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A masked youth pulls a burning garbage bin set on fire by rioters in Hackney, east London, Monday Aug. 8, 2011
Image: dapd

What have we learned?

Joanna Impey
August 6, 2012

From August 6-10 last year, several English cities saw some of the worst riots in a generation. DW spoke to three people closely involved in what happened: a local politician, a business owner and a youth worker.


The riots began in Tottenham, North London on August 6, 2011, after the fatal shooting by police of a local black man, 29-year-old Mark Duggan. A peaceful protest against his death turned violent after police arrived to disperse the demonstrators. Overnight there were violent clashes in the area. In the days that followed, bouts of rioting, looting and arson spread elsewhere in London and to other cities across England.

British Prime Minister David Cameron returned from his holiday in Italy to address the situation. All police leave was cancelled and thousands of officers were deployed to bring the situation under control.

A year on, with Britain in the midst of Olympics fever - and an ongoing climate of economic austerity - we look at how communities have been affected by the violence, what the underlying causes were, and whether it could happen again.

David Lammy (l) and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg meet local residents and business people after rioting broke out in Tottenham, north London, Britain, 08 August 2011.
David Lammy shows Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg around the streets of TottenhamImage: picture alliance / dpa

'There are huge inequalities in Britain'

David Lammy is a British Labour Party politician who has been a member of parliament (MP) for Tottenham since 2000. The 40-year-old was born in the area to Guyanese parents.

DW: Have things changed in Tottenham since last year? Have people really learnt from what happened?

David Lammy: This is a resilient community. There are 220 languages spoken here; it knows how to pull together. It's been through tough times before. Many of the families here know what it means to live in tough circumstances and indeed come from other countries that are tough. The government has given the area some regeneration funds through the mayor; the football club is staying and committing and rebuilding their stadium; and tensions and issues with the police are being addressed.

But at the same time, unemployment has gone up in Tottenham, not down, since the riots. Austerity is biting this year in a way that it wasn't last year. Youth services have been cut, and we're seeing that filtering through. So we're resilient, we're coming together, we have the world's attention, we have a lot of support, but there's a lot to do, and all of this is happening against a very fragile background of a double-dip recession in Britain.

You published a book last year called "Out of the Ashes: Britain after the Riots." What's your assessment of why the riots happened?

My view is that it always takes a flashpoint to begin a riot - that's usually a flashpoint involving the police or the state and a perceived act of injustice, usually a death, whether that's in Paris, Los Angeles or London. But then beyond that in Britain what we saw last August was a combination of two things: A culture that has set in in Britain where everyone is conscious of their rights, but not of their responsibilities.

And so I do think individuals have to be held to account for what they have done […]. The second thing is an economic liberalism - the freedom to make as much money as you want without any consequences. And I'm afraid it's had catastrophic consequences: There are huge inequalities in Britain. Which means we've moved on some of our housing estates from having a working-class community, to having a workless-class community.

Do you think the riots could happen again?

I think it's unlikely in Tottenham, because of the pulling together, and the serious anger here towards those who did cause mayhem. Having said that, it's fragile, and I certainly think that the circumstances that underpin the riots remain the case in Britain.

Firefighters spray water onto the furniture store set on fire by rioters last night in Croydon, south London, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011
The House of Reeves store was over 100 years old when it burned downImage: dapd

'You don't realize what you've got till its gone'

Trevor Reeves runs House of Reeves, a furniture store in Croydon, south London. Founded in 1867, the store survived the Blitz during World War II. But on August 8, 2011, the iconic building was destroyed in an arson attack. The blazing building became one of the symbols of the riots. Trevor Reeves is the great-great-grandson of the store's founder, Edwin Reeves.

DW: How did you actually learn the news that the store had been attacked?

Trevor Reeves: I stood outside and watched it burn. I was told by a neighbor that there was some activity around the shop, and I might like to go down and see what was going on. So that's what I did. I drove down to the store, parked round the back, and by the time I'd come back out the car, and stood there looking, there were people milling around; a couple of minutes later there was smoke and flames, and that was the end of that.

What was the response from the local community when they found out that "Reeves Corner" had burnt down?

It was just staggering. The outpouring of emotion was something that I don't think any of us will ever forget or anyone of us realized was even there. It brought life to the old adage: "You don't realize what you've got till it's gone." And there were people who just thronged to the store, just to stand and see...

What's it like now, one year on? Have you got a clearer sense of where the business can go from here?

We've remodeled everything. We are now trading as a viable business again. The difficult thing is that we are still in austerity times. It's very difficult out there. We still fight for market share in the area. We're a much smaller store than we were before. We don't have so many lines.

Are you concerned at all that the riots could happen again?

I'm sure there are criminal elements, subversive elements, people who want to create mayhem and destruction and cause mischief, and I'm sure they will be planning to try and do something. On the other side of the coin I think the authorities are that much more aware of the responsibilities to everybody, and that they will stamp on it before it gets a chance to rear its ugly head. At least I hope they would.

A fire is seen during civil disturbances in Salford near Manchester, England, Tuesday, Aug. 9 2011
The violence spread to other cities, including ManchesterImage: dapd

'Something had broken down'

Ruth Ibegbuna is director of the Reclaim project, a charity that works with teenagers, mainly from deprived communities, across Greater Manchester. It provides them with mentors who help them to build up their confidence and leadership skills.

DW: What was your response to the riots last summer?

Ruth Ibegbuna: We were utterly dismayed. Manchester was one of the last cities to riot. London had rioted and other areas of the country, and there was a real sense of inevitability that Manchester might actually be the next city. And we felt very strongly that there wasn't enough done to ensure that the city didn't riot, and really we needed to get out there and talk to our young people and stop them from going onto the streets.

How were the young people that you work with affected by the riots?

Many of them were glued to their TVs as most people in Manchester were, watching our city center be destroyed, and watching the vandals and the looting that went on. And just like us, they were really upset. I had a meeting with the young people the next day, and many of them were in tears, because they recognized that something had broken down, and that the adults in the community now distrusted the young people. That was very clear in the days after the riots.

What lessons have been learnt since then?

Depressingly, I don't think many lessons have been learnt. We've had riots before, for instance in the 1980s, and afterwards there were big inquiries and people really looking at society and asking, 'What went wrong here and what can we change?' Unfortunately this time with the riots, we've patched up our city centers and we've locked up the people who committed the crimes, and then we've moved on.

I'm worried that we haven't had that necessary dialogue that looks at what went wrong there, at what were the underlying causes. Criminality, of course, was a massive part of it, but there was something else going on there, and I feel that we've not really uncovered that and unpicked it and dealt with it.

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