London riots: frightened and angry, Tottenham residents seek answers

The reasons behind the violence and looting in London are complex and deep-rooted

Night. The smell of smoke, and angry young men moving with makeshift weapons. There are cars and buildings ablaze and the threat of violence. I've been here before, so many times. But not like this. For years, I have been confronted by such scenes like this abroad: Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans. But last week it was on my own high street in Tottenham, a seven-minute walk from where I live.

Two days later, I am confronted by more violence in Hackney, 100 metres from the place where, until a few weeks ago, my son went to school.

In the early hours of last Wednesday, I discovered the answer to a question I have long asked myself about violence – what it feels like to run from where you live because you are afraid – when arsonists torched the council depot behind my house, and my wife and I were woken by the sound of gas canisters exploding, a column of dark smoke glittering with orange flame rising above our home.

It would be easy to write that I know these communities in north and east London where I have lived for more than 20 years. But that would not be true. There is another London I always knew existed, a place more familiar to my own teenage children who know its rules and misrule – the places that are dangerous, the streets to avoid. This is not a place that I've visited. The geography of this London is mapped out in the places in-between, in the estates that are embedded among neat rows of Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian houses, in pockets where some of the city's worst urban deprivation exists.

What I know about the other London, I have read, learning about it as if a foreign place. Reports about the social consequences of multi-generational urban poverty, the sociology of gang membership on UK estates. I can lay map on map, finding the co-relation between poverty and the location of street gangs and violent crime, revealing a hidden chart to guide me through this world. But being white, middle-aged and middle class, this has never been my London. Now, after the events of the last week, it is a London that I cannot ignore and have been forced to confront.

It is easy enough to describe the visible manifestation of the events of the last week: the high street lit giddily by flames; the line of police made visible only by blue lights flashing on riot shields in the distance. The sensation of feet crunching on glass around the shell of police cars burned to paintless, tyreless shapes by those angry at the killing of Mark Duggan by police.

But even as I watched on that first night, a crucial negotiation was unfolding, a turning point almost utterly obscured by all that followed across London and other English cities, as those protesters who felt their point about Duggan's killing had been made were superseded by those with a different agenda. It was a group, some of whom had been part of the protest, defined not by anger but by self-interest.

What happened in the next few hours would set the pattern for the days that followed as more came from outside to join the violence in smoke-fogged streets sectored by headlights. But what is harder to describe, even a week later, is 'why?' Every explanation seems unsatisfactory, designed to conform to an ideology or a theory. I hear social deprivation blamed, yet there are other poor areas of the country that didn't riot. Others blame atheism and the lack of morality. Yet I have never lived in a community in London where so many of my neighbours go to church. Even the simplest explanation of Conservative ministers that it is simply "criminality" is meaningless.

I meet Lorna Reith, my local councillor whose ward covers half of the High Road most badly affected by the rioting, who is also responsible for children's services. We are on a corner not far from Bruce Grove station. Ahead of us the road is still cordoned-off as a burned-out building is demolished. There was jewellers once on the ground floor and flats above.

We help Alice, a 96-year old resident whose Dial-A-Ride has not made it through shut-off streets, to McDonald's where she can call a cab. She seems angry and confused. "I've lived here for 70 years," she says, "and now I wish I had never heard of Tottenham."

I ask her why. "Why do you think?" Alice bitterly replies.

Reith, who has lived on the Ferry Lane Estate nearby, has met many residents like Alice, people both frightened and angry. She is quick to dismiss the easy answers that some have attempted to supply to explain what happened first in Tottenham. "It is complex. There were different groups of people with different levels of involvement, many of them overlapping. There's the 13-year-old kid who heard about something happening on the High Road, who wouldn't usually get involved with criminal gangs. There were those with a more articulated political agenda, including those angry about police stop and searches. But the looting was not about politics, it was about consumerism – about people helping themselves to what they think they wanted."

The layers of complexity that she describes defy simple prescriptions. The area is not only poor but is a clearing house for many asylum seekers and refugees. On top of that, she argues, there exists a sub-set of older black men who were failed by the last Tory government and whose attitudes towards issues such as authority and police have been passed on to a new generation despite the fact that relations have improved immeasurably since the murder in 1985 of PC Keith Blakelock on the Broadwater Farm Estate, where Duggan also came from.

And with all that come other issues associated with the poverty that afflicts this side of Haringey, far from the middle class enclaves of Hornsey and Crouch End on the other side of a railway line.

There are young people in this area who have rarely been outside. "They might have been to the airport and Jamaica, but they are very territorial. They might go to Wood Green [looted in the aftermath of the first rioting] but they won't go elsewhere."

It explains, she believes, why the shops targeted were ones most familiar, where they choose to shop, such as Aldi and JD Sports. The places where some of them might work. While she is firm that those responsible should be punished, she is also worried that some caught up in a moment of opportunistic looting will be criminalised. "Lots of young people have shoplifted at one time without being regular criminals. You can imagine for those kinds of teenager the temptation of seeing a JD Sports with its window open. They have not thought it through."

What worries her most is not only those who looted while failing to think of the consequences, but others involved in more serious crimes such as arson.

I follow a journey like any other I would take to cover conflict abroad, seeking out the same figure who can explain and interpret for me. This time it involves me riding my bicycle from my front door or walking the streets nearby. In the community centre on the Broadwater Farm estate, Clasford Stirling MBE, founder and coach of Broadwater United football club, a youth worker in Tottenham for more than 30 years, is fielding calls from Haringey council and media. Ed Miliband, too, has called to talk to him.

While we are speaking, a 16-year old from the Scotland Green estate comes in to ask about football training. When he admits he has trouble getting up in the mornings, Stirling is on to him in an instant, instructing him to take responsibility for his life. "You know me now," he tells the boy sternly. "You know me."

I ask Stirling a question about last Saturday night but quick as a flash he questions me. "What was it that struck you most of all that night?" When I offer him a list, he stops me. "It was the total anger," he answers. "The confrontation with police before the looting happened. I've never seen the young people face to face with the police like that. When we met [London mayor] Boris Johnson two months ago, people said to him, 'Look, if we don't stop this thing between the kids and the police, it is going to kick off.'"

Despite that, Stirling's take on that anger is nuanced and complicated. Without being prompted he echoes Reith's reflection on how an older generation passed on their own attitudes about police to their own children. "I went to a workshop where some kids were talking about racism. I said: 'What do you know about it?' They said: 'The police call us names.' I told them when we played football when we were young, people called us coons and niggers and no one got booked. You could hear the same language on television. To a degree, I passed it on to my own kids – and we wonder why they don't become police officers?"

Stirling emphasises that there are genuine grievances including economic ones. As we are talking Paul Bridge, chief executive of Homes for Haringey, comes in to talk to him. Bridge mentions an apprenticeship scheme his organisation runs. About 200 applications are received for only four places.

Another important issue, believes Stirling, is the failure of the system to rehabilitate young men who have fallen into criminality which excludes them from work. "Between 1992 and 1994, we had a spate of criminality here. I can't help them get work. I don't know where to send them anymore. Now they have younger brothers who learn the same lack of trust of the system and are in danger of becoming criminals themselves."

But if Stirling believes there are self-perpetuating factors that exist in these poor communities, he is convinced too that a generation of young people has grown up more disdainful of parents and community leaders.

"When I was a kid, my mother and father were fearful of the police. I didn't want a neighbour to see me doing something that would be reported to my parents. Now these kids will tell a neighbour to get lost."

But there is something else beyond all the social and political issues. "It was exciting for some of these kids what happened. It turned into a giant playground. When you have anger and then add to it looting it all gets so much worse."

I catch youth worker Alvin Carpio, 23, on the phone as he is leaving a hastily organised meeting at Methodist Central Hall to discuss the implications of the riots. He says that while a lot of the debate has focused on self-discipline and responsibility, what it has failed to acknowledge is that within the groups at the forefront of the trouble – criminal street gangs and local groups of youths who describe themselves as being in "gangs" – a sense of responsibility and loyalty does exist; it is simply misdirected. "There are communities within communities with their own rules," he explains.

"They are loyal to themselves. If someone acts and someone else does not, it raises the question, 'What were you doing when I was taking a risk? Why weren't you there?' and that increases the pressure for others to join in." He mentions something that Clasford Stirling has also said to me: how, for some, with few paths available for them to follow, the figure in their community with the big car, the drugs and money appears to offer an alternative. "The challenge is for us to open up more paths."

One thing that all those I speak to agree on is that those involved in the riots were a small minority of the young people in Tottenham and Hackney.

Cherrelle Glave is a smart 23-year-old, who did well at school before attending university at Royal Holloway. I met her at the Costa Coffee in the Tottenham Retail Park. Outside, the window the fronts of the looted shops, looted on Saturday night and Sunday morning, are largely boarded up: Boots, Currys, Halfords, B&Q. Police stand guard and there is a car from the Red Cross. Insurance assessors with their boards take notes and photographs while glaziers measure.

I have been given a poem that Charlotte wrote and sent to a project at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre that – before the riots – had been employing unemployed youths to document the life of their area.

The poem touches a chord, because it doesn't deal with the often incoherent motivations of those who smashed up Tottenham and elsewhere, but the feelings of the rest of us: shocked, unsettled and confused.

"Why would people do it?" she asks. "It does not make sense to me. I don't like it when people say, 'The youth are angry. The youth don't have any opportunities.' They have more than many young people in large parts of the world. It does not explain why they looted. Because they were angry?"

She acknowledges that many do feel they have less on offer to them than older generations and she agrees that some are angry with the hypocrisy of an older generation that lectures about morality without much attachment to it.

Her brother, she admits, does not always agree, saying the kids are robbing because they don't have anything. "People taking what they want just adds to our problems. What scares me most is that some of the people did not seem to care.

"They weren't worried that the people who lived above Carpetright might get hurt when it was set on fire. They didn't seem to understand that people might be made homeless. That someone might get killed."

I look again at her poem.

"My heart turns tight like fingers grip a brick/ as hate rises like heat, while anger is the flame that tore thru the upstairs blew out sense and set mortar ablaze.../ My hope turns lax./ Today the rain lashes, so fierce, so abrupt./ And like they who came in the night there is no regard, no pre-warning for the heart, as the harder the rain the stronger the hurt in these veins, the more disappointment your chest holds til even your breath comes out cold./ This is the true meaning of acid rain./ Today the rain did not stop, and left us with no time to ask what have we become?"

Passing an artist who is painting an oil of one of the gutted buildings on Tottenham High Road, I realise that we do not know what we have become, because politicians and media, inhabiting their own world, have not asked the questions we needed to ask. We have not listened as the relative gap between the rich and poor in places like Haringey got ever greater, as social mobility declined. At the same time, the places where these two Londons meet have shrunk to places such as Tesco and our state schools.

We, and I, have been far too complacent.

Peter Beaumont is author of The Secret Life of War: Journeys Through Modern Conflict


Peter Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

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