Tottenham riots: missteps in the dance of police and a frustrated community

The policing performance was pivotal. And yet, a month on, people say there was something else in Tottenham that night

Tottenham has rituals so long established that they are barely worth talking about. Everyone knows, or is supposed to know, what they are. When something bad occurs affecting the fragile relationship between the police and the black community in Tottenham – a controversial arrest, a death in custody – people march from the estates to the police station. "I have led 20 marches on Tottenham police station going back to the 80s," says Stafford Scott, a veteran community activist with an imposing frame and a raspy voice. "I know what is supposed to happen."

Last month, noting the escalating anger being shown by those gravitating towards the home of Mark Duggan, who had been shot 48 hours earlier by armed police, Scott – who had known Duggan since he was a boy on the Broadwater Farm estate – led the march to the police station. The march was of textbook design: bewildered, distraught female relatives and their children near the front, everyone else behind. And due notice had been given.

But essentially this is a dance, and dances only work when all of those involved know and follow the steps. Different kinds of disorder erupted in different towns and cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Wolverhampton, even Gloucester. In each, we will doubtless find, the dynamic was different. But in Tottenham, where the rioting first flared, it is clear that in times of stress, the ritual dance assumes pivotal importance. On Saturday 6 August, the choreography went badly awry.

What should have happened? I ask David Gilbertson, who served as chief superintendent in Tottenham in the 1990s. "We often had marches to the police station," says Gilbertson, who rose to deputy assistant commissioner. "Always you get the most senior person you can out on to the street to speak to the organisers. You say 'come into my office and talk'. That always defuses the situation."

What actually happened, recalls Scott, was very different. "We got there at 5pm and found that the highest ranking officer was an inspector. They just fobbed us off, saying that nothing could be said because this was a matter for the Independent Police Complaints Commission."

They sent for the chief inspector who was down the road at White Hart Lane where Spurs were playing Atlético Madrid. "He happened to be black. The crowd had a bit of a go at him." We need a more senior officer, they told him.

"He disappeared for about an hour, and everyone thought he was finding someone more senior. Then he came back and just said he was the man we have to talk to. People were saying 'no, that's not right. We want a superintendent or above to address the family.' He went in again and then came out again saying he had sent for a superintendent. I said: 'It is 7.45pm and we wanted to go home a long time ago. If you are going to make us wait past dark, on your head be it. He said, 'Give me an hour.' "

The officer acted in good faith. By then, a more senior officer was indeed on his way. But the deadline expired and that was it. "The young women who were there with their children said they could not wait any more. Up until then, there had been no incident. One boy had thrown a stone through the police station window. He had then just run off. But when the young boys saw the girls going off, they started to get annoyed."

A tense situation had been mishandled, but that alone might not have led to disaster. Those who headed the march left the area peacefully and implored others to do the same.

Why the fury? There is no doubt that many were aggrieved, not just about a death in custody but the death of Duggan in particular, despite what has been claimed about his character – and here one needs add a note of context. To the world away from the estates, reliant on the headlines, Mark Duggan was just a gangster shot, as was said, in possession of a gun, perhaps having pointed it at the Operation Trident officers who had entered the borough to apprehend him. On his way, some stories say, to avenge the murder of a close friend in March. And the involvement of Trident is important. The unit, unlike others with licence to roam, confront and arrest in the capital, generally has a fair reputation, given its focus on fighting gun crime in minority communities. But many on the Broadwater Farm estate where Duggan was brought up and on the Ferry Lane estate where he was a familiar figure perceive the same alleged circumstances very differently.

"He was well loved," says Scott. "He wasn't an angel, but if you are brought up in a place like the Broadwater Farm estate, you better not be an angel because you won't survive." Duggan's wake, at the Broadwater Farm community centre10 days ago, was attended by up to 500 people.

Scott mentors young men and says Duggan would assist. "If I needed someone to talk to the young people about not following a certain lifestyle, he would be one of them. He was always happy to do it."

The gun reference also resonates differently. "You can say a guy had a gun. But the community may say if he had a gun, lots of kids have guns. They would be surprised in his case. But some carry them for protection. You might say he was in a gang, they say lots of people are in gangs. But the minute you say he aimed a gun at armed police, no one believes it. This community has a fine antenna."

Clasford Sterling, a community development officer at Broadwater Farm, tries to bridge the gap between the police and the community. He says he doesn't know what to believe. "When I first heard, I thought, Mark? No way. He wasn't like that. He wasn't known as a gun-toting guy on the streets. He brought his sons here to the football and he never disrespected me. He had got in trouble but he had no criminal record. We are being asked to believe a lot of things."

So there was anger on Duggan's behalf because people had their own evaluation of him, did not believe the accounts seeping out were credible and smelled a cover-up. But that didn't result in a riot.

What does cause a riot? Keith Flett, the socialist historian, local resident and convenor of Tottenham trades council, witnessed the early stages of the disorder. He has also studied other riots. "We struggle to know why these things turn into riots," he tells me. "You can put the same elements together and 99 times out of 100 it won't happen. Then something happens, perhaps the police move against someone, and that proves to be the spark."

Was there such a spark? Witnesses speak of the treatment of one female protester heavily assailed by police, and there is footage on YouTube of others complaining about her treatment. "It's a fucking girl," shouts one protester repeatedly and hysterically.

A factor perhaps, but not necessarily a game changer. There doesn't appear to have been an obvious game changer. Yet the game changed. Swiftly; decisively. Why?

Consider first the effectiveness of the policing on the night. Tim Godwin, acting commissioner of the Met, will give an account of that to MPs, but a few things we know. One is that warnings were received that should have allowed a proper evaluation of the situation to anyone who understood the context and history of Tottenham.

The Rev Nims Obunge is a man well known to local police, having worked to improve relations between local officers and the Haringey community. Associates tell me that on the Friday, alarmed by the level of tension, he emailed his concerns to the borough commander, Sandra Looby. We do not know what processes, if any, that were set in train. But we know that the following day, the borough commander disappeared on her pre-booked holiday. Obunge won't discuss his "private communications", but he says: "After speaking to members of the local community, I was greatly concerned."

We know that on the morning of the disturbances, selected community representatives and police had a "gold group" meeting. One of their number, an activist called Ken Hinds, told Channel 4 News that he too warned the meeting of rising tensions. The minutes bear that out.

We know that strange decisions were taken. Traffic was diverted heading north on the High Road but not, initially, heading south. Two squad cars were parked 100 metres north in Forster Road and from these officers tried to organise turning around the traffic. But when the disorder broke out, the cars were left at the mercy of the mob and set alight. The burnt-out bus, images of which travelled around the world, was also one of the stranded vehicles. Was there a plan, some ask, particularly victims such as Stuart Radose, whose flat above a carpet shop was destroyed by fire? Was it merely to protect the police station?

Unprepared to meet the ferocity of the attack, Tottenham officers were overwhelmed. Colleagues from Sutton in south London, 16 miles away, had to be drafted in during the early hours to reinforce the police line. "There were officers shouting for medics and officers required urgent assistance," acting sergeant Rob Pain told me. "I think every one of the officers that attended from Sutton received an injury of some sort."

They were attacked with bricks and masonry, he said. "We had the Lidl supermarket burning to our right and were breathing acrid smoke. It was terrifying."

In 1985, the late Bernie Grant spoke controversially about the origins of that year's riot on Broadwater Farm. And now, in the grassy courtyard of the Bernie Grant arts centre in central Tottenham, his widow, Sharon, a respected community figure in her own right, says there will be a reckoning over the policing on the night. "Local police were not involved in the death of Mark Duggan," she says.

"Neither was it their responsibility to liaise with the family. That was for the IPCC. But for someone in charge of the police here, the signals were there and the alarm should have been ringing; a black man dead at the hand of the police, a gathering on Broadwater Farm. People heading for the station. Look at the risk they exposed their officers to, as much as anything else."

An oft-expressed view, but perhaps not universal. The borough commander declines an interview, but I meet Bill Guy, a well-known local figure. Jowly, jovial, he is said to have been the first black man to settle in Haringey in the 1950s and sits on the local police consultative executive. He insists local police did the best they could: "They did a marvellous job. They are damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they had gone and did what they had to do we would have criticised them as heavy-handed."

The Rev Obunge, while supportive of the Duggans, also calls for understanding. "Almost 200 officers were injured. Let us as a community recognise that they have a duty of care to us, but we also have a duty of care to them."

There needs be a review of the relationship between the police and the IPCC, for although it is right that the police do not investigate themselves and right that the IPCC should take command quickly after a death in custody, the handover of responsibilities must be seamless.

Here the Met would not brief the family because that, by then, seemed a job for the IPCC. But the IPCC was not around to meet the family's concerns either. Clear system failure.

So the policing performance here was pivotal. And yet, a month on, people maintain there was something else in Tottenham that night. Keith Flett calls it a "general pissed-offedness". Simple yet potent.

There is the perennial blight of stop and search. What to do? Local police say this year there has been a 100% rise in street robberies. But we know stop and search antagonises, and young black people in Tottenham are up to eight times more likely to be stopped than whites. "You have rogue police that keep bullying and degrading the young people in public," says Clasford Sterling. Consider that Broadwater Farm has never completely recovered from the 1985 riots.

The police are still investigating the murder then of PC Keith Blakelock. Completely understandable. A murderer runs free. But it means high-profile operations; it means continuing arrests of well-known figures. "There's been no closure," says Stafford Scott. And there is baggage. People quote the list of others who died following police operations locally: Cynthia Jarrett in 1985, Joy Gardner in 1993, Roger Sylvester in 1999.

Go to the high street and hear a list of anxieties and grievances. Cuts, the withdrawal of educational maintenance allowance grants, tuition fees – they all register. Talk to Giles, a tall, light-skinned guy who raises his jogging hood over his head as he exits the local leisure centre. "I am pissed off about the people who lost their property and their homes, but this was called for," he says. Talk to Jenna, a young girl strolling down the street. "People jumped on the bandwagon," she says. "They wanted free trainers. Kids don't have anything to do and it was the summer holidays. There are no jobs for people and they just haven't got the money to get things they want."

Speak to Sabrina, a student who does youth work. "When you have government cuts and the way life is in an area like this, problems will escalate. People don't have a voice and it has been like that for such a long time. I have spoken to some and they didn't regret it. To them they had made a point in the only way they could."

Speak to Joe Ejiofor, a local ward councillor and chair of the community forum. "People are angry. Even if you agree with the narrative that says cuts in youth services had nothing to do with causing riots, surely it is essential that we put more money into youth services and job creation now. As a council, we should be prepared to do that."

Speak to Hesketh Benoit, another youth worker, equally passionate. "Youngsters are being stopped and searched; 75% cuts in youth provision; youth not listened to. EMA has been cut. Youths feel they get qualified and there are no jobs. This was the last straw. After the riots they feel they have been listened to. Even if they go to prison, they feel they have been listened to. It took the riots."

That's the problem. As a way of getting attention and funding, riots work. In the short-term at least. But the fix is superficial. The task for David Lammy, Tottenham's MP, who was born and bred in the area and warned in March of the potential for disorder there, is to achieve something more substantial. "I have to try to convey to the government and to the public at large that for any area to have had two riots within a generation is tragic," says Lammy.

"I don't think any other area of the country has found itself in this situation. It was already a community that was hurting. It already had the highest unemployment in London, already in need of much bigger regeneration, the sort of regeneration we are seeing around east London with the Olympics. I am talking hundreds of millions."

The problem is bigger than Tottenham, but already, they say, Tottenham is seeking to heal itself. On Saturday, determined to show a better side, volunteers from the hugely impressive Haringey Young People Empowered project staged a cross-borough football tournament. Other young Tottenhamites are planning events to raise money for people who lost homes and businesses. It's a start. "Start with the 99% of Tottenham's population," says Lammy. "Start with the young people that, this August, got the best results in their GCSEs and A-levels we have ever had. Start with the fact that the vast majority of people in Tottenham rejected the violence."


Hugh Muir

The GuardianTramp

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