London Riots: insight from a Tottenham resident

By Emma Jones

It is difficult to know what to say when, first, hundreds of people (including many outsiders) come to trash the area you call home, setting fire to it, throwing petrol bombs, and causing general violence, while still others take the opportunity to loot.

It becomes even more difficult when, next, you read what thousands of outsiders have to say, many of whom have never been here. At worst, they think it is ‘typical’ of the area, which not only sounds like violence is to be expected, but also that it should almost be accepted as a part of ordinary life here.

On the other end of the scale are people that argue that these riots are “the people’s” demonstration against capitalism and cuts to services; “the working class’ version of the student protests” one comment I have seen. I totally disagree, and how very insulting to an entire socio-economic background of people.

The only people making any kind of political statement were the family of Mark Duggan, who did so in a peaceful protest and have said that they do not condone the violence. Everything else is pure criminality. And the majority of the follow-on, copy-cat violence that has taken place in Enfield, Walthamstow, Brixton, Hackney, Peckham, Lewisham, Croydon and other cities across the country, is dominated by looting. How anyone can claim that stealing is making a political point is beyond me.

I live on Drapers Road, which is off the part of Tottenham High Road where the police station is situated, so from my building’s entrance you could see the peaceful protest turn into a riot on Saturday night. My building is a beautiful converted Victorian grammar school that was developed into flats around fifteen years ago. Like many historical conversions and new-builds in the area, the flats are sold as shared ownership, helping many of us in underpaid jobs get onto the property ladder for the first time. This means that my building is filled with teachers, nurses, local government workers; good people contributing to society and making an honest living. People, who live in and enjoy London in the way that most middle class people do: working, shopping and eating out in different areas – certainly not treating Tottenham as a ghetto.

Away from our shared ownership havens, and from the great many privately-owned or tenanted houses and flats that make up the majority of the properties on the roads surrounding Tottenham High Road, there are living some of the poorest people in our country. Large numbers of Kurdish, Somali, Afghan and other refugees live in long-term temporary accommodation. And in the council estates, long and short-term residents of all races and generations live side by side, most of them living peacefully and honestly. These are the types of people who live all over our city, and in other urban areas across the country, but in some places like Tottenham we simply have a greater concentration than elsewhere. We don’t hide poverty in our backstreets, as they do in Kensington and Westminster.

Although I don’t agree with those who believe that poverty is directly the reason for this violence, it is certainly an indirect cause. While it does not follow that someone who is poor will also be a criminal, it does follow that they are more likely to be. Desperation, boredom and a feeling of worthlessness through lack of decent work, lack of opportunity to fulfil aspiration, bad and overcrowded housing, lack of safe outdoor space, and a feeling of complete exclusion from the wealth of modern life that most of us know: all these things put pressure on families, day in day out.

This can often (but, importantly, not always) lead to broken families, and sometimes to drink or drug problems. Many young people in such families are brought up with inherent feelings of anger, and they lack the emotional sophistication to understand or control their anger; this is clear to teachers in inner-city schools.

To this anger, we can also add paranoia, a feeling that encourages many young people to join gangs from a young age in order to feel safe – groups that provide the feeling that they belong somewhere special. Is it therefore any surprise that, for some of these angry, paranoid and bored young people who are hanging around together all day, they turn to criminality? The occasional riot must seem like a beacon flash of light in their otherwise miserable lives.

So yes, it is poverty that leads to what we’re seeing on our television screens, but not directly or simply or necessarily, as some would say. The situation is much more complicated than many are implying. It is surely the feeling of unfairness that others can have a lot of what they want, while others can have nothing, that must be the reason why we saw images of mothers talking to their teenage sons about what they should be looting. This is not a justification but it is an explanation by someone who has spent many years living and working with these vulnerable, misunderstood and unsupported people.

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One Response to London Riots: insight from a Tottenham resident

  1. Pingback: 2012 Olympics: Another East End Soap Opera? | Josh Cowls

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