Riots erupted in London and throughout Eng­land ear­lier this month, exposing a broad dis­con­tent among Britain’s dis­ad­van­taged youth. We spoke with Gor­dana Rabren­ovic, asso­ciate pro­fessor of soci­ology and edu­ca­tion, and the asso­ciate director of the Brud­nick Center on Vio­lence and Con­flict, to dis­cuss what caused the riots and why the young people in Britain turned to violence.

What caused these riots, and how can the U.K. pre­vent sim­ilar inci­dents from occurring?

According to U.K. media reports, the riots were ini­tially caused by the London police’s mis­han­dling of the after­math of the shooting death of 29-​​year-​​old Mark Duggan in a poor north London neigh­bor­hood. The police failed to com­mu­ni­cate with Duggan’s family about his death in a timely manner, causing 200 people to gather out­side the local police sta­tion seeking answers. This gath­ering turned into a riot that esca­lated into looting, and quickly spread to other London neigh­bor­hoods and later to other major cities. Par­tic­i­pants in the rioting were ini­tially young males, but other groups of people soon joined in as well. It appears the riots were orches­trated by social media users through Twitter, Face­book and Black­Berry Messenger.

In the begin­ning, police were slow to react to the riots, appar­ently sur­prised by how quickly they spread and by the number of par­tic­i­pants. This expe­ri­ence sug­gests that one of the best ways to pro­tect neigh­bor­hoods from vio­lence in the future is to strengthen police-​​community rela­tion­ships and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Police need to forge strong com­mu­nity rela­tions if they are to respond with the speed required to meet the chal­lenges pre­sented by evolving social media technology.

Are acts of public dis­cord (such as protests, picket lines, and riots) an effec­tive means to an end?

Protest is a legit­i­mate strategy and some­times the only strategy pow­er­less people have to fight for their rights. A lack of polit­ical power and finan­cial resources can force groups to use the power of their num­bers to make their con­cerns known. The sheer number of people that par­tic­i­pate in such events often attracts media atten­tion and can help make the plight of a par­tic­ular group more vis­ible to the gen­eral population.

How­ever, when protest esca­lates into vio­lence and looting, the protesting group often loses its legit­i­macy. The London riots show how easily social order can break down. Protests that do not turn to rioting and looting are much more likely to address the pro­tes­tors’ concerns.

Why do some pop­u­la­tions, such as youth or mar­gin­al­ized groups, resort to rioting, rather than taking formal or peaceful avenues?

They lack social infra­struc­ture, such as com­mu­nity orga­ni­za­tions to artic­u­late their demands, or polit­ical and eco­nomic resources to pursue formal avenues. Riots allow them to vent their anger, and looting gives them an oppor­tu­nity to obtain goods they cannot afford. In addi­tion, looting, which is a mostly non­vi­o­lent act, can attract a wider pop­u­la­tion that oppor­tunis­ti­cally takes advan­tage of a gen­eral state of law­less­ness for per­sonal gain.

The ulti­mate chal­lenge for the U.K. is to develop a public col­lec­tive effi­cacy that pre­vents sim­ilar inci­dents from occur­ring. It also needs to con­sider how best to address the social, eco­nomic and polit­ical mar­gin­al­iza­tion of youth in its cities. This will require devel­op­ment of part­ner­ships between police and the com­mu­nity, sim­ilar to the ones Boston has devel­oped. It will also require investing in edu­ca­tion and social pro­grams that give young people more of a stake in their community.