The Riots As A Contemporary Example Of Moral Panic

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In this essay, I am going to speak about the London riots, the question I am answering is ‘The 2011 riots can be considered as a contemporary example of a ‘moral panic’ within society. Discuss’ I will be discussing a number of different theories such as Stanley Cohens theory of ‘moral panic’ and ‘folk devils’ and Gramsci’s theory of hegemony in order to support my argument, I will also be taking about the role of the police, judges, media and participants of the riots and how each of these created a moral panic within society.

First, I am going to describe and understand causes of the 2011 riots. In August 2011 riots erupted in London and spread across England to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham becoming the most destructive civil disorders since 1980’s (Briggs 2012). The riots cost tax payers £200 million (Greenwood 2011) and around 2500 shops were looted and damaged (Topping and Badwon 2011). Five people were killed, numerous people lost their homes and businesses. The disorder cost £50 million to police and £43.5 million to clean up. There was £300 million worth of damage and £80 million lost in business, and an estimated £250 million in lost revenue (Guardian and LSE, 2011; Riots and Communities and Victims Panel 2012). The riots were triggered by the shooting of Mark Dugan, an alleged criminal, by the metropolitan police. However, the reasoning of the protest seemed to be lost under the motivations of those who saw this as an opportunity to shop for free as the forces of law and order were forced to retract (Briggs, 2012).

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Theorist Stanley Cohen spoke about moral panic being an instance of public anxiety or alarm in response to a problem regarded as threating the moral standards of society. The riots were described as a moral panic across Britain because like previous history, the riots raised an alarm within society and challenged the norm. It was more than just criminal damage. Looting, arson and violent crime took place making the whole country fearful. Moral panics belong to seven familiar clusters of social identity, one of them being young, violent, working class males, this category being the one that was focused in the media during the time of the riots. Cohen identified deviance amplification as part of his theory, this is a media hype phenomenon defined by media critics as a cycle of increasing numbers of reports of socially inappropriate behaviour or other undesirable events then leading to a moral panic (Cohen, 2011). Sensitization is the process of making a person to react to something that would previously have had no effect, when repeated throughout the media it results in a progressive amplification of a response, The London riots are an example of this as the media coverage lead to discontent and riots in other cities.

Theorist Gramsci is best known for his theory of cultural hegemony, this is a theory in which describes how the state and ruling capitalist class known as the bourgeoisie, use cultural institutions in order to maintain power in capitalist societies. According to Gramsci’s view, the bourgeoisie develops a hegemonic culture using ideology rather than violence, economic force, or coercion. Hegemonic culture promotes its own values and norms so that they become the ‘common sense’ values and maintain the status quo. Hegemonic power is used to maintain consent to the capitalist order, rather than coercive power using force to maintain order. This cultural hegemony is produced and reproduced by the dominant class through the institutions that form the superstructure. Gramsci’s studies separated the superstructure into two floors, he described these as civil society and political society. Civil society is made up of private organisms such as school, churches, and parties, they all contribute to the formation of social and political consciousness. The other floor, political society, is made up of public institutions such as the government, the court, police and army which exercise direct domination (Gramsci, 1975).

Theorist, M smith, stated that in order ‘to understand what happened it is necessary to separate our five different but overlapping behaviours in the events of August 6th-10th, 2011. The riots included more aspects than just rioting they included protesting, looting, damage and spectating. Protests began over the shooting of Mark Duggen and actions of the police leading to the event. Fears were expressed by local community leaders that rioting could occur (Stephenson, W,2011) but the police still were unprepared. It was said a ‘great deal of the rioting activity was aimed at gaining control of certain areas from the police and more generally ‘sticking two fingers up’ to authority (Smith MK 2011), these two aspects show that the community was angry with how they were being treat by the police. The looting was carried out by local people and people that travelled down from neighbouring cities to take advantage of the free shopping and only a proportion of the looting was organised and targeted (Mark stone, Junction looting).Criminal damage was also an aspect targeting mainly property and businesses. Finally spectating, the media showed the riots on 24/7 news coverage and ‘anecdotal evidence suggests that there appears to have been an element of showboating in some of the events’ (National centre for social research). This type of behaviour is deemed socially unacceptable and therefore caused a moral panic.

The 2011 riot can be considered as a contemporary example of moral panic for a number of reasons. Firstly the role of the police. The rioting started originally because of the shooting of Mark Duggan, causing outrage from the community who deemed the shooting was racist. Previously, due to stop and search tactics, there had been rising tensions from the black community toward the police. However, they failed to identify this as a cause despite data that in 2011/12, 16 white people were stopped and searched compared to 95 black people (Home office, 2015).The Scarman Inquiry Report into the Brixton disorders in 1981 highlighted that the relationship between the police and ethnic minorities is problematic (Souhami, 2014), citing excessive use of the sue law as a key factor to the disturbances. This was also brought to light in the MacPherson inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence that concluded that institutional racism was an endemic which significantly contributed to the failure of the police investigation. The Guardian newspaper stated in a column ‘a key factor of the riots was discontent with the police with stop and search being one of the most hated aspects’ (Parsad, 2011, online). The then home security, Theresa May (2014) voiced her concerns that the misuse of stop and search can be counterproductive, she went on to say ‘when innocent people are stopped and searched for no good reason, it is hugely damaging to the relationship between the police and the public’ (May, 2014). The deprived, working classes anger and distrust of the police was the main factor for London riots. Their behaviour threatened the moral standards of the society causing moral panic. This also plays into Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and that in this case the political society was lacking power through the police, however they were gaining power through media and what they wanted to show and not show the public.

The role of the media also played a very crucial role in the 2011 riots. As previously mentioned, theorist Stanley Cohen identified deviance amplification as part of his theory, his idea was that even by covering these type of stories, and the media would then create a moral panic due to sensitization. Cohen’s theory of progressive amplification was proved correct during the 2011 riots when the riots from London were shown on all the main news channels and then began to spread across the country to other cities. Another way in which the media created a moral panic during the riots was by selectively broadcasting. The media focussed mainly on small business, to show the victims to the public, rather than showing commercial buildings which represented the bulk of the targets (Guardian and LSE, 2011). The mass media is the primary source of the public’s knowledge about social problems, during a moral panic the media play three different roles these are setting the agenda, this is where the media select socially problematic events that they see as newsworthy, then look deeper into the issue to see which of these events is a candidate for moral panic, this was demonstrated throughout the riots. Another role media play is transmitting the images, this is when they either sharpen up or dumb down the rhetoric of moral panics, for example during the riots the media focused more on the looting and the criminal damage with 24/7 live streams of the events rather than covering the details of Mark Duggan. Thirdly the media ‘break the silence, making a claim’ meaning the media will headline what they want people to believe about the riots, for example, only showing footage supporting folk devils.

The blame fell on the usual suspects, such as ‘dysfunctional families’, the ‘underclass’ and ‘gangs. This links back to Cohen’s theory of folk devils. The media focused the blame on the youths, to the point that the BBC had a split screen with the flaming inferno on one side and hooded youth on the other side of street, leaving it up to the public to make the convincing link that the rioting was just gangs. Senior politicians then reinforced the blame on gangs by making statements which confined the behaviour to ‘criminally, pure and simple’, ‘known offenders’, ‘gangs’, the ‘underclass’ and/or ‘other people’ who came from ‘other’ areas to commit ‘sick’ acts (Briggs 2012; Durkin, 2012). The term ‘bothered youth’ means that young people categorised as ‘the others’ are identified as problematic and ‘high risk’ (Murphy, 2017). By categorizing youth, it results in the stigmatisation of young people that are seen as a treat making them subject to a range of policing approaches and discipline practices creating tension as a result the youth mistrusted the police and society creating tension before the riots and therefore rebelled against them causing moral panic.

The role of the judges, court and sentencing also played a role in the 2011 riots becoming a moral panic, the convictions were excessive with disproportionate sentencing. A total of 1,715 people appeared before the courts, 2 out of 3 of these people being remanded in custody. For those dealt with in the magistrates courts 97 have been sent to jail, 4 in 10 of those who have been sentenced, compared with just one in ten of those who appeared before magistrates court for similar offences last year (Guardian, 2011). The judges handed out sentences with much longer jail time than it would be for this offence outside of the riots to make an example to society and make an example out of the offenders so that the public who were fearful during the riots could begin to restore their faith within the government and the police after this moral panic.

Social deprivation is another reason some may consider that the riots happened. A study by UNICEF looking at the well-being of children in the UK, found that ‘materialism is often seen as related to excessive individualism or greed and it has been suggested that low levels of child well-being in the UK may be related to an increase in these traits in children’ (UNICEF, 2011)’, The study went on to show ‘materialism appears to be problematic for UK adults as well as children.’ Parents from the UK admitted to often ‘buying their children status brands believing that they were protecting them from the kind of bullying they experienced in their own childhood’, this study could be the reason why people travelled up from different areas just to loot shops so they wouldn’t have to save for the luxury items they normal would for themselves and their children.

Another reason why the 2011 riots erupted could have been because of social policy failure. The idea of the “Magic Money Tree” was introduced during the 2017 Election campaign debate by Theresa May (Tapsfield and Ferguson, 2017), meaning a large amount of money was given for the youth volunteering scheme, however Bernard Davies (2017) notes that the ‘new’ £1.5 billion NCS money has been dedicated towards a specific type of youth short-term social action initiatives which are restricting other forms of youth social action, rather than spending the money on new youth schemes that appealed to more of the youth. The concern for youth work practice and young people’s citizenship is that this ‘new’ investment from the “Magic Money Tree” will be allocated to short-term civic activism, designed to produce a type of rotten fruit, namely a subject-citizen who is more ‘active compliant’ (Kennelly and Llewellyn, 2011) rather than a participatory or justice orientated envisaged for the 21st Century citizen (Westheimer and Kahne, 2004), meaning that although this may attract some of the youth, it still leaves the youth who won’t want to participate in this type of activity with nothing to fulfil their time. There are an estimated 12,000 youth centres in England, yet a 2007 survey by the charity 4Children found that 80% of young people say they have ‘nowhere to go’, so four years before the riots the youths were already finding themselves becoming bored. Data shows that since the funding cuts, violent crime especially knife crime has increased from just over 30,000 a year in 2011, to 37,000 a year in 2017 (Police recorded crime, home office) indicating that even despite the riots potentially becoming a moral panic due to funding cuts and youth finding themselves with nothing to do, the government still hasn’t provided the funding to help keep youth of the street, this could potentially result in another moral panic if not monitored closely.

To conclude my essay, I believe the research and arguments that I have provided successfully prove that the 2011 London riots were a contemporary example of moral panic within society. The actions of the police, the judges, the media, and the ‘folk devils’ have all contributed to why these riots became a moral panic. This essay has assisted in helping to make sense of young people’s lives within society as I have spoken of several factors such as bothered youth, othering, and Cohen’s theory of ‘folk devils’ these aspects highlight that the youth has always been and is still very misunderstand by older generations, causing an atmosphere within society which can lead to moral panic, and in this case, the tension between youths and the police, due to inappropriate policing methods, did in fact, create the moral panic of the 2011 London riots.


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