When a London Riots round-table was proposed, I promised an article on what I found to be the most interesting news out of the whole ordeal: on the third day of the riots in London, Amazon’s UK sales of baseball bats increased by over 6,500% in 24 hours, a rather curious discovery as I thought they played cricket over there. Similarly, police baton sales went up over 4,200%.
As the riots raged, I heard many Americans blame those effete Brits for banning firearms, explaining that here, where every shop owner is expected to be packing heat, such a thing would never happen. Not only is this historically false, as demonstrated by stateside riots like those in 1992 Los Angeles, but it has the pro-gun crowd making the same mistake as some gun-control advocates. Guns don’t kill rioters, shopkeepers kill rioters, and if anything, a clerk with a baseball bat in the face of a masked mob is much more hardcore than an attendant with a handgun. It takes a certain level of desperation and fear to smash someone to bits with sporting goods – it’s much more dangerous, messy, and personal.
British citizens armed themselves because looting and vandalism were crimes of opportunity amid the riots, and the forces of order had no response for when local unrest snowballed into widespread chaos. Say what you will about food prices and social justice, need wasn’t what drove a millionaire’s daughter to steal electronics or a university graduate of social work to take a television to complement the 27 inch screen in her bedroom. Many looters were of comfortable backgrounds and stole because they could get away with it, rioting as much because of mob mentality as any underlying social issues. As rioters saw that they could loot and rampage with impugnity early on, others were encouraged to do the same.The police weren’t doing anything and the stores weren’t putting up a fight. They were just faces in a crowd and everybody else was doing it, so why not get their share?
And why didn’t the police put a stop to this sooner? British politicians continue to argue whether insufficient numbers or tactics were to blame. Both sides seem to agree that, as rioters saw that they could loot and rampage with impugnity early on, others were encouraged to do the same. There was little indication that such riots would occur, and though some controversial events had taken place, this was the UK, not Syria, Greece, or even France. Riots are complex systems that have a way of gaining momentum or fizzling out unpredictably, and there was no agile response in place to deal with unrest at this magnitude. While the number of police officers present increased greatly over the course of the riots, effective intervention did not happen early enough as good police anti-riot tactics involve pre-empting disturbances.
In the eyes of residents, the forces of order,having lost the initiative, failed them and would continue to let them down, so they responded by becoming more resilient. The immediate reaction was to arm themselves in whatever way possible. If violence is a last resort, melee weapons are the last resort of the last resort. Aside from baseball bats, hockey sticks were another popular sporting good repurposed for crowd control, favored by the hundreds of immigrants who gathered to defend Sikh and Hindu temples. As one noted, the intent was to guard their homes and places of worship “until the police can be there in time… The feeling was that they (police) were spread so thin that there needs to be a community presence. And it is not vigilantism but it is effectively just protection of property.”
But not everyone is comfortable with street justice, including the police, who felt that vigilantism was counterproductive as it required a response that further stretched their forces, and Amazon.com, which stopped selling truncheons. Citizens found other ways to get active in their community’s defense, such as cooperating with and assisting law enforcement. Citizens set up respite stations for officers and interest in the Special Constables, the UK’s volunteer irregular law enforcement, soared, increasing by threefold in some areas during the worst of the riots. Affected communities also began turning inwards to rebuild and recover. When many small businesses could not afford to rebuild on their own and could not count on government aid, a volunteer initiative was launched to provide “post-riot urban intervention” with the help of local builders and designers. If, as seems to be the trend, nationwide and global unrest becomes more prevalent in traditionally stable western states, such rudimentary resilient communities may become more common as Europeans brace themselves and stock up on their sporting goods and other blunt objects.