NEWS
04/06/2020 06:00 BST | Updated 05/06/2020 11:08 BST

Could Riots Happen Again In The UK As People Demand Justice For Police Brutality?

Protests over the police killing of George Floyd spilled across the Atlantic over the weekend. Could they turn into riots like those in 2011 after Mark Duggan's death?

On August 4, 2011, 29-year-old Mark Duggan was shot dead by the Metropolitan Police in Tottenham, north London.

His killing sparked public protests on those same streets two days later, as his friends, family and community demanded justice for his death.

The protests were initially peaceful as a group outside Tottenham police station asked to see a senior officer. But the pent-up anger of many escalated into riots overnight.

They spread like wildfire across London, engulfing Hackney, Brixton, Walthamstow, Peckham, Enfield, Battersea, Croydon, Ealing, Barking, Woolwich, Lewisham and East Ham – and then beyond the capital, in Birmingham, Bristol, Coventry, Derby, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton.

Over a period of just five days, Britain saw the worst riots in its modern history. Five people died, more than a dozen were hurt, and more than 3,000 people were arrested.

US cities are now bearing witness to demonstrations on a scale not seen since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, fuelled by anger, frustration, despair, heartbreak and fear at yet another murder of an innocent Black man at the hands of law enforcement.

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Mark Duggan and George Floyd

Rallies demanding justice for George Floyd have translated into protests in London, Cardiff and Manchester over the weekend. So far they have been peaceful – but could this change as frustration over decades of injustice comes to a head?

Labour councillor Maurice Mcleod was at the protest outside the US embassy in central London on Saturday. He witnessed the riots in 2011 and in Brixton in 1981 – and said he felt “the same tension in London right now”.

“There’s a real sense of heightened anger on the streets,” he told HuffPost UK.

Although the possibility of riots “really concerns” him, he accepted there was “every reason for certain communities to be livid” and that the coronavirus outbreak had shone a spotlight on “the inequality that has always been there”.

We’re dying. I know six people who have died from this,” he said. “Then we look around and see there are two different kinds of pandemics going on.

ASSOCIATED PRESS
A bus is set on fire as rioters gathered in Croydon, south London, on August 8 2011.

“There’s the middle-class kind, where people are baking sourdough bread and getting bored. And there’s the working-class kind – which includes a lot of BAME [Black, Asian and minority ethnic] people – who are still being forced to go into work and put their lives at risk.”

To stop the “bubble from bursting”, the Met needed to be extra aware and cautious, he said. But Mcleod feels the police response to protesters over the weekend was “unnecessarily aggressive”. “They were deliberately banding their truncheons – they tried to kettle and to arrest someone.”

He warned: “It’s not impossible to see some heavy-handed policing could turn that sense of anger into something more serious.”

Fahim Alam, 33, experienced first hand the “criminal injustice system” in 2011 when he was arrested and falsely accused of violent disorder, spending six weeks in three different prisons and a further six months on an electronic tag. “At the time, it took over my life,” he told HuffPost UK.

After his acquittal, he produced and directed a documentary about the riots, interviewing activists, youth workers and people who were arrested and convicted for other riots to explore the factors that led up to the events.

The Hackney born-and-bred Oxford law graduate said he would be “really surprised” if the George Floyd protests in the UK directly turned into social unrest. “Riots are organic,” he said. “We don’t necessarily have the same affinity and anger that happens when someone is killed by police in your immediate local community.

“Whenever we’ve had riots in this country, they’ve been from communities that have been consistently harassed, put into slums and prisons and criminalised over periods of time – but there’s always been a final trigger that’s broken the camel’s back.”

Back in 2011, this anger had been “bubbling up” for several years. “There was a narrative that we’ve been oppressed and brutalised for years. Society says ‘fuck you’ all the time.”

Alam said he had spent his entire youth being “stopped under all the search powers of the Terrorism Act”.

“One thing you’ll hear from Black and Asian communities is that we’re being constantly under-served and over-policed,” he said. “They aren’t here to serve us, but they are over us.”

Lewis Whyld - PA Images via Getty Images
Police on horseback during the first night of the riots in Tottenham.

That sentiment can be traced decades back to the 1980s, said Stafford Scott, whose work as a community campaigner and Black rights activist began during the Broadwater Farm riot in Tottenham in 1985.

“We were born to the Windrush generation,” he said. “Our parents weren’t well received, but they told us we were going to be OK because we were born here.

“But we weren’t received either, and we had nowhere to go so we fought for the right to be here and to be seen as Black.”

Scott, who was a close friend of the Duggan family, compared how his killing sparked riots across the UK in the same way that Floyd’s has spread in the US.

He told HuffPost UK, however, that the past weekend’s protests in London had “infuriated” him.

He said: “Where were all these people when the police killed Rashan Charles, Edson Da Costa, Sean Rigg, Roger Sylvester, Joy Gardner?”

By not standing up for the victims who died as a result of police brutality or under police custody in the UK – “the most institutionally racist country on this planet” – Scott said that the protesters were effectively “telling the system that what they do to us is acceptable”.

“If you can’t get justice for Black people here, how can you demand justice for someone in America?” he asked.

Ferdaus Shamim via Getty Images
People gather near the remains of a police patrol car left after being set on fire during a protest in Tottenham.

Rashan Charles died under police restraint on July 22, 2017, aged 20; Edson Da Costa died a month earlier, aged 25. Both were fathers.

Although the officers in both cases were cleared of wrongdoing, the memory of their deaths continues to have a profound impact on the Black community in Hackney, according to youth leader Yolanda. 

“Young people have grown up with the sense that there hasn’t been any justice given to [Charles’] family,” she told HuffPost UK. ”[The police] are killing us and [they] are getting away with it.”

The lack of trust in the police has only been amplified by the community’s firsthand experience with law enforcement.

“A lot of young people have been targeted, stopped and searched on the regular, and it’s usually common with excessive force and derogatory language.”

The 25-year-old said she had already seen three cases of Black men dying at the hands of the British police in her lifetime.

“There’s a mixture of anger and frustration and hurt and fear. There’s the sense that it could happen to any of us.”

Despite the tragedy and deafening injustice, she said that there were “positive things” that had resulted from how the local community had responded in 2017.

She said: “After Rashan Charles was killed, I noticed there were people from all different areas of London at his protest.

“It was very peaceful, seeing people joining together with music and speaking on positive levels. It was important for community healing.”

Like Mcleod, Yolanda believes the likelihood of riots breaking out in the UK as in the US is dependent on how protests are policed and the behaviour of officers in the coming weeks.

“It won’t be the young people who will make the first step,” she said. “The people I’ve spoken to are annoyed, but they aren’t going to take it to the extreme unless the police do something similar here as to what happened in America.”

″[Floyd] is our brother. He could be our father, our uncle, our cousin. It’s made people aware of the possibilities that could happen.”