about people who attained wealth. All the story tales seem to be long winding stories that are not verifiable. I am not sure on the statistics on wealth being inherited but a substancial amount is due to inheritance. Is this right or wrong? Its probably not a yes or not answer.

    What seems to be worse is alot fo the wealth seems to attributable to dubious factors. What are dubious factors? A simple example is when there was world wars. The tax payer fronted the bill for huge expansion of goods and products needed for the military. This time meant alot of individuals became very rich. These people probably would not of become wealthy without this war. That this was not attributable to being a good business man but being due to politics.

    There seems to be rorts created just so people can get rich. The questions about this being fair or unfair? People question why should this be an area of interest? The problem is that people who are poor are told they are poor because they do not work hard enough, are not smart enough and not good enough. I have been in work places and just anywhere and see this happen. Then you expect people to act with compassion or even with morality?

    I think competition brings out the worst and best. I think that harsh penalities will only make the people who commit crimes commit worse crimes. Then in the military ” The side that wins, is the side that will do what the other side will not do”. What message does this say?

    Id like to have an experiment with people here in australia. Lets cut all the social programs. Lets let the liberal party have there way. I think we should cut tax to minimum. Lets get rid of the army too. Just have the police and jails. Everything else should be privatised. I mean everything. No more public hospitals or public anything. Let the market rule. I am not afraid of the consequences. I can tell you what they will be. It will be like the roman times. I do know that there will be plagues and life will revert to medival times. Get rid of the laws on media ownership all together so we do not have to read about poverty. I think that the birth rate will get up again. Maybe we are suppose to be like this. Does it matter? Yea then we can be tough country. Not welfare dependance.


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