Tottenham Riot: The Police Seemed Helpless, Witnesses Say
After riots shook Tottenham last night, questions are being asked about the police behaviour and the root cause of the violence.
The riots began after residents staged a protest outside the police station on Tottenham High Road to protest at the shooting of Mark Duggan, who was killed by police on Thursday.
As community leaders condemned the outburst, which saw 26 police officers injured, three police cars and a double-decker bus burnt out and over 40 arrests, a youth leader who was at the scene said there were questions to answer about why the violence was not contained.
Symeon Brown, co-founder of grassroots youth movement Haringey Young People Empowered said tension between young people and the police had existed for generations.
Brown said the peaceful protest soon escalated: “The murder of Mark Duggan led to a peaceful protest, it escalated into violence and where the police should have contained the area they didn't contain it. They created a line to contain the station but they didn't contain the riots.”
But rank-and-file police officers have defended themselves. Paul McKeever, chair of Police Federation predicted last year that in times of economic uncertainty that there would be more disturbances, and was criticised by the Home Secretary Theresa May for his comments at the time. This morning he told HuffPost UK:
“Our thoughts are with the officers that have been injured. It seems as though we’re in a position in the police service today where we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
“We’re criticised this morning for being too light-touch initially with the demonstration that was taking place in Tottenham, and yet I’m sure if we’d been less sensitive at the beginning, we’d have been criticised for that if things had gone wrong similarly.”
The riots echoed violence in the area in 1985 when a policeman was murdered during riots in Broadwater Farm, and another officer shot after a woman died during a police raid.
Police historian and former chief constable Tim Brain told Huff Post UK that there needed to be an inquiry: “If you look at the riots of the 1980s, there were general social disadvantaged communities, high unemployment, which acted as a general background to the disorder to the 1980s.
“But then there were the flash points which caused riots. It's very hard to draw a strict delineation between the social disadvantages and the trigger points.
“In the 1980s Mrs. Thatcher played down the social disadvantages and played up the trigger points. There are some potential similarities between what we're seeing now and what we're seeing in the 1980s.”
Youth worker Symeon Brown is worried Saturday's unrest could continue tonight. “When it happened in 1985 they said it could not happen again. To say it couldn't happen again now would disregard history."
"I wouldn't want to make any loaded statements about what could happen next."
He said there was a feeling of “them and us” between the police and young people. "The tension has been there for generations. They get passed down and then there's a feeling of them and us.
“There have been other alleged incidents of police brutality, the death of [rap artist] Smiley Culture and Kingsley Burrell. A number of incidents this year have made people feel that police are above the law.”
The 23-year-old who witnessed the riots said there was a sense of “collective energy” as shops were looted and fires were set on Saturday evening.
“Inside it was really quite surreal, previously when you have such a collection of young people there's a tension. I didn't take part in any looting. The police could have contained it. I do feel that they didn't contain it well at all. There are policing questions.”
One witness who fled the scene told HuffPost UK youths were screaming, shouting and throwing bottles.
Tony, a 28-year-old hairdresser said: “I was in a restaurant in Tottenham at about midnight, people were running amok, throwing bottles and screaming and swearing. I was shocked, I didn't know what was going on. Then police came down and I ran to my car and drove off as soon as possible. As I was driving away I saw people throwing things at the police and swearing.
“I was surprised and scared, no one expects that.”
32-year-old Alim Kamara, a youth worker said he saw 12 year-olds and teenage girls looting.
“I saw children as young as 12 going down the road with laptops, plasma TVs, hoodied up with bandannas on their faces. By that point the bus had been set on fire, then they robbed a jewellery shop. People were coming out with £2,000 worth of jewellery, they could barely even carry the jewellery. Then I came home and saw it on TV, where they said things were calming down.
“You had a tug of war going, young people would race into a pub to get bottles, throw them at police, they would move back and then forward. It didn’t get contained until 5am this morning when they came from White Hart Lane. That’s when they cornered people.
“It was crazy. I saw girls with their head wrapped in bandanas using t shirts to cover their faces throwing bottles and looting. 14 year old girls. It was just like the people versus the police. there was a sense of unity. It didn’t matter if you were black, white, green or blue everyone was together.
Eyewitness reports suggest the violence erupted after a 16 year old girl was hit with batons by police after she threw rocks at officers.
David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham said the heart had been ripped out of the community.
“The post office, fitness shop, newsagents... council buildings, smashed to pieces by mindless people last night. Many of whom are not from Tottenham and have come from far beyond this community intent on causing violence. “
In a statement on Sunday morning he said there were “questions” about the policing of the riots.
Symeon Brown agreed that many of those involved in the violence in Tottenham were from nearby areas such as Wood Green and Edmonton.
“That's why they were able to destroy the area, because it wasn't theirs. We need our leaders to really support a kind of process, not only one of reconciliation but one of compensation. We also need a return to investment in public services."
For those who live and work in Tottenham, there are questions about the relationship between police and young people in the run up to the violence. Brown says the council-run initiatives for young people cut back as part of the government’s austerity programme were only part of the story.
"The cuts are a parallel narrative a part of psychology which says 'they don't care about us'. I wouldn't say the cuts caused this. The biggest thing to take away from this is that the police should have contained it. Clearly it wasn't the police who were breaking into shops but the police have questions to answer about how it was able to spread.”
Fellow youth worker Kamara agrees: “In Tottenham so much has happened with the young people and the police there’s a lot of animosity. The police harrass young people. the way they speak to them it’s sometimes a bit disgraceful. You have these kind of situations, sometimes you get racial slurs from police officers.
“I think this could happen in another area. The police seemed helpless yesterday. I was shocked by what happened. People are saying this was inevitable. For me I’m shocked and saddened by it. It’s painful to watch if you work with young people and see this is what it’s come to it’s like, where do we go from here? Now the animosity between the police and young people has only grown. It’s doubled.
“There’s people who are doing things in the community to prevent these kind of things and their work is in vain. Our local youth centres have been closed down. The places we used to give young people something to do have gone. If they’ve been taken away how do we get to young people? How do we stop them rioting if there’s nowhere for them to go?”