It has been nine days since I stood on Tottenham High Road and watched my first barbershop burned down by boys who fought with stones and fire against a police more David than Goliath. That Saturday, the High Road that once connected Roman London with the city of York became a carnival of smoke, shattered glass and broken consent. However, despite this riot, marking the beginning of the wave of public disorder and destruction that brought Britain to a standstill and cost many their livelihoods, the main battle now is not one for the streets, but the story.
Nigerian author Chinua Achebe argues it is the story that is more important than the struggle because it outlives both the war and the warrior. In other words, what happened, and the policy reforms that will surely follow, will be determined by how the story of last Saturday is constructed.
Westminster has been quick to depoliticize and disassociate the events of last Saturday with the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985 and the legacy of Tottenham's history of police-community conflict, the context of public spending cuts and the economic crisis and government corruption. Politicians have branded the participants as "amoral, mindless, unacceptable," but to make these judgments is to divert discussion away from the story and engagement with what set off this tragic case of déjà vu.
Last Saturday, in response to the police shooting of a Tottenham man, Mark Duggan, his family and community activists led a peaceful march to the Tottenham police station, pleading for answers and calling for accountability and transparency. Things got out of control, eyewitnesses said, after an alleged attack on a 16-year-old girl by several police officers. The Metropolitan Police has tried to pass off these claims as no more than a myth.
In 2011 this demonstration is not in isolation. Prior, there were already two high-profile and, most importantly, peaceful marches to police headquarters in London and Birmingham, the U.K.'s second city, over the recent unexplained deaths in police custody of reggae musician Smiley Culture, 21-year-old Demetre Fraser and father of two Kingsley Burrell.
Despite the great progress that had been made in police-community relations in Tottenham, these scenes have ripped open old wounds that date to 1985. That Saturday, Oct. 28, 1985, in Brixton, South London, the police, looking for Michael Groce, entered the house of his mother, Cherry, and left her paralyzed by a gunshot. She died earlier this year. Her shooting sparked a march to the police station that erupted into Brixton's second famous uprising.
However, when the story has been retold, the focus is on the murder of P.C. Blakelock, while Jarrett's death has been pushed into the shadows. There are calls for increased police powers and no concession that the real problem is aggressive policing and a removal of consent by a community that feels overpoliced.
On Tuesday, Oct. 6, 1985, John Akass reported for the Daily Express: "Hate-filled mob turn estate into a killing ground. One policeman was stabbed to death and eight others including four journalists received gunshot wounds." The death of Jarrett was not referenced until several paragraphs later, and the story failed to point out that she died as the result of the heavy-handed police presence in her home. Does this telling of the story seem again familiar?
The media and political construction of the events in 1985 have attempted to sanitize and blur the context. This example must now be a warning as the events of the Tottenham riot in 2011 are written.
A riot is more than the language of the unheard; it is the removal of consent to the state and its power. Our democratic state is built on two notions: consent and legitimacy. However, this year both have been severely undermined.
The MPs' expenses scandal — in which even Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to pay back money he had claimed through questionable expenses — was the first stone thrown against the integrity of our system. High-profile cases of large companies evading taxes, multinationals colluding on price and, most significantly, the collusion between the police force, the media and some politicians regarding hacking have severely undermined confidence and have been an endorsement of systemic greed.
We consent to the state because doing so is in our interest, as the state maximizes our freedom and the state's moral legitimacy. Over the past week, we have seen the manifestation of this systemic greed through young people with hammers rather than middle-aged men on trading floors with algorithms. If the riots are about the breakdown in social structures, as generally agreed, they are also about failures in Britain's political institutions.
The diversity in intention of those who played a part in the recent disorder makes any discussion difficult. However, as the debate evolves toward blaming multiculturalism, black family structures and criminality for criminality's sake, the need to reclaim and retell the full context of the story will become even more important.
Until the story of the Tottenham riot that started last week's wave is recognized by our decision makers, the disconnect between parts of the community, our youth and our leaders will continue to widen. Only once that story is told can Britain enter an honest discourse and begin to heal the divide.
Symeon Brown is an activist and commentator from Tottenham. He has worked in Parliament in Black Cultural Research and is a co-founder of Haringey Young People Empowered (HYPE). Follow him on Twitter.