Tottenham riot: The lesson of Broadwater Farm | David Lammy

After 1985's riots, people felt abandoned as soon as TV news moved on. That can't happen again

I was 15 years old last time there was violent unrest on the scale witnessed in Tottenham over this weekend. The Broadwater Farm riots in 1985 were triggered by the death of Cynthia Jarrett, who suffered a stroke after police officers searched her home. Within twenty-four hours, riot police were clashing with local youths and the area was up in flames. The fallout from the riots was devastating. A police officer, Keith Blakelock, lost his life, and cracks that already existed between the police and the community became deep fissures that would take years to heal.

The events of the last few days are eerily, worryingly, dreadfully similar. The full story is not yet clear, but this much we know: a local man lost his life after a police raid. A grieving family organised a peaceful protest after losing a loved one – only for it to be hijacked by a few violent thugs. Residents are terrified. Eight policemen have been hospitalised. And none of this will bring back Mark Duggan back.

As in 1985, the only way to begin the healing process is to get to the truth. There was an inquest into the death of Cynthia Jarrett and we must get to the bottom of what happened during the police operation on Thursday night. The Independent Police Complaints Commission did not exist to oversee justice then; it must prove its worth now. An investigation is already under way. People need to know when they can expect it to be completed and how much of the evidence it sees will be put in the public domain.

Those with power in the Metropolitan police will also have questions to answer about the handling of the disturbances. Many residents feel that the response was too slow and that the situation was allowed to escalate too easily. With eight police officers hospitalised, those questions take on even more gravity.

In the coming months and years the rebuilding must start. The police must reach out to a community that feels scared about what has already happened and nervous about the future. As with the Broadwater Farm riots most people were not attacking officers but fleeing violence and remaining at home, terrified, behind closed doors.

Just as the media must avoid attributing the actions of a violent few to a peaceful majority, so too must the police not make the mistake of withdrawing from a community that needs stronger relationships with them, not the reverse.

Beyond all this, though, there is something else we must confront. These disturbances did not take place in Kensington or Richmond, wealthy parts of London. They ignited in one of the poorest parts of the country, just as they did in Brixton and Tottenham more than two decades ago. Then, Tottenham was scarred by poverty, with unemployment levels topping 20%. Hundreds of my contemporaries grew up without without work, without prospects and without hope.

Before this violence Tottenham was a more hopeful place than it was in 1985. Yet in the week that government ministers are warning of a return to recession, there are some echoes of the 1980s. Tottenham already has the highest unemployment rate in London. People were suffering long before this riot.

I remember the fear and confusion that surrounded the Broadwater Farm riots, but above all I recall the sense of a community that felt forgotten and abandoned when the television cameras moved out. For the sake of the 99% of the Tottenham community who took no part in this violence, we cannot let that happen again.


David Lammy

The GuardianTramp

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