Ten years after Tottenham uprising, too little has changed
It's hard to believe this week marks a whole decade since the Tottenham uprisings, sparked by the killing of a young Black man, Mark Duggan, at the hands of the Metropolitan police in north London.
Looking back, there is a striking sense of incredulity: Today, the same issues that plagued poor, Black and brown, migrant and working-class neighbourhoods continue to afflict them, despite the earth-shattering events of that week otherwise known as the Tottenham riots.
The fury began in early August 2011, when yet another Black man was shot by the police. Crowds gathered in front of the police station in Tottenham to demand truth and justice, but were locked out and then violently repressed. The events that followed were not only an immediate expression of anger in the face of violence upon violence but also a reaction to decades of systematic deaths at the hands of the state. Clashes between young people and the police quickly spread across the country and soon turned into a national show of frustration in the face of racism, repression, and police violence.
"Clashes between young people and the police quickly spread across the country and soon turned into a national show of frustration in the face of racism, repression, and police violence"
To add insult to injury, the tragedy was mishandled from beginning to end.
Early reporting told the public that there had been an "exchange of fire" and that Mark Duggan even injured a police officer. He was depicted as a gangster, playing on racist caricatures of working-class Black men, which indirectly reinforced the image that he was somehow guilty.
It was later revealed, and confirmed in court, that Duggan was not holding a weapon when he lost his life. Worse, one of the shots fired at Duggan by an officer had gone through his arm and into another officer, which is why a member of the force was injured at the scene. Furthermore, the famous photo used in the tabloids showing him "looking threatening', turned out to be a cropped picture that had been taken at the grave of his infant daughter.
#OtD 6 Aug 2011 two days after police killed Mark Duggan, relatives and local residents marched on Tottenham Police Station. Police assaulted one which sparked a violent response - riots then broke out across London and several other towns. https://t.co/SlMcfHw3yO pic.twitter.com/tQtnv7aBie— Working Class History (@wrkclasshistory) August 6, 2021
Yet, despite these numerous challenges to the original justification for his death peddled by the police and media, justice continued to be denied to the Duggan family. After years of fighting for truth and accountability, the court concluded that his was a lawful killing. This verdict was based on the claim that the officer who had shot Duggan only needed to believe that he was armed to take such fateful action.
Marcia Rigg, a member of The United Families and Friends campaign which has long been fighting for justice for those killed in police custody as well as in prisons and mental health services, says that "too often we find that courts, as well as the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IOPC), overwhelmingly trusts the version of events told by police officers and rules in their favour. Justice delayed is justice denied".
Mark Duggan's cousin, Marsha Farmer, was recently interviewed for the 10-year anniversary of his death. She concluded that since then, little has changed. In fact, two waves of Black Lives Matter demonstrations have pulled thousands onto the streets of the UK and highlighted that institutional racism, police violence, and disproportionate use of violence against Black and other communities of colour continues to be a crucial issue.
"The hysteria following the riots, which was encouraged by pundits and politicians justified the harshest conceivable sentencing"
To name but one terrifying statistic, to date, there have been 1,793 deaths in state custody since records began, averaging roughly one a week. Despite this fact, as we mark the anniversary of Mark Duggan's killing and the uprisings that followed, the main focus of commentators is on the damage caused by rioters.
Considerably less attention has been placed on the disproportionate sentences given to those involved in the uprisings of 2011, to the children who were implicated and criminalised, and to the lives that were completely destroyed.
In the aftermath of the riots, over 4,000 people were arrested, 90 percent of them boys and men, and just under 50 percent were aged 18-24. Over a quarter were children aged 10-17. In West Yorkshire, for example, minors made up 44 percent of the total arrests.
Vernel Dolor was arrested and convicted at the age of 18 for throwing bottles at police. He received a two-year sentence despite the judge admitting that on any other occasion - not connected to the riots - he would have simply slapped him on the wrist. Reflecting on the moment that changed his life for the worse, he stated: "I'd just left school, how did they think putting me in jail with career criminals, grown men, was going to rehabilitate me?"
Yet the hysteria following the riots, which was encouraged by pundits and politicians in order to avoid any actual engagement with the causes of the discontent, justified the harshest conceivable sentencing. Research indicates that sentences handed out in the aftermath were on average 25 percent longer than normal. In fact, almost 2,000 years of prison sentences were distributed to those accused of participating.
Even less attention has been given by subsequent governments to addressing the underlying issues that led to such an explosion. Focus and investment has, instead, been on so-called "regeneration" projects in areas like Tottenham. As a consequence, people who battled poverty, violent state repression and racism before the killing of Mark Duggan have since been priced out of their neighbourhoods. The government's answer to social problems experienced by the poor and marginalised is to simply cleanse them of areas now considered profitable.
"People who battled poverty, violent state repression and racism before the killing of Mark Duggan have since been priced out of their neighbourhoods"
In addition, we have seen growing surveillance imposed on the same communities under the guise of counter-extremism and, more recently, the claim that the state is tackling gang violence. The causes for the uprising - repression, the undermining of civil liberties, the policing of Black, brown, and poor communities, and their exclusion from society - have continued to worsen in the last decade.
The lessons that the state chose to learn from 2011 - and the consequences of the normalisation of harsh and punitive legal rulings in its aftermath - have also been captured by the recent criminalisation of those involved in the nationwide protests opposing the draconian Police Crime Sentencing and Courts bill. #KilltheBill participants are being handed lengthy sentences for minor offences committed during the demonstrations that opposed what many believe will be a huge attack on political freedoms - Including the right to demonstrate. One individual received a five-month "outraging public decency" sentence for urinating in public.
A decade on, the voices of those who were criminalised following the events in 2011 must still be heard Riots Reframed, a documentary by Fahim Alam who was himself arrested for participating in the riots is a powerful document of this period. It brings together activists, artists and community organisers who unpack that moment in history and provide a rich analysis of its significance and consequence, which resonates with the many social problems we continue to fight today. This is not just important for the archives, it serves as a tool for all those currently fighting racist policing, border forces, the prison industrial complex and austerity.
Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.
Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia
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