What began as a peaceful protest gone wrong has now turned into violence spreading across several London boroughs, resulting in London’s worst rioting in over 25 years.
The whole ordeal began last Thursday, when police fatally shot a man, Mark Duggan, 29, in a firefight during an attempted arrest that was part of a guns-reduction operation targeting African and Caribbean communities. Mr. Duggan has been described by police as a “gangster.” In response to his death, some in the north London community of Tottenham rallied together in a peaceful protest. Unconfirmed rumors state that the violence, rioting, and looting broke out after riot police hit a 16-year-old girl participating in the protest.
Rioting and looting coursed through Tottenham in the hours following. Molotov cocktails were thrown at police cars, a double-decker bus, and into local businesses, burning several buildings and small shops to the ground. Looting was widespread. Several small shop-owners saw their entire stock disappear; one electronics store was completely cleaned out.
A respondent to The Guardian’s crowdsourcing effort to understand the riots wrote in, “Walking home from Tottenham Hale tube station at approx 22:00, many people were seen walking by with hands full of looted goods. If they were heading for the tube station, most of them were not from Tottenham, meaning a lot of people must have informed them to come to Tottenham specifically for the riot/looting.”
Sunday night, disorder spread to Enfield, Walthamstow and Waltham Forest in north London and to Brixton in the south of the city. Journalist Paraic O'Brien told BBC Radio 5 live that he saw a gang of up to 200 youths looting shops and charging police in Brixton. In other parts of London, up to 500 rioters fought with only 100 riot police. Some 35 officers are reported to have been injured in the fighting over the two nights, and over 100 people arrested.
Police are examining Twitter and Facebook for evidence of social media being used to incite violence and inform others, but as the violence spread across London, there is little doubt that social media was being used to communicate news and looting attacks.
One message of unconfirmed authenticity was sent to The Guardian, showing how the looting and riots on Sunday were organized through Blackberry Messaging (BBM): [CAUTION: Some crude language]
“Everyone from all sides of London meet up at the heart of London (central) OXFORD CIRCUS!!, Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some (free stuff!!!) fuck the feds we will send them back with OUR riot! >:O
Dead the ends and colour war for now so
if you see a brother... SALUT!
if you see a fed... SHOOT!
We need more MAN then feds so Everyone run wild, all of london and others are invited! Pure terror and havoc & Free stuff....just smash shop windows and cart out da stuff u want! Oxford Circus!!!!! 9pm, we don't need pussyhole feds to run the streets and put our brothers in jail so tool up,
its a free world so have fun running wild shopping;)
Oxford Circus 9pm if u see a fed stopping a brother JUMP IN!!! EVERYONE JUMP IN niggers will be lurking about, all blacked out we strike at 9:15pm-9:30pm, make sure ur there see you there. REMEMBA DA LOCATION!!! OXFORD CIRCUS!!!
MUST REBROADCAST TO ALL CONTACTS!!!"
The violence comes on the heels of escalating civil protests leading up to the 2012 London Olympic Games, but the scale of violence here has shocked authorities and demoralized a Scotland Yard already under close scrutiny for the News of the World hacking scandal.
The last time London saw riots this violent was 1985, when Tottenham erupted into violence over the death of a 49-year-old woman during a police intrusion into her home. It has led several analysts to wonder whether the tensions and underlying causes of those riots where actually addressed, or if they were just papered over.
Tottenham is a poor area of the city, and, just like the riots of 1985, the recent violence is playing out against a backdrop of severe unemployment. There are more than 50 people for every one job opening, a statistic that hits area youth especially hard; also, budgets for youth programs to keep them out of gangs have been slashed 75 percent in the wake of austerity measures by the British government.
Another contributor to The Guardian’s crowdsourcing wrote, “The Mark Duggan protest proved a trigger for wider social tensions which authorities had long failed to address… The people of Tottenham feel as a community that they are trapped by the poor socio-economic environment… Tottenham has been slowly simmering over several years and whatever the authorities have tried (if anything) clearly has not been of much help.”
Tottenham is also an area where racial tensions have run high in the past, and were a leading factor in the 1985 riots. However, as efforts to eliminate racism from Scotland Yard have improved relations somewhat with the Tottenham area, it is still a tenuous relationship. There is still a deep culture of police mistrust in the area, and police cars are often booed as they drive through.
Elizabeth Pears, a reporter in the Tottenham area, writes “Of all the footage I've seen, one image sticks out: the youths attacking a parked police car with a venom that transcended the television screen and spent chills down my spine. Using stones, parking cones, bricks and whatever they could get their hands on, they battered the vehicle for everything it represented; for every time they are stopped-and-searched; for friends and family that have been killed in police custody.
“Young people in Tottenham were angry in 1985 and they are still angry now.”
Photo: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images