“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.
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