Riots in Tottenham

August 7, 2011

Whenever a big protest happens when property is damaged, I always find myself in a curious situation where I wonder whether I agree with it or not. There are always people who will support any riot regardless of what it’s about, because it represents some kind of rebellion against the state, and similarly there are people who’ll say things like “there’s no excuse for violence” and always condemn any kind of disorder.

Last night a riot broke out in Tottenham, a pretty working class area of London, after earlier in the week a black man called Mark Duggan was killed by the police in an arrest attempt. Police cars and a bus were all burnt out, as well as a fairly high number of shops in the area, and another nearby area called Wood Green. Should we condemn this? Let’s look a bit closer.

There are quite a few things you have to take into account when you’re not at the scene yourself. You cannot trust the media to give an accurate representation of what’s happening, and that’s not because it’s all a big conspiracy, there are some very good reasons behind it. The media like immediacy. They’ll crawl all over any kind of angle they can find to try and get one over on their competitors. They want pictures and figures and anything else to fill those excruciatingly repetitive minutes on 24 hour news channels, and the coverage on those news channels shapes the view of the protest that the next day’s papers and the public have about it.

Now the police and the government can provide those things, they can issue statements, they can (falsely) claim to represent the silent majority, they can give the news channels figures on how many officers were injured, and make it seem like they’re the victims. The protestors can’t do that. There’s no-one counting the protestors who get smacked around the head, unless they go to hospital about it, but if a police officer grazes their knee they can count that as an ‘injured officer’ and report it as such. The protestors don’t have spokespeople, and the people who are most involved are often too busy or riled up to give a well thought-out statement (or they don’t want to be identified), so you often get the news interviewing some twonk who’s got no idea what they’re talking about. This gives a biased view. It’s only a very long time after the event that the real facts come out, by which time everyone’s forgotten about the riot and don’t reconsider whether it was justified, if the facts come out at all. Alfie Meadows barely got a mention in the news until well after Millbank. You even still get people who condemn the Brixton riots in 1981.

The media toss-up between editorial independence and access also means that if they don’t seem pro-establishment (or at least painfully ‘balanced’) then they risk losing their access to government officials and statements, upon which they rely for their stories on a daily basis.

Right now the media have been claiming that Mark Duggan was some kind of gangster or drug-dealer, and implying that he shot at the police, which is why he was killed. But people who knew him are saying he was a normal bloke. If the reports turn out to be false, will people reconsider what they think of the riot? I don’t think they will, not for a long time. It seems a bit fishy to me that they shot him twice in the face, shouldn’t they rather be trying to disable a dangerous suspect rather than go straight for the kill?

How come the people who are condemning the “violence” aren’t focussing on the one death in the whole story? What is violence anyway? If you bully someone to the point where they kill themselves, is that violence? In that case, is cutting benefits to disabled people and pushing them to the point where half have considered suicide, is that violence? Does property damage always count as violence? Undoubtedly it does sometimes, such as if I punched the wall right next to someone’s head, but is that true in all cases? I don’t think so.

I think people also put an unfair emphasis on whether the property damage can be justified. They’ll often ask whether it will help the cause or whether it will just turn people against them, but that is asking a mob to have an unreasonably high level of forward-thinking. It’s not a useful distinction to make. I much prefer to think about whether what’s happening is understandable, and I think in this instance it is. It’s a reaction to the institutional and structural damage that is being done to the people in Tottenham.

So does that mean I agree with everything that happened? No, of course not, and in particular I think burning buildings down was fucking stupid. They had no idea if people were still in there, and they had no idea how far it could have spread. I don’t care about the property damage so much but they put lives at risk and I don’t think it was necessary. Neither do I think people were rioting because they disagree with the concept of a police force, as much as some people amongst the left would like to think so. But what I do think is that what happened last night was the inevitable consequence of pushing a community to the edge. The features section of a newspaper is often more important than the news section, because it focusses on long-term trends rather than individual events. The features section might have told us about the way black people are more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people. The news section will only tell us about the riot.

And that’s why the real news isn’t what happened last night in Tottenham, it’s what’s been happening there for the past few decades.