Contextualizing Violence: Tottenham Riots

“A riot is the language of the unheard” – Martin Luther King Jr

Saturday night and I was glued to my laptop as Twitter got word first of the riots that spread through Tottenham High Road. The images of police cars petrol bombed, shops being looted and buildings set alight felt surreal to say the least; there was no doubt that what was happening would be one of the most significant events taking place in recent British history. They were, however, sickeningly familiar.

The Riot was supposedly sparked off after a 16-year-old girl was beaten at a peaceful protest demanding answers for the police murder of father of four, 29-year-old Mark Duggan who was shot earlier this week.

The Broadwater Farm riots of 1985 had uncanny parallels as the community responded to the tragic death of Cynthia Jarrett who was killed as a result of a police raid on her home, falling over and dying instantly. Just a week prior to Cynthia’s death, Cherry Groce was shot and paralyzed by police in Brixton. A few years earlier, the infamous Brixton riots were predicated on a rumor that Michael Bailey, a young black boy, had died at the hands of the police. Fast forward to 2011 and the death of Smiley Culture earlier this year still hangs heavy.

Whilst these were triggers for an explosive reaction, tensions that arose (like that of last night) were in fact a result of decades of injustice, inequality and deprivation experienced by these communities. History becomes seemingly cyclical, particularly where little has been done in the way on behalf of authorities, institutions and the government to enforce justice and change.

Context, Context, Context

Just as that witnessed in the 80s, last night saw an amalgamation of narratives emerge that sought to attribute to the events an aimless, chaotic criminality of rioters. Whilst I do not condone violence in any form and much of it has resulted in subversive action that has undermined an element of community life in Tottenham such as local businesses, it is essential that we seek to contextualize such violence in order to address the more poignant question of why and not how this started.

Unlike the Student and Cuts demonstrations that defined 2010, there was nothing middle class about the Tottenham Riots. As it stands, Tottenham falls under Haringey: a borough that has statistically proven to be the 5th most deprived in London and 18th in the whole of England. 61% of children live in low-income families and Haringey experiences the 4th highest level of child poverty.

With the recession worsening, budget cuts leading to the withdrawal of funding for key youth services, rise in tuition fees and the slashing of EMA, conditions are set to further deteriorate for poor youth in areas like Tottenham. Desperation becomes one of many consequences as things fester in a space of economic-socio-political depravity.

The relationship between the community and the police force in poor, inner city areas has come to be defined by racism, police misconduct, hostility and mistrust. Statistics like that of 333 deaths under police custody in the last 12 years and no officers having been convicted as of yet further validate claims that the police force as an institution fails to uphold accountability and transparency for its own, often brutal, actions.

Violence and Voice: Powerful versus Powerless

The violence Tottenham fell prey to last night was undoubtedly rooted in grievances that extend beyond Duggan’s death; they are actions residual of collective memory of the injustice that comes hand in hand with inequality and the alienation that arises from depravation. Institutions such as the police force leave people with a bitter aftertaste, deeming them representative of that which is remote, uncaring and in opposition to the communities they live in.

No one likes to see violence and destruction on their doorsteps. But like the events that spread like wildfire under Thatcher, they indicate a failing democracy: one that has a long history of disenfranchising poor, young people of colour.

I think we speak from a space of entire privilege when we attempt to frame certain forms of resistance and/or political action as legitimate versus illegitimate discontent. This is something we must refrain from doing so as resistance is never futile. In its very own context we find causes, meaning and ultimately an agency that gives people a space to politically act, particularly when they feel they lack alternative means to get their voices heard. Violence then has significantly different connotations for those who have power and those who don’t.

In the aftermath what becomes pertinent is that we address, nurture, facilitate, and support avenues for engagement, education and empowerment. We must confront and challenge the economic inequalities that are definitive of these inner city areas and what socio-political repercussions it has on individual/collective agency. This is not solely the responsibility of community organizers/leaders who at this very moment are amidst preparing meetings to deal with last night’s events, but that of the government and its accompanying institutions that constantly seek to undermine the former through silence, lack of accountability and dangerous, ideological policies like the budget cuts. Let people own their own experiences and voices so we may confront, deal and make this nation better.

Symeon Brown, founder of Haringey Young People Empowered, tweeted this afternoon:

“there is no romance in the struggle. Anybody who believes there is misunderstands the struggle”.

And rightly so, demanding justice and equality is never pretty, easy or comfortable particularly when you are up against White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy. It becomes less about how this demand is made, and more about why and what we do next. In light of the historical amnesia Britain perpetually suffers from, I don’t think we should ever forget that when we remember Tottenham 2011.

*Updated Disclaimer: This piece was written on Sunday 7th of August 2011 in response to the Tottenham riots of  Saturday the 6th. My thoughts on the riots that followed across London and the UK are not reflected in this piece. Please bare in mind that I think the violence that resulted in looting and burning down of local businesses was entirely tragic and unnecessary. This piece is not to justify violence but to contextualize it in order to understand what it means and where we go next.


Stuff/people to check out:

Young People, Gangs, Youth Clubs Close


Symeon Brown

9 responses to “Contextualizing Violence: Tottenham Riots

  1. Your post has helped me understand a lot of things. But at this stage I still think The peaceful approach is the way forward, especially since this particular protest started off as a peaceful one, by family members wanting answers. thank you for such a well written analysis.

  2. I’m eagerly following the news from China and glad to see people debate the context of the riot on social media sites such as Weibo. Although most people are quoting lyrics from The Clash, I’m sure some realize the actual context of Class struggle. Great piece.

  3. A sad state of affairs even if not surprising. Symeons comments are not surprising and nor is the jargon used. ( that’s nothing against Symeon ) It’s Social worker speak.The heart of the problem; as always is that it just comes down to knowledge.
    People who are poor and need welfare to survive ( not their fault …. for the majority ) have a much higher percentage of children who do not complete their education and end up with lower paying jobs as a result of that.
    Everyone gets frustrated and angry when the Gov. cuts spending to services. For reference just ask the elderly; these poor buggers are at the end of their working lives and they would be better looked after ( by miles ) if they got put in prison.!! Clean beds, Food three times a day, and they’re paid, Free laundry and Library, Supervised Recreational activity.
    That’s also a sad state of affairs.Very sad,.
    However the reality is the above is, has, and will continue to be the case.
    That’s no reason to forgo the basic rights of your neighours property, or person.
    You people;… and where I am, are living in a civilised society and like having a wash in the morning before venturing out, it’s a question of personal integrity and self respect that will get
    one by, not how much bloody money’s in the bank.
    From the footage and the reports…. I gotta say, high spirited and out of work youth are a combined force that has often required governments around the world to spend countless millions
    in repairs, even re- education for very little return. Very sad indeed.especialy for the overwhelming majority.
    BTW. I haven’t had work for close to 12 mths.. no welfare.. no money.. big mortgage and the bank breathing down my neck. 4 kids at home, one working. the missus works 2 days a week in a shop.
    As far as I’m concerned the banks not going to get the house .. I will get work even if it’s going around painting peoples houses or working as a labourer for someone. I’m tertiary qualified in Construction management and I’m sure I’m not a mental case…( I think ) Steve. Melbourne . Australia.

  4. Pingback: The riots | York Anarchists Blog·


  6. What an awful post, I can’t tell if you’re really this naive or if this site is actually a computer program set up to spam leftist cliches.

    “The truth is that the spoilt youth of Britain – including the poorest and most ‘excluded’ – still have more care, comfort and opportunity than 90% of the planet. It’s time we stopped helping them to feel aggrieved and started emphasising the opportunities this society offers to those who are prepared to meet it half way, unlike the examples above who squandered what they had before them for a free PlayStation of pair of trainers.

    Opportunity is there for the grabbing. And you don’t even have to smash anything – except your own sense of entitlement.

    Why were immigrants defending their shops and homes against looters and rioters?”

    You seem to think its “this is some sort of youth uprising, which will end up by demanding collective ownership of the means of production, and no doubt, freedom for Palestine (from the River to the Sea). In reality, it is kids, chancers and gangs of criminals, stealing whatever they can transport, and burning what they can’t. For gain, and for fun.”

  7. Furthermore:

    “Painting these riots as some kind of action replay of historic political streetfights against capitalist bosses or racist cops might allow armchair radicals to get their intellectual rocks off, as they lift their noses from dusty tomes about the Levellers or the Suffragettes and fantasise that a political upheaval of equal worth is now occurring outside their windows. But such shameless projection misses what is new and peculiar and deeply worrying about these riots. The political context is not the cuts agenda or racist policing – it is the welfare state, which, it is now clear, has nurtured a new generation that has absolutely no sense of community spirit or social solidarity.”

    • firstly, i would like to say that this piece was written as a response to the tottenham riots and was written on sunday afternoon prior to the further spread of rioting across the capital & now the UK. thus, this piece aimed to contextualize what happened in those specific events. for me the subsequent riots had a very different shaping and i a) do not condone them b) do not view them as ‘resistance’ or ‘revolutionary in any shape or form. for me in this first piece and i maintain this throughout is that this isn’t about justification but explanation, and the riots we have now witnessed are deeply worrying – something we have not seen in Britain and we cannot make historical comparisons to. i still believe we need to ask why these youth a) are doing what they are/were doing b) and why they feel they can get away with it.

      i think if you had been less quick to jump to conclusions (i.e. looked at the fact this was entirely framed for tottenham where i know community activists, youth workers and politically active youth personally and discussed with at length before putting together this piece) and more willing to engage in dialogue about what this means for Britain 2011 would be far more effective.

      i’m not really one for dogma and don’t prescribe to ‘leftist’ values or ‘types’ for the sake of it. i believe in holisitic and multidimensional approaches to any issue at hand – that means taking into consideration context and persistently asking WHY in order to get to the HOW or WHAT do we need to do next. people aren’t born into behaving like this and we have to be honest about the multiple factors that have contributed to these riots, violence and sadly the tragic death of the 3 you spoke about. what is scary is not just the scale and way in which this violence has escalated, but the polarised response which leaves many almost paralysed.

      life is priority and we need to ensure that what happens next isn’t merely reactive but proactive on every level (personal, community, institutional, governmental, family etc) to prevent such events happening again.

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