In the summer of 2011, the city of London, England was disheveled. With what started as a simple police brutality protest soon turned the city upside down with riots clustering in almost every borough. Parliament abruptly returned from their summer holidays to quickly address the chaos dismantling their city’s wellbeing. Just under 2,000 riot related arrests were made by the Metropolitan police and just under 4,000 throughout the entire country by the end of September. 3% of those arrests were charged with burglary and public order offences.
Although the riots resulted in advanced criminal tracking and identification, the rioters used social media resources to commit organized burglary, arson, and other various crimes to cause enormous damage to the city. The Tottenham borough of London, England holds the highest unemployment rate of the city and rivals for the top spot in the entire country. Riots central to Tottenham are not a rare occurrence. High rates of minority controlled gang activity and gun violence have been reported through the past decades.
On August 4th, 2011, the 29 year old male, Mark Duggan, was shot and killed by police officers. The lack of CCTV coverage of the area where Duggan was shot proved to be a point of confusion by witnesses in court. A definitive account of the exact series of events that occurred that night was never confirmed. Multiple eyewitnesses reported different actions of the police and Duggan, but all of the accounts pointed to Duggan’s possession of a handgun and his unaggressive actions towards authority with it. Tottenham is a largely ethnically diverse city, with 45% being of an ethnic minority.
Mark Duggan was African American and Tottenham had been battling racial aggression between the police and the public since the summer of 1985 when the Broadwater Farm riots occurred. The 1985 riots were largely police brutality and race based, much like the riots of 2011. After the actions of the Tottenham police and Duggan were publicized, the public in the immediate surrounding area recognized it as race based police brutality. Friends, family, and local residents gathered near Mark Duggan’s residence for a vigil in his honor, when police arrived, the peaceful gathering turned into a riot.
Two police cars were set on fire by members of the public that night. Duggan’s case went viral and spread through social media platforms to neighboring boroughs and then throughout the entire city. After the attacks spread into the central part of London, the riots went from being largely in response to Duggan’s shooting to mindless looting sprees and acts of arson. The majority of the attacks moved from being focused on the police to focused on burglary and destruction. Unless they intervened in the looting, it was reported that the police were not specifically targeted by the looters at first.
The average demographic of the looters was a young male from an underclass family. The race of the looters varied immensely, and specific ethnically own shops were not targeted specifically either, which was the police’s initial anticipation. The damage of the riots was immense. Over 100 cars were set on fire and 4 double decker buses were destroyed by arsonists. The London Fire Brigade in return had 8 fire truck windows shattered by rioters. A minimum 100 million pounds worth of damage was caused to the city of London.
Department stores were closed for days and an estimated 30,000 business hours were estimated to be wasted by safety protocols and procedures. Most damages to public property were covered by the Riot Damages Act of 1886 and came directly from government funds and not in additional taxes to the public. Hooded teenagers were roaming the streets in packs using debris and brute force to break into storefronts. Broken bottles were thrown at the non-aggressive civilians that dared to leave their residences at night during the week of the riots.
Independent shop owners stood outside their stores at night with nothing but baseball bats or other makeshift weapons in attempt to ward off rioters. A video of an elderly woman crutching a cane and chastising rioters on the streets of the city went viral across the internet and was named the Heroine of Hackney. The Heroine’s speech later warranted her invitation to Parliament by the MP of Hackney so other politicians could express their gratitude in person. The largest source of communicative controversy that initiated the increased riots was over Blackberry’s instant messaging system, BBM.
Spammed messages were sent out by infuriated rioters to their contacts, providing addresses of meet up locations and inferred violent actions. These BBMs are free sources of text messaging accessible to any Blackberry owner, making it an optimal source of communication for London’s youth. BBMs are protected from the immediate public by PINs only available to those that which the BBM senders choose. The Economist named the disturbances “The BlackBerry Riots” in one of their articles. Twitter is a micro blogging, international website devoted to short text based messages.
Information involved in the criminal’s riot plans and involvement were disclosed on “private” accounts, inaccessible to the immediate public unless allowed by the user. Pictures of storefronts in flames and various stolen goods were posted and, as a result, sent aggression throughout the community: some members supporting the damage and others condoning it. Either way, the social media network catalyzed the advertisement of the riots. Conversely, social media also helped in the arrest of suspected individuals and the rebuilding of moral throughout the community.
The London Metropolitan Police hosted a temporary Flickr account, a photo sharing website, posting screen shots from closed circuit television, CCTV, security cameras of criminal’s faces to entice the public to help them identify and capture the delinquents involved. Facebook pages went viral across the country with stories of local shop owners protecting their shops, and large masses of the community volunteering their time in the clean up of their cities. Street journalism was shown all over the United Kingdom and across continents.
Sympathetic readers showed support for the damaged towns and needy small business owners. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 1886 gave authority for police to inspect suspected criminal’s BBM accounts and private twitter pages in order to start investigating and prosecuting the damages done to the city. Hundreds of pictures of the damage and stolen goods were posted, and then later used as evidence by the police. The pictures influenced copycat violence and burglary amongst the looters.
The Facebook page, Supporting the Met Police against the London rioters, received over 800,000 hits. Thousands signed on to share heroic stories of their fellow Londoners supporting the safety and reconstruction of their city. Several members of parliament expressed their disappointment with the rioters and were quick to claim that the city of London should not be judged by the actions of that summer. The MP of Tottenham told “The Telegraph” their city had its “heart ripped out”. Massive increases in patrolling police forces were commanded to roam the streets in attempt to subdue the violence.
The night of August 10th, 2011 marked the halt in the riots as the city slept peacefully with limited accounts of disturbances. Antiriot tactics such as smoke bombs and water cannons were demanded by the public, but the police hesitated on their drastic effects. The police opted to rather let the criminals take their share of merchandise rather than cause severe physical attacks against anyone. David Cameron, the United Kingdom’s prime minister, suggested temporarily blocking access to social media and BlackBerry services for the week to slow down communication between the city’s rioting youth population. 000 criminals were arrested in relation to the riots as of August 25th. London’s senior justice clerks ordered courts to handle riot related cases harshly. David Cameron defended the severe punishments to the rioters and Crown Prosecutors argued for the opposition of bail in most riot cases. The Lord Chief Justice proclaimed the crimes in London that week were of the “greatest possible seriousness. ” David Cameron looked to the advice and support of US cities prone to gang violence such as LA and the chief of police, Bill Bratton.
Cameron settled on granting more crowd controlling allowances to police forces such as removing face masks and more liberty with crowd dispersal methods like water cannons. The city was to host the 2012 summer Olympic Games and was in desperate need to build up the police and public moral necessary to hold the immense crowds expected for the following Summer. Kingston University’s professor and identification software developer, James Orwell, notes that “we’ll [never] be able to predict the behavior of crowds, because they’re notoriously unpredictable,”, which provides insight for the future of London’s crowd controlling techniques.
Rather than preparing and guarding against the inevitable, effective tactics in crowd dispersement and criminal tracking would prove to be the best methods learned from the riots of 2011. Traditional facial recognition software the police had available during the summer were very ineffective. The software could not program the faces in the poor lighting of the night and through the masking the looters had on.