One year after London riots, Olympic games mask tensions
One year after riots engulfed London and spread to other English cities, the buzz around the Olympics is sweeping the capital, but with recession hammering the poorest Londoners the threat of unrest lingers.
In Tottenham, the multicultural north London district where the unrest first erupted after police shot dead a young black suspect last August 4, the main road still bears some of the scars of last year’s violence.
Houses and shops are still being rebuilt, while signs proclaim the local mayor’s promise to boost activities for youngsters, clean up the streets and pump 4 million pounds ($5.9 million) into local jobs.
“They’re rebuilding the shops, but apart from that nothing’s changed,” said 18-year-old Tamzin as she waited for a bus.
The trainee actress said she did not take part in last summer’s wave of looting and arson, in which five people were killed and property worth millions of pounds was destroyed.
But she added that she understood the frustrations of some of those who did.
“A lot of them did it because they’d had enough. No one cares about them,” she said. “We must get them paid jobs.”
Tottenham was rocked by riots before, when racial tensions spilled over into fierce violence in 1985, and the unemployment rate there remains among the highest in London.
Many people fear another flare-up could come at any time.
“The situation is fragile, and I think it remains fragile across the whole country,” warned Tottenham lawmaker David Lammy, who has written a book called “Out of the Ashes: Britain after the riots”.
“Unemployment has got worse in Tottenham,” he said. “Austerity is biting this year, it’s biting people’s benefits and it’s biting our youth services.”
But he voiced hope at plans to regenerate the district, and welcomed the decision by Premier League soccer club Tottenham Hotspur to drop its bid to move from its nearby home into the Olympic Stadium after the Games.
The Olympics have boosted the city’s morale, Mr Lammy said, but he believes Britain has failed to tackle the root causes of the riots – poverty, bad parenting, obsessive consumerism, and a plethora of other social ills.
“People are watching the Games and they are being inspired and entertained, so I do think this summer that things are different,” he said.
“But I don’t think anyone should pretend that just because we have a summer that goes well, the problems have gone away.
“I wouldn’t predict that we won’t see rioting again over the next five or six years.”
Tim Newburn, professor of criminology at the London School of Economics, also warned that the capital could slide back into violence.
“Riots are always unpredictable,” said Prof Newburn, whose team interviewed 270 people who joined the unrest in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool for a study on why it happened.
Prof Newburn said the rioters shared “a sense of marginalisation and exclusion” as well as anger towards the police, and he blamed authorities for not engaging more positively with young people.
Prime Minister David Cameron, meanwhile, blamed “the moral collapse of society” and promised “zero tolerance” for troublemakers.
More than 4500 people have been arrested for their role in the London riots and more than 2900 prosecuted, according to the latest police figures.
Across the country, nearly 1300 people have been sentenced to prison terms averaging 17 months. As of mid-June, half of them had been released.
As for the incident which triggered the riots, the circumstances surrounding the police shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan remain disputed.
On Thursday, the eve of the first anniversary of his death, the father-of-four’s family said they had still not received a full explanation of how he died.
“Thirty-one police officers surrounded Mark and he was shot twice – why?” Mr Duggan’s mother Pam said.
“One of the last things my partner, Mark’s dad, said before he died a few weeks ago was that he wanted justice for his son.”
A provisional date for an inquest into Mr Duggan’s death has been set for January 2013.