Drinking and Public Disorder
A report of research conducted for The Portman Group by MCM Research
UK Research – Oxford
Levels and perceptions
Despite the largely favourable comparison with Coventry, Oxford has also suffered from a violent reputation. Although levels of disorder in Oxford are no higher than in other towns of comparable size and population, any incidents which do occur are at odds with the architecture – a contrast which the media, understandably, find irresistible. A typical example of this factor was provided in September 1991, when the antics of a handful of ‘joyriders’ in Oxford received at least as much national coverage as the full-scale riots in a deprived area of Newcastle. Although the Oxford incidents actually took place on council estates at some distance from the city centre, "Dreaming Spires and Screaming Tyres" does make a good headline.
The perceptions of those we interviewed, including police officers, probation officers, ordinary ‘punters’ and active participants in disorder were that most of the problems in Oxford consisted of fairly minor scuffles and scraps between individuals. "That’s been going on for years" was a frequent comment. The following extract from our researchers’ report indicates the typical response to our questions about levels and types of disorder:
When the subject of semi-riots and group disorder was raised, one lad (the older of the two) related his interpretation of a so-called ‘mob versus the police’ riot that had happened in Oxford about 15-18 months ago. He said he witnessed 2 or 3 lads scuffling outside one of the fast food outlets after closing time on a Friday night. He said that as a result and like all incidents like that, a group of other people began to gather to watch the event so there was now maybe 20 to 30 people about.
The next development was that the police arrived in large numbers and with lights and sirens going which attracted more and more people to the scene. At this stage, because the police were going in quite hard, a few other people had become involved but the vast majority were simply onlookers - some of whom might well have been jeering and egging others on. At the end a few were arrested and the crowd dispersed but the next day he could not believe how the event was reported in the local paper and thought about phoning them up to say how they had blown the whole thing out of proportion.
Having said that, the fieldwork in Oxford did uncover perhaps the more serious side of the ‘lager lout’ phenomenon. A group identified by the police, known as the ‘Squad’, were alleged to be responsible for a very high percentage of violent incidents in the town centre. The suggestion was that this group was very well organised, in an almost military style, and that they presented a real threat to the safety of the town-centre drinking population.
Having met the ‘generals’ of this group, whose ages ranged from 20 to 25+, much of the police interpretation of the group’s activities was confirmed. The members we talked to emphasised that the group really didn’t exist any more and that, although they were considered ‘senior’ members (despite their stated ages), their activities – which at one time had a strong association with football – had more or less ceased.
Some people think we are some kind of organisation or something, it’s nothing like that. There’s no official membership or anything. We’ve got loads of blame for things we haven’t done. You read in the paper about an incident and it mentions The Squad and then you realise that none of the boys were there.
Some of their comments about past activities, however, confirmed that they had ruled the town-centre roost for a few years. They had a fairly specific focus for their activities and a ‘headquarters’ in one of the town-centre pubs. The main ‘targets’ would usually be rival football fans or any group of strangers or lesser rival gang who might wish to attempt to take over their headquarters. Some of the consequent clashes resulted in confrontations spilling out into the streets of Oxford and, on occasions, running battles with the police – although these events were the exception rather than the rule.
We just came out of the pubs and beat up people for no reason, but that doesn’t happen any more. We’ve all calmed down … everyone’s older and wiser. We don’t go looking for it now like we used to, unless it comes to the pub. We used to go to different pubs and meet up, up the Cowley Road somewhere, so the police wouldn’t know where you were. There was a couple of hundred sometimes. But at that time, everyone was getting arrested and charged, but nobody knew what was at the end of it, everyone thought there’d be a fine. But then people got sent down.
When asked to explain the lager lout phenomenon in general, this group’s views were no different to many of the others with whom we talked in other parts of the country. They saw the odd scrap on a Friday and Saturday night as insignificant and normal. They believed that reports of high levels of violence on the streets were exaggerated.
There’s nothing happening at the moment really … it’s got a lot better in the last year. People always think it’s worse than it really is. They think when there’s trouble of (that one word everyone’s quite embarrassed with now) the Squad.
On the other hand, the senior members of the group all held previous convictions for offenses of violence ranging from ABH to GBH and assault on a Police officer which confirmed their involvement in some quite serious disorder, indeed in a sense this was how many of them had gained ‘senior’ status. A reputation as a ‘fighter’ certainly appeared to bring significant rewards:
But you look at it. Half the blokes who get in there are fucking ugly … and **** is ugly and he’s pulled a load of birds just because of who he is and what he does. There’s a load of birds hanging around because of what we do. They’re like groupies really …
Following several evenings with the group, our researchers also reported that:
The group on occasions was surrounded by a younger entourage (aged 16-19) whom they referred to as ‘Giddy Boys’. They were viewed as "learning the trade" and therefore necessary as replacements for seniors who would sooner or later settle down and curtail their involvement. They were also seen as dangerous in that they were not experienced in handling police questions and therefore might give away important information regarding various activities of members and so on.
The senior members also felt that ‘Giddy Boys’ were at least partly to blame for the group’s ‘lager lout’ image:
People think the lager louts go out, get beered up and start on some innocent people, but we don’t do that. We just enjoy drink and it does give you a bit of a buzz and gets the adrenalin going. There are the giddy boys who when they get drunk, don’t know what they’re doing.
During our interviews and discussion sessions with members of the group, we obtained many detailed accounts of incidents in which they had been involved. The following is a representative example:
I was in the N__ I__ and some guys who had been involved in a fight some 5 or 10 minutes earlier, but who had avoided being thrown out (I think these guys caused the problem but the innocent pair got thrown out). They got involved in a conversation about football and their main point was how they had caught some Millwall fans and they had beaten shit out of them. I was stood listening very passively and I was steamed out of my brains because I’d been drinking all night and it was now about 2.00am.
They asked me if I ever went up to the Oxford games and I told them that I didn’t. I was in the state of mind then for some reason that I told them that those people who went to football matches were a bunch of fucking wankers. There was 2 of them and I thought what a pair of bloody idiots although up till then I had just been listening to them and as far as they thought it was a friendly conversation.
I knew the consequences of my comment, that I would probably get my head kicked in or I’d kick one of their heads in. One of them was working behind the bar and one was this side of the counter and one of them said he was going to take me outside and kick my head in (that was the one behind the bar).
The one on my side of the bar said "no it’s OK, I’ll look after this" and he started calling me all the names under the sun.
So there came a point where I very cooly and calmly took my jacket off and gave it to him and offered the bloke outside. We went outside and he was a bit shocked by my reaction and he said to me ‘I’ve been done for fighting in the street loads of times and I don’t want to get caught so let’s go over there by the school.’ So he climbed over the fence and as I was climbing over the fence he grabbed me by the hair, pulled me down, smacked me and broke one of my teeth.
Then I completely snapped and it’s not the sort of thing I would do if I was sober but I was drunk. I could walk towards him and have him punch me in the face 6 or 7 times and I was telling hit me again, hit me again, and I was telling him all the time as I went towards him that I was going to kill him, and that I was going to rip his head off and all the things you say. He broke my tooth and fractured my nose I think because it really hurt for a long time afterwards and eventually I grabbed hold of him, pulled him down on the ground, pinned his shoulders down calmly and just pummelled the hell out of him.
I was in a blind rage and I went to the flower bed and grabbed handfuls of dirt and stuffed it down his throat until he was sick. I just left him lying there, went back to the pub, got a lot of hassle from the bouncers who didn’t want to let me back in but they let me in to get my jacket. I had to go in and I went up to the barman and I said I would wait for him if he wanted and told him his mate was lying in a flower bed across the road. I was really angry and hard and when I left I thought well I’m just going to go home anyway.
I got about two hundred yards up the road and I was sick and I don’t know whether that was the beer or fear or what but I felt some remorse and I almost wanted to go back and try and help the guy or do something for him but I decided better of it and went home. I assume that the rage was there just through drinking but it was also about being really sick of people, not being able to go out and have that sort of trouble with them.
While any research report on an issue such as street violence will contain comments about real-life incidents, we would not wish to fuel the sensationalist streets running with blood reporting, and must point out that a great deal of research time was spent in searching for people who had, would or could become involved in such activity: they are very hard to find!
The vast majority of the other ‘punters’ we talked to in Oxford had no police records, nor associations with such an organised group. Some may have been involved in the odd fracas, or perhaps witnessed one or two, but these were seen as isolated incidents and in no way did they feel that the streets of Oxford on a Friday and Saturday night were unsafe or intimidating. They saw Oxford as being as unexceptional in these terms as any other town centres that they might have visited.
The role of alcohol
The members of the ‘Squad’ – whom the press and public would certainly view as ‘Lager Louts’ – clearly saw alcohol as a primary factor in their own aggressive behaviour, and their explanations provide some insight into the nature of the relationship between drinking and disorder.
Many referred, in vague terms, to the ‘disinhibiting’ effect of alcohol, although this did not always have negative connotations:
It lessens your inhibitions but I don’t know whether it brings out a different side of you. It’s like if you saw a nice looking girl across the pub, I think I would find it easier to chat her up if I had had a couple of pints first. If I was stone cold sober, after a couple of sentences to her I’d be lost for words and wouldn’t know what to do.
But as far as drinking goes it just brings out some of my inhibitions. Things I believe in but you haven’t got the guts to stand up for. Someone goes out, gets drunk and then inflicts pain on other people, I don’t understand them and they need to see a psychologist or something. Why they do it I don’t know.
Some emphasised the more specific effects on cognitive, perceptual or linguistic ability:
I only ever got into fights when I had been drinking. I’d walk into a pub with some friends and you get somebody who wants to inflict trouble on other people in the pub. If I was sober and stood at the bar when those sort of people came in, I’d walk away from it or if confronted I would talk my way out of it. But if I was drunk I would have a go and I really hated bullies and that type. Sometimes I would get involved even if it didn’t involve me.
I think when I see things going on in a pub " Why the fuck should I put up with this?" but I think that when I’m sober but I won’t do anything about it, unless someone came and hit me.
No class="indent" one would think twice; you just grab something … glasses, stools. If you were sober, you’d think twice about picking a glass up. You’d stool them if you were sober.
While others felt that drinking reduced their tolerance of frustration:
I wouldn’t have had the same situation if I hadn’t been drunk. There was a lot of people very wound up in the taxi queue.
A lot of trouble starts in some where like the C___ because the place used to be overcrowded and the other thing was that there were only a few women and that caused a lot of frustrations in the men and then you just drink and then it would go off usually at a table where a woman was sat.
The influence of the ‘cultural expectation’ that drinking leads to aggression was clear throughout our conversations with the ‘Squad’:
When I was 18/19 and used to drink in the town centre there used to be the odd incident of trouble. From the age 17 to 21 I was involved in it and I went through the stage of going down town, getting drunk, getting into fights and things like that.
I’ve known a couple of people who are violent whether they drink or not but most of the scraps you see are in pubs, you don’t see many on the street. There are those with violent tendencies and when they are drunk they are more ready to go into a fight.
You can’t do anything to stop it. If it’s going to go off, it’s going to go off. You’ve got to wait for people to change. Blokes are going to be boisterous; it’ll never ever stop.
But along with the pursuit of status and personal identity, the most powerful motivation for disorder and fighting was, simply, excitement – "a good crack":
I used to come home from work and was so excited, I used to tremble when I was getting ready. It was great. You couldn’t wait to get back together the following afternoon to talk about what had gone on. You had Friday night, then football Saturday afternoon and then Saturday night.
You went out to be classy … you want to look good at what you’re doing …
As far as we’re concerned, we keep the pub running, we put the money in the till and we don’t want anybody else coming in … they’re taking up our bar space and we don’t want that and we don’t like the fact that they’ve done that and that’s when all the fights happen.
The ‘Squad’s’ perception of the role of alcohol was summarised with almost Shakespearean grandeur by a senior member:
If a mob of boys came into the pub and we were stone sober, we’d still do them. If a mob of boys came into the pub and we were drunk, it would still be done.
The overall approach of the Oxford police to drink-related disorder has been covered in the section on Coventry, where both methods and results are compared. We therefore focus here on the views of the ‘consumers’ of police time and resources.
Although our ‘lager lout’ interviewees had some criticisms of the police, we have already pointed out in Overview and Analysis that their basic attitudes were surprisingly conventional. Criticisms focused on the occasional heavy-handedness, rather than any questioning of police authority.
I have been hassled by the police but if they weren’t there things would be a lot worse. Your working-class person, maybe unemployed or no money who just drink it anyway are probably looking for someone to blame be it the police or a social worker or anybody. The police are the main target because they are out on the street in force. People will have a go because they are pissed off with their lives or something like that.
I was swearing and the cops said that if I continued that they would arrest me, so I said ‘Go on then arrest me’ and they did. They banged me up until 5 o’clock in the morning and then made me walk home. I was later fined for disorderly conduct the sum of five pounds. I was drunk but I had been drinking all night. It was a fair cop, they were pretty reasonable about it really and I got what I deserved.
I think they [Police/courts] have really clamped down in the last couple of years, handing out custodial sentences and I think everyone learnt by that. But I think they’re still continuing the clampdown and everyone’s learnt their lesson.
The clampdown’s been in the courts. With judges, the likes of their children are going to Oxford and they see it as their class being attacked and us causing the problem, so they hand out custodial sentences, sometimes over the top.
The senior members appeared to take a keen interest in police tactics, commenting on the logic of certain methods in the condescending manner of superior strategists.
They get all friendly with you now. They used to use second names. It was always Mr. this and Mr. that and now it’s always first names. One of their ploys was to try and get us against each other all the time … divide and conquer …
One night down the ‘set’ we all came out at closing time and there were police horses and video cameras and vans waiting for us to come out, so straight away there’s a barrier between you. It’s not just your local bobby saying, "Go on lads, move along now". These horses weren’t just trotting about, they were running up and down that road – stupid really.
class="indent" It’s not going to teach you a lesson, because when you’re inside, you learn more things and it leads you into other directions, like thieving … it breeds more in you, so it teaches you a lesson in other ways as well.