This morning, there is still the faint stench of smoke from burnt out buildings not a five minute walk away from my house. On my first venture outdoors, to see the damage the rioters caused last night, in the worst disorder I have ever seen in my lifetime, I see a man with a hosepipe, putting out a smouldering wheelie bin. He works for the local council, a street cleaner. People wander towards the High Road, hovering around the police cordon that blocks the entrance to the scene of the destruction from Bruce Grove, my quiet, mostly residential street. No trains are running from Bruce Grove station; the usual rumble of the trains has been replaced by the constant thrum of helicopters overhead.
No one really knows what to do.
Early yesterday evening, I heard a commotion outside and looked to see what the fuss was. Where I live, it’s not unusual to hear raucous shouting. I saw what looked like a group of women, in fairly high spirits, holding a placard. I couldn’t read it. I assumed there was a protest happening at the police station, but gave it little thought. A few hours later, the helicopters had been directly above our house for a while and so we turned on the news. I have never seen such carnage.
In the cold light of day, lots of people, from all walks of life, have been commenting on the why behind all of this. News crews have been questioning local residents, asking the same questions: why did this happen, in your opinion? What led a peaceful protest to become a scene of devastation akin to the Blitz? The answers have been pretty much polarised. On one hand, the police shot Mark Duggan wrongly, this is just like Broadwater Farm in 1985, this is a result of the oppression against the young people in a poor, underdeveloped area. On the other, this was the work of criminals, thieves and opportunists who took the issue and made it a lucrative venture to be at the scene of the riots. That the people who smashed windows and stole sports gear, computers, food and alcohol and burned their local supermarket aren’t doing this because they’re angry, they’re doing it because they want more stuff without having to earn it.
What I find most difficult in watching the coverage is this word: community. David Lammy originally said, after the shooting of Mark Duggan that the “community” was anxious about the shooting. I couldn’t help wondering who he meant by the “community”. He can’t have been talking about me. I saw the coverage of the incident, recognised that we didn’t know what had happened and knew the IPCC investigation would take place. Others said, yet again, rather vaguely, that the “community” were angry about the death of Mark Duggan. Were they talking about the 83 year old lady who lives downstairs, or my residents’ association leader, who invited us all into his flat at midnight last night because we were, quite frankly, scared about what was happening at the end of our road? Were they talking about the owners of the buildings that were burnt? Or maybe those whose houses were set alight and now are homeless?
Community is a big word. It is not a word that can be used lightly in Tottenham. We live, cheek by jowl, with communities from all over the world. We cannot be lumped together, under the naive assumption that we all stand together on these issues. We don’t.
I feel terribly sorry for the family of Mark Duggan. Whatever the circumstances over the man’s life and death, someone’s son, brother, father is dead. I sincerely hope the IPCC investigation uncovers details that people need to move on and find resolution. I say this with the absolute conviction that this won’t happen. No amount of investigation will change what is an entrenched and diseased position on the relationship between the police and certain groups within the Tottenham area.
Earlier, Symeon Brown stated that the riots last night were part of a “collective memory” of what happened in 1985. In some ways, he is absolutely right. Generations of people who haven’t been able, for whatever reason, to see the real change this area has undergone, have passed their bitterness and their lack of education and their lack of willingness to engage with the systems we all live under, and have created a generation of young people who do not trust the police. I taught a Year 7 lesson designed specifically to counter the negative views of the police in our class reader, ‘Gangsta Rap’ by Benjamin Zephaniah and was astounded to hear 12 year olds railing against police injustice, calling them the ‘po po’ and the ‘feds’, like they were residents of a drug-riddled block in Baltimore. When I questioned one child as to when his last interaction with the police was he stopped and thought. “Oh,” he said, “the time they helped me when my bike was stolen.”
These children don’t know anything about Broadwater Farm. They don’t even remember the Stephen Lawrence case. Mention ‘institutionalised racism’ and they look at you blankly. But, regardless of this, the culture of mistrust and suspicion against the police is endemic. And it won’t go away. The police have come into school, they are part of our PSHE programme, they have been approachable and informative, focusing on how young people can keep themselves safe and out of trouble. I believe that some of my students have had negative interactions with the police, especially if they are young, male and black. However, as one student in a PSHE lesson pointed out to others, he had never had any interaction with the police, despite the fact that he is young, male and black, because he’s inside his house after nine at night, he’s not in the streets and he’s not wearing clothes that make him look like he’s about to commit a crime.
The simple fact is that views on police will remain entrenched. We cannot hope that the shock at seeing people’s homes torched, beautiful buildings with architectural merit being destroyed and buses being set alight, will actually make those at the riot stop and think. When people group together, only looking inwards, and fail to engage with the wider world, the only endpoint is this sort of violence, fuelled by rumours, fuelled by misinformation. Until real leaders emerge from within those groups and steer the young towards forgiveness and education, towards engagement and understanding, the young will only take their world views from the small minded.
I don’t think that my local area will recover easily. All the regeneration, all the work that had been put in to making the High Road respectable and welcoming, that has all gone. Who would want to come here now? In protesting against a perceived injustice, several other injustices have been created. The people who live, work and spend money in Tottenham to fund services will turn away. Last night’s riots have undone years of work by so many organisations. Will they continue?
So, for now, my road is still closed. My job this afternoon is to find a supermarket that hasn’t been torched or looted. That’s nothing compared to the job facing those who have to rebuild their businesses and their lives from the ruins of their premises and homes. Nothing justifies this. Nothing.