Tottenham riots (2011) ft Technology

4th March 2015  |  News

The creation of the internet brought with it a new form of space, ‘virtual space’, and so a new site where political action can manifest itself.  Virtual Space is a place where collective action can be organised, this in turn has caused theorists such as the sociologist Stephanie Alice Baker to consider the new implications when theorising crowds in contentious politics. Barker has introduced a theory, ‘the mediated crown’,that attempts to reshape crowd membership in the twenty first century which recognises the use of new social media. [Barker, p.1] The ‘mediated crowd’ theory evolves from the ‘Crowd Theory’ that attributes the main theme of rioting, by communities that are born out of perceived social inequalities, to be the geographical proximity which focuses on the public place of the street as a site of political action. [Barker, p.1] Barker pushes this idea of public space as a site collective action to the ‘mediate crowd’ being an interactive community that ‘intersects geographical public space and the virtual public sphere’. [Barker, p.1]

What makes Bakers theory interesting is that shared emotions are central and essential to the emergence of ‘the mediate crowd’. Drawing on J De Rivera’s work on the ‘emotional climate’, Barker’s theory also acknowledges the mood of a community is related to ‘underlying social structures and political programmes’. [Barker, p.1] The emphasis on emotional climate makes it a particularly attractive theory to analyse rioting because riots emanate an intense temporary mood shared by the participants and felt by the wider community.

On the 4th of August 2011 the metropolitan police shot an innocent man Mark Duggan aged 29, dead  in Tottenham, North London.  Two days later on August the 6th Duggan’s family and friends staged a peaceful protest against the injustice outside of Tottenham  police station at around 16:00 (GMT) and were joined by about 200-300 members of the community.

However by around 21.45 rioting had broken out, people were throwing bottles at the riot police, looting began and property was set alight. A government study of the summer riots deem ‘an apparent incident between a young girl and police’ to be what sparked the rioting.

The riots continued for the next three days and after spreading through other London boroughs, the rioting spread across England,  with similar rioting and looting in Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol. Straight away media outlets picked up on the strategy of organisation, the rioters were using their smart phones, in particularly BBM an instant messaging service, to galvanise the riots.

Parliamentary statistics state that 4,000 people were arrested following the riots, of which 62% were made by the metropolitan police, which is an indicator of the shear volume of people involved. Was it the sharing of an intense emotional climate in ‘virtual space’ through social media and smart phones that resulted in the mass rioting?

One BBM message sent at the time said :

“Everyone from all sides of London meet up at the heart of London (central) OXFORD CIRCUS!!, Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some (free stuff!!!) fuck the feds we will send them back with OUR riot! >:O Dead the ends and colour war for now so if you see a brother… SALUT! if you see a fed… SHOOT!” 

Another messaged tweeted to 9,000 followers said : “Be inspired by the scenes in #tottenham, and rise up in your neighbourhood. 100 people in every area = the way we can beat the feds.”

The language used suggests that the rioters were charged with emotional energy against the state actors, the police. Both messages promote the shared feeling of them vs the state as a means of rallying people. Social media and smart phones in this case gave the rioters a way of reaching out to a huge audience at the tap of a button. The role of technology in the riots has been written about by several media outlets for example the BBC ran an article titled ‘Is technology to blame for the London riots?’ Whilst it is problematic to place the blame onto technology for the actions of people, it does raise the question, if the technology had not been used in the same way, would the emotional climate of the riots have risen to such heights?

Riots And Looting Continues Across London


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