Tottenham riots: a peaceful protest, then suddenly all hell broke loose

Shops looted, vehicle torched and police injured in full-scale riot that spread across north-London suburbs

Asked if the Metropolitan police were slow to respond to the Tottenham riots, commander Adrian Hanstock replied: "No, not at all." That account, given outside Scotland Yard on Sunday morning, did not correlate with events that had unfolded several miles away in north London hours earlier.

What began as a gathering of around 200 protesters demanding answers over the death of Mark Duggan, who was shot dead by police on Thursday, culminated 12 hours later in a full-scale riot that saw brazen looting spread across north-London suburbs.

By 5.00am, at Tottenham Hale retail park, teenagers were still emerging from shops into the dawn sunshine, stuffing bags and trolleys with stolen goods and running into back streets.

Some officers had apprehended a handful of looters; others had their phones out and were taking pictures of a burnt-out car.

At exactly the same time, looting was taking place nearly two miles away, on Wood Green high street, where approximately 100 people had spent hours burning cars and breaking into high-street shops. Some were even filling suitcases.

As for police – who had claimed to have "contained" disturbances six hours earlier – there was none in sight.

By Sunday night police said there had been 55 arrests, and 26 police officers injured. Yet what marked the weekend's disturbances were not the number of people hurt but the scale of property destruction.

Throughout the borough, shops, pubs, banks and even residential properties had been ransacked and torched.

Firefighters struggled to contain a blaze at an Aldi supermarket and another fire in a building just a few hundred yards away, housing a carpet store. Both were huge fires that – apart from the rioting – would have made significant news events in themselves.

These were by all accounts the worst disturbances of their kind since the 1995 Brixton riots. Shocked residents emerging this morning to see the scorched, debris-strewn streets asked two questions. Why had the riot started? And how did it spread?

The crowd that gathered outside Tottenham police station at 5.30pm were by all accounts peaceful. The protesters consisted of local residents, community leaders, and some of Duggan's relatives, including his fiancee, Semone Wilson.

Protesters complained that police and the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which is investigating Duggan's death, were not communicating with them.

Wilson, they said, had been forced to call the IPCC to identify the body; other relatives first discovered Duggan had been killed when they saw his photograph on the news.

With apparently limited communication, the vacuum filled with rumour.

There were stories of Duggan having been shot after being handcuffed; others said he had sent a message to friends 15 minutes before he was killed, saying he had been cornered but was safe.

There were chants of "we want answers" but those present said the protest was good-natured. The demonstration, which organisers expected to last no more than an hour, was initially fronted by women, who surrounded Wilson, who had three children with 29-year-old Duggan.

What happened over the next four hours is subject to debate, but what is clear is that tensions gradually escalated, as police made only limited attempts to talk to the demonstrators.

Some who were present described seeing a younger, more aggressive crowd arrive around dusk, some carrying weapons. "These people were prepared," said Bill Dow, a bystander. "They had fireworks and petrol cans."

Protest organisers denied this, and said police failed to engage with them. Eventually a chief inspector came out and spoke to Duggan's relatives but, organisers said, he conceded a higher-ranking officer should talk to them.

Stafford Scott, a community organiser, said police were "absolutely" culpable for not responding to their requests for dialogue.

"I told the chief inspector personally that we wanted to leave before nightfall," Scott said. "If he kept us hanging around after nightfall, it was going to be on his head. We couldn't guarantee it wouldn't get out of control."

Scott said the chief inspector promised a higher ranking official would speak to the crowd.

When no one came, organisers said some younger men turned their anger to two police cars, which were set on fire.

Duggan's relatives are said to have left the area when the rioting began. His brother, Shaun Hall, distanced the family from the Saturday night disturbances.

He said there may have been a "domino effect" from the unanswered questions surrounding his brother's death, but said the family "don't condone at all" violence perpetrated in his name.

Others present said the spark for the rioting was a specific incident involving a 16-year-old woman, who stepped forward to confront police around 8.30pm, demanding answers, but was attacked with shields and batons.

"They beat her with a baton, and then the crowd started shouting 'run, run', and there was a hail of missiles," said Anthony Johnson, 39. "She had been saying: 'We want answers, come and speak to us.'"

Laurence Bailey, who was in a nearby church, described seeing the girl throw a leaflet and what may have been a stone at police.

Bailey said the girl was then "pounded by 15 riot shields". "She went down on the floor but once she managed to get up she was hit again before being half-dragged away by her friend," he said.

In some ways, the truth about the alleged incident involving the 16-year-old did not matter; the rumour that police had attacked a girl was incendiary enough.

In a YouTube clip showing burning police cars and violent pitched battles more than an hour later, a rioter can be heard goading others: "Didn't you see the girl getting roughed by the Feds, man? Come on."

By 11pm, a double-decker bus had been set alight, and shops – mostly local businesses – along the high road broken into. Throughout the nearby estates and terraced streets, teenagers walked brazenly with stolen TVs, stereos, mobile phones and food.

The make-up of the rioters was racially mixed. Most were men or boys, some apparently as young as 10.

But families and other local residents representative of the area – black, Asian and white, including some from Tottenham's Hasidic Jewish community – also gathered to watch and jeer at police.

Some took defensive action; the owners of a Turkish supermarket stacked crates of bottled water in front of his store to prevent break-ins. A building containing a florist was set on fire, as was the Prince of Wales pub.

Police, some on horseback, began to gain control of a 200-metre stretch of the high road by around midnight, allowing fire-engines to tackle the raging fires.

The rioters, however, simply dispersed into back streets or moved further north, where they pillaged an Aldi supermarket before setting it on fire. The blaze, along with a fire that engulfed a branch of Carpetright, lit up the sky.

"Shall I be honest? Fuck the police," said Reeko Young, 24, who had gathered with friends on a nearby side street to share images of the riots on mobile phones.

Young said he was not taking part in the violence, but like many had been enraged by the rumours circulating about Duggan's death.

He showed one of several BlackBerry "BB" messages being disseminated, suggesting Duggan had been shot in the face at point-blank range.

His friend Jermaine Smith, 24, had a different message, purporting to have been leaked from a Tottenham police officer who revealed – implausibly – that the police weapon used to kill Duggan had still not been recovered.

Everyone seemed to agree that the weapon Duggan had been carrying, and allegedly used to shoot police, had actually been found wrapped in a sock.

"People feel the murder of Mark was very unjust," he said. "We all know police and the lengths they are willing to go to. We don't believe their stories about how he died, and I don't believe the community believe it either."

Young and Smith were among dozens of young men and women who preferred to take shelter in side streets, watching the blazes on the high road.

But in the early hours the disturbances escalated, with looting fanning out in all directions.

Around 1.30am, BBC and Sky News crews were attacked south of the high road. Both news organisations pulled all their staff out of the area for their own safety.

Some of the most shocking scenes occurred once the television cameras had departed. South-east of the high road, groups stormed Tottenham Hale retail park.

In quick succession they smashed their way into outlets belonging to Boots, JD Sports, O2, Currys, Argos, Orange, PC World and Comet. Most headed straight for the shelves, although others pulled out cash registers or searched storage rooms.

North-west of the high road, youths in military-style balaclavas and wielding sticks made burning barricades, attacking motorists who approached shops being looted.

But it was the contagion to nearby Wood Green that proved most surreal.

From around 2.30am, young people began breaking into high-street stores. With no intervention from police at all, and looters in control of the area for around three hours, it was left to residents to intervene.

One man, who was held back by his girlfriend, remonstrated with a group breaking into a Lidl supermarket after discovering his car had been reduced to a burnt-out shell.

"Don't fight, there's too many of them," his girlfriend shouted as four teenagers ran past boasting about their stolen G-Star jeans.

On the adjacent street, a young man who looked about 14 drove erratically around a back street in an apparently stolen Audi.

Most of the activity, however, was taking pace on the high street. Gaming shops and mobile phone outlets were targeted, as well as clothing stores.

Large HMV and H&M outlets were also broken into. Most looters attempted to conceal their faces with scarves, but the theft was casual, with people taking their time to pick through items and – in one front garden – swapping stolen goods.

It is perhaps unsurprising that rioting in Tottenham – one of the most economically deprived areas in the country – should have involved mass opportunistic theft. But even in the early hours the rioting was not without some social symbolism. "Murderers," shouted one man clutching a stereo as a police van drove past on Lordship Lane at around 3.45am.

Nearby a group of young men emerged from Haringey and Enfield magistrates court wielding hammers.

They had shunned the temptation of the looted stores to break seven windows in the courthouse. It is a place some rioters presumably visited in the past; others are likely to be summoned in the near future.

On Sunday at 4pm, almost 24 hours after protesters first gathered at Tottenham police station, a solitary alarm was still ringing at the courthouse.

Police and fire engines had not yet attended the magistrates court – or the adjacent probation service office, which had been torched. It was left smouldering in the rain.

• This article was amended 9 August 2011. A description of onlookers in a Tottenham crowd has been expanded to give details of the main groups observed by the reporter.


Paul Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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