Ten years ago to the day, I saw a part of my world go up in flames. Two days after the shooting of Tottenham resident, convicted criminal and suspected gang member Mark Duggan on August 4, 2011, a crowd of 300 people marched in peaceful protest from the Broadwater Farm estate to the nearby Tottenham Police station.
Nobody really knows what happened next. Nobody ever does in these situations. But the trigger is always the same: someone is pushed or punched; something is thrown or kicked; a fire is lit and a riot starts.
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Having grown up in Walthamstow, Tottenham’s East End neighbour, I know the area intimately. I’ve been a member of London’s “black community” all my life; and when the community sneezes, the capital catches a cold. Watching the wall-to-wall coverage of the riots, I only had to glimpse at the predominantly black faces of those caught up in the melee for my jaw to drop, my stomach to churn. Familiar landmarks, streets and memories burned beyond recognition. Within three days, the same scenes were being played out in towns and cities across England.
The country soon became gripped by a desperate need to discover the “truth” behind the riots. Pantomime historian David Starkey appeared, shamelessly, on BBC2’s Newsnight claiming that “the problem is that the whites have become black”, evoking Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech with incendiary glee. “His prophecy was absolutely right in one sense,” Starkey waxed. “The Tiber did not foam with blood but flames lambent. They wrapped around Tottenham and wrapped around Clapham.”
On the other side, those who had lived in the shadow of bigotry, structural inequality and what they described as the “institutionally racist” Metropolitan Police saw the riots — or “uprisings”, as the Marxist fringes put it — as yet more evidence of a Britain broken by racism and class war.
At the time, the official line was straightforward. On August 4, 29-year-old Duggan was shot dead by police officers from Operation Trident, the Metropolitan Police unit charged with investigating gun crime in London’s black communities. Trident had mounted an operation to apprehend Duggan, who they suspected of being in possession of a firearm, without informing the local police.
Make no mistake: Mark Duggan was no saint. In fact, he wasn’t even “no saint” in the George Floyd sense of the term. Duggan wasn’t choked to death on the street, unarmed and seemingly of little threat. He was shot dead while trying to escape on foot, in possession of a firearm he’d bought 15 minutes earlier. As one former officer who was attached to the unit that killed Duggan told me: “If you don’t want to be shot and killed by someone like me, don’t go out on to the streets of Britain with a gun or a deadly weapon.”
As a Fellow of the Design Against Crime Research Centre at the University of the Arts, it is my job to examine criminal behaviour through a creative lens. So when I look back at the Tottenham riots, what I see is a theatrical, operatic event — albeit a dark one triggered by those addicted to daily drama and a need to be heard. As one old Caribbean saying goes, which is generally applied to getting a good hiding: “Those who don’t hear must feel.”
In a similar manner, a riot gives the voiceless, especially those with low dopamine levels, an opportunity to get caught up in the rush, the excitement and the drama of anarchy. A riot is like Glastonbury for sociopaths. Antagonists see fires burning, smoke billowing, shouting, screams and sirens and they get high. Somewhere between the peaceful demonstration and the five deaths, hundreds of arrests and damages estimated to be as much as £300 million, someone made a critical error of judgement — and then the rioting started.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy of all is that it could have been avoided. Even police experts have conceded the anarchy was preventable. “There was a disgraceful absence of visible leadership, and that should be shaming for the Metropolitan Police,” was the verdict of retired Met Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner David Gilbertson at the time. “With rank comes responsibility, and part of the responsibility is visible command… It’s blindingly obvious to say that you [should] push them away from target-rich environments; a shopping area, a retail park — all of the places that were trashed by the rioters.”
At the time, Tottenham MP David Lammy told me he knew the riots were coming. Unlike most MPs, he was born and raised in the constituency he represents; but like many of his constituents — like me, in fact — he comes from an immigrant, working-class family, too many of whose relatives have had negative encounters with the police. He understood the existential problem between black people and those tasked with protecting them.
But many of us predicted a riot. Tottenham was always going to erupt. Even today, despite now being home to a gleaming £1 billion football stadium, recent deprivation figures show that Tottenham remains one of the top 6% most deprived neighbourhoods in England. Beyond the escalating property prices and significant high crime “powder keg hotspots”, volatile Tottenham — and its surrounding boroughs of Hackney, Waltham Forest and Islington — has long been home to rabbit warren council estates that look like open prisons where an absence of “boots on the ground” policing, partly due to falling or reprioritised police resources, allows gangs to act with impunity. The atomisation, alienation and cynicism — on all sides in such human Petri dishes — means the business of predicting riots is an exercise of “when” not “if”.
After all, we’ve been here before. In 1985, the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham erupted. Fuelled by racism, social exclusion, police brutality and poverty, youths took to the streets. Duggan lived on that estate; PC Keith Blakelock died on it. The anger of the rioters, and indeed many pacifists, was articulated graphically by Bernie Grant, Lammy’s predecessor, who infamously remarked: “The police got a bloody good hiding.” Grant’s words were strong — too strong given that an officer had just been murdered in the line of duty. But those words became the tagline of the 1985 riot. Something political had happened.
On the other hand, the 2011 riots were, as Lammy later wrote, “an explosion of hedonism and nihilism”. In Out of the Ashes, he suggests that lack of education, ineffective parental guidance, poor role models, ill-discipline, unemployment and a host of social and developmental ills created the perfect storm for a riot.
Yes, the rioters’ behaviour was criminal. Yes, they should be held to account. But go to Tottenham, says Lammy, and witness the conditions people are living under. For him, the finger was there to be pointed at the mindless criminals at the heart of the riot, and indeed failed police tactics and leadership. But it was also there to be pointed at Cameron, Blair and Brown too. This trio had arguably mortgaged British society, economically and morally in the run up to 2011, just as Thatcher had previously done with the resultant miners’ strikes, poll tax riots and previous Tottenham, Toxteth and Brixton disturbances.
Of course, plenty of black people have died at the hands of police in Britain. But barely a handful have led to serious rioting in the 73 years since the arrival of the Windrush. So why Mark Duggan?
To some extent, people rioted over his death because “his people” were able to mobilise a demonstration outside of Tottenham police station, which then got out of hand — not because he was a galvanising figure like Rodney King or George Floyd or Cynthia Jarrett, whose death sparked the first Tottenham riot in 1985, but because the moment presented itself.
Perhaps that’s why we’ll never be able to explain what happened ten years ago. The chaos was already there. Duggan’s death was merely the trigger. And as communities in Tottenham and beyond continue to rot, I suspect it won’t the last.