The violent riot that tore through a deprived north London neighbourhood and injured more than two dozen police officers has cast a pall over Britain’s capital, spreading malaise through a city preparing to host the Olympic Games.
A peaceful protest against the fatal police shooting of a 29-year-old man degenerated into a Saturday night rampage, with rioters torching a double-decker bus, destroying patrol cars and trashing a shopping mall. Twenty-six police officers were injured, with eight of them being briefly hospitalised.
Looters descended on London’s Tottenham area around midnight, setting buildings alight, and piling stolen goods into cars and shopping carts. Sirens could be heard across the capital as authorities rushed reinforcements to the scene. Police reported 46 arrests.
“This is just a glimpse into the abyss,” former Metropolitan Police Commander John O’Connor told Sky News television Sunday. “Someone’s pulled the clock back and you can look and see what’s beneath the surface. And what with the Olympic Games coming up, this doesn’t bode very well for London.”
As residents of Tottenham and the nearby neighborhood of Wood Green picked through the wreckage Sunday, O’Connor said the disturbance had echoes of Tottenham’s deadly 1985 Broadwater Farm riot, a deadly series of clashes that led to the death of a police officer and the wounding of nearly 60 others — brutally underscoring tensions between London’s police and the capital’s black community.
That riot was among one of the most violent in the country’s history. It too was sparked by the death of a local resident after an encounter with the police.
Saturday’s protest was initially peaceful, but got ugly as between 300 and 500 people gathered around Tottenham’s police station. Some protesters filled bottles with gasoline to throw at police lines, others confronted officers with makeshift weapons — including baseball bats and bars — and attempted to storm the station.
Within hours, police in riot gear and on horseback were clashing with hundreds of rioters, fires were raging out of control, and looters combed the area. One video posted to the Guardian‘s website showed looting being carried out at daybreak several hours later, with people even lining up to steal from one store.
The devastated area smoldered on Sunday — in Tottenham, streets were littered with bricks and lined with overturned scorched trash cans. Two police helicopters hovered over the burnt-out buildings as residents inspected the damage and firefighters doused the last of the flames. Glaziers were busy replacing the smashed windows of looted shops.
Journalist and Tottenham resident Rizwana Hamid, who covered the 1985 riots, said Saturday night’s violence was reminiscent of the earlier eruption in the ethnically mixed area.
“The climate has changed, but very little of the issues have gone away,” Hamid told the BBC. She cited desperation, poverty and what she said was a lack of communication from police about the circumstances under which the man — Mark Duggan — was gunned down on Thursday. Police gave no details on the circumstances of the shooting, citing the ongoing investigation by Britain’s police watchdog.
British media said that an officer involved in the shooting had a bullet lodged in his radio, suggesting a gunfight, but other details were scarce. Duggan’s brother, Shaun Hall, said his sibling would never shoot at police.
“That’s ridiculous,” he told Sky. As for the rioting, he condemned it.
“There was a domino effect, which we don’t condone at all,” he told the broadcaster.
The Metropolitan Police, colloquially known as Scotland Yard, has struggled for years to cope with a 1999 inquiry into the death of a black British teenager that concluded that the force was “institutionally racist.” In 2003, the Black Police Association even went as far as to call on ethnic minorities not to join Scotland Yard, saying discrimination was rife.
Although the force has made strides in its relationships with black communities, tensions linger.
Local lawmaker David Lammy, speaking to residents from behind police tape, angrily denied that the Saturday night riot hinted at a return to the previous unrest.
“We don’t want 25 years of community and trust destroyed because of mindless nonsense,” Lammy said.
He was heckled by a man who yelled: “When are we going get justice? We need justice, man! Let’s talk about justice!”
Many other residents interviewed expressed disbelief at the riot, which the police seemed to acknowledge had caught them by surprise.
“I’m completely and utterly disgusted by what the community has managed to do here,” said Nadine Knight (24) who works at a planning and architecture firm.
Christian Macani, a 22-year-old who works in environmental sciences, spoke for many when he asked: “What does this achieve?” — Sapa-AP