The explosion of rage and revolt on the streets of British cities, recalls the dramatic “uprisings” of the 1980s. The author, a resident of the riot-hit London Borough of Haringey, looks at what has changed and why it matters – Editors
The “Tottenham Riots” of 1985 began with a protest outside Tottenham police station over the fatal collapse of Cynthia Jarret during an illegal police raid on her home on the Broadwater Farm housing estate, after the wrongful arrest of her son. The police station protest developed into a pitched all-night battle between police and the Caribbean youth of Broadwater Farm, ending with the killing of a police officer.
Twenty-six years later, on Saturday 6 August 2011, another protest took place outside Tottenham police station, this time over the killing two days earlier of former Broadwater Farm resident, Mark Duggan, in a stake-out by armed police. The initial police statement claimed that an officer had been shot and wounded before other officers returned fire. But the family and numerous friends of Mr. Duggan challenged this version of events and organized a 200-strong vigil outside Tottenham police station. Stafford Scott, a community activist in the area, told Sky News,
“We came to the station to have a peaceful demonstration, and it was largely peaceful. And what we explained to the police is that we wanted someone senior from the police service to come and explain to us what was happening. They kept on prevaricating. The most senior person they gave us was a chief inspector. We said that person wasn’t senior enough… Eventually they sent for a superintendent, but by then it was too late.”
It was too late because as night fell local gangs of youth – beyond the control of protestors – began to converge on the police station. Two empty police cars and a double-decker bus were set on fire and a full-scale riot ensued. Shops were looted and buildings torched – seriously endangering the lives of residents living above shops, whose homes were destroyed. By dawn looting had spread to nearby Wood Green, where the high street was freely looted by youth pushing trolleys full of phones, shoes and clothes before the police finally arrived at dawn.
The next day, Sunday, saw looting at shopping centres in more affluent areas such as Oxford Street in the West End, and the northern suburb of Enfield, where the youth involved were predominately white. The Metropolitan Police managed to quell these few “copy-cat” outbreaks, but the events of the following day, Monday 8 August, totally overwhelmed the 6000-strong force assigned to “keep the peace.” All across London, pulling in youth of all colours and ages, starting at 10 or 11 years-old, looting broke out on a mass scale at major chain stores, as did extensive fighting between youth and riot police in the thoroughfares. A spate of a dozen serious fires across the city engulfed large department stores, whole sections of high streets including small shops and residences, and a huge Sony warehouse. In Hackney, an East End borough with a long history of radical and Black activism, barricades and burning cars blocked the movements of police as youth bounced missiles off riot shields and police vehicles, and looters invaded the shopping malls. Outside of London, there were over a hundred arrests in disturbances in Birmingham.
The next day, Tuesday, raging Right-wingers demanded that the police use water cannon and rubber bullets, and that the army –already severely stretched by overseas wars and facing cuts — be sent into the “trouble spots.” More reasonably, many shopkeepers and residents in the “disturbed” areas protested at the police’s poor response to their emergency calls. The Metropolitan Police, promising to get tough and take-the gloves-off, called in the reserves to boost the anti-riot force to 16,000 officers. This time, however, those who had defied or fought them the previous nights declined the return match and stayed at home. Perhaps, for the angry, the point had been made — and how painful it is for Londoners to see what were fine old buildings now conjuring up images of the Blitz and the doodlebug [V-1 rocket] raids. For the self-interested looters the overhanging fruit had already been picked – the best shopping targets had been emptied. And for the protestors there are – or should be — other ways to fight, that address the roots of the problem.
Further North however, the rage took hold in several cities. On Wednesday in Manchester and Salford large numbers of youth looted shops, started fires and fought the police. In Nottingham a police station was firebombed. In Ealing, London Sikhs took the streets to protect their businesses from looters. There was a similar mobilization in Enfield, but the people there were angered when the police stupidly tried to kettle them as the “enemy.” Most tragically, when Muslim men in Birmingham began patrolling the streets to protect the local shops, three of them were killed by a murdering coward who deliberately ran into them at speed and then fled the scene.
Liberals and social democrats concede that the protest over the shooting of Mark Duggan was legitimate; especially as it is now emerging that Mark Duggan didn’t draw a gun or fire it at the police. At the same time liberals, rather than mourn their dead, failed neoliberal ideology, have moaned constantly, with their dead, clichéd phrases, about “tiny minorities” of “mindless thugs” tearing up the “community”. As the student protests of last winter have already shown, a huge proportion of youth feel that for them either there is no such “community”, or if there is, they have no stake in it and no say in how it is run.
Whilst the “ Uprisings” of 1981 and 1985 were marked by a conflict between youth and police that had been simmering for years, in 2011 the disaffection has gone a step further, with youth expropriating the commodities that “consumer society” denies them, and in some cases burning the big stores that stock them. The innovations in telecommunications now available to youths for organizing purposes are obviously important, but arguably balanced out by CCTV and other surveillance and tracking technologies now deployed by the police. Politically the key difference is that in the 1980s, although the “uprisings” obviously were not “led” in any political sense, rebellious youth did look to radicals for leadership on political campaigning and ideas, notably Linton Kwesi Johnson, Bernie Grant, Diane Abbot, Paul Gilroy and Darcus Howe. In 1985 Bernie Grant, as Tottenham’s Member of Parliament, sided with his constituents against police racism, despite the brutal killing of Police Constable Blakelock in the “Battle of Broadwater Farm.” His controversial stand was later vindicated when the convictions of four youths for the murder were overturned because it was proved that the police had faked the evidence against them. Today Tottenham has a Black New Labour MP, who has condemned the rioters as “mindless yobs” and Haringey has a New Labour business-friendly council, committed to “social cohesion.” But today Tottenham is an even more dismal area than it was in 1985; and relations between police and the youth of the area – as multicultural as can be found anywhere in the world – are as bad as ever. In equally poor and strife-ridden Hackney Diane Abbot is still the MP, but she is now a New Labour loyalist and no radical.
In contrast with the New Labour crowd, veteran activist and broadcaster Darcus Howe, interviewed by the BBC on Tuesday, highlighted the police harassment of Black youth such as his grandchildren, and said of the previous night’s events, “I don’t call it rioting. I call it an insurrection of the masses of the people. It is happening in Syria, it is happening in Clapham, it is happening in Liverpool, it is happening in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and that is the nature of the historical moment.” Completely ignoring what Darcus had just said, BBC’s Fiona Armstrong jumped in with “Do you condone what happened in your community last night?” to which he responded “Of course not! What am I going to condone it for?” When she continued her hostile interrogation with “You aren’t a stranger to rioting, are you? You have taken part in them yourself” he responded, “I have never taken part in single riot. I have taken part in demonstrations that ended in conflict. Have some respect for an old West Indian Negro and stop accusing me of being a rioter… you just sound idiotic.”
Certainly, few – even BBC hacks — can be surprised that, with the Tories back in power, rioting has returned to the inner cities of Britain. As the Tories prepare to showcase London for the 2012 Olympics, the economy is faltering and the pain of public service cutbacks is now being felt. But the young dispossessed of Syria, Clapham, Liverpool and Port-of-Spain, Trinidad have today NO political leadership — a fact as disturbing as the opportunist and thoughtless violence and destruction that has been inflicted on a lot of innocent home-owners and small business owners. But what has been happening in Britain – call it the “rebellion,” the “uprising” or the “riots” – is a direct result of what successive Tory/New Labour/Liberal regimes have been doing for years: attacking civil liberties and free speech whilst living off a corrupt and criminal relationship with media barons like the Murdochs; waging illegal wars; and – worst of all — heightening economic inequality to the sort of level the working class Chartists of the Nineteenth Century would have been prepared to take up arms against.
David Black is co-editor of The Hobgoblin (London)