It’s 30 years since the first Tottenham riot, but with growing austerity, race tensions and Tory dominance can we be sure history won’t repeat itself, asks Dani Garavelli
Broadwater Farm in Tottenham was notorious as a trouble zone long before it exploded into violence. It wasn’t mentioned by name in geographer Alice Coleman’s iconoclastic book Utopia On Trial which exposed the gulf between Le Corbusier’s vision of inner city design and the reality: thousands of people packed together in conditions which, Coleman contended, were responsible for antisocial behaviour.
But, structurally and spiritually, it embodied the kind of concrete jungle at the heart of her polemic. Built in 1967, on the flood plain of the River Moselle, it had no accommodation on ground-level. Instead, its 3,000 residents lived in 12 buildings linked at first floor-level by a system of interconnected walkways. The flats soon fell into disrepair and the walkways became a magnet for robberies. There were racial tensions too; in the early 80s, the population of Broadwater Farm was 50 per cent black, but the Tenants’ Association was all-white (leading to the setting up of a rival black Youth Association) and the Afro-Caribbean community felt harassed both by white residents and the Metropolitan Police.
This cocktail of poor housing, economic decline, ethnic conflict and general hopelessness was at the root of many inner-city riots during the Thatcher era; footage of street violence in Brixton in London, Toxteth in Liverpool, Chapelhall in Leeds and Handsworth in Birmingham formed the backdrop to a decade which was characterised by disorder, though not north of the Border. The closest Scotland – with its smaller and better-integrated ethnic communities – came to tipping into violence was after the murder of Turkish asylum-seeker Firsat Dag in Sighthill in 2001 when anti-racism protesters marched to George Square. Though police officers were on alert, the articulation of public anger stopped short of street violence.
However, even in England where social unrest was rife, the Broadwater Farm riot – which saw the savage murder of PC Keith Blakelock which led to the wrongful conviction of Winston Silcott – stood out for the brutality inflicted on police officers and the way its repercussions filtered down through the decades.
Like the second Brixton riot, just a week earlier, in which photographer David Hodge was killed, the Broadwater Farm riot began with the targeting of an innocent black woman by police. In Brixton, Dorothy “Cherry” Groce was shot and seriously injured as police officers searched for her son; in Broadwater Farm Cynthia Jarrett died of heart failure after police burst into her home looking for stolen property at 1pm on 5 October. Ironically, by 1985, conditions were beginning to improve on the estate, with some investment and a neighbourhood office, but this was not enough to stifle the resentment that had been brewing for years. By 7pm, the estate had turned into a war zone, with several fires started, and bottles and petrol bombs were lobbed at firefighters and the 500 police officers with shields and helmets who had been called to the scene. There was also widespread looting.
PC Blakelock was one of a small group of officers protecting firefighters at the Tangmere block and had been pushed back by rioters when he stumbled and fell. He was immediately surrounded by a baying mob and hacked by men wielding knives and machetes. He later died in hospital. Scores of other officers suffered injuries, one of them with gunshot wounds. This was the first time British rioters had ever opened fire at police.
The impact of the Broadwater Farm riot was profound and long-lasting; in the immediate aftermath racial division grew as Bernie Grant, then the leader of Haringey Council, was quoted as saying “the police got a bloody good hiding” and the Met flooded the estate and bent every rule in its attempt to find a scapegoat. In his book, A Climate Of Fear: The Murder Of PC Blakelock And The Case Of The Tottenham Three, journalist David Rose says the inquiry was more focused on securing a conviction against Winston Silcott (and his co-accused Engin Raghip and Mark Braithwaite) than on finding the real culprits. Rose – a long-standing campaigner against miscarriages of justice – describes how Silcott was demonised by the police and a media hungry for vengeance, a job that was made easier by the fact he was on bail for another murder at the time of the riots.
All three were found guilty, but their convictions were overturned in 1991 after newly developed ESDA tests – which could prove a police statement had been doctored and exposed police corruption in several forces – found the only pages in which Silcott made incriminating statements had been added afterwards. Silcott was to serve 18 years for the murder of nightclub bouncer Anthony Smith which he has always claimed was in self-defence.
Their acquittal of the Tottenham Three left the lives of Blakelock’s widow Elizabeth and the couple’s three sons in limbo; in 2013, their hopes of gaining closure were crushed once more when another man – Nicholas Jacobs – was tried but acquitted of the murder.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the riot, millions of pounds were spent on renovating the blocks of Broadwater, stripping out the walkways and fostering better community relations, and the crime rate plummeted. More than a decade later – after the Macpherson report into the botched investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence found the Met was still institutionally racist – much energy was expended on trying to recruit black officers and regain the trust of the disenfranchised black communities. The broader Macpherson legacy included the setting up of Operation Trident, an attempt to tackle gun crime in London’s black communities, in 2000. This was a success because it enlisted some of the police’s harshest critics as advisers. It tackled the supply of guns, improved witness protection and was widely regarded as a template for the working with alienated groups.
Similar efforts to build trust were introduced in other parts of the country; and yet, in August 2011, in a new era of austerity, disorder once again broke out in Tottenham after Broadwater Farm resident Mark Duggan, who was under investigation by Operation Trident, was shot dead by police officers.
Rioting began two days later when a protest outside Tottenham police station ended with bottles and fireworks being thrown, and violence spread like a contagion to other areas of London and other English cities.
There were different aspects to these riots; though Broadwater Farm was orchestrated up to a point, social media allowed the 2011 protesters to organise trouble in different parts of the capital and sustain it over several nights. There was also a consumerist streak in 2011 with some looters interested only in exploiting the mayhem to steal flat-screen televisions. But the political climate was pretty similar: the UK was in the grip of economic crisis and had been subjected to austerity policies which impacted disproportionately on the poor.
Four years on, what has changed? We now have a Tory majority government committed to further welfare cuts and opposed to immigration, and, in Jeremy Corbyn, a Labour leader who promises change, but is, arguably, as unelectable as Michael Foot. In London, Boris Johnson ended Operation Trident, thus undermining the trust that had been built with black communities who fear a return to old-style policing. All of this adds up to an increasingly febrile atmosphere, so should we be bracing ourselves for a fresh spate of disorder?
During the campaign for the Labour leadership elections, MP for Streatham, Chuka Umunna, refused to dismiss the possibility of a return to the “social unrest” of the 1980s if the country faced the prospect of another long period of Conservative government. And the intensity of the protests at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester last week – the shouting of slogans and personal abuse and chants of Tory scum – brought back memories of life under Margaret Thatcher. “One senses that the kind of situation that broke out primarily in London, but spreading across England, in 2011, could happen again quite suddenly and unexpectedly over the next two years,” says Professor Paul Rogers of the department for peace studies at Bradford University.
“There’s a kind of fragility – particularly in the big English cities – which has not gone away, so I think a small spark could start it off again in spite of the pretty strong severity of punishments meted out to those who were caught last time.”
The most obvious change since 2011, Rogers points out, is the emergence of two prominent anti-austerity parties – the SNP and the Corbyn wing of Labour. This could give those disaffected with mainstream politics an outlet for their frustration (and so lessen the chance of disorder) or it might raise expectations which, once dashed, could fuel unrest.
“I wouldn’t want to predict which way it will go, but what it does do, either positively or negatively, is to put a much greater focus on austerity and the argument that it isn’t necessarily necessary,” Rogers says.
Though race relations in Britain’s cities seem to be relatively settled compared with those in other European countries, the government and right-wing media has been accused of stoking hatred against migrants by using inflammatory language such “swarm” and “hordes”, while the rise of Isis is fuelling Islamophobia.
“My own experience is that many Muslims are very worried because they see themselves being compartmentalised into dangerous people and they are worried about the kind of rhetoric being used,” Rogers says. “I think that in turn leads to the risk of greater Islamophobia, which means people get more fearful and maybe younger Muslims, particularly male, are more likely to react.
“That doesn’t mean there are going to be new riots and, for the moment at least, the level of activity of Britain First and other parties on the far-right is not expanding.”
More dangerous in Rogers’ view is the potential impact of Cameron’s ongoing welfare reforms. “In April, the cuts to the tax [credits] come in. The Conservatives say people are going to be better off; but, the answer is people might be better off in four years’ time, but the immediate effect is many will not be.”
Those desperate for change have placed their faith in Corbyn, but what happens if he cannot deliver? “If we see a very effective opposition south of the Border that might ease things,” Rogers says. “But if, for example, there was an attempt to oust Corbyn, you could have real problems.”
Last week, on the 30th anniversary of the Broadwater Farm riot – as another family mourned the death of a police officer killed as he tried to stop a stolen car in Liverpool – Blakelock was remembered at a service in Muswell Hill in London, where he was based.
Today, Broadwater Farm has a community centre, with sports clubs, a play park, a skate park, and other projects designed to keep young people from getting into trouble. It is a hugely cosmopolitan place where residents of more than 40 nationalities live together in comparative harmony; but it still looks grim, its peace mural – featuring Gandhi, John Lennon and Bob Marley – has faded, and its many community ventures could so easily fall victim to the latest government cuts.
In Broadwater Farm – as in so many estates across the country – people are worried about the future; with no prospect of political change on the horizon, you have to wonder how much it would take much to tip them back into a state of anarchy. «