Tottenham 1985-2011: Through the Fire

by Guest Contributor Nichole Black, originally published at On Race and Resistance

London Riots

On Saturday evening 6th of August I was gathered with friends in Peckham, South London celebrating the opportunities and doors open to us. One friend travelling to China for a year, my scholarship for a masters degree, another friend rising in influence in the community. All of us young Black people having grown up in the inner city on Estates and council properties. Graduates with narratives that disturb the monolithic perspective of Black youth identity. But not disconnected from our own context and committed to our community it was with grief, sympathy and solidarity that we turned toward Tottenham, by then, ablaze with anger and burning out brick and mortar. This morning – through the soot and smoke filter – the socio-economic barriers remained.

Numerous stories have emerged but there is no verified account of what turned a peaceful protest into a riot that would endanger lives and ruin local businesses and services. Earlier that afternoon members of the community in Tottenham gathered to demand answers from the metropolitan police, who on Thursday 4th August stopped 29 year old Mark Duggan in a Mini Cab and engaged in a shoot out that resulted in his death. Duggan, father of four, had allegedly been in possession of firearms. This is another of at least three accounts of Black men’s deaths during police operations this year alone. It has only been five months since over a thousand people gathered to protest the suspicious death of Smiley Culture whilst the police were at his home.

Last night’s riots in Tottenham come exactly twenty-five years after the infamous Broadwater Farm riots in the same part of London. Not vastly dissimilar from recent events, Cynthia Jarret died whilst the police conducted a search of her home. Just the week before that Dorothy Groce was shot by police instigating the 1985 Brixton Uprisings. When community members gathered at the police station tensions rose and the peaceful protest in Tottenham erupted into riot. The violence escalated and policeman Keith Blakelock was killed. (The intricacies of this case are harrowing and worth reading).


If we are shocked at what is going on in Tottenham we have failed to trace history & the relationship between authorities & poor & BME. – @HanaRiaz

A quarter of a century on we are asking if police-community relations in Tottenham are any better. That is only for the residents of that area to say but it is evident that they are still not good enough when police accounts are understandably met with such distrust. As we face-off with the returned ugliness of the 80s British conservatism and increasing hostility, conditions are being set for a ‘police army state’. I was disgusted listening to a BBC Radio 5 reporter commenting ‘If you shoot at the police what else do you expect?’ I expect the police to arrest and charge their suspects. I expect individuals charged with crimes to face court and the full length of our judicial process as required. (The Guardian has since published information stating early ballistic tests show that all bullets were fired from the police – evidence of the false account used to cover police corruption.) I have not been so deceived out of my citizenship, nor convinced of the absent humanity of those of us living in the inner city, as to expect and humbly accept rising numbers of curious deaths at the hands of our police – and certainly not when they are all men of African-Caribbean descent. As Reverend Nims passionately expressed standing in Tottenham speaking to BBC News this afternoon, the Duggan family waited for hours to get answers from the police to no avail. Their anger is legitimate and their right to justice persists.


The police said Mark Duggan had a gun, Smiley had a knife, Jean Charles de Menenzes had a bomb and Ian Tomlinson died of natural causes. – @Melissamono

My perspective here is more complex than ‘F@*k the police’. I understand fully that they have a job to do and that many of them are simply executers of the racism that is systemically part of the police force as an institution. It is this foundation that makes me object to Trident (who conducted Thursdays operation) despite the commentary of many explaining the danger of government plans to disband the department as part of budget cuts. Activist Lee Jasper in particular shared very thorough thoughts on his issue here. I however believe that Trident has lead to the increased criminalisation of African-Caribbean people in the eyes of this nation. Consistently reported and advertised as a department developed to tackle gun crime in the Black community our joint citizenship is undermined and we are ostracised as ‘the problem immigrants’. We are specially policed like animals. These may seem like trivial concerns when held against the real and potential work Trident do in reducing violent crime. But the above perceptions fuel racism. There is no clearer denial of our humanity by the government and larger British public than the fact that they are/were willing to invest money into specifically policing Black communities, but resist and resent at every turn investing in our education, employment, specific healthcare needs etc through policy, grants, or initiatives like affirmative action that redistribute power and create fairer playing grounds. The strategy has been to tackle crime without addressing the different types of social exclusion that create the conditions for it, and the injustice of social exclusion is on the rise in areas like Tottenham. This may be why there were many eye witness accounts, and Social Activist and Youth Campaigner Symeon Brown who had been there the whole night went on record with the BBC to express that the police had only secured the banks and police station, and observed while the rest of Tottenham burnt down.


There are those rioting because they want to engage in mass civil disobendiece. But this story is not black & white. It’s immersed in grey. However that’s not a convenient or compelling narrative. “Angry black youths riot for no apparent reason”, makes people more comfortable. – @Christiana1987

Duggan’s death was not the cause of the rioting but a trigger that set light to legitimate anger in that community. Haringey Council implemented a 75% budget cut to youth services closing down many of the centres and resources most needed by young people especially during the holiday period. With Conservative policies creating higher unemployment, threatening our national health service and stripping our arts sector it is the people in these inner city areas that suffer most.


“A riot is the language of the unheard.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

It is senseless and disconnected preamble to discuss the rioting as rational or strategic. It was impetuous, emotional and in some cases exploitative. But lasts nights violence stands to reason and if the history of the last 25 years is not evidence enough then Frantz Fanon one of the most important thinkers on Black experience describes it for us clearly:

At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect. [Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth, 1963. New York Press, p93]

The rioting is tragic and regrettable and devastating. Many people in the Tottenham area woke up to the loss & destruction of their businesses and property. That always presents horror but particularly so in this economic climate. Four children have woken up this morning to confront the loss of their father. That is stifling. These are the personal stories. The macro narrative is that time is not linear but circular. There is no more appropriate scripture this Sunday evening than Solomon’s words ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9) The conditions were set, the violence followed, no different to what generations before us have known. So much so that it brought together the whole spectrum of multiculturalism in that area. Tottenham was destroyed last night. It is time to rebuild: “A call for engagement, empowerment, education and economic revival” says political activist Rukayah Sarumi.

Let the work begin today.

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  • http://twitter.com/IamNicholeBlack Nichole Noir

    I agree Surrogatekey I have read some engaging commentary from such a wide array of voices. Even British comedian Russell Brand who now lives in the US has weighed in with one of the best articles I have read. Thanks for reading my work. 

  • http://twitter.com/IamNicholeBlack Nichole Noir

    Thank you KW, I share your hopes. 

  • http://twitter.com/IamNicholeBlack Nichole Noir

    Thank you Free, 

    Last night I attended a meeting with the Socialist Workers Party and Black Activists Against Cuts. It was amazing to be gathered with so many people willing to take this government to task. If you are interested, I posted the speech given by long standing political activist Lee Jasper on my tumblr here: http://nikkisblacklist.tumblr.com/post/8828284450/coalitionofresistance

    Thank you for your support. 

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  • http://twitter.com/IamNicholeBlack Nichole Noir

    Cocojams thank you for reading my article and sharing such kind words about my work. The discussion in the UK continues around how we can respond to these national demonstrations of unrest. Thank you also for sharing an astrological point of view. 

  • http://twitter.com/IamNicholeBlack Nichole Noir

    Cocjams thank you for reading 

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-28727-Woodside-Family-Examiner RCHOUDH

    This article is spot on! These riots have laid bare alot of the issues plaguing Britain namely inner-city racial tensions and lack of social mobility due to an entrenched class system. The rampant classism is something new for me to hear; I never knew how entrenched these class distinctions are  to the point where your class status is determined not so much by how wealthy you become on your own, but by the class your family belonged to, the school you attended, etc.

    Unfortunately I don’t think the authorities plan to delve more deeply into the underlying issues that have been contributing factors towards these riots (economic disenfranchisement, educational achievement gaps, etc). Instead they plan on strengthening the police state, by employing facial recognition technology and possibly temporarily blocking access to social media sites. Cameron even went on to say the UK would learn about how to curb gang violence from the US! 

    • http://twitter.com/IamNicholeBlack Nichole Noir

      RCHOUDH,

      You are completely right. Instead of engaging with the exact issues you have highlighted the British government are spinning a story of ‘mindless criminality’. Class as you say is a crippling force in this nation and even more so when conflated with racial discrimination. We have essentially elected an elitist minority ruling class and they our shrinking our opportunities as their austerity burgeons. This is like a scene out of Karl Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. 

      • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

        Thanks Nichole and you made an apt depiction of the riots being something out of Communist Manifesto. I’m pretty much in shock over how far the authorities are willing to go to “clamp down” on the rioters, by employing tactics that were found in non-Western countries until now. I mean I only heard of facial recognition technology in reference to Iraq and Afghanistan and it’s well-known how the Mubarak government tried to quell access to the internet and cell phone communication in order to suppress the Egyptian protestors. What could be next the use of drones to spy on underprivileged communities??? It’s like the chickens have come home to roost so to speak…