As I write this Londoners are knuckling under for a third night of rioting and looting. The full details of the weekend's disturbances are already plastered across the news and I won’t waste time repeating them here. I will add that as a resident of Tottenham living a few hundred yards from where a police car was burnt and a supporter of recent student demonstrations, rioting against the oppressive establishment is a lot less romantic when it is going on in your postcode.
To be frank it was a frightening experience. I spent the majority of Saturday night endlessly refreshing the #tottenham hash tag on twitter to see how close the violence was to my house. Police helicopters circled the neighbourhood constantly and I become convinced that every creak in the house was the beginning of a home invasion.
Now with a little perspective and calm I can see that there were two main issues at play on Saturday night in northeast London; a legitimate protest on the part of an angry community who felt downtrodden and persecuted, and the beginning of a citywide crime wave that the police failed to deter, contain or even hamper.
The moment Saturday's events boiled over is alleged to have been when a sixteen year old girl, at a protest outside Tottenham High Road police station, was hit by a police officer. This spilled over into the destruction of property and widespread looting. The scale and ferocity of the events hint at the deep social tension associated with the high level of poverty in the area. The residents of Tottenham, particular the Afro-Caribbean community feel disenfranchised by society, their political voice muzzled and victimised by the police, especially through Operation Trident's attempts to tackle gun crime in the area. Many residents, particularly the young and unemployed, feel alienated from society and that the police have used stop and search powers excessively against them.
People in neighbouring communities (particularly the more affluent Crouch End, Islington, and Enfield areas) are concerned by how the police allowed a peaceful protest to get so dramatically out of hand. They are also concerned as to how so many police resources where consumed in a single area that looting went on unchecked half a mile away in the Tottenham Hale retail park. Undeniable the police handed the situation badly but I do have to add on a personal level that I am extremely grateful the riot and especially the burning of buildings was kept away from my street. I am grateful that the police kept me safe but also angry that so much damage to property and persons took place. Clearly mistakes where made.
The looting that has taken place is more than the “opportunistic criminality” that police authorities have dubbed it. Looting is an expression of anger at poverty. Personally I would love a new Mac Book but comfortable in my middle-class status, I would not steal one regardless of how easily I thought it was to get away with. I cannot understand what is like to spend your life seeing others with games consoles, computers and new trainers yet never being able to afford them myself. In the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn “can a man who is warm understand one who is freezing?”
Those who have cannot understand the desires of those who have not; it is quit simply not a problem I have ever had to deal with. Also of note is the fact that no bookshops were targeted. This is not a comment on the intelligence of the people of Tottenham but more a reflection of the desires of the people who live there to possess the same consumer goods as their neighbours in Highgate and Crouch End. It must be very difficult for the poor in London to be pressed up against their rich neighbours who have so much and be constantly reminded of what they lack. Consumer status symbols are an inherent part of our lives and lacking these symbols places you at great social disadvantage. I can understand why people would take advantage of the general lawlessness to attain what they cannot through conventional means.
Personally I cannot support rioting and looting as a form of protest, mainly because the general public (rightly or wrongly) will see injured police officers and burnt out buildings and these powerful images will overshadow any points about over policing and poverty in the area. David Cameron and Boris Johnson would do well to spend what available money they have tackling the massive inequalities that exist between neighbouring areas in London. Tottenham is badly in need of some urban development.
What is also needed is a discussion of the role the police had to play in the riots. Many questions will be asked about how the police allowed a legitimate peaceful protest to go so horribly awry. Should there be a review of the police’s use of deadly force? Are current police tactics too heavy handed? Should the police be given discretionary powers to prematurely arrest rioters? These are questions for when the riots have died down. One thing is for certain, these riots are not over yet and that real social change is necessary to deal with the deep problems caused by such poverty adjacent to such wealth.