‘I kind of see a beauty in all that architecture’. Tottenham, north London, is an area of extraordinary ethnic diversity and local pride, and one troubled by unemployment, poverty, poor housing. In the video for ‘Unorthodox’ by London rapper Wretch 32, filmed in the area’s Broadwater Farm Estate – notorious for riots in 1985 – it’s startlingly beautiful. ‘I kind of want to turn it on its head,’ says Ben Newman, the director, of the cliché. ‘I know a lot of people film and represent those areas in a negative way.’ Instead, the mixed-up area captured in the stairwells is a good, boisterous London dream, and true.

There’s another Tottenham, equally true. Jonathan Martin prophesies: ’London shall be all in flames’. It’s scribbled below the lion. Who’s mad now? There was an image on endless repeat last summer. A conflagration, the charcoal shell of a local landmark, a well-known carpet shop. This was the first of a series of disturbances that spread over successive nights around London and the country. Britons saw loop after loop of images of buildings on fire, smashed glass, streets in raucous refusal. Youths taking TVs, clothes, carpets food from broken-open shops, sometimes with dizzy exuberance, sometimes with what looked like thoughtful care.

The aftermath is panicked reaction. Courts became runnels for judicial cruelty, sentences twice, three times anything usual for similar crimes. The government’s watchdog announces that police might use live ammunition against those setting fires – some were teenagers – in future.

14 December. In an effort to make sense of the extraordinary events, the Guardian newspaper and the London School of Economics release Reading the Riots, a joint report on what happened. What they have discovered, through extensive research and interviews, is that what motivated many of those on the streets was resentment of police, and a deep sense of injustice.

Eyes roll with the duh.

Self-evident or not, this does not convince everyone. Theresa May, the Conservative Home Secretary, blames instead ‘sheer criminality’. It’s singalong for the Right. They know this tune: it was played after the Brixton riots of 1981 and 1985, Tottenham 1985, after every riot in London, or anywhere, since forever. While May’s denunciation of the obvious continues, her own department quietly gets on with examining the police’s stop-and-search powers, a cause of huge resentment among young Londoners, which – when do such powers not? – disproportionately affect minorities.

‘Feeling powerless, for me, is a very dangerous thing, that we’ve seen in the riots,’ says Symeon Brown at the London Policy Conference. Brown’s a young man from Tottenham himself, a youth activist, a researcher who worked on the Guardian report. During the disturbances, he explains, giving himself the voice of one those involved, came ’[t]hat sense that for once in my life I had power.’

The words echo astonishingly across years, one riot to another. Dambudzo Marechera, Zimbabwean poete maudit, wrote ’Smash, Grab, Run’ about his experiences in Brixton in the 1980s.

for just this once in my black British life
Exploded the atoms in me into atoms of power

There is a key and concrete factor not mentioned at the conference. A name is missing, a name that recurds in interviews with the riots’ participants, in tweets from the upsurging streets themselves. Mark Duggan. The young man shot dead by the Metropolitan Police on 4 August 2011.

’[W]e’ve been saying in meetings ever since the beginning of this year that there was a [...] powerful change of anger out there in the community. It wasn’t difficult to pick it up, you could just go to public meetings.’ Helen Shaw is co-director of Inquest, an organisation dedicated to the investigation of contentious deaths in official custody. She sounds like someone sad to be right. ‘So I suppose the surprise is the police claiming they didn’t have a sense of how angry people they were.’

Mark Duggan’s family were denied information. Misinformation about their dead son was leaked. 6 August. A demonstration supporting the family outside Tottenham Police Station. The key moment that occurred when the police intervene, which many who were present say was the spark for everything that followed, is immortalized on YouTube. Its rage-capitalled title is its own explanation: ’16 YEAROLD GIRL ATTACKED BY TOTTENHAM RIOT POLICE WHICH STARTED THE RIOTS!’

In Britain between 1998 and 2009, there were at least 333 deaths in police custody, 87 of them after restraint by officers. Not a single officer has ever been convicted for a single one. Of all the more and less unsubtle ways young Londoners – those not Made In Chelsea, those not rich – are told that they are not terribly important, none are so overt or cruel as this.


Sitting so straight on a raised dais, in so immaculate a uniform, that he looks like a ventriloquist's dummy, the Metropolitan Police's new commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, tells the conference in an avuncular voice nothing about Mark Duggan’s death. He talks, rather, enthusiastically if nebulously, about his plan for ‘Total Policing’. He enthuses about large forces zooming into small areas and clamping down on minor infractions. He mentions uninsured vehicles.

Helen Shaw has a different understanding. She suspects  Total Policing will mean ‘a much more aggressive police presence, a stance that’s more aggressive, and more about fear’. Indeed, Hogan-Howe says he wants ‘to put fear into the hearts of criminals’. Shaw is more stark. ‘We think we’ll see more deaths.’ 

 Constituencies not traditionally antipathetic have been shocked by its fervent enthusiasm for ‘kettling’, corralling demonstrators tightly without charge, food, water or release, for hours. Officer Mark Kennedy is exposed as a mole among non-violent ecological activists, becomes emblematic of an extraordinary and illegal campaign of infiltration and sexual deceit. The brutal policing of student protests on 9 December 2010 left one young man, Alfie Meadows, in hospital with brain injuries. At that same protest, police hauled Jody McIntyre, a 20-year-old with cerebral palsy, from his wheelchair, dragging him across the ground. At a demonstration on 1 April 2009, an unresisting and uninvolved newspaper seller, Ian Tomlinson, was hit by the police and died shortly after. And there is Mark Duggan, about whom each rumour initially leaked – that he shot first, that he shot at all – is proved one by one to be untrue.

The attacks on McIntyre and Tomlinson were watched, recorded, by the gaze of cellphone cameras. Collecting notes from a troubled culture. Police seem still not quite to grasp that these little machines preserve more than nocturnal melancholy.

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china mieville

A shorter version of this essay was published in the New York Times Magazine, on 4 March 2012.