Five years after the Tottenham riots, we still have a lot to learn
Protests over the death of Mark Duggan, who was shot by police in Tottenham on August 4, 2011, sparked riots that spread to towns and cities across England. Incidences of looting and arson were among the 3,443 crimes linked to the events, which led to five additional deaths and an estimated £200 million in property damage.
Yasmin Scott and Laura Walmsley at Flamingo London sat down and reflected on the riots, offering up different perspectives on where we are five years on.
Yas: What I remember most about the riots was a sense of dread. I was fearful. Not for myself but for the black community. What had started as a peaceful (although highly politically charged) protest about police brutality was quickly becoming about the rebellious, opportunist criminal mentality of blacks.
Of course it wasn’t only blacks looting, but that’s always how it’s reported isn’t it?
What followed was complete uproar. How can we trust the blacks? Look at what they’ve done to their own community! What’s wrong with them? Five years on I’d like to say this blatant stereotypical racism has gone, but scratch beneath the surface and it’s clear the issues haven’t been buried with the riot rubble.
- “The police in Tottenham recorded 55 searches per 1,000 of its black community over the last year – more than twice the rate among the white population”
I have to confess I didn’t personally feel such a strong sense of racism or discrimination until I began my career. At school and university I was always among a diverse pool of ethnicities, including a strong black representation. I felt a sense of belonging. But once I stepped onto the career ladder I quickly realized being a black person from Tottenham put me very firmly in the minority box, with little of my culture understood. I’d stepped out of the black community and I felt unnerved. I was no longer among those I shared a common ground with and I was (and still am) shocked at just how much ignorance still exists.
We’re still a community under scrutiny. Our behavior continues to be monitored. Censored. Controlled. There’s still a sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Are we still being tarred with the same racist brush?
Laura: When news of the Tottenham riots first reached me, I remember sticking my head out of my bedroom window to see if I could see or hear any rioters. I couldn’t. At the time, the rioting was contained to a relatively small area of the Tottenham High Road, a couple of miles from my flat. It was not a place I would ever have chosen to stop and explore at the time. To me, it seemed run-down, chaotic and edgy and looking around I struggled to see where I would fit in. Admittedly, I felt more at home on Stoke Newington’s Church Street or pushing my buggy through Clissold Park.
Five years on, we live much closer to the High Road and the scene of the riots than I ever imagined we would. Our budget wouldn’t stretch to a family home in Stoke Newington, so we moved to South Tottenham or SoTo as the locals affectionately call it.
Since 2011 there has been considerable investment in the area’s infrastructure and some key services. The new one-way traffic system has eased the endless congestion on the A10, Broad Lane, intersection, bright and shiny social housing projects have sprung up above a revamped Tottenham Hale station. The Leisure Centre and Library have had impressive makeovers and the Farmers market on the Green is now a regular event, making the area brighter and shinier.
But Tottenham needs to go further than just improving its infrastructure. It’s had a headstrong start but there’s still considerable progress to be made in bringing different communities together. There needs to be opportunities to interact with each other therefore building stronger relationships based on real experiences. This then has the potential to build a shared sense of community and the opportunity to observe a culture shift.
The skate park at Broad Water Farm Estate, itself the site of the first Tottenham riots in 1985 is a place my sons endlessly nag me to take them. The first few times we went there, I was anxious for my sons as gangs of hoody wearing ‘big’ boys rode their BMX’s fast over ramps and performed impressive stunts with their skateboards. I fluttered around my boys, ready to intervene or grab them and run, but to my surprise when my sons fell or got in the way, they received nothing but kindness, understanding and high-fives from these young people. I felt sorry I’d judged them and been ready to believe the worst.
- “Black men are six times more likely to be stopped and searched by police”
Going to the same places is a start and just by being together in shared spaces means we do get a chance to see and meet each other, which is why for people and the community – shared culture is so important. When we create shared spaces, purpose and conversation we quickly see we’re not so different and the stereotypes we’ve been ingesting aren’t representative or helpful.
Tottenham has the potential to thrive, yet the peace enjoyed since 2011 is a fragile one. The issues are deep-rooted, complex and bubble away close to the surface which makes it tempting to give up and accept that nothing will change. But things can and will change if everyone in the community works harder to know and understand each other, thereby respecting each other’s differences.
On the surface you might have assumed the two of us have very little in common. We may have grown up in different areas but we both are proud to call Tottenham home. We’ve found our common ground, bonded over our shared experiences and as a result have had very honest, open discussions.
Strike up a conversation with someone and stop judging on first impressions. The minute we stop assuming we are holding different values and attitudes, we stop being an angry black woman and a smug, white woman and are just ourselves.
- Article by Laura Walmsley and Yasmin Scott