Five years after the riots, tension in Tottenham has not gone away

For five nights in 2011, London and other cities were engulfed by fire and violence. The anger persists, raising fears British streets could burn again

A police car sped past, prompting Tash to frown. “We are being punished because we dared riot. Tottenham used to be a nice place, but they took away our carnival and now the police target us,” said the 23-year-old, who works at the Coin-Op Launderette on Tottenham High Road, close to the junction of Forster Road.

It was from this north London corner that, shortly after 6pm on 6 August 2011, the first accounts of a riot were reported. The disorder spread with astonishing speed. More than 15,000 people are estimated to have become involved. About 4,000 of them were arrested, 5,112 crimes were committed and 3,800 shops damaged in London. Five people died as mayhem took hold in other towns and cities across England. Tottenham is where it began and Tottenham’s battle-scarred streets remain most closely associated with the summer riots of five years ago.

The catalyst was the police killing of a local man, Mark Duggan, 29, when he was shot during an attempt to arrest him. Antipathy towards the police remains easy to find in Tottenham. So too the repeated allegation that the Metropolitan police force is racist. “It’s a colour war, but a diluted colour war because they’re careful in how they oppress people,” added Tash.

Another disquieting theme repeated across the borough and neighbouring Hackney, both home to sizeable African-Caribbean populations, is the theory that an official policy is in place to systematically remove the area’s black communities. “It’s blatantly clear they want to ethnically cleanse us,” said courier Jason Hardie, 28, from Haringey.

Police have attempted to ease tensions by reducing the volume of stop-and-searches in areas like Tottenham (although during June there were 495 stop-and-searches in Haringey, the fifth highest among the 32 London boroughs). But the issue remains one of ethnicity. During the last year police in Tottenham recorded 55 searches per 1,000 of its black community – more than twice the rate among the white population.

Mark Duggan: the man whose shooting by police sparked the riots.
Mark Duggan: the man whose shooting by police sparked the riots. Photograph: Rex Features

Many believe the police are more distant and aloof than they were before the 2011 riots. “You never see police on foot any more. They don’t talk to us, but they’re happy to speed up and down the High Road with their sirens blaring,” said electrical engineer Tony Davies, 49, speaking outside the Aldi supermarket that was attacked by rioters four hours after the first reports of disorder in August 2011.

It is an observation that strikes a chord with Tottenham’s MP, David Lammy, who believes the draconian cuts to the Met’s budget led to the collapse of neighbourhood policing, loosening the bonds between officers and the community at the very time they most needed strengthening. “The neighbourhood policing levels have been decimated, the safer neighbourhood teams that existed at ward level, identifiable officers that people could call and who they knew,” said Lammy. “When people say they feel a different kind of policing, basically what they are saying is that they only see the police with blue lights.”

There are also recurring claims from residents that the Met has opted for a more aggressive policing style. “They intimidate us. They keep control of the streets by looking tough, picking up people for minor offences,” said hairdresser Samantha Palmer, 24. Another resident, Darren, 22, who claims he was present during the Tottenham riots but was not arrested, said: “The police have calmed down, but they had to.” His friend interrupts: “But they’re still racist.” Darren nods: “Yeah, they’re obviously still racist.”

As proof of discrimination, critics point to Scotland Yard’s “gangs matrix” database. Nearly 80% of its 3,422 individuals were recently classified as black. By comparison, only 439 white people – London has 3.66 million people classified as white British – were categorised as members of an organised criminal gang.

Stafford Scott, coordinator of the Tottenham Rights group, which has campaigned against policing oppression in the area since the Broadwater Farm riot of 1985, said it was beyond dispute that the Met criminalises young black men ahead of any other demographic. He recounted an anecdote involving a conversation with an unnamed police officer who told him that “coppers in Tottenham have a bad attitude” and explained that they were “cocky and arrogant” because they had to endure two riots.

Deborah Coles of Inquest supported Duggan’s family during the coroner’s hearing, which found that he was “lawfully killed” by officers. She says police discrimination remains a source of simmering resentment. “Young black men are disproportionately represented through stop-and-search, arrests, charging, higher sentencing – discriminatory treatment throughout the whole system,” says Cole.

The Met did not respond to requests for an interview.

Tottenham has attempted to rebuild itself since the 2011 riots, particularly through large-scale development projects which will see £1bn of investment deliver up to 10,000 new homes and 5,000 new jobs over the next nine years. But the re-generation projects have sparked new divisions.

On the Broadwater Farm estate, there is precious little enthusiasm for the ambitious reimagining of the area. Residents complain that they are excluded from the wealth of new opportunities being created. Broadwater resident Roy, 57, said: “The riot in 1985 was about food, water, basic needs. Now it’s about having a stake in society, the chance to be someone. You have all these developments springing up, incomers with money and we’re left looking on, wondering if we feature in the future blueprint.”

Scott is among those who believe that Tottenham’s black community is being deliberately frozen out. “The local authorities and the police are working together to deliver collective punishment for those who had the temerity to riot a second time.”

Indices supplied by Haringey council, however, suggest the regeneration is working, at least for some. Between March 2011 and 2016, employment rates rose from 56.7% to 68.7%. Similarly, numbers claiming jobseeker’s allowance fell from 6,550 in June 2011 to 2,862 five years later, with the drop mirrored among young people. Median weekly earnings for full-time workers rose by around £30, while the number of children receiving free school meals – a key poverty indicator – has fallen from 42.2% five years ago to 33.6%. Even so, a recent report by the Runnymede Trust documented profound ethnic inequalities within the area, particularly in employment and housing. When assessing ethnic inequality, it ranked Haringey as the second worst out of London’s 32 boroughs.

Riot police in Tottenham 7 August 2011.
Riot police in Tottenham 7 August 2011. Photograph: Lewis Whyld/PA

Undaunted, the leader of Haringey council, Claire Kober, believes Tottenham’s trajectory is such that the future is undeniably bright. Lammy suggests Tottenham had no choice but to regenerate, describing his constituency as struggling before the riots. “Tottenham needs regeneration. Tottenham cannot be the only area of London where everything passes us by. You then get into a discussion about the nature of that investment. The real issue, like the rest of London, is house prices, but that’s a macro-economic issue that’s unfair to land at the door of the local authority and even the mayor’s office,” said Lammy.

The central concern is, the MP believes, the selling off of social housing stock and the failure to provide alternatives. “The collapse of subsidised social housing is a scandal – that issue for a community like Tottenham is profound.”

As a result, too many locals, said Lammy, were living in overcrowded and inadequate houses at the mercy of landlords and without the hope of ever affording a home – the average price for a three-bedroom house in Tottenham is £550,000. “Even if they can afford to buy, there is very little prospect of their children becoming owner-occupiers. That reality is also fracturing communities,” said Lammy.

The disintegration of neighbourhoods is similarly evident in rapidly gentrifying Hackney. One of the most recognisable faces from the 2011 riots was Pauline Pearce, nicknamed the “Hackney heroine” after standing up to troublemakers.She said: ”The authorities want to ethnically cleanse Hackney, get rid of its grassroots. By doing so they are getting rid of its culture, the diversity we celebrate here.”

Pearce, 50, described adverts in Hackney promoting new housing developments that feature no ethnic minorities. “On one billboard were pictures of very trendy middle-class white folks and it said: ‘Turn your back on the norm.’ That’s sad.”

Along Hackney’s Clarence Road, which runs parallel to the Pembury Estate – scene of some of the worst rioting – the mood was the same. Inside the Finger Licking Caribbean Takeaway, whose patrons sit beside a smoking oil drum barbecuing chicken as they listen to reggae, the chef said: “They are trying to drive us out, they are killing us, putting business rates higher all the time.”

Pearce, a Lib Dem prospective parliamentary candidate, added: “People are struggling because of the rates. It’s hurting one-man businesses, pushing them out.”

Further along Clarence Road, inside the R&B cafe, the refrain was similar. “Property prices are crushing us. My daughters cannot afford to live here, but instead they allow the yuppies to come in and push us out,” said one customer.

Rioting in Hackney 8 August 2011.
Rioting in Hackney 8 August 2011. Photograph: Ray Tang / Rex Features

But others insist that Hackney’s transforming demographic, coupled with a range of social initiatives, has improved the borough. A poll released on Thursday revealed that 74.5% of the Pembury estate’s 3,500 tenants believe life has “got better” over the last five years.

In Tottenham too there are those who believe gentrification is unambiguously positive. Zeshan, who owns the Pound Plus store opposite the High Road’s police station, said: “The area feels calmer. I see a lot of new faces, a lot of newcomers, and it creates a better mix.” Some are even more enthusiastic. Ali Mohammed, 45, who fled Somalia 10 years ago, described Haringey as the “best place on Earth”. Beaming, he added: “People have a good society here, it’s perfect.”

Could the riots happen again? Lammy is adamant that his constituency will not countenance another repeat, but concedes that the social peace is fragile. “The people of Tottenham recognise that sort of destruction a third time would be a huge act of self harm. Having said that, austerity is real, unemployment is real, [there are] the strapped services – the local authority has lost £225m in five years – and the consequences of youth centres closing, day centres closing.”

Others say fresh disorder is inevitable, a matter of when, not if. According to Pearce: “This country could turn into a riot at any time. Look at the curent levels of racism, at America where the police think it’s OK to kill. This is where I start to get scared.”

Davies, speaking outside Tottenham’s Aldi supermarket, said: “There will be another riot. The police are not communicating, there’s tension.”

Cole adds that mistrust towards the police remains undiminished since Duggan’s death, citing a lack of accountability as key. “A lot of those concerns are still very much alive today,” she said.

Lammy points to research showing that three-quarters of 63 proposals made by an official panel into the riots have yet to be implemented, including mentoring for convicted youth offenders, along with fresh measures to prevent young people going without education, employment or training.

“The lessons of the riots were swept under a giant carpet,” says Lammy. “We needed to ensure that people have a stake in society. Have we got there? No we haven’t.”


Claire Kober.
Claire Kober. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Leader of Haringey council

“Tottenham is the future of London, with cutting-edge arts and culture, world-class sports, a strong community and a proud history. Rising employment and school standards and the number of businesses relocating from other parts of London over the last five years show Tottenham is heading in the right direction. We’re working around the clock to ensure a child born in Tottenham today will have a quality of life and access to the same level of opportunity, at least equal, to the best in London by age 20.”


Stafford Scott.
Stafford Scott. Photograph: Mark Large/ANL/REX/Shutterstock

Activist and coordinator of the pressure group Tottenham Rights

“The conditions for another riot are still there, absolutely. If you go to Broadwater Farm estate they’ll tell you things have got worse because unemployment is even higher. Now the authorities are trying to kick them out without any understanding or appreciation that they are the ones responsible for these young kids being born into environments that will encourage the behaviour they are now being punished for. There is inequality in health, education and unemployment, along with the policy of getting into bed with big developers where they put in tiny amounts of affordable housing.”


David Lammy.
David Lammy. Photograph: Nicholson/LNP/REX/Shutterstock

Labour MP for Tottenham

“The riots were the the lowest moment of my political life, comforting men, women and children standing just in their pyjamas with their homes and shops burnt to the ground. Frankly it took years off my life. When neighbours do that to one another, it is a horrendous thing. There are still victims recovering, children who have nightmares, people who have had heart attacks as a consequence.

The legacy it leaves to an area is not to be underestimated and part of what you have got to overcome is stigma and the perception that remains, long after the cameras and journalists, the external actors, have left.”


Pauline Pearce.
Pauline Pearce. Photograph: Sonja Horsman/The Observer

Hackney resident and Lib Dem prospective parliamentary candidate

“There’s been an improvement regarding outreach work and it went crazy with schemes to help young people, but as far as gentifrication and the housing and the benefits situation goes, it’s been negative.

Apparently they’re still arresting people from the riots. Five years later! Oh come on! These are people who got carried away in the moment. You’ve got 100 people and 98 are smashing the shit out of everything. Are you going to be the only two to stand there? In a place like Pembury [estate] you’d be accused of being an informer. ”


Mark Townsend

The GuardianTramp

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