|Young people take control of the streets in the riotous aftermath of Thursday’s police killing, which created a tipping point in communities, where a lack of jobs and social services has given angry youth nowhere to vent frustrations [EPA]|
On Saturday, hundreds of people gathered outside the Tottenham police station, peacefully calling for “justice” for Mark Duggan, a man killed by officers three days prior.
Police stood in formation, separating the community members from the station they were guarding, until a 16-year-old woman reportedly approached an officer to find out what was going on.
According to a witness account, some officers pushed the young woman and drew their batons.
“And that’s when the people started to retaliate. Now I think in all circumstances, having seen that, most people retaliate,” said the witness.
The “retaliation”, from peaceful chants of “justice” in front of the police station, have since turned into massive groups of Londoners in numerous parts of the city who seem unafraid of breaking windows, looting stores, and burning buildings, doubtless causing millions of pounds’ worth of damage.
Scores of businesses have been looted and international media continue to play images of smoldering buildings, in areas where firefighters were reportedly too afraid to enter – for their own safety.
According to witnesses and overhead helicopter footage, police have not been able to control much of the situation, and have repeatedly been forced into retreat by angry rioters.
“The kids realise the police can’t keep control of it,” said Bristly Pioneer, a Hackney resident and activist with the Space Hijackers, an anarchist collective focused on reclaiming public space. “And the kids don’t give a f*** because no one gives a f*** about them.”
“These kids have basically been abandoned – not even just the kids, whole communities have been abandoned by the rest of society,” he added. “I can’t say I’m surprised this is happening. It’s been building for years.”
Klara, an activist with Occupied London, a group focused on responding to the European austerity crisis, and another resident of Hackney, asked that her last name not be used. She told Al Jazeera: “It’s a bubble of anger and anxiety and oppression that has to be burst.”
“When you talk to people in the streets, they’re extremely politically articulate. They know the problems in their community,” she said.
In a video posted on The Guardian’s website on July 31, youth in the London borough of Haringey described the effects of the closure of eight youth centres, a move they said led to a growth in gang membership and crime – as they and their peers have nowhere to go after school.
A week before any window was broken or store looted, one of the young people in the video said: “The government doesn’t realise what they’re doing to us”. Another adds, “there’s going to be a riot”.
A tipping point
Tottenham, where Duggan was killed, is a Haringey neighbourhood which has among the highest unemployment rates in London – and a larger than average youth population. People of colour here have particularly felt the effects of deteriorating social services and targeted police harassment and violence, said author Richard Seymour.
“There’s kids here who basically no one cares about, and nobody does anything for,” said Seymour, a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics. “When the rioters themselves are asked, they will say that they are abused by police, harassed by them, and nobody’s done a thing about it.”
Seymour also explained that after many of the 333 deaths in police custody between 1998 and 2010 in Britain, “Large, peaceful protests in response [to the in-custody deaths] were more or less ignored” and not a single officer has been prosecuted.
As a result, Duggan’s killing crossed a threshold for young people, angry with the systems that have left them behind, and tired of non-violent protest that goes without much response.
“I saw a whole load of kids, ranging from teenagers, and also grown-ups, in the streets. Most people seemed very happy, there were a lot of smiles in the streets, and a sense that people finally had control of something … And then there were people who were extremely angry at police,” said Klara, the Occupied London activist. “It’s just surprising that something like this hasn’t happened before now.”
Meanwhile, a local shop owner told Al Jazeera: “I’m very shocked … I’m so devastated. I don’t know how to explain myself.”
The chaotic situation has left many Londoners, and people around the world, wondering when the destruction will stop – and how the government will respond to the anger born out of alleged police racism, cuts to social services and unemployment.
Just moments before Britain’s prime minister made his first post-riot statement, Seymour told Al Jazeera: “The dominant response of the political class is to say it’s all criminality … that’s something that could undermine anything towards seeking justice.”
The alternative, he said, would be “addressing the political crisis” on a deeper level.
David Cameron, the British prime minister, played the card Seymour had predicted, saying: “This is criminality pure and simple, and it has to be confronted and defeated.”
London’s acting police commissioner, Tim Godwin, agreed, saying: “This is not a game – this is criminality, burglary and violence … There can be no excuses for this behaviour.” Calls to Scotland Yard went unanswered.
“Everyone is anticipating the probability of more violence as night approaches. Everyone has their theories about this, but I think one of their [the government’s] main challenges will be to separate genuine grievance from simple copy-cat criminality,” said Al Jazeera’s Tim Friend, reporting from London.
But that would mean the government strongly recognises the ‘grievances’, which is far, at least, from the initial response.
In his first statement on the riot on Tuesday morning, the British PM said at least 450 people had been arrested for riot-related crimes.
Cameron also announced a massing of police officers, with numbers to be increased from 6,000 in the first three nights of rioting to 16,000 on Tuesday night.
“There will be aid from police coming from up and down the country,” he said. “We will see that many more arrests will be coming in the coming days.”
Speaking directly to those breaking the law, Cameron said: “Justice will be done … You will feel the full force of the law, and if you are old enough to commit these crimes, you are old enough to feel the full consequences.”
Klara said that many people support the increase in police presence and hope that it will force the end of rioting, but warned that the support of intensive policing measures “could spark things off even more, because the police are exactly the problem in these neighbourhoods”.
“It’s hard to say what type of policing would calm things down and what type of policing would escalate it … When you’re being harassed by police on a daily basis, you’re no longer afraid of it.”
Finding ‘justice’ in the rubble
With police absent or unable to control crowds in past days, reports have spread of communities banding together to defend their own neighbourhoods.
“There’s a Turkish neigbourhood in Hackney that successfully prevented the rioters from destroying the area,” said Klara.
Seymour described similar scenes of people standing outside their businesses with baseball bats, in a vigilante defence from lawless London.
“I talked to residents and they told me they will do the same if they don’t feel like their livelihoods are being protected by the police,” said Al Jazeera’s Charlie Angela, reporting from Hackney,
In a different form of community defence, one of the highest trending hashtags on Twitter early on Tuesday was #riotcleanup, and many people used it to coordinate cleanup efforts in riot-hit neighbourhoods around London.
What has emerged due to rioting is a lawless sense that Londoners need to create response plans for when police are not able to handle a situation.
Klara said that more than ever: “There is a lot of debate in the streets. Everyone’s talking about police killings, deaths in custody [and other social woes].”
Meanwhile, no one seems to support the destruction caused by the riots, but many believe that the situation is an expression of political anger.
When asked if the riots could lead to any positive outcome, Seymour said it already had, and described an interview he saw on television in which a rioter was asked the same question.
The rioter’s answer: “Yes [it has been successful], because if we hadn’t rioted, you wouldn’t be talking to us now.”
Follow Jesse Strauss on Twitter: @AJEsseStrauss