London Riots: Echoes Of History
For those old enough to remember, the violence of the past few days in London has been uncomfortably reminiscent of the inner-city unrest of the 1980s.
The backdrop of a deprived urban landscape, the rapid escalation of a protest against the police into indiscriminate nihilism, and some good weather on a long summer evening as Londoners pile from neighbouring areas, are all familiar features of London rioting.
Tottenham itself is a known flashpoint for disorder. The closest point of comparison for the events of Saturday night is the 1985 Broadwater Farm estate riot, which was also sparked by a police-related death, when a woman had a stroke whilst her house was raided by police. The small-scale protest at her death, like the protest at the death of Mark Duggan on Saturday, soon escalated into chaos and violence as wider grievances bubbled to the surface and other aggrieved Londoners from nearby piled into attack the police.
However, the days of looting that have followed and the sheer number of outbursts across London have been phenomena outside living memory. The advent of social media has meant that it has been far easier for large numbers of youths to mobilise themselves, and the police have been left trying to catch up with them all over London. The large-scale theft of desirable items, rather than destruction to register frustration, has been a novel turn in the history of London rioting.
Huffington Post UK asked Jim Gledhill, Curator of Social and Working History at the Museum of London to explain a bit more:
What springs to mind as a point of comparison for the past few days?
I would look to 1980s Brixton and also Toxteth in Liverpool. The major factors emerging in these outbursts is often inner-city social conditions and discontent with the police force. Rapid economic change often creates social upheaval. High youth unemployment is a classic problem. A historical feature of riots that they can take on many meanings.
The powerful images of Tottenham in 1985 make you feel that history repeating itself. Initially in Tottenham this year also, it was mainly Afro-Caribbean men, as in 1985. This idea of different areas copying each other is also common, as happened with Brixton and Toxteth in 1981.
How unusual is the rioting we are currently witnessing?
London riots can be very extreme and London in fact has a long history of civil disorder. Looking back to 1780, The Gordon Riots resulted in the burning down of Newgate Prison and the army was deployed. Those riots highlighted the need for a London police force because until then, Britain had relied only on its army to keep order. The riots accelerated the decision to create the Metropolitan Police.
How are these riots different?
Smashing things up and symbolic destruction are common in British rioting, but not looting. Compared to 1980s London, the looting is new. At the moment there is also this sense that opportunistically young people were joining in because it's an event. It's a form of release, a thrill.
It is very different now also with levels of communication. Rioters' ability to communicate now is so much more sophisticated. It is easier to avoid police through Blackberry communication. They can also document their own actions in a way they could not before. There is far more unofficial reporting from witnesses and perpetrators.
Riots: a history of the 1980s
In 1980 in Bristol, a police raid on the Black and White Café started a protest, but by the end of a day and night of rioting, there were 130 arrests, 19 police were injured, and 12 police cars were vandalised.
A year later, in 1981, Brixton erupted into violence as it was alleged that a young man had died through police brutality. Over two nights, 150 buildings and 100 vehicles were damaged, while 299 police were injured. Over in Toxteth, Liverpool, a few months later, rioting raged for nine days, beginning with the arrest of Leroy Cooper. 500 people were arrested, 468 police were hurt, and CS gas was used by police for the first time on mainland Britain.
In 1985, a riot in Handsworth, Birmingham was sparked by another arrest. Two brothers died in their burning post office, and 35 others were hurt. In the same year, at Broadwater Farm in Tottenham, a small scale protest escalated into violence. By the evening PC Keith Blakelock had been hacked to death. It was the first death of a policeman in a British riot since 1833.