Hackney riots: why here? why now?

A car burns in Clarence Road E5

A car burns in Clarence Road E5, Monday 8 August. Photograph: Tom Dale

Now that the rubble of the recent violence has largely been cleared away, the debate has begun as to what kicked off the spate of sustained looting and burning that started in Tottenham and Enfield before spreading on Monday to the rest of London via Hackney.

The causes of the rioting are indisputably complex, but contributory factors can be broken down into short-term, medium-term and long-term elements which combined in a potent mix to create the social explosion we observed this week.

In any instance of spontaneous collective action, there needs to be a catalyst or short-term trigger.

The spark that set the tinderbox alight was the killing by the police of Mark Duggan. This led to Saturday’s (6 August) initially peaceful protest which then turned violent. Then came Enfield on Sunday, and Twittter users tweeting that there were ‘no police in Hackney’.

The damage to Hackney on Sunday night was just the start, however, and it was not till Monday afternoon that the most of the action took place.

Ostensibly the trigger that set things off in Hackney was a boy being stopped and searched Monday afternoon, but numerous eye-witnesses confirm that police and youths had gathered before this and appeared to be simply waiting for an opportunity to confront each other.

One of the most concerning aspects of this catalytic moment is that they seemed sufficient for the borough’s established gangs in the area to overcome their antagonisms and join together to go head-to-head with a perceived common enemy – the police.

Co-ordinated in large numbers, they were a far more potent force than they had ever been focussing on internecine struggles in their ‘endz’.

Plausible medium-term factors include the economic downturn, the cuts to social services instituted by the coalition government, and the example of ‘middle-class looting’ by bankers and politicians.

Economic conditions

The economic downturn of the past three years has hit the poor particularly hard.

At 7.3%, the proportion of Hackney’s working-age population on Job-Seekers’ Allowance is far higher than the London average of 4.2%.

According to the most recent data, the total out of work and on various benefits in Hackney is nearly 20%.

As of April, Hackney was the only London borough where more men were losing jobs than finding them.

Youth unemployment is higher still, with 10.1% of those 18-24 years old claiming Job-Seekers’ Allowance in June 2011, as compared to 6.7% across London.

In that month there were 24 job-seekers per unfilled vacancy in the borough.

Clearly for most of Hackney’s unemployed it may not be a matter of being work-shy, but a failure of the economy and society to provide opportunities.

With credit more difficult to come by, prices on foodstuffs and other essentials rising, and the global economic situation offering little hope, the situation for many Hackney residents is challenging.

Budget cuts

Then on top of the poor underlying economic conditions, there came the cuts.

Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg had predicted before the 2010 General Election said there would be riots in Britain if the Tories were elected and pushed through swingeing reductions in public spending.

And just a week before the beginning of the violence, young people in the borough of  Haringey were prescient in their warning that ‘there will be riots’ as a result of the closure of 13 youth centres there. From the top to the bottom of the political spectrum, there were signs of an imminent violent reaction to severe budget cuts.

A bit of number-crunching helps explain why. Research by economists Howard Reed and Tim Horton has shown that the budget cuts together with associated changes to the taxation and welfare regimes have hit the poor far harder than the rich.

Those in the bottom 10 per cent of all earners have suffered a loss equivalent to 38% of their net income, whereas the top 10% have only lost 5%. The cuts were therefore highly regressive, a clear violation of the redistributive principles of the national fiscal system.

There is also a strong geographic dimension to the cuts which helps to account for why those affected were clustered together in areas such as Hackney. In this year’s round of spending reductions, it was the poorest areas that had the most taken away from them.

The Government capped the cuts at a maximum of 8.9%, and Hackney was one of three London boroughs which maxed out at this level. Richmond, on the other hand, only suffered a budget cut of only 0.61%.

We can take this analysis one step further by using the government’s figures and the Guardian’s database of documented disturbances on 8 and 9 August to calculate the average cuts in those boroughs where there was rioting and those where there was none.

The mean reduction in spending power in the 19 local authorities spared disturbances was 4.02%, whereas the average cut in the 14 affected boroughs was 6.18%, or 54% deeper.

Though Hackney Council managed to prevent the wholesale slashing of services seen in some other local authorities by drawing heavily on its reserves, youth services was one of the biggest casualties in the borough this March, losing £10m and up to half of all posts. Young people also face the prospect of cuts to their Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) and dramatically higher tuition fees for the few who make it to university.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of children’s charity Kids Company and which works with Hackney schools, has been an influential voice linking the recent violence to cuts to youth services, and it is difficult not to come to the conclusion from the temporal, geographic and demographic associations between cuts and the riots that there is no connection between the two.

Middle-class looting

Some commentators suggest that ‘looting’ by the middle classes has played a role in subtly shifting the moral turf in favour of people taking ‘their share’ of national wealth – through fair means or foul.

The connection between the ‘looting’ of the economy and society by the rich and the recent violence has been forcefully articulated by James Bloodworth on the Liberal Conspiracy website. Though there is little concrete evidence to support this claim, is it one of many plausible theories.

Politicians could well have also played their part in creating an ‘anything-goes’ mentality.

Academic research on the 2009 MP expenses scandal (which included Hackney as a case study) found that politicians are seen as free to commit benefit fraud with impunity, whilst ordinary people suffer considerable consequences when they abuse the system. Whether or not this is an accurate assessment is moot; the perception of double-standards undoubtedly rankles with many already suffering from the economic squeeze.

As a shopkeeper in Tottenham was reported to have said in the wake of the devastation there: “It’s all about money. The politicians, the bankers have helped themselves and everyone else is getting richer, and the kids here get nothing. We have let them down really”.

This perception may well have been reinforced by the fact that the Education Secretary Michael Gove, who illegimately claimed £7,000 as MPs’ expenses when in opposition, apologised for his “mistakes” when caught out and was allowed to simply pay it back to the Common’s authorities; whilst Nicholas Robinson, 23, an electrical engineering student with no previous convictions, was this week jailed for six months for stealing bottles of water worth £3.50 from a supermarket.

Finally, the principal long-term factors behind this week’s events can be identified as socio-economic deprivation, the related phenomenon of urban gangs, and geographically-specific histories of police brutality.


A map produced by the Guardian clearly shows the link between the location of deprivation and the sites of the worst disturbances. Deprivation is a syndrome that includes a suite of linked phenomena including long-term unemployment, educational under-achievement and consequent lack of opportunities, and sub-standard housing.

There are of course no necessary associations between low income and these problems, and by no means are all poor people afflicted by them, but these phenomena are far more widespread among deprived communities than among their affluent counterparts. The consequences for the inculcation of community values are well-documented, and it is not difficult to see how this syndrome of factors should contribute to animosity toward state and commercial institutions.

Inequality in the UK has risen precipitously in recent years under both Conservative and Labour governments, and in Hackney the gap between the haves and the have-nots is significant.

Figures reported in 2009 reveal that the mean household income of those living in properties with mortgages was £46,616, whereas for those living in council housing it was, on average, just £8,862.

This means that a £100 pair of trainers (an aspiration for some of the looters) represents 2.6% of the monthly revenue of those living in recently-purchased houses and flats, but 13.5% for those living in Hackney’s council housing.

The same research also demonstrated that one in four council tenants live in ‘unsuitable homes’ – measured against criteria of size, type, design, condition and cost, and one in ten families (four times the national average) live in homes that are over-crowded according to official standards. With too little space at home, many go out on the street.

Narrow Way, Clarence Road and the Pembury Estate, which was at the epicentre of the violence in Hackney, are in one of the poorest areas of what is the second-poorest local authority in England. Pembury Estate also has a history of violent crime and clashes with the police. Many would therefore find it unsurprisingly, then, that this is where it all kicked off.

Gang culture

Gang culture has developed over recent years and violent deaths among teenagers are increasing year on year, though evidence suggests that only a minority of gang members commit crimes.

Tellingly, Hackney has the fourth-highest number of school children excluded for violence in London. And whilst official crime figures have fallen in recent years, robberies in the borough are on the rise, and Hackney ranks eighth in London for the total number of offences per capita.

The Pembury Estate and nearby London Fields are home to some of the most formidable gangs in London, which have been involved in significant gun, knife and drug-related crime.

Up to now, London gangs have largely targeted other gangs, as well as shaking down other young people and engaging in petty theft. The intra-gang thrust of much of the more violent behaviour has put a natural brake on the ability of gangs to join together into a larger and more dangerous social force. Not this time, it seems.

Ethnic grievances and a history of police brutality

A perception of institutionalised racism in the police – as brought to the fore by the prominent Stephen Lawrence case – together with racial, age and gender profiling which makes young black men and boys considerably more likely to be stopped by police than, for example, middle-aged white women, means that many people in the former category have reason to feel collectively victimised.

On top of this, neighbourhood-specific histories of police brutality in places such as Tottenham (riots on the Broadwater Fram Estate developed following the collapse and death of a black woman, Cynthia Jarrett, on 5 October 1985 ) and Hackney (including the high-profile death of Michael Ferreira in Stoke Newington police station in 1978) have led to long-standing grievances and distrust amongst the community which go above and beyond the day-today experience of young people on the street.

All these factors likely play some part in contributing to social unrest, and their combination may well have been responsible for conflagration we observed this week.

Fortunately the worst of the violence was largely confined to a single 12-hour period in Hackney, which escaped the level of harm to life and property that affected some other parts of London.

Now the task is to understand and heal. Contrary to some pundits, seeking explanations does not absolve those who engage in violent acts; understanding is rather an essential step toward preventing this sort of thing from happening again.

We need in particular to understand why these events happened here and why they happened now. Unless the powers-that-be and ordinary citizens look at the underlying configuration of circumstances that made this week’s disturbances possible, we will not be able to prevent such unrest in future.


What caused the Hackney riots? Local residents speak out

Are you affected by the Hackney riots? (Citizens’ Advice)

Boris Johnson says London riots “are not a simple issue”

The militarisation of the riots would be a deadly mistake, says Hackney MP Diane Abbott

How riots start, and how they can be stopped: Edward Glaeser (external site)