There are some similarities between what has happened in Tottenham over the past few days and the riot of 1985. Both were triggered by a death during a police operation and a family demanding answers about what happened, followed by a march on Tottenham Police station and people feeling ignored and disrespected. Then, crowds gathered on Broadwater Farm estate which became the venue for the subsequent riot. The riot had nothing to do with the estate, it was about policing, and the location could equally have been Tottenham High Road then as now. But the pressure cooker exploded and the appalling, and I believe still unsolved, mob murder of PC Blakelock cemented the notoriety of the estate.
Talking our way through hundreds of riot police, three of us opened the Broadwater farm Neighbourhood Office at 7am the following morning, dealing with many terrified people.
Teams of council staff arrived spontaneously and began the clean up. Shops and cars had been burned out but there was remarkably little damage to the residential parts of the estate – extraordinarily, the glaziers were hardly needed – although the impact on residents’ morale was palpable.
Local politicians and neighbourhood staff were outstanding in the aftermath, and especially Bernie Grant, who showed enormous courage in the face of a despicable media campaign of vilification. He devoted many years of his life afterwards to making the Farm, and the wider Tottenham area, good places to live and strong communities. He eventually got the relationship between the community and the police onto a new footing.
Everything that has been said about the criminality of the current riots, the appalling firesetting and looting, is fair comment. There are a large number of people, many very
young, who have done very bad things and they should be arrested for them as soon as they are identified. It hurts, but we have to understand that many of the rioters have done this to their own communities; it is not good enough to say it was all done by people from somewhere else.
It will take a long time for communities to recover, but there were signs all over the news today of councils responding magnificently and communities pulling together and supporting each other. I have been struck by the many interviews with community activists and leaders who are stunningly articulate about what is happening in their areas, why things have been going wrong, and what needs to be done. They give the lie to the
many derogatory things that are said about working class areas. In many cases they are already the Big Society but without the resources and wherewithal to withstand the tsunami of post-recession policies that have caused hope and aspiration to evaporate.
A twin track approach is needed. Obviously the police response has to be better and the community deserves to be better protected. Cuts to police numbers should be withdrawn. There will be many operational lessons to be learned, especially when so many communities come under attack at the same time. What is so different from 1985 is the speed with which the rioting spread through so many different areas across London and further. The blackberry phenomenon needs to be understood for the future, the police seemed clueless in the face of it.
But those that can only condemn and talk of clampdowns and state retribution are making a big mistake. Even Mrs Thatcher sent out Michael Heseltine to find out what was happening in Liverpool after the Toxteth riots. Boris Johnson hasn’t got a clue. His one
dimensional response, repeated by David Cameron, about ‘sheer criminality’ is just not good enough, and Ken Livingstone is much more sure-footed and grounded in reality when big issues like this arise.
If it has no other dimension than criminality, if it has nothing to do with economic and social conditions, and policing, why has it happened now? Is it completely unrelated to the closure of youth centres, the removal of EMA, rising youth unemployment, and rising numbers of young people being stopped and searched on the streets, which they see as harassment and disrespect? If poor communities are constantly accused (even by some Labour politicians) of fecklessness, worthlessness (to the point of being told they shouldn’t have children if they can’t afford them) and scrounging, and a feeling of hopelessness is added by the unfair and unequal impact of the recession, is it a surprise that the outcome is a destructive form of alienation that eventually expresses itself in violence?
If bankers ruin the global economy then earn millions in new bonuses, if politicians and policemen are perceived to be on the make (even if most aren’t), if a media empire indulges in criminality as a matter of routine, if we only measure worth in material possessions, we should be traumatised but not astonished when youth also display heartless avarice and grab what they can. Maybe Laurie Penny is right when she wrote in her blog last night that “people riot because it makes them feel powerful, if only for a night.”
For the future, we should take our lead from the dignified comments of the furniture store owner, distraught at the loss of his building, which had served the local community for 150 years, who was right to condemn but also had the perspicacity to ask why, what is it about our society that can make such things possible?