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Up in flames—ten years after the 2011 riots

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On the ten-year anniversary of the 2011 riots, Isabel Ringrose tells the story of how racism and austerity sparked an explosion of anger
Issue 2766
For a brief moment, people harrased by the cops and impoverished by the Tories took control of the streets
For a brief moment, people harrased by the cops and impoverished by the Tories took control of the streets (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Austerity and police racism is an explosive mix. Ten years ago, the police killing of an unarmed black man—Mark Duggan—triggered the largest eruption of anger in 30 years.

Between 6 and 11 August 2011, riots exploded in London and spread to places such as Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham.

On Saturday 6 August, around 200 of Mark’s family and friends marched from Broadwater Farm estate, north London, to Tottenham police station. They wanted answers about Mark’s death and were promised that a senior police officer would address them.

The senior officer never came. Instead, cops “set upon” a teenage girl.

Socialist Worker reported at the time, “Within hours, anger at the police exploded. Police cars and several shops and a bus were in flames.

“Many hundreds of people took to the streets. They reflected the local population—all ages, black and white, Asian, as well as many Hassidic Jews.”

Throughout the night there was a standoff as riot police gathered across Tottenham High Road to stop people from joining. Looting also took place on the high street and a retail park.

Rioters threw bricks at police vans that drove through the crowds.

I watched police stopping and searching black and Asian young people. At about 5.30pm police arrested a young black man who had done nothing wrong

The next day in Brixton, south London, young people fought with police who used batons and dogs against them. People also confronted the cops in other parts of London including Enfield, Chingford Mount, Dalston and Islington.

By Monday all of London’s boroughs were on riot alert. In Hackney, cops retreated from rocks and bottles as bins and cars were burned and turned into barricades. By Thursday an extra 10,000 police were brought in, reaching a total of 16,000 to reduce the rioting in London.

But from the Monday, rioting spread. One witness from inside the Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham says it was the police who caused the rioting.

“There were more police there than I’ve ever seen,” they said. “They created an atmosphere of trouble and tension.

“I watched police stopping and searching black and Asian young people. At about 5.30pm police arrested a young black man who had done nothing wrong.

“We were pushed out into the street. The police kettled a group of young people who started to get angry because they hadn’t done anything wrong.”

On the same day in Liverpool hundreds took to the streets, and in Leeds rioters also fought with police.

Over 200 people fought with police in Bristol. Rioters smashed the windows of a new Tesco store and a police station and cars were also set on fire in Nottingham.

On Tuesday 9 August in Manchester most of the rioters were school students and teenagers, and numbers grew from 600 up to 2,000. Rioters hit the city centre where millions of pounds had been spent refurbishing shopping areas, as well as in Salford where 75 percent of children lived in poverty.

A lot of destruction and looting wasnt mindles - the first things to go wer basic commodities
A lot of destruction and looting wasn’t ‘mindless’ – the first things to go were basic commodities (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Years of police racism and ­poverty, as well as the new Tory government’s austerity, fuelled growing anger. The riots were an explosion of bitterness and rage.

Young, mostly black, people had faced years of police harassment driven by Tory and Labour governments. The Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown spent years pushing a “tough on crime” agenda that criminalised young working class people.

One example of this was the Metropolitan Police force’s “Operation Blunt Two” launched in May 2008, supposedly about tackling knife crime.

Cops stopped and searched some 27,000 between May and early June, yet found knives on less than 2 percent of those. The chance of an Asian person being stopped and searched was 630 percent higher than a white person, and for black people 2,660 percent higher.

Austerity piled on the pressure. The Tory government inflicted £81 billion worth of cuts.

In the London borough of Haringey, where Tottenham is, eight of 13 youth centres were closed. Unemployment among 16 to 24 year olds had risen from 15 percent in 2008 to 20 percent in 2010. Among young black people, the rate of unemployment was 35 percent.

Ben, a young black man from Dalston in east London, told Socialist Worker at the time, “I’m sick of being told I’m the problem. It’s black youth this and black youth that.

“I cheered the riots because I thought finally people are saying they’ve had enough.”

During the riots it felt like all the people who had said ‘nothing will ever change’ came out. There was collectivity and cooperation

The Tories wanted to blame poor people for expressing their fury. Prime minister David Cameron painted rioters as “mindless” to play down the anger and events that sparked the riots.

Rioters were criticised for ­looting shops and attacking local businesses in the “community”. But the anger had some direction.

A 17-year old man from west London said, “During the riots it felt like all the people who had said ‘nothing will ever change’ came out. There was collectivity and cooperation.

“When people realised they could loot the shops it was basic commodities that went first. People came out of shops with nappies and rice.”

The destruction of property was an expression of anger at symbols others’ growing wealth. One of the first buildings to be set on fire on Tottenham High Road belonged to a police solicitor.

Other businesses were targeted that represented an unequal society such as bookmakers and supermarkets.

The Tories followed the riots with repression and punishment (see below). But they also, for a while, put policing and stop and search under scrutiny.

Now—ten years after the riots—the Tories are once more talking about giving cops more powers to use stop and search. And, as with the Tory and Labour governments that came before, they’ll say it’s to stamp out “violent crime.”

Then, as now, they wanted to blame young people for rioting. But the people to blame are the Tories themselves—and the racist, unequal system they champion.

How the cops executed Mark Duggan in Tottenham

Police shot Mark Duggan in Tottenham, north London, on 4 August 2011. Following his killing, police released statements saying that Mark had shot at police first.

This turned out to be untrue.

In 2014 a public inquest concluded Mark’s death was a lawful killing—and subsequent appeals were rejected. Throughout the investigation, the Met and its IPCC watchdog gave contradictory accounts.

Mark Duggan - a death retold
Mark Duggan – a death retold
  Read More

Mark had been in a minicab, which the police stopped. Earlier that day, the cab had driven to an address in east London, where Mark was given a shoebox.

Police claim that this shoebox contained a handgun. Mark’s DNA wasn’t found on the gun.

The officer who shot Mark, known as V53, claimed that he shot him on the “honest belief” he saw a gun in his hand, aimed at them.

Yet no independent witnesses reported seeing a gun. One witness said Mark was holding a phone.

A gun was found four metres away from where Mark was shot. But it was agreed at the inquest that it was not possible for him to have thrown the gun there, or that he had a gun in his hand.

V53 shot Mark through his bicep first and then the chest. He claimed after the first shot Mark tossed the gun.

Mark could only have done this before being shot through the arm, meaning he would’ve been unarmed when V53 shot him.

The inquiry heard that officer R31 informed officer V59 that a gun was found near the scene.

V59 directed response officers who arrived.

The killing of Mark Duggan
The killing of Mark Duggan
  Read More

But when V59 did this, it was 34 seconds before officer Z51, who officially located the gun, reported its location.

Footage also shows officer Q63 ducking by the door of the cab. He is out of view for 12 seconds near where the shoebox was found.

He emerges and talks to V59 and R31, who also disappears to go to the grassed area. Then the armed response officers arrive to be instructed by V59.

The IPCC watchdog—now IOPC—said there was “nothing suspicious” that both R31 and Z51 found the gun.

It claimed V59 was “confused” when he said he knew where the gun was before Z51 “found” it.

Riot cops geared up to mete out punishment
Riot cops geared up to mete out punishment (Pic: Guy Smallman)

State twisted the legal system

Lawyer Brian Richardson represented some of those accused of involvement in the riots. He told Socialist Worker how the state turned the courts and sentencing into a propaganda machine for the state.

“So many people were arrested they had magistrates’ courts sitting into the night. You could regularly find yourself representing, five, six, or seven people in one session.

Many were charged with public order offences, such as violent disorder which carries a significant prison sentence. Others were charged with burglary.

Typically, when you go to court, you’re told what your client has been charged with and you then advise them about what is going to happen and about the strength and weaknesses of the prosecution case in order to assist them in deciding how they should plead.

I had a client who was charged with burglary.

It was alleged that people had raided an Argos store and stripped the warehouse clean. My client was found at the scene with a television. She admitted the offence and decided to plead guilty

That is a sensible decision. If you plead guilty at the earliest opportunity you get the maximum reduction in the sentence, typically a third off when compared to if you were found guilty after a trial.

She was just 19 years old and had never been in trouble with the police before, so she should have been granted bail.

She should then have been sentenced in the magistrates’ court a few weeks later after being interviewed by a probation officer.

A very clear policy decision was taken to impose what were called “exemplary sentences”

That’s what you would have expected. But what actually happened was that she was refused bail and remanded in custody. The judge indicated that the case would be sent to the crown court for sentencing.

That’s important because crown courts have greater sentencing powers. For one single offence, the maximum sentence a magistrates’ court can give is six months.

So, if the magistrates’ court had been sentencing, the maximum sentence would probably have been reduced to four months because of her guilty plea.

As someone with a clean record, she would almost certainly have avoided prison, and would instead have been made to do something like unpaid work.

But at the crown court she was given a 13-month sentence.

That’s one individual case. But it was clear that a policy decision had been made that nobody charged in relation to the riots was going to be given bail.

One day in court I was dealing with six cases. Every single one of my clients and every other defendant who was charged on that day was refused bail.

And, everyone who had pleaded guilty was sent to the crown court for sentencing. A very clear policy decision was taken to impose what were called “exemplary sentences”. That bar was set by Judge Gilbart QC at Manchester crown court.

A number of people appealed to the court of appeal on the grounds that their sentences were “manifestly excessive”. Almost all of the original sentences were upheld and that judgment set a benchmark for the many others which followed over the next couple of years.”

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