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Responding to Riots: A Grounded Normativity Analysis of Recent UK Riot Discourse

Jonathan Havercroft | Associate Professor, University of Southampton

Friday, November 19, 2021 2:00 PM to 3:30 PM



Police crackdowns on recent protests by Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, and mourners of Sarah Everard all involved the use of anti-riot laws to disperse the protests. These cases pose a unique challenge to liberal political theorist’s focus on civil disobedience as the only legitimate means of expressing civil dissent. In all three cases the protestors were resisting structural injustices, yet by declaring these protests unlawful assemblies, the police deprived protestors of their right to public assembly thereby delegitimizing their political demands. While recent political philosophy on civil disobedience has increasingly contested the Rawlsian ideal of civil vs. uncivil protest, far less attention has been played to the crucial role of the police in constituting protests as riots. Under UK public order law, the sole authority to deem a protest an act of unlawful assembly (aka a riot) rests in the judgment of the senior police officer on the site of the demonstration. Beginning from this crucial feature of anti-riot law, this paper asks how the constitution of political protests as riots by the authorities shape the public’s perceptions of the legitimacy of the grievance underlying the protest? And how did protestors resist moral condemnation of their action by public authorities? Without an understanding of how the interpretation of a protest as a riot is itself a site of political struggle, theorists of civil disobedience neglect the crucial power of the police to declare certain political protests illegal, hence illegitimate. Given the UK Government’s proposed Crime, Policing, and Sentencing Bill, with even greater legal restrictions on demonstrations and processions, an analysis of this power is particularly urgent. To answer these questions, this paper will draw upon the method of grounded normative theory. Grounded normative theory incorporates original empirical analysis in “a recursive process of theory development striving for accountability to persons in empirical contexts” (Ackerly, et al., 2021, 3). Specifically, this paper analyzes an archive I have assembled of public statements, testimony, press coverage, and official reports of over 40 riots in the UK from 1996-2021. By focusing on the actual normative justifications protestors and authorities gave for their actions, rather than the abstract arguments of political theorists, this paper will challenge the unhelpful dichotomy between civil and uncivil disobedience, and the narrow focus on violence that grips much of the political theory literature on the topic. Instead this paper will treat riots as political struggles in which protestors resist state authority and through which state authorities constitute political grievances as legitimate or illegitimate.