Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Disorder in Liverpool - more questions than answers

The blogosphere and newspapers are full of people making attempts to explain the riots and disorders of last week. I thought I would add a contribution particularly about Liverpool, using the small knowledge I have, both as an eye witness, having read local reports and having followed the work of Merseyside Police on Twitter in particular over the last few weeks @MerseyPolice.

However, I have no answers, only a lot of questions...

As we know, events in Liverpool, thankfully, were on a different scale to those in London where people lost their lives. Although the situation was very scary, particularly for people living and working in the affected areas, we did not see injuries. Damage, though very difficult for those concerned, was broadly directed at property rather than people - although the situation on Myrtle Parade in particular could have resulted in loss of life and it is vital that those responsible for trying to set fires at Tesco, with its flats above, are caught and taken off our streets.

What I have found particularly thought provoking about the disorders (not sure whether I can use the word "riot", there seems to be some suggestion that it is a legal term only applied in certain circumstances, anyone who can explain the various differences are invited to comment below), is the orchestrated nature of the events last week.

Wheely bins, cars and businesses are set on fire, bus shelters are smashed up, shop windows are broken, police are taunted and bricks are thrown at fire engines in Liverpool from time to time, as they are in any city. What made this so shocking and disturbing is that this happened not singly and sporadically, but in an organised way in targetted parts of the city by people who travelled there for the purpose in many cases. It was the sheer scale of numbers of those taking part, and the amount of crime they committed simultaneously in those areas that make this so startling.

A study of the 87 charges so far reported here shows some interesting data (NB the police have said that not all of these charges are directly related to the disorder, some are as a result of their wider proactive police work during this period, but we dont know which, only one was specifically identified thus in the Echo).

Approximately a third of those charged thus far are aged under 18 years (31 in number, ranging from 14 years to 17 years) with a further 56 being adults (aged 18 years - 60 years). Of those 56 adults, 38 are aged between 18 and 30 years while 18 are aged between 30 and 60 years.

Home address
Post codes are given in some cases and not in others, so without a map of the city it is not possible to quickly say where those charged live, but it is clear that they come from right across the city, and not just from the places where the disorder took place. Toxteth, Dingle, Wavertree, Old Swan, Garston, Edge Hill, Anfield, Tuebrook, West Derby, Birkenhead, Bootle, St Helens and some others are mentioned.

Charges are varied; breach of the peace, public nuisance, drunk and disorderly, obstruction, violent disorder, possession of a controlled substance, an offensive weapon, cannabis, explosives, theft, burglary, aggravated vehicle taking, going equipped, racially aggravated public disorder and criminal damage.

84 of those charged thus far are male, but only 3 are female (two 15 year old girls charged with aggravated vehicle taking in what looks like the same incident) and one 30 year old woman charged with a breach in her bail conditions.

So the perpetrators have little obviously in common; if their surnames are anything to go by, they come from a variety of different ethnic backgrounds, although mainly British, and certainly no race related cause has been identified. Their ages vary, they don't come from the same parts of the city, they don't all appear to have committed the same kinds of crime. It would seem that some were arsonists, while others concentrated on taunting the police, and perhaps while the disturbances were underway, others took opportunist advantage of the situation to burgle and steal.

The only thing they share, as far as I can see, is that they are almost entirely male, they were intent on trouble and something drew them to the target areas on the nights in question.

Common consent has it that the events were a copycat of the riots in London, that the violence on the first night in Liverpool was a response to a weekend of their news. It is the organisation of that first night that puzzles me so.

I would imagine that the events of the second night were more likely to have involved people who were not on the "grapevine" on the first evening, but having seen the local news, came along in the hope of joining in with any further trouble that might occur - this would not have required any organisation or networking. But clearly the first evening must have.

Much has been made of the use of Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry Messaging to organise and co-ordinate the trouble. I wonder how it is that the offenders were connected to each other in order for the word to go round, not within the local area, but across the city.

I use all sorts of social media, and as a user I know how the systems work, I understand about being friends with people or following them, and I understand how networks develop. I am plugged into various networks, political or social, but they build themselves naturally around memberships of existing organisations. So for example I follow lots of Labour Party members because I know them and we have something in common already before we start to connect on social media.

The idea of a network that exists for potential rioters is frankly almost incredible but that seems to be what is being suggested by the police and has not been denied by anything I have read thus far. I dont understand how these lads, young men and adults would have found each other without being members of a pre-established group. But equally, without some kind of a network, how else can we explain that these reported several hundred people knew to come together, particularly on the first night, in the same part of the city? Some it is reported were first-time offenders, so they were not all obvious members of criminal gangs. Did they have something else in common? Are they all fans of the same kind of music? or sport team? or some other social phenomenon that would have brought them together? Or did a much smaller number organise on that first night and others come out later during the night only after the first reports began to filter through and others latterly joined in? Did the numbers swell significantly as the night wore on? It will be hard to understand these events until we can get to the bottom of any organising that took place.

The other question, that will be taxing sociologists for years to come I am sure, is what it was that motivated them. Some were school-age, some were in work, some were unemployed, some were living with their parents and some were parents themselves... how can we find a common denominator? Some of those arrested admitted to coming along as observors who got a bit carried away, but others came equipped with petrol for instance.

Were they motivated by anger and despair like those involved in troubles across our history? Or were they looking for trouble as a source of entertainment? How relevant is it that it was the school holidays, or that the football season had not quite begun? How much was motivated by the thrill of the chase and achieving notoriety? What does this tell us about male self-esteem and how it might be satisfied within this group?

My final questions are around how we deal with future small-scale, local arson attacks and criminal damage etc, such as I described above, occurring sporadically here and there across the city. Will they be tackled differently from now on, seen as a possible prelude to bigger problems? Will there be more effort to detect and resolve vandalism like smashed windows and bus shelters for instance? Will wheely bin fires and burnt out cars be taken more seriously following last week? Or will they continue to be a regrettable but generally accepted part of the general landscape from time to time as they were before last week? If it is a single car (or  Edge Hill Youth Club's minibus) that is burnt out, is that less of a priority than where a number are attacked together? Will we take new steps to protect the fire service from attacks when putting out fires for instance, now that more people are aware of it, now that the concern is more widely felt, or will it go back to being part of their regular experience, unremarked?

I saw a tweet from the police late last week saying the fire service had successfully tackled a wheely bin fire that evening - if they were to keep up this practice they would be tweeting more or less every night, but how long would it be newsworthy? How much of a priority will it be once the dust has settled a little?

These questions all really interest me as a representative for an area where all of these things do happen periodically but on a smaller scale.

Politicians and social commentators have been rushing to contribute their views and explanations for the riots and disorder, pointing at Government cuts, at the absence of discipline in schools, at a hatred of the police, at greed and general criminality, at a broken moral compass, at the youth service, at the dole queues, at parents, teachers, prison regimes, the demise of corporal and capital punishment and national service, and so it goes on.  I wont be offering any explanations because quite simply there is so much I dont yet understand about what happened.

But what is absolutely clear is that while several hundred Liverpool/Merseyside males were involved, several hundred thousand more were not. 99% of our residents were quietly going about their business - or tucked up in bed - while these events took place. The impact was great but the numbers were small. We must not run away with the idea that society is broken. Many more people were involved in a massive voluntary clean-up following the disorder than were involved with it - including large numbers of young people.   Any legislative changes that are made must be proportionate and thoughtful, knee-jerk responses taken before we understand exactly what happened and why, will only make things worse and contribute to future lawlessness.

1 comment:

scouseboy said...

I was on late shift when it all disturbances happened. On the 2nd night, driving home at 11.15, I saw not one person out walking in the four miles from the motorway to my home. All the pubs,chippys and pizza places were all shut, even wetherspoons, which serves till midnight, was closed with its shutters down. I understand Liverpool one shut early. I wonder how much was lost to Liverpool's nighttime economy that night?