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London’s burning

It’s always slightly surreal when you see someone or somewhere you know on the television, even more so when there’s a burning bus in the middle of a road you’ve walked down hundreds of times…

Tottenham and me go way back, from my teenage nights at the horror that was The Ritzy nightclub (it didn’t live up to its name), to working in Seven Sisters for the last 15 years. I know the area well, have partied there and have friends who live there. I’ve walked the streets of Tottenham on many a night and never felt threatened – yes, it has its problems, but it’s like anywhere else, full of of people just trying to live their lives.

So what happened last night? In black and white terms Mark Duggan was shot dead by police on Thursday, some people unhappy with that protested outside Tottenham police station, and then it all kicked off. The morning after police and politicians tell us the protest was hijacked by thugs and criminals and it’s all very regrettable.

Except it’s not so black and white. There are complex social, economic and historic factors to take into account here that make Tottenham if not unique, then certainly not an average case. Death at the hands of the police has happened before in Tottenham: in 1999 Roger Sylvester died after being restrained by six officers in a hospital room, and in 1985 Cynthia Jarrett collapsed and died when police raided her home – only a week before Cherry Groce had been ‘shot accidentally’ by police in Brixton at the other end of the Victoria Line from Tottenham. The distrust of and anger at the police led to riots breaking out in both places and in the aftermath change was promised, but here we are again.

So let’s take a look at the history. During the intervening years there have been further deaths related to police actions in London, including most recently those of Jean Charles de Menezes, Ian Tomlinson and Smiley Culture. In the first two cases the Met initially obfuscated and outright lied about the circumstances of the deaths before being found out in their mendacity. The investigation into the death of Smiley Culture continues but under much scrutiny from his family and supporters who firmly refute some of the allegations made by the police concerning what went on at the scene.

There is also a marked lack of faith in the Independent Police Complaints Committee, the body tasked with policing the police. Questions have already been raised over why it took 36 hours for Duggan’s family to be granted access to his body. The IPCC has come in for some heavy criticism over the years and in 2008 over 100 lawyers resigned from its advisory body citing favouritism towards the police, indifference and rudeness from its staff, and strong cases made against the police being rejected. It is also true that no police officer has ever been convicted of murder or manslaughter regarding a death involving police contact, despite there being over 400 instances over the last decade or so. This may change as an officer faces trial in October this year for manslaughter in the Tomlinson case, but we shall see.

In an ideal word the authority of the police would be unquestionable but by their actions and the intransigence of the body charged with regulating those actions, we now have a situation where many people feel they cannot trust this authority, and only recently we have seen the most senior officers in the Met resign their posts over Hackgate, their protestations of innocence flapping in the breeze.

Is it any surprise that against this backdrop people reacted so strongly against what happened in Tottenham on Thursday night, and question the official version of what happened? Factor into this the fact that Tottenham is one of the most deprived areas in the country and that its residents felt disenfranchised, forgotten and demonised by the establishment even before the current attacks by government on the public services that serve a vital role in such areas, and you have a powder keg. This is not helped by the way the mainstream media reports on such areas and events – last night I found that, as is increasingly the case, the best source of news was Twitter: while the BBC took hours to swing into action in Tottenham and no UK TV channel was reporting on the spread of disorder to Wood Green that the police were denying, first hand reports were scrolling down my timeline. This apparent indifference can only add to a sense of marginalisation.

In terms of interaction between police and the public last night it is alleged that a 16 year old girl was hit by a police baton when she asked questions outside Tottenham police station, and a van full of officers was seen speeding towards Tottenham playing the Knightrider theme at full volume – rather less classical shades of soldiers preparing for battle to the strains of Wagner in Apocalypse Now.

Of course, this is not to excuse the vandalism and looting that went on and will cause even more problems for the residents of Tottenham with the negative impact on local services. However, rather than choosing to flatly condemn, authority figures should be questioning why the riot happened and taking lessons from it: while Tottenham perhaps has a more unique history in terms of police relations, there are many areas in the UK with similar problems and to ignore the underlying root causes could be disasterous over the coming months and years. To try and understand an action is not the same as justification of that action – to dismiss any attempt at understanding is to invite more of the same.

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