The unpredicted tinderbox: Three factors which fuelled the riots

The Unpredictable Tinderbox: Three factors which fuelled the riots

by Jon Kuhrt

Originally published on

It’s very difficult talking about the reasons for riots during or immediately after they have happened. People who blame things like poverty, racism, alienation, or the classic ‘there is nothing for the kids to do around here’ sound like they are giving easy excuses for terrible behaviour. Most people are simply expressing their anger and astonishment at what has suddenly kicked off.

On a facebook discussion I read last night someone said “This is not about social problems, it’s about greed and thuggery”. But if greed and thuggery are not social problems, what are?

The thing is that riots always tell us something important about society and what is going on. With the distance of time, they always lead to reflection about what symptoms have led to them. This was true for the Brixton and Toxteth riots of the 80s which lead to a major change in the way Police relate to communities.

Martin Luther King said that ‘at bottom, riots are always the language of the unheard’. In the US in the 1950s and 1960s, explicitly racist laws and chronic material poverty meant that whole communities felt unheard and disenfranchised. In the battle against them King constantly tried to stem the flow of potential violence. But today, it is wrong to immediately blame these kinds of structural issues because it puts the blame somewhere else – normally with the government. But today there is a very different way that the rioters are ‘not being heard’ than there was back then.

These disturbances are not ‘isolated incidents by a minority’. Rather, they are the scary symptoms of a widespread and deep sickness in our society. I believe that a society we are reaping what we have sown – that a tinderbox of issues has been created and it simply needed something to set it off. That something was the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham but it could easily have been another incident.

I think the tinderbox was created primarily by the following 3 factors:

1) Consumerism – we are a nation which has gorged itself on consumerist values and easy credit which have created poverty and left little room for any sense of true values such as hard work, caring for others, for family and commitment. Like spoilt children who don’t respect their parents, rioters have contempt for the peddlers of these addictions. That is why they focus on the mobile phone shops, the sport stores and the large corporations. We have a generation deeply malnourished by a poor diet of technology, violent computer games, bling labels and dysfunctional and disinterested family situations. I grew up in Croydon and in many ways it is a town centre dedicated to consumerism – endless shops with big windows designed to provoke discontent and increase spending.

2) The lack of moral authority in key institutions – the number of high profile scandals that have hit institutions like the Police, Parliament and the City has hugely undermined the moral authority of the establishment. It stokes a sense of injustice among many urban young people that they cannot trust the ‘suits’ and that ‘everyone is on the make’. Free papers now mean that far more people read the headlines about banks paying the ridiculous bonuses, MPs claiming on houses that don’t exist and Police being paid by newspapers. Surely these are just middle class versions of shop looting? They see ‘the grabbing hands grab all they can’ and believe they are following suit.

3) The collapse of family – there is no way that the Police can stop the numbers of young people who are determined to cause problems. Policing demands consent and they will always be outnumbered. What we are seeing is the massive impact of broken and dysfunctional families. Where are the dads stopping their kids from going out and rioting? Too often it is left to mums struggling alone who cannot physically stop their children. A cocktail of poverty, amoral attitudes, both parents having to work and the loss of any sense of personal responsibility means that the traditional barriers to poor behaviour simply don’t exist. We have been too scared to talk about family breakdown for fear of being judgemental but it is the biggest cause of poverty, exclusion and violence in the UK today.

These are some of the characteristics of a society is seriously ill. We need to look full in the face of the problems and grasp their significance before we consider the action required. For me, this is the time for an authentic Christian spirituality to offer a way forward. We need to use the language of sin, of repentance, of transformation and of hope and apply it to both institutions and indivduals if we are to chart a way back from the mess we are in.

I will end with a quote from US activist Jim Wallis who wrote:

‘The crisis of our times calls for our conversion. Our structures, values, habits and assumptions are in need of basic transformation. Neither politics nor piety as we know them will effect such a change. Rather a new spirituality is required, a spirituality rooted in old traditions but radically applied to our present circumstances’ (The Soul of Politics)


Jon Kuhrt works for the West London Mission and lives in Streatham


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