The rioting, destruction and violence cannot be excused, but it still needs to be explained. It was initially triggered by the police killing of Mark Duggan in Tottenham on Thursday night, though there are disputed accounts of the circumstances, and made worse by the delayed and inadequate response of the police to the family – this in an area which has seen three deaths in police custody in recent years (Cynthia Jarrett, Joy Gardner and Roger Sylvester). But policing in London has improved in training and leadership since the Brixton riots of 1981 since Scarman’s denunciation of its aggressive, high-handed and racist approach. The underlying causes this time go wider and deeper, and certainly reflect the underlying resentment and anger already expressed in gang killings in London and a sense of hopelessness about making out in a white man’s world.
It’s all very well for Theresa May to sound off repeatedly about criminality, thuggery and looting, and of course the violence has got to be contained. But what does it say when young men engage in an orgy of destruction in their own neighbourhood? It is surely a sign of very deep-seated grievances and bitterness and despair within their own community – at joblessness, poverty, lack of being respected and listened to, over-crowded housing, frustration at being unable to compete successfully in a consumption-driven world.
The lesson surely is that a quarter century after the Broadwater Farm riot in 1985 the community in Tottenham still remains so disadvantaged and broken that a significant group feels no local pride, has no real deep sense of local identity, and has no instinct to safeguard what they do not see as their own. The explosion of rage and anger which was directed inwardly into inter-gang warfare on the streets of London has now erupted outwardly with terrible destructiveness. But it will not be fully quelled until all the underlying causes are acknowledged, faced up to and redressed.
It is right that Parliament should be recalled to debate this urgently. A full public inquiry is needed, not just an investigation by the distrusted IPCC or an internal inquiry by HMIC. All societies ignore (and quietly abuse) their under-class, and it is tragic that it takes such mayhem to get attention to what has been festering unattended for so long.