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3Qs: Preventing protests from turning violent

Riots erupted in London and throughout England earlier this month, exposing a broad discontent among Britain’s disadvantaged youth. We spoke with Gordana Rabrenovic, associate professor of sociology and education, and the associate director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict, to discuss what caused the riots and why the young people in Britain turned to violence.

What caused these riots, and how can the U.K. prevent similar incidents from occurring?

According to U.K. media reports, the riots were initially caused by the London police’s mishandling of the aftermath of the shooting death of 29-year-old Mark Duggan in a poor north London neighborhood. The police failed to communicate with Duggan’s family about his death in a timely manner, causing 200 people to gather outside the local police station seeking answers. This gathering turned into a riot that escalated into looting, and quickly spread to other London neighborhoods and later to other major cities. Participants in the rioting were initially young males, but other groups of people soon joined in as well. It appears the riots were orchestrated by social media users through Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger.

In the beginning, police were slow to react to the riots, apparently surprised by how quickly they spread and by the number of participants. This experience suggests that one of the best ways to protect neighborhoods from violence in the future is to strengthen police-community relationships and communication. Police need to forge strong community relations if they are to respond with the speed required to meet the challenges presented by evolving social media technology.

Are acts of public discord (such as protests, picket lines, and riots) an effective means to an end?

Protest is a legitimate strategy and sometimes the only strategy powerless people have to fight for their rights. A lack of political power and financial resources can force groups to use the power of their numbers to make their concerns known. The sheer number of people that participate in such events often attracts media attention and can help make the plight of a particular group more visible to the general population.

However, when protest escalates into violence and looting, the protesting group often loses its legitimacy. The London riots show how easily social order can break down. Protests that do not turn to rioting and looting are much more likely to address the protestors’ concerns.

Why do some populations, such as youth or marginalized groups, resort to rioting, rather than taking formal or peaceful avenues?

They lack social infrastructure, such as community organizations to articulate their demands, or political and economic resources to pursue formal avenues. Riots allow them to vent their anger, and looting gives them an opportunity to obtain goods they cannot afford. In addition, looting, which is a mostly nonviolent act, can attract a wider population that opportunistically takes advantage of a general state of lawlessness for personal gain.

The ultimate challenge for the U.K. is to develop a public collective efficacy that prevents similar incidents from occurring. It also needs to consider how best to address the social, economic and political marginalization of youth in its cities. This will require development of partnerships between police and the community, similar to the ones Boston has developed. It will also require investing in education and social programs that give young people more of a stake in their community.