Investigating the Root Of The U.K. Riots

Nearly 2,000 people have been funneled through British courts, under charges that they participated in the riots that inflamed London and other U.K. cities this August. As judges try to get to the bottom of who did what, The Guardian newspaper and London School of Economics are partnering up to find out why the riots happened in the first place. They are launching a new project that will dispatch researchers into communities where rioting took place, to investigate the root causes. The Guardian's Paul Lewis, who's leading the project, speaks with Michele Norris.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And we return now to a story that dominated the news not long ago. Early last month, riots flared up in London and then in several other British cities. The unrest lasted four nights. Five people were killed. There were more than 2,000 arrests, millions of dollars in property damage and a lot of hand-wringing, questions about what caused the riots and what should be done to the people behind the mayhem, questions that still remain.

For an update, we turn now to Paul Lewis. He's a reporter and editor at The Guardian newspaper in London. He was out on the streets covering the riots in August, and he's stayed on the beat ever since. Welcome to the program.

PAUL LEWIS: Hi, there.

NORRIS: I want to start by talking about all the people who were arrested in the wake of these riots. Some of them were very young, just kids as young as 10 years old. What happened to the people who were picked up in these riots?

LEWIS: Well, I mean those who have been arrested, most of them have now appeared in court. And what we've seen is normal sentencing guidelines have been suspended, so there've been harsher sentences. You know, what's quite interesting is if you look at the two most severe sentences, they both relate to people who didn't themselves take part in the rioting, but they were found guilty of inciting riots on Facebook.

On average, we're seeing that some penalties are two to three times more severe than they would be if the crime had taken place in a non-riot situation.

NORRIS: Immediately after these disturbances, we heard speculation from politicians on who was behind the rioting. And here's Prime Minister David speaking to Parliament on August 11th, shortly after the rioting ended. Let's take a quick listen to this.

LEWIS: At the heart of all the violence sits the issue of street gangs. Territorial, hierarchical and incredibly violent, they are mostly composed of young boys mainly from dysfunctional homes. They earn money through crime, particularly drugs, and are bound together by an imposed loyalty to an authoritarian gang leader.

NORRIS: That's David Cameron speaking, and it sounds like a pretty coherent explanation. But was there evidence, really, at that point, so soon after the riots, and did his speculation proved to be true?

LEWIS: Well, I think we can answer quite matter-of-factly that there was no evidence when he made those claims. The suggestion that gangs were behind the riots has begun to kind of dissolve as the weeks have gone on. The Metropolitan Police initially said that around, I think, 30 percent of those people arrested for involvement were in some ways linked to gangs. They've since revised that figure and said it's nearer 20 percent.

I mean that still doesn't account for the vast majority of people who are out on the streets and involved in looting and arson and clashes with police, so I don't think that the gang explanation accounts for the broader picture.

NORRIS: So there is a big question about why this happened and why it broke out like a spontaneous rash. Is the country any closer now to answers on that?

LEWIS: Well, we're not. And one of the problems here has been that the government has resisted calls for a public inquiry. And, you know, it's really quite typical after a period of civil unrest of this scale, and it's very rare that it happens in this way, that there will be subsequently a commission of inquiry where people take stock. They receive evidence and they look at what happened and they think about recommendations for the future. Now, the government didn't want to do that and I think has come into some criticism for not doing so.

NORRIS: Why is there political resistance to doing any kind of post-riot study?

LEWIS: Well, it depends who you ask. I mean, some people will say that these types of commissions, where you might have a retired judge and lots of senior officials receiving evidence, are kind of great ceremonies but what do they actually tell you? So some people are quite skeptical about inquiries. I mean the other answer to that question is that actually, the government doesn't want to be told exactly what happened here. It wants to draw its own conclusions.

So everybody, really, from across the political spectrum, has looked into the embers of the riots and seen what they want to see. And actually, that's quite fortunate for those who accept that there's going to be no inquiry. Because if you have an inquiry, it tells you things that you might not want to hear.

NORRIS: Paul Lewis is the special projects editor at The Guardian newspaper in London. Paul Lewis, thank you very much for talking to us.

LEWIS: Thank you.

NORRIS: And Lewis, along with colleagues at The Guardian and the London School of Economics, are launching their own inquiry. It's a project to explore the causes and consequences of the British riots. And it's inspired by a famous study of the riots that struck Detroit back in 1967.

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