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Calm is restored to Tottenham – but the anger remains

Jerome Taylor tests the temperature in the streets of the north London district where this week's riots began
  • @jerometaylor

Plastered on a wall close to the shattered remains of what was once the Carpetright store on Tottenham High Road in north London is a single sheet of white paper fluttering in the wind. "Bring the peace back to our streets, communities and cities," it pleads.

No one yesterday seemed to know who had pasted up the flyers, but they have sprung up all over the area, taped to bus stops, shop windows and lamp posts. To locals they signify both the desire to fight back and a cry for help from a community that is struggling to come to terms with being the spark that lit an inferno which swept across the country.

It is one week since this busy, culturally mixed London thoroughfare erupted in an orgy of violence and arson that set off the worst rioting England has seen for a generation.

A peaceful protest against the shooting of 29-year-old Mark Duggan by police was hijacked into a localised outburst of rage, frustration and mindless violence that was swiftly copied across the country.

The reasons locals give for why Tottenham had become the epicentre of the riots were as numerous as the shops that had been smashed up and down the High Street.

For many, the looting and destruction had no cause. It was, they said, simply an opportunistic smash-and-grab by a sub-section of society that lacked any sense of shared responsibility.

"There's no explanation," said Victoria Norman, 38, who was evacuated from her home with her partner Jude and their 19-month-old daughter Mia when the Carpetright store went up.

"We had lumps of molten fire raining down on the garden. I thought we were going to lose the house. That fire was lit by people who had no respect for their parents, their community or society. There's nothing you can do except lock them up."

Staring at the rubble in front of her thankfully undamaged house, her anger is understandable. But to others – especially those who remembered the last time the area erupted in the 1980s – the riots are a sad but inevitable consequence of growing inequality, job frustrations, hamstrung schools, police brutality and unwilling parents.

Alicia Jacobs Black, a 39-year-old disabled mother of five, lives behind one of the shops that were firebombed. She fled and went to stay with friends. She blamed police, schools and parents for letting things get so bad. But above all, she said, it was a lack of hope that life would improve that sparked the violence.

"We desperately need things for the kids to do," she said. "You have to keep them occupied to keep them out of trouble. What you really need to give them is some hope. People who have nothing positive; who have nothing hopeful in their lives, are going to do desperate and sometimes stupid things."

One woman, who said she had lived in the area for 26 years, stopped to look at the shattered windows of the Prince of Wales pub, its walls now scrawled with graffiti backing the English Defence League. Asked to sum up the violence last Saturday night, she paused for thought and then said: "We're so quick to turn to violence nowadays, aren't we? Life is so stressful now. When I was growing up it was a calmer pace of life. But now life is such a struggle and no-one feels listened to. So it explodes."

In a suburb still fuming with rage, she was one of the few to say that, however unpalatable it may be, there was a need to hear from the looters themselves. "They have got to get into those estates and talk to the rioters; ask them what they want," she said. "A lot of them are nasty; downright scum, don't get me wrong. But unless we speak to them, we won't know what the issues are and why they behave so appallingly."

Among the young who, after a week of news crews crawling over their streets, are even more wary of journalists than they already were, a frequent complaint is the attitude of police towards them.

Close to Tottenham Hale station one teenager among a crowd of five was willing to list his gripes.

"This is not an area where police treat you nice," he said. "If you are in a group, they kick off all the time.

"They have no respect for us, so why should I respect them?"

That argument held little sway with Risase "Bullet" Myumbaisa, a street sweeper in his late 40s who wakes at 4am to go to work. Mr Myumbaisa, who left the Congo and settled in the area 11 years ago, knows about police brutality. "In the Congo," he said, "it is better to come across a lion than a police officer."

Yesterday, as he emptied a bin outside one of the many boarded-up shop fronts on Tottenham High Road, he urged the British police to crack down harder on wrongdoers in his neighbourhood.

"They should be able to punish people properly," he said. "They just seem so powerless." Part of it, he thought, was a failure of parents to teach their children discipline. "If you tell the troublemakers not to go out, they'll just tell you to f**k off. We have kids as young as 10 or 11 staying out till 2am round here. If the parents can't control him, the police should."

His own children, he said, were currently in Sweden. "You never see kids out late there," he said. "I'd never bring them over here. No way."

But if last Saturday saw Tottenham at its worst, the week that followed has better sides. After the first night of rioting, Tottenham stayed calm, even as neighbouring boroughs and other English cities burned.

And, as the flyers show, many inhabitants appear desperate to show their determination to rebuild. At the Tottenham Green Leisure Centre, donations have been coming in for those who lost their homes.

"People have come from Crouch End, Muswell Hill – even Wiltshire," said a volunteer from Haringey Council. "And they've been bringing new things, not junk." Across the borough, at least 41 properties were gutted by fire, many of which had multiple families living in them.

Grace Martinez, a 31-year-old hospital cleaner from Ecuador, was a resident of River Heights, the block of flats above the carpet store that – as it burned to the ground – became the emblem of the first night's riots. Her family, who rented privately, slept on the streets the first night and then spent four nights in a hotel before moving to temporary council-owned accommodation in Seven Sisters on Thursday.

"We are sleeping on the floor, because we lost everything," she said.

"We don't have house insurance, so we have to start from the beginning. I'm not saying we should be given a new house or anything, but we need help to rebuild our lives."

Asked what she would say to those who burned her home she replied: "I just don't know. It's so difficult to see your life come crashing down, I couldn't even speak to those people."