One year after riots rocked 66 areas across England for five days in some of the worst disturbances in that nation’s history, the issue that initially ignited those disturbances – police abuse – remains an unresolved problem.
Those August 2011 riots that produced five deaths, the loss of hundreds of businesses and homes plus overall damage costs exceeding $1-billion erupted on August 6th after police attacked a group peacefully protesting outside a London police station against police fatally shooting unarmed Mark Duggan.
Those protestors included family members of Duggan, a 29-year-old black man who was one of eight persons to die suspiciously while in custody of English police during just the first nine months of 2011.
While English officials swiftly slapped prison sentences on persons arrested during that rioting, like 16-months for a 22-year-old man accused of stealing ice cream, the official investigation into Duggan’s death has progressed at a snail’s pace due largely to authorities and the policemen involved in Duggan’s death erecting their respective roadblocks.
No English police have received convictions for any one of the thousands of suspicious deaths of persons while in police custody since the 1969 conviction of two English policemen for killing a black man.
Last week Pam Duggan, mother of Mark Duggan, issued a statement criticizing the authorities’ for failing to deliver “justice” to her family. Duggan’s father died last month without seeing those involved in his son’s death held to account.
“The past 12-months have been terrible. We still have no answers about why my son died,” Pam Duggan complained in that statement.
“Thirty-one police officers surrounded Mark and he was shot twice. Why has none of the police officers given statements one year on?” Duggan wondered, regarding the death of her son in London’s Tottenham section, where the rioting began.
Britain’s oft-criticized Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is supposedly “handling” the investigation Duggan’s death.
The IPCC, last August, initially declared Duggan fired on an officer, triggering police to shoot him, but the agency later backtracked, acknowledging that Duggan had been unarmed.
While that August 2011 rioting produced professed soul-searching among English authorities including various official investigations, one year later, activists around London complain about witnessing too little substantive change.
Community leaders fault the conservative elected officials controlling London and England for failing to aggressively target high levels of youth unemployment or effectively corralling police abuses – twin issues that activists and analysts alike cite as underlying last summer’s outbursts.
“It’s approaching one year since the uprisings last year and things are getting worse: more poverty, more unemployment…Over one million young people are unemployed in the UK with one in two young black people unemployed,” co-chair of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts Zita Holbourne said.
“In September students will pay tripled university fees effectively blocking the poorest from participation in higher education,” Holbourne said.
In late November 2011 the independent panel appointed by British authorities to investigate the rioting found a “link between deprivation and rioting” noting that most of the 4,000 arrested during the riots lived in some of England’s “most deprived” communities.
“Most disturbing to us was a widespread feeling that some rioters had no hope and nothing to lose,” declared the Interim Report from the Riots Communities and Victims Panel.
While that interim riot report entitled “5 Days in August” listed economic deprivations as an element underlying the widespread rioting last August, Britain’s conservative led government continued with its budget slashing ‘austerity’ policies, further devastating low-income communities like Tottenham.
The same British Prime Minister David Cameron who has authorized spending billions of pounds for preparing for the London 2012 Olympics and bailing out bankers continued claiming insufficient funds existed to address the worsening economic plights of Britain’s poor plus its working and middle classes.
“I think there is no coincidence with the rise of this conservative political climate, less emphasis on diversity and the worsening economy,” 100 Black Men of London President Olu Alake said.
“There is serious unemployment among black men in London between the ages of 16 and 30 but that is not a big enough issue for politicians to examine.”
Ken Clarke, the Secretary of State Justice for Cameron’s government, blasted rioters last August as a “feral underclass” who wanted material goods without having a willingness to work to obtain those goods.
Yet, grass-roots leaders in Tottenham and elsewhere fault British leaders like Cameron and Clarke for failing to address festering problems underlying those August 2011 outbursts involving mostly under-35-year-old participants of all races.
“The establishment has not always reached out. They’ve done things in the wrong way,” conflict engagement specialist Ken Hinds said. An activist in Tottenham, Hinds heads the Stop-&-Search Harringey Monitoring Group.
Stop-&-Search in Britain is like the Stop-&-Frisk in America, where police conduct warrantless searches on streets that are often abusive in nature and inordinately ensnare the innocent–especially, in the U.S., young men of color.
While both British police Stop-&-Search and U.S. police Stop-&-Frisk disproportionately target non-whites, British police also pounce on poor whites with the street search practice.
“Black people are 32 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people,” Zita Holbourne, the BARAC co-chair and a trade union activist said.
That interim riot report referenced Stop-&-Search as “a major source of discontent with the police. This concern was widely felt by young Black and Asian men, who felt it was not always carried out with appropriate respect.”
That report cited the context of the “historic backdrop of antipathy between some members of the black community and the police…”
In 1985, for example, in Tottenham, where Duggan’s death occurred, the death of Cynthia Jarrett during a police raid at her residence sparked the ‘Broadwater Farm Riot.’
Participants in that 2011-riot-sparking police station protest about Duggan death had marched from the Broadwater Farm government housing development.
The final riot panel report issued in March 2012 found disturbing concerns about police, with many people thinking police are “corrupt” and “dishonest.” Over half of people the panel surveyed had no confidence in complaint procedures against police. “These are worrying statistics,” the final report stated.
That November interim riot report questioned “whether the issues” of Bankers’ bonuses, expense scandals by members of Parliament and a lack of personal responsibility had combined to create “a moral vacuum in society” as reflected in the criminal, violent, non-caring behaviors displayed during the rioting.
Simon Woolley, Director of Operation Black Vote, said definite double-standards exist in how the British system handles transgressions by the lower and upper classes. OVB is one of Britain’s most prominent civil rights/human rights activist organizations.
Rioters received harsh sentences demanded by governmental leaders like one 18-year-old receiving 33-months for posting a Facebook message that produced no violence. Yet those convicted in the Parliament expense account scandal received sentences of 18-months or less.
“Who is worse, kids who steal $50 sneakers or politicians who commit expense account fraud to buy $8,000 flat screen televisions?” Woolley said.
“If kids are animals what are politicians who should know better?”
While looting and destruction characterized the overall rioting, there was a political aspect to much of it. Some of those Tottenham protestors and others initially burned police vehicles, public transport buses and offices of government entities along with torching many of the betting parlors filling that lower income community, which some residents consider parasitic.
Walking down the Tottenham High Road three weeks after the rioting ceased, one activist said, “Look around. See that government office was burned and the betting parlor next to it was also burned but across the street the butcher, restaurant and supermarket were untouched. Clearly there were specific targets. This was not a mindless outburst but very precise.”
Empirical and anecdotal evidence from the initial outburst in Tottenham evidenced an uprising that contradicted riot reactions from top British leaders like Prime Minister Cameron who angrily declared rioters represented “mindless criminality, pure and simple.”
Journalist Darcus Howe, a respected elder in Britain’s Afro-Caribbean community, received an apology from the BBC last August after a BBC interviewer created a stir by indignantly slamming Howe for his terming some rioting an “insurrection” by young people upset with police abuses and economic deprivations similar to the Arab Spring.
Some in London see blocking possible riots as a second unexpressed motivation for the massive military/police presence arrayed for 2012 Olympics security – a presence that includes over 25,000 military and police personnel plus thousands of others doing security.
Some activists see the security build-up, which includes jet fighters, war ships and helicopters carrying snipers, as aimed at intimidating London residents outraged by festering ills as much as at deterring potential attacks from foreign terrorists.
“The police are muting the idea of another uprising happening this summer,” London activist Omowale Rupert said.
Rupert, a member of London’s Pan-Afrikan Society Community Forum, said police are using the Olympics “as an opportunity to bring out more guns and stoke up baseless notions of ‘terrorism.’ It is a massive crowd -management exercise.”
Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.