The ongoing events in London and other cities in the UK have forced those of us who research mobilizations to re-examine some of our generally-held ideas. One refrain that seems to be increasingly deployed by politicians regards that of simple “criminality.” This is a comforting and quick explanation that, absorbed easily, might help someone sleep better at night, reassured also with their own law-abiding nature. As such, it serves a useful function, but will likely be less useful as a basis for policies to address the complexity of what has just happened.

A second line of thought invokes race, an explanation that easily resonates with those with origins or training in the US – a country that exhibits a very high level of racial categorization in its politics. At first glance, the notion of race could make sense to an analyst given the shooting that sparked the riots. But it quickly became clear in the scale of events that this was about much more. A look at the photos of looters in the newspaper quite plainly reveals that there are no clear patterns of race, and there are plenty of shots of “whites” robbing stores and “non-white” store owners trying to defend them. The television news has been using the word “youths” to describe the looter demographic. While not a usual social science category, the photos show that this is a pretty good approximation of who they are. While the US has high racial categorization, the UK has a high degree of cleavage on a generational basis. The word “yob,” or boy spelled backwards, is a UK word to indicate a young man who gets into trouble. This is a concept that is relatively stronger in the UK than in other European countries.

A quite fruitful line of thought is developing around the psychology of those engaged in the violence and looting, exploring in particular the imperative of commercialism that seems to drive some of the actions. These ideas comprise a sophisticated turn on some of the socio-psychological ideas in mobilization theory, forcing us to think carefully about basing economic stability on the requirement of consumerism. Journalists on the streets are also probing these “why” questions in interviewing those involved. This has produced a series of quotes and video or radio clips that are disturbing for many reasons, one being a lack of a truly coherent explanation. This kind of frustrating set of answers by participants to the “why” question is not unique – it seems to crop up in a diverse array of riot studies, ranging from Bangladesh and India to Tulsa. That does not mean that participants should not be asked why they engaged; simply that their answers may not produce the information that we want for a policy-informing explanation.

What kind of information can we reliably draw from riots? One thing we do know is what people do. A focus on observables can tell us a great deal about mobilizations even if we have a hard time getting inside the heads of rioters. For example, actions do not happen in a vacuum. They are followed by reactions. This is no less the case for the UK events, where some social mobilizations have started to emerge in response to the events of the past few days. A focus on politicians alone would miss these mobilizations. Some of these counter-mobilizations include individuals who decided to band together to protect their shops or neighborhoods in light of what was perceived as a low police response in London’s Monday events. In East London, Turkish shop owners mobilized  to protect their stores. In Southall, a group of Sikh men mobilized to protect a Sikh temple. In Enfield, a group of 300 men gathered to form a “vigilante” group to protect their neighborhood against looters’ potential return. These gatherings prompted a worried police department to warn that violence could increase with such groups to counter looters. While the diversity of these counter-mobilizations is obvious (and should serve as additional caution against a race reading of events), the Enfield vigilante group is mentioned by some as potentially leaning towards a racial response. A racial reading of the riots is likely to become a political project for various actors to construe for their own political benefit (watch this space).

Our theoretical abilities to understand the dynamics of bilateral mobilizations such as these are remarkably weak. One reason for this is that social movement theories developed primarily to explain protest against states and state repression. Social movement theories are thus useful to examine conditions of mobilization against a repressive state, and as such they have produced some interesting insights when applied to varied authoritarian settings such as Eastern Europe in 1989 and the recent Arab Spring. Some analysts apply these insights to democratic contexts, while others view this practice as politically motivated. Wherever one stands on this issue, one thing is certain: social movements insights fall down if the state is largely absent in events. It is simply a fact that there just weren’t enough police to contain the hundreds of violent looters in some of these events, thus the state was largely absent as an actor in some of them. Moreover, social movement theory has not really considered the potential of mal-intentioned masses. But this is the combination that produced the ugly scenes in London on Monday night and in other cities on Tuesday.

This is where bilateral mobilization comes in. Those of us working on ethnic politics and nationalism have noticed that groups don’t tend to simply accept the domination of another. As stated by one Manchester man protecting his shop, “Rather than goin’ hiding lettin’ them take everything we’re gonna stand up and fight. What [else are] ya gonna do?”  In a study of mobilization events involving Hungarians and Romanians in Romania, I found that a pattern of emulative mobilization is quite common. Similar to the London events on Monday, the politics of ethnic tensions between masses may not involve the state. They thus take on certain characteristics that can be missed by social movement theory, such as emulative mobilizations across groups as a general dynamic. In their focus on the state, social movements theories don’t strongly consider what can happen if groups might mobilize against each other. Where states, armies or police do get involved, the dynamics are quite different. But in bilateral mobilizations with a low state presence, what one finds is the following pattern: one group mobilizes, invoking grievances, and then the other group responds with an emulative mobilization. The pattern of joint mobilizations can easily spiral unless it is ended with either a jointly-recognized involvement by the state or brokerage and negotiation between respected elites of each group.

What can these emulative dynamics tell us about the London riots? Well, there is a very real danger that without a continued police presence, vigilantes might clash with perceived or real looters. While the outcome of such clashes would be less violent in the UK than in a country in which gun ownership is less controlled, spirals remain a real possibility. This potential is augmented by the fact that right-wing parties such as the BNP are intent on making as much political hay out of the riots and looting as they can, and some of the current government rhetoric is feeding into this discourse. Interpreting the situation is one thing, while admittedly addressing the problem is harder. Unlike an ethnic riot, it is not clear that there are any leaders for the rioters with which negotiations could take place. It is possible that “community leaders” could become proxies for such brokers, but this presents a problem for which hopefully those engaged in UK politics might have some creative ideas. What will not be helpful is identifying a platitude instead of a real explanation, just because it is easier to seem to address.

Fortunately, there is one crucial difference between bilateral ethnic mobilizations and the UK events. In addition to the groups of men mobilizing to protect their neighborhoods, there is an entirely different kind of responsive  mobilization that has emerged as well: a broad-based cleanup effort. Cleverly called the RiotWombles, their loose name refers to a children’s TV series about creatures on Wimbledon Common that pick up objects left by messy human beings. Within the last 24 hours, hundreds of people have shown up in various neighborhoods as part of this effort, hoisting brooms in the air as a symbol of tidiness, and well, frankly, also of strength. The presence of hundreds of broom-wielders in some of these areas should serve as a likely deterrent to would-be looters, in contrast to Monday’s empty streets – illustrating one of the logics of bilateral mobilzations. One hopes that it is the RiotWombles, rather than the vigilantes, that might remain the most visible form of counter-mobilization.

Sherrill Stroschein is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Politics  at the Department of Political Science, School of Public Policy University College London