Tottenham protest sparked it all

Maciej Zurowski encountered angry locals and grinning cops

On Sunday afternoon, it looked as if the police had been instructed to use a new tactic to contain the public anger: grin. The area around Tottenham police station, which had been subject to severe rioting the previous night, was cordoned off by the boys and girls in blue, each of them sporting an unpersuasive, frozen smile. Gathering in front of the police line were those who have not got much to smile about these days: the overwhelmingly working class denizens of the impoverished north London neighbourhood, which had seen its last major riot during Thatcher’s reign in 1985.

Emotions ran high, as people variously attempted to gather the latest news or simply express their feelings to the somewhat nervous coppers: “Mark Duggan was unarmed,” shouted one voice. “He was handcuffed when they shot him,” claimed another. A woman of around 20 forcefully walked towards the police line. Her flaming eyes would have been enough to make anyone step aside, but she drove the point home by pointing her index and middle fingers at the bobbies and imitating shooting noises. Not the most prudent gesture perhaps, but what might have earned her a truncheon blow under normal circumstances was merely met with more forced smiling.

“Murderers! You’ve shot a young father dead,” the woman shouted, following the accusation with assorted expletives. As she walked off, two officers turned to each other and chuckled. You would have thought that homicide is not exactly a laughing matter, especially when you consider that 333 people have died under British police custody since 1998 and not a single police officer has been successfully prosecuted. But then that’s just human defence mechanisms for you.

The more one listened to the crowd, the clearer it became that this was not merely about one particular incident. “All of this could have been prevented if someone had come out of that police station to talk to these people,” one bystander argued, “but they just went: ‘No, these are all gangsters and they can’t be talked to’. You get a sense of how they view people in this neighbourhood.” And, as one of many heated debates turned to the possibility of the deceased Mark Duggan being a drug-dealer, somebody argued: “But why are they dealing with drugs? Because you can make a grand a month, so why would you want to slave at McDonald’s even if you got the chance to?”

Another bystander suggested that “you can see it in The wire all the time: the guys on the top of the tree are all white, and the black dealers are just their foot-soldiers”. But apart from that there was encouragingly little black-versus-white rhetoric. Before we knew, there was enough talk of local service cuts to fill an entire issue of The Socialist, and even bankers’ bonuses entered the conversation. An elderly woman summed it all up when lamenting that “the poor get poorer and the rich get richer - it’s been going on for many years, but it’s all getting worse now”.

We spoke to locals to get an idea of the mood on the day after the initial riots and were confronted with many examples of what might be called mixed consciousness. Despite the fact that the government and police were viewed in a rather negative light and the austerity programme was identified as deepening social tensions by many, the overwhelming belief was that ‘they’ - the professional politicians - should do a better job.

Could you sum up what has been happening here over the past few days?

Faisal: On Thursday, a guy called Mark Duggan got shot about two minutes walk from here. Yesterday around 6pm there was a protest outside the police station, and it seems that it has escalated into pretty much a full-scale riot.

Derek: A man was shot in Tottenham Hale on Thursday, and yesterday people were looking for answers - they wanted to know why. Apparently there were two or three hundred who came to the police station hoping to get some answers from the police, but they didn’t get any. So then things just got out of hand.

Joy: My condolences go to the parents of who this happened to because I know what they are feeling now. We lost families in the same situation in Harlesden police station in 2007, and nothing came of it. The police cannot carry on like this. What they have done by batoning the girl outside the police station is wrong. They should have had the sense when the family turned up there to speak to them and sort out this matter in the right way. They just ignored the people and didn’t want to come out of the station.

Do you think it’s understandable that people are so angry?

Faisal: I can understand it, but I don’t think it justifies all the rioting, which in my view was opportunistic. You’ll always have an element that will look to kick things off, and then everybody else is destroying things.

Derek: I’m convinced that the people who came to the police station didn’t want any violence. But then people came from Hackney and other areas to join the gangs and start looting and destroying shops. No-one condones what they have done - I think it was very wrong. There are things that need to be investigated, and it needs time until we hear the real truth about what happened. If people jump to conclusions and take the law into their own hands, it is very wrong.

But, then again, people were angry because the police were not listening. If you simply ignore 200-300 people, I think tempers will run high.

Joy: I think what happened yesterday is understandable. It’s time that we start putting our foot down now and stand up to these police here. They’re not doing their job right. They’re in these uniforms to protect their state and their own selves, not the public. People are angry because of what happened on Thursday, but they are also angry about many things that have happened in the past and that nothing has been done about. So if the law won’t take it in hand, the public will take it in their own hands.

Some media were quick to describe the man who was shot as a ‘gangster’ before any evidence was produced. What do you think about that?

Faisal: The way I see it - if he was found with a gun … no-one carries a gun for no reason, but I don’t know the facts.

Derek: See, this is what happens when you start to put people in boxes. Most of the time, when anything happens in this neighbourhood - in the north London ghettos, if you like - then we quickly get stereotyped. It’s all of us, you know, we’re all gangsters and we’re all bad people.

Joy: I don’t think the man was a gangster. I don’t think the guy had any gun with him. I think the police just wanted something to do on that day, so they just went around terrorising people. Lots of persons are out on the street, lads are walking and not doing anything, and they come and terrorise them.

Do you think that people here have been angry for a long time - with the government or aggressive police presence?

Faisal: I don’t think it goes that far. I think the peaceful protestors were angry at the Mark Duggan situation. If you separate that from the rioters, who were basically just seizing on the opportunity - you know, ‘Nothing else to do, everybody else is doing it, so let’s join in’ - then you can understand it. There is no political motive behind the riots. It’s just young kids who’ll see other young people doing it, so they’ll get involved.

In Wood Green there was looting that started at 2 or 3 in the morning. Police didn’t turn up before 6am, so they had pretty much free reign to do whatever they wanted. In terms of police presence, they have probably adopted a stance of ‘Let’s just keep out of view in light of what happened with Mark Duggan’.

Derek: I would say that it’s mainly the cuts that have caused the people in this neighbourhood very difficult times. So many things have been taken away because of the cuts, and I think that’s what’s still causing such a difficult situation here.

And, of course, it affects young people a lot: I know for a fact that most young people here are not working because opportunities have become very low in this neighbourhood, and it’s getting worse. All these issues need to be looked at and dealt with if you want to solve this problem. So many youth clubs and youth centres have been taken away because of the cuts, and I think this contributes to this sort of unpleasantness.

One would hope that something meaningful will come out of the disaster, that they will start doing something about it. I hope that this will not become like Brixton in 1981, but I’ve been reading on Facebook and on Twitter that they are willing to take it further. I hope it will end at this, though, because it’s very unpleasant.

We know that there needs to be cuts, but the way they are cutting it, that’s the danger - and I think this is something that has to be discussed. When the riot started, people were looting shops for food! And that should take us to a different perspective.

Joy: I think this will build up and intensify. Because of what has happened, people will not back down until justice is taken. And I think justice should be taken with the police. Give the parents justice - I think they deserve that much. And, yes, there has been a more aggressive police presence here since Cameron came in. Cameron might want to do something about this because what he is doing is making matters worse.