London’s Burning


It is too early to give a definitive assessment of the London Uprisings over the weekend, but there are nevertheless two key lessons that have emerged.

The first and most important is the social breakdown that can take place when the police force has become an invading army, using paramilitary tactics, and has lost the trust of the people it is meant to serve.

The Metropolitan Police, are in the main interlopers in some London communities. They are mainly recruited from the regions (Scotland, Ireland and to a lesser extent Wales) and the provinces, the North East, some from the North West, and even fewer from the Midlands and the South East and South West.

But, they largely share in common a dislike of living in London. Most Metropolitan Police live in the Home Counties – Surrey, Kent, Essex, Hertfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. They commute in to work and see policing the inner city as policing aliens, crooks, thugs, dope dealers and users, pimps and dole scroungers.

Sadly, it has been ever thus. Since the 1950s and 60s, when Notting Hill and Notting Dales police stations became like internment camps for black people. Then Brixton, Stoke Newington, Harrow Road, Shepherd Bush, Peckham, Lewisham and Harlesden, and Handsworth in Birmingham, took up the fight.

Those of us who have been around before and since the national explosion in 1980/81, and again in 1985 in Broadwater Farm, know full well the lessons had not been learned. After the 1981 riots we got the Scarman report, and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, and were told it would never happen again. After the 1985 Broadwater Farm uprisings we had the unofficial Gifford Inquiry and again were told it would never happen again. Then we got the farce of the Stephen Lawrence murder inquiry, the hypocrisy of the Daily Mail intervention and the Macpherson report, all added to the diversion of the national debate about race relations and policing.

If anything, despite appearances, policing in London has never been worse since the 1960s.

Already it is beginning to look as if the so-called gun carried by Mark Duggan, the victim of the Operation Trident (the Scotland Yard force dedicated to black gun crime) and CO19, the permanently armed squad which patrols London heavily equipped with semi-automatic submachine guns and small arms, was a replica. Why did Trident, an armed squad, need backup with officers armed with semi-automatic weapons?

Even more seriously, it also looks from initial finds that the police officer who escaped injury when a shot lodged in his radio was in fact shot by a police issue gun. So, either Duggan had a police issue gun which he used to shoot at officers, or the officer was shot by one of his colleagues.

In any case, the shooting dead of Duggan was just a catalyst, not the real reason for the urban youth rebellion. The simple message to get out is that police and the black and youth community are not on good terms. In fact, white police officers often treat their black colleagues as if they were criminals just waiting to be arrested. Just look at the ongoing standoff between the Black Police Association and the Met.

There is no hiding the fact that a generation of socially dysfunctional young people, mainly men, are out of order. This is the generation that has fallen victim to the institutional racism that hits it full in the face the moment its members enter the British educational system at the age of five. By the time they are ready to enter secondary schools, quite often they have a record of suspensions, police searches, and teacher neglect.

The society has chosen to explain away this appalling treatment as a failure of black parenting, of peer pressure, of lack of ambition. However, it does not explain why black university graduates do not fare any better than their less qualified counterparts, why women in particular (and black women are among the highest qualified women in the country, better qualified overall than white women) do not get career opportunities to reflect this – although they do much better than men.

Nor, does it explain why every time the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police want to pay lip service to good race relations they go off to the United States looking for ideas – or photo opportunities with black kids in South London schools. Apart from the fact that all these progressive policing ideas used in the US have failed, it seems that British politicians and senior police managers have not yet realised that the vast majority of black people in the UK have been born in this country and are from a Caribbean and African heritage. Someone must tell them we are not American and do not have anything culturally in common with black Americans apart from a history of slavery and a love of good popular music.

But the narrative of black youth crime and its fabrication by police is long and sad. Take Winston Silcott, the young man who became the symbol of the 1985 Broadwater Farm uprisings and the aetiology of his criminal history.

Silcott’s first ‘offence’ was for riding a bicycle on the pavement, an anti-social act that can be and is often resolved with a telling off. From there it built up and built up with the petty accusations that the black community knows only so well, ever time going before a magistrate who no doubt saw the courts as the institution to criminalise ‘idle’ young people.

It was easy from there to make the assumption that after the brutal hacking to death of PC Keith Blakelock that the police was determined that someone – anyone – must pay the price. The person, it soon became evident, was Silcott. Eventually they got him jailed, not for the murder of PC Blakelock, but for the stabbing to death of another youth, an offence for which Silcott pleaded not guilty.

It was widely assumed that his conviction and jailing was in reality punishment for the murder of PC Blakelock. To many, the death of Mark Duggan and the weekend’s uprisings were but the latest chapter in the continuing showdown between Tottenham police and the local black community.

Of course, whatever the prehistory, the apologists and ‘experts’, black and white, have been quick off the mark with explanations of the root causes of the uprisings and ways to prevent any future occurrences.

Diane Abbott, the MP for Hackney and for years out of the Labour Party’s parliamentary loop, went to tongue in Monday’s Independent. The 1985 Broadwater Farm uprisings, she agreed with her colleague David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, were understandable, but this time things are different.

Over the years Diane and I have had our differences of opinion, but this time she over-stretched herself.

She wrote, in a remarkable revision of history:

“I remember the original Broadwater Farm riots clearly. So it was a heart-stopping moment on Saturday night to realise that, 26 years later, Tottenham was in flames again. But in 2011, a lot is different. For one thing, the first I heard about the riots was on Twitter; complete with photographs of burning police cars. And, if I was alerted in that way, I suspect that thousands of others were. For most of us it was just a piece of shocking news. But for some it was a cue to get down there.

“The other thing that may be different is the underlying relationship between the police and the community. My friend David Lammy, who has been the member of parliament for Tottenham since 2000, was correct to point out that, while the original Broadwater Farm riots were a straight fight between the police and the youth, the latest disturbances were an attack on Tottenham itself. It was not just cars and buildings that went up in smoke on Saturday night. It was 25 years of investment, of painstaking attempts to transform Tottenham’s reputation and (above all) of trying to build better; police-community relations.”

Diane Abbott’s memory is not as good as she and other revisionists seem to think.

I also remember the other street disturbances we had in the 1980s. I covered the nationwide uprisings of 1981 for the News of the World, and the 1985 Broadwater Farm disturbances for the Daily Mail.

What’s more, at the time, I was also living in South Tottenham, on Fairview Road.

And my recall is nothing like Diane’s. The media described black people then, with out distinction, as animals and savages during the 1981 ‘riots’ and worse. The evidence is there. Just go to the Colindale Newspaper Library in North West London and read the back issues. I still have the clippings in my garden shed.

And, it was even worse after the 1985 Broadwater Farm disturbances, during which PC Keith Blakelock was hacked to death. To many of us, the cold case reviews, the mass arrests, the quarantining of the estate, all suggested that the police were out to settle scores.

The public is also getting its cues from the politicians, including the London-born, Harvard-educated Guyanese lawyer, David Lammy, whose lack of proper analysis on any important social issue, to my mind, is a disgrace.

One letter writer to the Independent (Monday), writing from Derbyshire, said:

“The riots and looting at Tottenham are not the consequence of a single act of the police but a toxic combination of social deprivation and a lack of moral compass where the only code is that of the street gangs

“In our cities, we are neglecting the young and the old alike, but at least the government can take comfort from the fact that the thousands of elderly people imprisoned in undignified squalor are unlikely to take to the streets.”

So, from this letter writer based in the comforts of Derbyshire, the Peak District no doubt, we can see how official Britain is going to explain away the problem: a bit of social deprivation, but there have been huge investments to deal with this.

Is Ms Abbott talking about the Tottenham in which the police parade around like an invading force, that local businesspeople commute in and out with their huge profits to and from their suburban homes?

Is she talking about local businesses, including the fast food restaurants, in which the customers are black but the owners and people behind the counters are of all other ethnic communities but Caribbean?

And, of course, the letter writer hit upon an issue often discussed in private by the white, professional middle class, but not in public: the lack of a moral compass in Afro-Caribbean parenting.

Just listen to the acting commissioner of police Goodwin appealing to parents to take their children home. Listen to deputy mayor Kit Malthouse echoing that appeal like a stereo.

The world knows that Caribbean people of a certain generation are among the strictest parents in the country.

Of course it is all bogus, all nonsense, all groupthink. Since the alternative view is that young black people, in particular men, are the ones feeling the most pain from this economic maelstrom, but were never the beneficiaries during the boom years. Young black men would not know what a bank bonus was if it hit them full in the face. To the vast majority of black people the London economy is always in recession.

They also know that our friendly prime minister, the Eton and Oxford-educated ‘Dave’ Cameron is out to cut their benefits even more. It is the price of being black in 21st century Britain.

In the finally analysis, the Tottenham uprising has not only exposed our black community political impotence in the UK, it has also emphasised the gap between us and the New Britons – Eastern Europeans, Asians, West Africans, Somalis, Ethiopians, Eritreans, and others – all of whom have left us behind in terms of developing their own business cultures, community cohesion and political organisation.

Most of all, it once again exposes the trickery and deceit of those who aspire to be our leaders. Not a single black ‘leader’ has spoken out in defence of the youths. Not one.

We spend our money at fast food restaurants owned by others and which employ people from other communities; we send our children to school and take no real interest in how they are doing; we vote for politicians who could not care less about our welfare; and we sit on our hands while our young people stab and shoot each other over ‘respect’.

The one institution within the black Caribbean community in this country after 60 years, post Empire Windrush, of any significance is the church and, unlike any other religious group in Britain, the black church badly lacks a social gospel. Our faith leaders are only interested in our offerings.

We do not even have the energy to organise community meetings around these serious issues.

As a post script, it is important to remind people that from television pictures the rioting crowds and their supporters have been composed of all ethnic and religious groups, including Hasidic Jews, but of course the blacks get the blame.

Watch out for the carnival and next year’s Olympics.

Hal Austin, a Barbadian, lives in London and is a leading journalist and social commentator from the Black community.

Special thanks to Norman Girvan.