Civil rights leader Martin Luther King said the riot is the voice of the unheard, writes Marc Wadsworth.
That doesn't mean that I expected tame British Member of Parliament David Lammy to be a Malcolm X and spout “no justice, no peace” after hours of missile-throwing, burning and looting in his Tottenham constituency last night.
But, given that the spark was the unexplained shooting to death by cops of a 29-year-old Black man, I would have expected Lammy to say that, while he did not condone violence, he demanded swift answers from the police. He should have voiced what many of his constituents on the streets said to me, that the police killing of a young Black man was more violent than the burning of some vehicles and buildings.
What happened? There are reports of specialist Trident officers tailing Mark Duggan who was in a mini cab on Ferry Lane. It is said that Duggan's last communication to his girlfriend, of 13 years and mother of his children, was that “the Feds (police)” were following him. Moments later he was dead.
Rumours spread quickly, particularly on social media, that machine gun armed officers shot him in the face on the ground at close range three times. That led to activists claiming it was cold-blooded “assassination”.
I was in the area last night, at a West Indian Cultural Centre function to celebrate the 49th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence. Earlier, with a heavy heart, I had predicted, to my partner, unrest in Tottenham over Duggan’s killing.
Evidence of the community rage that had built up came from relatives of mine who live on the Broadwater Farm estate made famous by the uprising in 1985 that cost PC Keith Blakelock his life. Then the trigger had been the appalling death of Cynthia Jarrett, a Black mother, in the custody of officers.
It was the managing director of the Gleaner and Voice newspapers group, George Ruddock, fellow guest at the Jamaican event, who alerted me just after 9pm that a riot was happening in Tottenham, nearby. After reading about it on his iPhone, I went to the scene – using my press card to get through a riot police line and onto High Road.
An adrenalin-fuelled sergeant, whose covered face I could not see in his riot helmet, was verbally aggressive, demanding to know why I wasn’t wearing my press card round my neck. When I responded by saying it wasn’t a war zone he told me to watch myself as if he was going to do me something. Another officer, annoyed I was “wandering around”, gave me more grief. It’s this surly, rude, unaccountable, megalomaniac behaviour of police that causes big community resentment, especially among the youth they stereotype as criminals.
The High Road devastation was shocking. Two burnt out cars – police vehicles I was informed. The ground covered in debris, including rocks, bricks and bottles left behind by rioters. Charred, gutted buildings. Shop merchandise spread over the pavement. Wailing Asian shopkeepers remonstrating with police.
A menacing squad of riot officers suddenly emerging, trotting along the road, in black boots, overalls and helmets.
Apparently, the unrest kicked off after peaceful protesters, including Duggan family members, marched from Broadwater Farm to Tottenham Police Station in the early evening. According to one them, my fellow campaigner from the 1980s, Stafford Scott, they demanded that a senior police officer, of the rank of superintendent or above, speak with them and give an explanation about the shooting of Duggan.
The demonstrators, including women and children, waited patiently for more than four hours to no avail. Then anger boiled over and some youths peeled away from the demo. Two police cars, parked in side roads, were torched. A double decker bus and buildings followed.
Police have been criticised by authority figures for being slow to move in and protect people and property. But riot police and vans were eventually pelted with missiles and officers baton charged their attackers.
I saw that the crowd was as much Black as it was white. People yelled “murderers” at the tooled up Darth Vader officers. When Lammy and Haringey Council leader Claire Kober spoke on camera to condemn violence and appeal for calm, on behalf of the establishment, hecklers yelled, “mention justice”. And, “there can be no peace without justice”.
Stafford Scott, said: “People say that things are not the same here (in Tottenham) since 1985, that conditions are much better. But they are just as bad in terms of the stopping and searching of Black youth by the police, Black students thrown out of school and high unemployment.”
There are more than 50 people for each unfilled job, 10 per cent more people claiming Jobseeker's Allowance this year than last. Unemployment hits the youth hardest.
A youth worker, Symeon Brown, said Haringey Council, the local authority, had cut youth services by 75 per cent.
This is the place where officers involved in the deaths of Black people in their custody have never been prosecuted, leading some people to believe they have a licence to kill.
The victims are Cynthia Jarrett (1985), pushed to the ground, Joy Gardner (1993), who had been strapped with a body belt and 13 ft of tape wrapped around her head and Roger Sylvester (1999), a father, who was arrested naked. Mark Duggan now joins them.
It’s a tinder box that is not helped by the rough, tough law and order condemnations and threats of retribution of Lammy (Labour), Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May, her sidekick Lynne Featherstone (Liberal Democrat) and Richard Barnes (Conservative), standing in for London Mayor Boris Johnson, who is on holiday.
By contrasts, I was mightily impressed by the fluency and passion of Tottenham community spokespeople and members of the public interviewed live on the 24-hour TV news. They staunchly defended their community. The common theme was that they did not condone the mayhem and criminal damage, but they understood its cause, which was injustice.
They demanded answers now, not God know when, after a suspect inquiry by the so-called Independent Police Complaints Commission. Why hasn’t Duggan’s cab driver, a man with so many answers, spoken publicly about what happened? Is he being gagged?
Politicians, who represent the Tottenham people, and police, who are paid by the public to protect them, will either heed their voices or face more rage. And not just in Tottenham.
* See brilliant photographs of the aftermath by The-Latest's Michelle Phillpotts.