The Tottenham Riots

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 No trains are running from Bruce Grove station; the usual rumble of the trains has been replaced by the constant thrum of helicopters overhead.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.

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43 comments

  1. Pingback: Tottenham Riots: what does ‘the community’ think? | Liberal Conspiracy
  2. y

    .” 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 .”

    Maybe if teachers tried to help students articulate their opinions rather than dismiss and belittle them it would have more positive outcomes. I studied Zephaniah years back in primary school post notting hill riots and our teacher used him as an inspiration to help us write our own poems. Thank you for sharing your prejudices though- most enlightening.

  3. Ollie

    ‘Maybe if teachers tried to help students articulate their opinions’. Stop the press- what a brilliant idea! It amazes me that no one has come up with it before. Wow. And let’s definitely not inform those opinions. Oh no, definitely not. And especially not with 11 year olds, I mean what could they possibly learn…

    • The Great Smell Of Brute

      Too true. This is what happens when a culture is created whereby informed and uninformed opinions are given equal status; it’s called ‘education’ for a reason!

  4. y

    I never said that anyone’s opinions can’t be informed. Including teachers. I was interested in a very different approach being taken to the same author that was used in a class I had when I was eleven. Zephaniah was a spring board for quite a lot of my writing and poetry through my teenage years which was a great help and source of strength. I was just wondering whether the author of this blog’s approach by using Zephaniah’s work to look at perceived anti-police prejudice had the same effect- or whether it helped to feed her own lack of appreciation of some of her pupils families and backgrounds.

    I feel that one of the great unsaids has been the endemic institutional racism in our schools. Your blog post shows one aspect of this.

    • thenewstateswoman

      I think you’re making some huge assumptions about my race and the races of my pupils.

      My approach to teaching has always been to use literature as a starting point for education in it’s truest sense. I admire Zephaniah for his poetry and I feel that he is an excellent role model. However, I would not be doing my job if I did not raise questions from a text that so clearly portrays the police negatively almost from beginning to end. What’s the point in being a teacher if I don’t teach my students to question?

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  5. Ben reeve-Lewis

    Y I thought your post was the sanest thing I have seen on the matter. I was at Brixton (by accident) and obviously remember Broadwater and I work closely with the police in my work and I have to say the cops have come on leaps and bounds since Railton Road.

    I feel sad that the people who were mounting a well intentioned vigil over the shooting had their cause hijacked by a bunch of wotless nomads whose sole political point was to nick a TV from the local shop and call it protest.

    • thenewstateswoman

      I worked it out! Thank you for your lovely comment. It’s nice to hear balanced, non hysterical viewpoints uncoloured by personal resentment.

  6. Ben reeve-Lewis

    Glad it made sense 🙂 I have been watching things unfold on TV and am worried at crews looking for the polarised angle to broadcast. this wont get to the thruth for anyone I think. In my opinion in Brixton there was a genuine point behind it, with the stop and search laws and the way the police at that time were exercising them at the time. And I say that in full acknowledgement that I did see quite a few electrical goods parting company with their owners that had nothing to do with the legitimate points being made, there has always been these people out there.

    What does interest me though is the pre-programmed reaction to the police in a community which isnt necessarily borne out by what you wrote about in relation to your pupils experience with them helping him when his bike was stolen. Why do people automatically assume that all coppers arte bastards

  7. anon

    “and he’s not wearing clothes that make him look like he’s about to commit a crime.”

    does this mean anyone in a hoodie deserves to be stop and searched?

  8. Pingback: Open thread: Violence in Tottenham and Wood Green « Silver Street Social
  9. Andrew S Hatton (@Andrew_S_Hatton)

    Thanks, please keep blogging.
    I was working in Liverpool City Magistrates Court the day after the ’81 Toxteth Riots and home visiting the day after the unreported Everton Riots of Summer 1982.

    I have no answers, beyond we need to look for opportunities to contribute to unifying all people, as naive as this may sound.

    We need to understand the detail of what really happened.

    I know Tottenham of old, 1965 in fact when I was a junior clerk in an office near the junction of The High Road and Northumberland Park.

    Please keep blogging as events unfold in the days and weeks to come.

  10. Jem

    So, what happens when a “young, black male” wearing “clothes that make him look like he’s about to commit a crime” meets a girl wearing clothes that make her look like she’s available for sex, as they say? Is that community?

    • thenewstateswoman

      Thank you for your comment. I take your point entirely. It may seem that I am stereotyping, however, I think it’s short sighted to ignore the consequences of outward appearance. After all, that is what race discrimination is built on. Whether we like it or not, these stereotypes exists and we should try to change people’s opinions, but in the mean time, I feel that I should be making my students aware that if they dress like a stereotype, they may well end up being treated like one.

  11. objectivedissenter

    Poor journalism – lest we forget that rioting in Black communities ushered in the era of “legislated equality” enjoyed by all non-white communities in the UK today. Thankfully, many are aware that bricks and petrol bombs ended the era of young black males being routinely snatched off the streets in police vans and assaulted.

    Specifically – you criticise the vague use of the word “community”, but then you go on to say that “[t]hese children don’t know anything about Broadwater Farm”.

    Who exactly are “these” children you speak of? The pickeninny of those “uneducated” parents you also referred to, I assume?

    In truth, you’d be amazed at what “these” Kids know, and what experiences their parents and siblings have had with the police. After all, it was only 3 years ago that a police officer informed on their fellow officers regarding alleged waterboarding in Enfield (re: David Nwankwo). No charges were brought regarding torture, unsurprisingly, but the judge acknowledged that the officers in question did ‘flout internal procedures’ by appropriating the electronic goods and vehicles of various suspects. Tellingly, the cases against the alleged victims of waterboarding were quietly dropped, so in truth, the actions of the police are more accurately described as theft.

    More to the point, for every N17 / N18 resident who remains unaware of REAL police misconduct, thankfully, there is another who is. Likewise, for every child who doesn’t “remember the Stephen Lawrence case” – I assure you, there is another that does. Considering the police have finally decided to arrest his killers, a new generation will soon be reminded of who he is, and people in your position would do well to remember that.

    Collective Memory doesn’t die.

    • thenewstateswoman

      Thank you for commenting. Your final comment made me think. It reminded me of when I was little and my mother was telling me about Gandhi. He said: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Perhaps collective memory doesn’t die – I don’t think it should. But maybe it should be tempered by forgiveness to create a less antagonistic society.

      • ShadesofGray

        Can you please clarify what you mean by forgiveness?? You keep repeating this? So am I supposed to ‘forgive’ the police if they have shot my brother and if I were to riot about it and make my voice heard (as best as I know how given the trauma and abuse i have undergone) I am not being forgiving?? I think what you are speaking of is not forgiveness, it is being silenced. And being silenced is what those too comfortable to see the bigger deeper issues would prefer from those in violent pain. In short, I think it is weak to expect silence labelled as ‘forgiveness’. If you want less violent riots in your area, instead of asking those in pain and oppression to forgive, ask them what their pain is and stand up for them through all the peaceful legitimate educated ways you know that they never had the chance to learn while oppressed, before the straw on the camel’s back breaks and causes havoc like it did recently, causing you to write this venting blog.

  12. Em

    I think the blog misses the point. The rioting is not about the police. The police murder at point-blank range of a man who was probably unarmed (I assume this based on how many of the rumours about de Menezes turned out to be lies) was just a catalyst.

    The underlying cause is an increasingly unjust society where less and less people accumulate more of the nation’s wealth, where the state has been stripped of most of its assets (aka privatisation), which means it has less sources of income and is consequently more and more in debt, and where unaccountable big business can bully elected governments.

    If you’re a young person on an estate in the UK, you know that -unless you’re very gifted or very lucky- you don’t have a future. It’s bad enough if you’re white, even worse if you’re black/brown. Compare that to the children of privilege, say David Cameron -talentless, mediocre and dull but running the country.

    But this grim reality lives alongside consumer culture (aka greed) and ‘the American dream’. Most of us have accepted it, with everyone wanting the latest gadget, the latest fashion, the latest everything. The media advertises to us, tell us we want the latest gadget, we need the latest fashion, we can’t live without the latest fad… Our culture encourages us to be shallow and materialistic, whether it be through gangsta rap (“I come from the hood but now I’m rich”), The Apprentice, X-Factor, 1000s of Hollywood films, Business Studies at school, etc… Most of us grow up wanting to ‘make it’, and we understand it in purely consumerist terms.

    When you mix unlimited consumerism, unachievable dreams and a far more limited reality, you create resentment and anger. When you cut education, youth clubs, put up price of food, cut benefits and essentially close the tiny window that existed to create a better life , you get an unpredictable reaction.

    The fact that the rioting is focused on looting consumer goods confirms this. If the rioting was really because people ‘hate’ the police, you would have seen police stations burnt down. But no, this is frustrated young people who don’t know what to do with their frustration, don’t know how to channel it against the system, and so simply express their anger in the one way they know how: fulfilling their consumerist dreams -but this time without paying.

    • ShadesofGray

      Well said! Very intelligent and precise! People need to wake up and realise the deep-rooted CAUSES of riots and the socio-political psychology behind it. Riots are severely symptomatic of a system that is allowing society to rot. Interesting that people are concerned with their tax money being wasted by these looters but they dont give shiite that the government is using taxes and leaving a helpless part of society to rot, while getting the police to bang the brains of anyone who speaks up too much, and in some cases, at all. If one really need examples of this, dare to attend the front line of any protest for human rights reasons.

    • Ogre

      Excellent analyses! I cannot disagree with any of these comments. It’s so true that forgiveness is the realm of the strong – but: how to forgive AND effect change at the same time? Let’s face it, people (all people, police, people living on estates, everyone) need pressure to act. Twenty-five years ago, the much-needed regeneration programme in Broadwater Farm only occured after – and as a direct result of – the riots.

      In my experience, the poor (who tend to be ethnic minorities) have very little influence on local infrastructural developments and planning decisions – they have no voice. They might complain about leaking water mains, rising crime rates in their areas, soaring unemployment rates, but who’s listening?

      In the end, violence seems like the only recourse. If you don’t fight – make a fuss – really shake up those complacent string-pullers out there, chances are you’ll get ignored, no matter how terrible your situation.

      Of course, there are a lot of innocent victims here – small business-owners, people just trying to make a living – but on the other side of the equation there are also a helluva lot of innocents who are tired and frustrated and angry, and most of all, ignored.

  13. The Great Smell Of Brute

    Thanks for telling it like it is. Tottenham needs more people like yourself in positions of leadership and influence.

    Education of the young is the only thing which can deliver a brighter future for the area, long term.

  14. James

    These thieves and violent thugs need to be locked up in prison for at least ten years.

    The reason why one can buy a three bedroom house in Tottenham for less than a price of a studio in some parts of London is because it unfortunately harbours a large element of people who applaud criminality. It is a foreboding area that many people stay well clear of and the local community needs to get its act into gear by giving the youths who look and behave like criminals a clip around the ear rather than spending their time watching X-Factor.

  15. ShadesofGray

    You make some good points, but in some areas of your blog, there is something unsettlingly uncomfortable about your personal prejudice that peeks through – Perhaps only those with few prejudice can pick up on this. Some of the people above have tried to highlight this but you seem to dismiss them.

  16. Shirley

    I liked what the Newstateswoman said. I don’t live in London but I have lived and worked in areas of multiple deprivation in Scotland. Riots solve nothing and just make people more entrenched in their already polarised opinions. We have to start somewhere and from what I could see there were a lot of people using the concerns of the bereaved family to commit crimes (a lot of them against their own community). Remember that old fashioned word ‘crime?’ It seems people these days excuse their criminal behaviour In the cause of ‘protest.’ Don’t make me laugh. Some of these people are thugs, plain and simple, let’s not shy away from that.

  17. Ben reeve-Lewis

    Em I agree with everything you say about the background to it. What I dont agree with is your automatic assumption that it was ‘Murder at point blank-range”. How could you or anyone else possibly know at this point?

    It may well prove to be the case but nobody knows right now. Is it just the case that because it was the police they are automatically guilty? Just by being the police?

    • Em

      Firstly, I do say it is an assumption, and I admit that my assumption may be wrong.

      Secondly, my intent would have been clearer if I had said ‘at close quarters’ rather than ‘at point blank range’. Certainly, nothing I’ve come across indicates that Mark Duggan was shot from a long way away.

      The assumption that he was probably unarmed is based on two things:
      1. The police often try and ‘rumour’ their way out of mistakes. Look at the De Menezes case, when ‘anonymous police sources’ claimed De Menezes had been wearing a big puffy jacket, that he’d jumped over the barriers at the station, and that he’d done other suspicious things… Yet when it came to the inquest, none of these were true -but who remembers the inquest held a year later? Similarly, remember those two brothers from Forest Gate whom the police shot at in their home? When it was obvious that they were innnocent of terrorism charges, ‘anonymous police sources’ claimed they’d found child porn on their computers. Again, this damaging rumour only had the purpose of distracting from a police mistake. Isn’t this reminiscent of how we heard that Mark Duggan had shot at a policeman, yet now it seems it was another policeman that had shot at his colleague? So how much of the police story can we believe? I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up being like the De Menezes story, where all the rumours prove to be lies.

      2. But there’s another thing. Through my contacts I’ve heard eyewitnesses claim Mark Duggan was lying face-down on the floor when he was shot. However, like the police version, this is still just a rumour.

      Let us hope the IPCC investigation clears up the truth, and that it is not buried in the back pages of the press or totally omitted by the television media.

  18. Oli

    Thank you for your interesting article, as another teacher it is interesting to see how teachers broach issues such as this. I agree, however, with the comments mentioned above about the Duggan shooting to be simply a catalyst. I think you will agree that we never see scenes like this when the Conservatives are not in power- at the G20 and anti-Iraq demonstrations of the 2000’s there was ample opportunity for something like this to happen and it didn’t- I believe nothing at all happened during the anti-war protests, and some windows were smashed at G20.

    I am not advertising Labour- I just think that whilst Labour and the Conservatives both had largely capitalist/pro-big-business agendas, Labour at least had the sense to make sure that the poorest members of society had a safety net- A good example can be seen by comparing 2002, when unemployment was at 2% and we had schemes like the New Deal, and 2011 where unemployment is at 8% and social mobility is being made more and more difficult.

    I think you are correct in saying that many youths are not/have not been politically motivated in their activities in the city over the weekend and tonight. Its hardly like many 19 year old’s are coming out demanding an end to free-market economy or are even aware about ways of regulating public spending- but I do think that a general disillusionment with the “way things are” coupled with sometimes abject poverty and no prospects has been the main reason that these incidents have occurred.

    After all, if people have anything to loose they don’t behave in this way.

    • Em

      I totally agree, but with the caveat that New Labour helped create the current conditions by back-handed subsidised privatisation (PFI) which ended up costing the government more than if they had simply kept services public. Thus public debt was increased, and bailing out the banks pushed us over the edge.

      But it is true that the Conservatives’ insistence on cutting corporate tax and further destroying the public sector have made a bad situation worse.

  19. Ben reeve-Lewis

    I just heard on Radio 4 about MacDonalds in Catford getting attacked and closing down for the night. Also JD Sports next to Hackney Empire in Mare Street.

    What on Earth has this to do with Mark Duggan and his poor family?

    It’s pathetic and shamefull. who are these people and their community leader apologists? This is not legitimate protest.

    • Oli

      No, I think i’ts what happens if people are left to linger in social deprivation and in an environment of staunch inequality at every level. David Lammy MP’s work with Oxbridge is a good example of this, even if people make a huge effort to change their circumstances, its thrown back in their faces by the establishment.

  20. Ben reeve-Lewis

    Just watching Croydon burning. I hope nobody is dying in those buildings.

    This has nothing to do with youth disenfranchisement or Mark Duggan. There is nothing political about this,

    • Oli

      Well I think you will agree it isn’t normal human behavior.
      Fair enough- Saturday was just wanton violence and opportunistic looting- Its escalated to something distinctly different this evening, and spread to Birmingham.

      This doesn’t happen when an effective government is in power.
      It is awful obviously, an there is no excuse- but there are reasons; its a different thing.
      I think the most recent news is that people “most probably died”, but it is obviously hard to determine at the moment.

      Also being on the scene I can tell you that its mainly 21-27 year olds in Clapham at the moment- not children or youths.

  21. Ben reeve-Lewis

    Yeah I liove at the end of Rye Lane Peckham Ollie. I cant see why on TV they are calling for parents to call thier kids home. It isnt exactly youth oriented now

  22. Mike

    You and the other intellectual people:
    Too much pontificating…
    Get real!

    If the London street youths stopped carrying weapons, and hiding their identity in masks, then stop and search would no longer be needed.

    It’s as simple as that!

    • Oli

      Well whatever the view point, as myself and Ben pointed out the BBC is really desperatley trying to make out that it is all “children”- if you look at the arrest statistics most are aged 21-29, with a school teacher and 52 year old woman also being arrested. The petrol-bombing organised in Nottingham was said to have been carried out by men “aged in their late 30’s early 40s”.

  23. Pingback: Comparing Saturday’s riot to 1985 - BBC Sport - BBC News

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