The same sort of grievances that saw the police shooting of a low-level London criminal become the touchpaper for five days of violence and chaos across Britain exist today with the growing anti-vaxxer ‘freedom’ movement.
When it comes to the English riots of 2011, I’ve got some skin in the game. I grew up a stone’s throw from Tottenham, North London, in the neighbouring East End hamlet of Walthamstow. Ten years ago to the day, the police killing of an armed suspect, Mark Duggan, became the catalyst for bloody riots that started in Tottenham but over the course of the next five days spread across England, resulting in five deaths, thousands of arrests, hundreds of criminal convictions, and as much as £300 million in property damage.
I know Tottenham in all its diversity, complexity and volatility. I know its local MP, David Lammy, as a man who, like the constituency he’s served for the past 21 years, is often defamed by the events of August 2011. Given Tottenham’s synonymity, not just with 2011 civil unrest but the riots and murder of PC Keith Blakelock a generation earlier in 1985, the area has gained a negative reputation as a hotbed of urban insurrection. But Tottenham’s defamation is also a slur and smear on black people as a whole, given its spiritual place in the history of England’s post-war, post-Windrush evolution of its now two million-strong black community.
This affinity with Tottenham, which is not without bias, nostalgia or even romance (I’ve been a long-suffering Spurs supporter for over 40 years), brought me to tears a decade ago when I saw it explode in a tumult of fire and fury sparked by the Duggan killing. The causes and factors behind the riots are myriad. But one blunt summary is that it was a perfect storm of long-held local grievances, misinformation, disinformation, and a minority of violent insurgents who went looking for a fight – and got it – courtesy of a state blindsided by its lack of social awareness.
On the ground, the police and locals became unwitting combatants in a proxy war that has been going on for decades, and I suspect is about to rear its ugly head once again, but this time thanks to very different socially climatic conditions.
What caught so many people off-guard was how the disturbances in Tottenham so quickly triggered copycat social unrest in Birmingham, Bristol, Coventry, Derby, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton. Unlike the killing of George Floyd last year, which inspired not just widespread protests in America, but around the world, Duggan’s killing was neither caught on camera nor disseminated by a global network of billions of social media users, quite simply because social media was nowhere near as pervasive in 2011 as it is now.
Yes, part of this viral explosion of violence – which Lammy called “an explosion of hedonism and nihilism” in his post-riot analysis, Out of the Ashes – was driven by encrypted Blackberry messaging. In the book, Lammy quotes a Blackberry message sent by a rioter to one of his young constituents, which in the pidgin text-speak of 21st century Britain, illustrated the flashmob mentality of many of the rioters: “What ever ends [area] your from put your ballys [balaclavas] on link up and cause havic, just rob everything. Police can’t stop it.”
This was freedom “without any sense of duty” Lammy argued. “Our society needs to reconnect with other important, informal regulators of behaviour,” he wrote. “Notions of decency towards others. Pride. Shame. Admiration. Scorn.”
While Lammy’s clarion call was aimed at Blackberry, it now looks like a crude forerunner to the WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Viber and countless other messaging apps resident today on our mobile phones. User-generated texts, and indeed images and videos disseminated in the mainstream news media, helped to inspire yobs around the country to take up arms. In Tottenham and beyond, it was as though legions of Manchurian candidates were just waiting for the beep, the flashing blue light, the rock-throwing, car ablaze or bloodied copper to be awoken and thrust into violent action.