It’s usual practice when someone is killed that their personal details are not made public until the next of kin has been informed. Mark Duggan’s family saw in headlines that he had been killed as a result of a “terrifying shoot-out”. Why such a difference in treatment? I was one of those who went to Tottenham police station on Saturday, with members of his family, to get an official acknowledgement that Mark had been killed. No official confirmation had been given to the family. As a community we were outraged they were being treated with such disregard by both the Met and the IPCC.
Why, 10 years after the Macpherson inquiry reported on institutional racism in the Met, should it still occur? We are from Tottenham: we have seen Cynthia Jarrett, Joy Gardner and Roger Sylvester killed by the police and do not expect finite answers from an investigation that has barely begun. All we really wanted was an explanation of what was going on. We needed to hear directly from the police. We waited for hours outside the station for a senior officer to speak with the family, in a demonstration led by young women. A woman-only delegation went into the station, as we wanted to ensure that this did not become confrontational. It was when the young women, many with children, decided to call it a day that the atmosphere changed, and guys in the crowd started to voice and then act out their frustrations.
I am appalled, dismayed and horrified by the level of destruction that took place. I wouldn’t defend the indefensible; however I would like to provide an insight into the mindset of someone willing to burn down their own neighbourhood as I believe that on this point, little has changed since the disturbances on Broadwater Farm 26 years ago.
To behave in this manner young people have to believe they have no stake in the neighbourhood, and consequently no stake in wider society. This belief is compounded when it becomes a reality over generations, as it has done for some. If the riots at the weekend and the disturbances around London today have come as a surprise to the police and that wider society, the warning signs have long been there for those of us who engage with black youths.
First, looting comes from the belief that if you cannot get equality and cannot expect justice, then you better make sure that you “get paid”. “It’s all about the money!” is the motto of too many young black men, who have given up all hope of attainment in a white man’s world. This is an absolute belief for those looting at the weekend – born not only out of their experiences but their parents’, too. They want to follow the rappers and athletes who live ghetto-fabulous lifestyles based on natural talents, as opposed to learned skills. They can’t see that coming through education: those who live on estates generally survive from one wage packet to the next. Sadly this mindset also makes it easier to legitimise the selling of drugs, as that too “brings in the money”.
Another sign was when they allowed themselves to be referred to by the n-word. They weren’t simply seeking to reclaim a word. They were telling the world that they were the offspring of the “field negro”, not the trained “house negro” from slavery days. The field negro’s sole intent was to escape, and maybe even to cause a little damage to the master and his property.
A third obvious sign of major discontent was the creation of gangs and the start of the postcode wars. Yet all of these signs were largely unheeded by wider society: all perceived to be a black problem. It’s black kids killing black kids, so it’s our problem to address.
On Saturday, instead of imploding and turning inward and violent among themselves, as they have been doing for the past decade, the youths exploded. The trigger may well have been the killing of Mark Duggan and the insensitive treatment of his family, but this has been brewing for some time. The government cuts – especially the withdrawal of EMA; the new barrier of tuition fees; and rising youth unemployment have all added to their sense of isolation and lack of a stake in society.
Beyond all this, the Met also has to explain to the people of Tottenham just how it allowed this to happen. Since the 1990s I have engaged with the Met and gained a working knowledge of some of its operational processes, and I know of none that can be described as “let’s just leave them to it”. The police seemed intent on protecting the police station, leaving everything north of it free for the rioters to loot or destroy.
More cynical community members suggest the Met might have been playing politics. The more the police stood off, the bolder the youths became. Some question whether disturbances mean police can turn to government, and dare it to cut their numbers in a time of civil unrest. But I believe that just as they bungled the operation to arrest Mark Duggan, and bungled the way they broke the news, they bungled it again.
By Stafford Scott, a consultant on racial equality and community engagement.