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The 2011 riots that started in Tottenham and swept across the UK were inflamed by a warped sense of community uniting against the police, psychologists have said.
Traditional postcode rivalries dissolved as gangs united to form a “band of brothers” working together against a common enemy, research suggests.
Scientists have claimed that this togetherness, amidst the looting, violence and destruction, produced a feeling of euphoria that contributed to the disorder.
Dr John Drury, from the University of Sussex, led an investigation into the early phases of the riots in Tottenham Hale and Haringey.
Speaking the British Science Festival at the University of Brighton, he said: “This riot saw traditional post-code rivalries melt away in the face of a common enemy in the police, and the emergence of a new shared identity. Our research shows for the first time how that happened.
“Police forces and others may feel that they understand how gang mentalities work but our findings show that at times like this, a fresh sense of community can break down existing loyalties.
“We’re talking to police forces and councils about what our research shows. We hope that those responsible for law enforcement and keeping communities safe will take stock.”
The August 2011 riots were sparked by the death of Mark Duggan, a suspected gang member who was shot by police in Tottenham. Five people died, property suffered damage estimated at £200 million, and police made more than 3,000 arrests.
The psychologists studied YouTube videos and Google Street View images, looked at police reports and arrest records, and interviewed 41 rioters.
Dr Drury said: “If people are united for the first time then it’s a basis for a sense of empowerment. If people all feel the same way and they expect others to feel that way, they expect to be supported and that gives them the confidence to take action.”
He said a turning point came when the police chose not to respond to one of their cars being torched, generating a feeling that the police were weak and encouraging rioters to move onto other targets offices and shops.
And among rioters there was a shared sense of grievance over heavy-handed police tactics such as “stop-and-search” which provoked a desire for revenge, Dr Drury added.
“The emotions changed from anger to euphoria,” he said. “Seeing the police defeated led to expressions of joy.”
After the riots ended there was some evidence that the rivalry between gangs in different districts was not as strong as it used to be.
One rioter who was interviewed said: “I saw the community coming together … usually it’s post-code gangs and that lot, like Hornsey, they have differences with Wood Green. But then again, when the riots came, I saw Wood Green and Hornsey people just walking past each other like it was nothing. Now, it’s like I don’t see a problem with any kind of area.”
Dr Drury acknowledged that critics might reject the association of rioting with community spirit.
He added: “Our task is simply to understand and explain. Some of it might be shocking, but this is what we find.”
Additional reporting from PA.
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