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Tottenham – a proud history of resistance

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Police racism has sparked rage in Tottenham before – Matthew Cookson looks at the 1985 Broadwater Farm riots and what happened next
Issue 2264

This is not the first time Tottenham has exploded in riots against police violence and oppression.

In 1985, under Margaret Thatcher’s government, people in deprived inner cities rioted, including Handsworth in Birmingham, and Brixton in south London, and Tottenham in north London.

There was intense fighting between local young people and tooled up police.

At the time Socialist Worker wrote, “The Tories and the media talk of ‘racial disturbances’. But in all the riots white youth have joined black youth in fighting back.

“They all suffer from the same system, even if some suffer more than others.

“Unemployment, bad housing, police harassment and racism all combine to make life unbrearable on places like the Broadwater Farm estate.”

Tottenham saw some of the most violent clashes.

They were sparked by news of a police raid on the home of black mother of two Cynthia Jarret. During the raid she had a heart attack and died.

Cynthia’s death strongly echoed the police shooting of Cherry Groce in Brixton just days before, itself sparking a wave of rioting.

Tensions rose as riot police swamped Broadwater Farm, using their truncheons to bash their shields while chanting, “Niggers, Niggers, Niggers.”

Then the fightback started.


Such was the strength of feeling that the Labour leader of Haringey council, and future Tottenham MP, Bernie Grant, said, “What the police got was a bloody good hiding.”

The Tories and the Labour leadership denounced him. The authorities launched a vicious crackdown to get revenge on those who had resisted the police onslaught.

More than 3,000 police occupied Broadwater Farm for months afterwards. Squads of officers kicked in a third of the doors on the estate.

The police rounded up hundreds of young people.

In 1987 three young men—Winston Silcott, Engin Raghip and Mark Braithwaite—were framed for the murder of PC Blakelock, who died in the riots.

Four years later, following a sustained campaign for justice, the case against the Tottenham Three collapsed at the court of appeal.

Forensic tests on police notebooks showed that pages had been inserted into accounts of interviews that police had claimed were written during interviews.

Despite the Tottenham Three being cleared of Blakelock’s murder in 1991 the press and police have continued to vilify them.

Police harassment and institutional racism has continued to overshadow the lives of black and white people in Tottenham, with tragic results.

A wave of anger swept across the area after the death of Roger Sylvester in January 1999. He died after police officers restrained him “for his own safety” outside his home.

He was pinned to the ground, naked, and then taken to a local hospital where he stopped breathing and fell into a coma.

A friend who visited him in hospital told Socialist Worker at the time, “Roger was swollen, battered and bruised. He looked like he was hit by a bulldozer.”

His life support machine was later switched off. Meanwhile the police officers involved continued in their jobs.

Hundreds of people marched in Tottenham, demanding justice. They chanted, “We are walking among murderers,” as they pointed at police.

An inquest in 2003 found that Roger had been unlawfully killed. The officers appealed—and the High Court overturned the decision the next year. This history of injustice feeds the anger that erupted once again last weekend.

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