More than 25 years on from Broadwater Farm, has anything changed?

  • @oliver_wright

At first glance, the parallels appear to be striking. On 5 October 1985, a young West Indian named Floyd Jarrett was stopped by the police near the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, north London, on suspicion of driving with a forged tax disc.

Mr Jarrett was arrested and a few hours later officers raided the home nearby of his middle-aged mother, Cynthia.

Her family said she was pushed. The police denied it. But what is indisputable is that she collapsed and died – bringing into the open long-standing racial tensions in the area and triggering some of the worst rioting in Britain's recent history. Poignantly, like the weekend's rioting, it was a protest outside Tottenham Police Station which sparked the conflict. It led, the night after Jarrett's arrest, to the grotesque murder of PC Keith Blakelock, who was surrounded and stabbed to death. When the ashes had been cleared, the events at Broadwater Farm lead to much soul-searching about community relations and the economic viability of one of London's poorest areas.

How much has changed? In the immediate aftermath of the rioting, Bernie Grant, then the leader of Haringey council and later the area's MP, caused outrage when he reacted to the police request for plastic bullets to deal with future potential rioting. "The reason why the police are calling for plastic bullets is because the police got a bloody good hiding," he told a crowd in the days after the riot. Turning to a handful of police officers who were standing nearby he added: "I hope you're listening. There is no way I am going to condemn the actions of the youth on Sunday night." By contrast David Lammy, the area's current MP, said yesterday: "We have officers in hospital, some of whom are seriously injured. It's a disgrace. This must stop."

But, underlining the problems that still remain, the MP's comments were met with cries of "the police want to see the place burn" from the crowd.

Clive Crichlow, president of the National Black Police Association, said this reaction was not atypical. "People feel disenfranchised. The police are a long way off representing the community.

"While we wouldn't want to use that as an excuse to justify that sort of violence, there's no way we can ignore what has happened. There will be lessons to learn but this time we have to learn them. What we are missing is the issue of representation."

Tottenham is in Haringey, where more than 10,000 people claim jobseeker's allowance. In Tottenham itself, recent government figures showed there were 54 people chasing each job.

Brian Haley, who served as a councillor in Tottenham for 16 years until last year, said the area had received a lot of investment after the 1985 riots – but that had not altered the fundamental problems. "Nothing changes," he said. "Politicians are coming out saying it is different to 25 years ago but it is not. They were not there; I was. There have been promises but no delivery. Northumberland Park Ward [near the scene of the rioting] is one of the most deprived areas in Europe, it has been like that for decades," he added. "There is high unemployment, low educational achievement – but none of this is new.

"The media will be gone in a few days and the people of Tottenham will be the ones who have to pick up the pieces," he said.

Additional reporting by Paul Cahalan