London riots strain police force. Have spending cuts played a role in unrest?

A spate of London riots and looting, sparked by the fatal shooting of an alleged gangster, have posed a serious test of Britain’s policing capability just 12 months ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympics. It has also raised questions about the social impact of Prime Minister David Cameron’s five-year austerity plan to dramatically cut back government spending – a plan aimed at bolstering Britain’s economy amid a European economic crisis.

Police officers in Hackney, east London.
REUTERS/Toby Melville
Police officers in Hackney, east London.

Parts of London cleared up today after some of the worst civil disturbances in the capital for more than 25 years, which began Thursday night after police shot dead a local man in racially mixed Tottenham. The impoverished inner-city area of north London was the scene of race riots in 1985 during which policeman Keith Blakelock was murdered by a mob.

Riots and looting, some of which police said was just plain criminality, spread to other London suburbs over the weekend. London police officials tripled the number of officers on the ground from Saturday to Sunday night, and Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stephen Kavanagh said there would be a third more officers on the ground this evening.

Britain’s Tories under fire

As police have struggled to contain the violence, Britain’s conservative Tory government has come under fire for leaving the country vulnerable to such violence in the first place.

“The economic stagnation and cuts being imposed by the Tory government inevitably create social division,” said former London mayor Ken Livingstone, blaming the government’s austerity measures. “As when Margaret Thatcher imposed such policies during her recessions, this creates the threat of people losing control, acting in completely unacceptable ways that threaten everyone, and culminating in events of the type we saw in Tottenham.

“Tories will issue knee-jerk statements demanding support for the police but they are actually cutting the police,” he added. “That amounts to pure hypocrisy.”

However Tony Travers, a local government expert at the London School of Economics, played down police budget cuts or recent resignations at the top of the Metropolitan Police – including commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson in the wake of the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal – as factors.

He said: “There are still very able senior officers at the Met who are more than capable of dealing with disturbances like the weekend but perhaps on this occasion intelligence wasn’t what it could have been.

“Undoubtedly, senior officers will be looking ahead to the Olympics in exactly 12 months time and wondering how they will cope if similar events unfold then when they’re dealing with security and overseeing visitors from around the world,” he added. “I think that will be a great concern at the moment.”

London Mayor Boris Johnson, Mr. Cameron, his Home Secretary Theresa May, and Tottenham borough police commander Detective Chief Superintendent Sandra Looby were all on vacation when the riots erupted. Mrs. May cut short her holiday today to fly home and deal with the crisis. Mr. Johnson and Ms. Looby are reportedly also on their way home.

215 people arrested

First reports of Thursday night’s shooting said that a Tottenham man named Mark Duggan was armed and shot at officers when they confronted him near the Broadwater Farm housing estate where he lived.

However family and friends disputed that, saying he was neither a gangster nor armed, and urged locals to protest outside Tottenham Police Station on Saturday evening, demanding answers. But after a silent vigil which started at 5:15 p.m. failed to elicit a response inside, the mood became darker. Gangs of youths, some in their early teens and dressed in “hoodies” and baseball caps, arrived to swell the numbers.

Local gangs in the borough of Islington – including the local Star Gang of which Duggan was said to be a member – dropped their usual rivalries and joined together to attack police lines, spurred by social networking on Twitter and Facebook.

Shops were looted and burned as police concentrated on containing the violence rather than intervening to protect property. Last night flame-scarred Tottenham was quiet under a heavy police presence but there were outbreaks of violence in other areas, such as Enfield, Brixton, Fulham, and Dalston, with stone-throwing and looting which police said was just criminality.

Tonight trouble was reported in the boroughs of Hackney and Lewisham with a total of 215 people arrested and 25 charged since Saturday as the violence took a more sporadic feel but the number of officers on the ground increased.

“The police are often trapped in an impossible situation: If they pile in to an area to prevent trouble they’re accused of overreaction, but if they hold back they’re accused of underreacting,” says Mr. Travers.

But despite concern about the riots and criticism about how the police managed the situation, he dismisses comparisons to the 1985 rioting, which spread to other cities such as Bristol, Liverpool, and Birmingham.

“It was a totally different situation back then with deep resentments in parts of the ethnic minorities towards the police,” he adds. “Since then there has been greater dialogue between communities and the police and greater spending in those areas in housing and facilities.”

‘We need to rebuild this community’

While shopkeepers and householders calculate the damage to goods and property over the past 48 hours, the Independent Police Complaints Commission continues to investigate the original shooting of Duggan, a father of four, amid conflicting reports about whether he shot first.

A bullet lodged in a policeman’s radio, which was originally pointed to as evidence that officers were shot at first, has since been reported to be a police-issue bullet.

The dead man’s brother, Shaun Hall, who did not condone the rioting, said the original claims were “utter rubbish.”

He said: “My brother’s not that sort of person. He’s not stupid to shoot at the police, that’s ridiculous.

“I know people are frustrated, they’re angry out there at the moment, but I would say please try and hold it down. Please don’t make this about my brother’s life, he was a good man.”

That was echoed by local churchmen including the Reverend Nims Obunge, pastor at the Freedom’s Ark Church in Tottenham. He said walking around the town, which has lost its post office, job center, and some local businesses to fire damage and looting, breaks his heart and wants young people to know “they are ruining our communities.

“We need to rebuild this community,” he said. “I am calling for calm and peace so we can start rebuilding the families, communities and businesses that have been destroyed.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Lee Jones on 08/09/2011 - 10:35 am.

    Being a recent resident of Tottenham, I am not surprised that the London riots began there. It’s the poorest borough in London and I witnessed violence and crime all too regularly. More often than I would have liked, I was forced to take longer routes through adjacent streets to avoid police barriers and squads of police vans handling yet another violent crime.

    But to say the spending cuts and austerity measures are to blame is ridiculous.

    Yes, Britain has made much sharper cuts than many other Western nations, mainly due to a gleeful right wing party excited to be able to swing its axe through the welfare state. But many of the cuts are only now just beginning to be seen by British people. The problems in Tottenham have been there a lot longer.

    I remember as a boy being led through the back streets of Tottenham High Road by my father to go and see my beloved Tottenham Hotspur only to see burned out cars still smoldering from the night’s revelry before. That was the nineties, years before austerity and during Tony Blair’s left-leaning leadership. My father told me stories of the 1985 Tottenham riots, when police were scared to enter the borough and even further back, riots in the early eighties.

    I also saw flowers attached to railings on a weekly basis throughout my neighborhood, eulogies to dead teenagers who were victims of north London gang wars. And while the poor shopkeepers of London have had a terrible few days, to say they are not used to violence and abuse on a daily basis would be a falsehood. Glass shopfronts don’t last long in Tottenham without having to be replaced.

    Ken Livingstone’s quotes are shameless and disgusting electioneering, especially from a former mayor who did little for these communities while he was in charge. This isn’t Boris Johnson’s fault, this isn’t even David Cameron’s fault – it’s all England’s fault.

    This is a sad, sad week for my homeland, our dirty laundry – poverty, social inequality, poor policing, a generation of ani social, unemployable yobs roaming the streets – is not new for me and other English people, it’s just new that the rest of the world to see it. We are ashamed as a nation.

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