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Why London was burning

Locals in Tottenham, where it all began, explain last week's riots. Dipankar De Sarkar reports. World on edge

world Updated: Aug 14, 2011 02:02 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar
Dipankar De Sarkar
Hindustan Times

Steve Moore was leaning pensively on a police barricade facing a ghoulish, burnt out brick-and-mortar shell when a young woman ran up to him. She had tears streaming down her face.

"It's going to be all right," he said gently, giving her a fatherly hug.

"We're rising from the ashes."

He looked older than his 56 years - when rioters pillaged the north London neighbourhood of Tottenham on the night of August 6, one of the places they firebombed was his jewellery store, Paradise Gems.

He watched demolition workers take down the remains of his shop.

"What you are seeing is what I owned for 21 years," said Moore.

"On Saturday night, I got a call at 12 o' clock. They'd set the building alight. There's so much in it that I can never replace."

It's been a week since hundreds of young men and women rioted in this, among the poorest, inner city areas of London, sparking a wave of looting, arson and violence across the British capital and more than a dozen English cities. Four people have been killed.

The speed with which the riots spread has taken politicians and police chiefs by surprise.

All condemn coordinated 'copycat violence' and the growth of street gangs. But when it comes to the underlying reasons, the debate has become politicised.

On the right, the Tory-led ruling coalition blames a culture of irresponsible parenting encouraged by the left.

Labour in turn fingers Tory spending cuts that have left impoverished youths with no support for education.

The strange thing about Tottenham is its outward appearance of normalcy. People of all ages and races - black, white, Kurdish, Somali, Asian, Turkish - are happy to talk. There's plenty to talk about and, they feel, a lot to defend too.

Prime Minister David Cameron has blamed "pockets of our society that are not only broken but, frankly, sick." It hasn't gone down well in Tottenham, where opinion on the street mocks the alternately strident and fumbling theorizing of experts.

"I grew up here," said John, dad of two, "and we had places to go to after school - brownies, boxing clubs. This government has taken them off the streets, so these kids, their mind goes dead.

"Kids have to have discipline but the government took discipline away from us - you can't even slap 'em now. Children are not children any longer. They got power."

There is concern about policing methods, although experts claim much progress since the 1980s, when police were seen as racist.

Edith Christie, a retired social worker, has questions: Why did the police have to kill Mark Duggan (a local crime suspect whose death on August 4 led to peaceful protests that then turned violent)? Couldn't they have shot him in the leg? Why didn't the police tell Duggan's family that an inquiry had been ordered? That would have calmed the crowds.

"Responsibility?" Christie said.

"My dear, parents lost responsibility for their children - black and white - a long, long time ago. Two sons I bred. But I've been inside homes where I've seen children slapping their parents, snatching their pensions.

"Now children are having children. How can you expect them to show responsibility?"

Christopher, 67, decided to get into an argument.

"No fault at all with Tottenham," he told Edith.

"You can't blame the family. It was hooliganism. My son when he was young, he was thieving the houses. I said, 'I'll hang you.' He's okay now. Eighteen months' hard labour, I say - that's what these hooligans should get."

Everyone seemed to know Mark Elliot-Smith. The Catholic priest, who served Tottenham for 10 years, was returning to be with friends. He is struggling to make sense of the tsunami of violence that swept the place he loves. There was a corrosive feeling of alienation among the youth, who saw only others prosper. Without a "level playing field" to help them compete, they turned to gangs.

"Gangs are a satanic parody of family life," said the priest.

"They have boundaries, discipline, hierarchy and they abide by rules. We in the clergy have not spoken out strongly enough about the importance of family life - maybe it was seen as a right-wing value. It's a sadness."

A group of four teenagers - Masud Oruc, Ibrahim Adam, Aziz Ali and Hargeisa North - stood outside an internet shop.

"We don't blame the kids because they are angry inside," said one. About what? "About EMA."

In January, the government scrapped the Education Maintenance Allowance fund for children from low-income families as part of a £80 billion spending cut enforced after Labour left a budget deficit of £180 billion.

Youth services in the municipality of Haringey, which includes Tottenham, have taken a £1.5 million hit.

Across the road, Ummu, a Turkish grandmother in her 80s explained in gestures how the rioters ran into her café, snatched her daughter-in-law's gold wedding ring, bracelets and earrings and took away a television screen and mobile phones.

Where were the police?

"Police? Police out," she said, acting out the way hooligans threw glass plates at the riot police.

Then, sitting outside her dark, empty café, this old woman laughed. As if anyone was listening.

First Published: Aug 14, 2011 00:35 IST