Paul Vallely: Shades of 1980s riots, but there have been big changes since then

Comment

The similarities between the rioting in London and the race riots which shocked Britain in the 1980s are striking. But they do not tell the whole story.

The trigger for civil discord has almost always been an action by the police which the black community has regarded as a particularly egregious example of a generally poor relationship between police and a local population.

In Brixton in 1981 trouble was sparked when police stopped a young black man who had been stabbed but who others assumed was a victim of police brutality. In Toxteth, Liverpool, the same year, it was the arrest of a student, Leroy Cooper, who intervened when police tried to detain an innocent man.

In Handsworth, Birmingham, in 1985, another arrest set off two days and nights of looting and arson. That year Brixton erupted again when police shot and paralysed a woman while trying to arrest her son. A month later another mother had a heart attack and died when police raided her home, setting off the Broadwater Farm riots. A peaceful protest outside a police station led to violence.

There is a familiarity, too, to the criticisms that police provoked trouble by heavy-handed tactics. Again critics said they were unprepared for trouble. Again they said that containment tactics, rather than aggressive snatch-squads, allowed rioting to continue longer than necessary. Yet in most cases inquiries later showed that the speed and scale of events had left them little choice, but to corral the worst troublemakers and deploy officers to protect firemen.

Again, most unrest took place against a background of inner-city deprivation, social alienation and high unemployment, particular among young people. In all cases there were recession and spending cuts. And good weather. A rainy night is no good for a riot.

And yet there have been big changes since the 1980s riots. After Brixton the Scarman report was scathing about Metropolitan Police tactics. They had brought about a big fall in street crime, but at the cost of ramping up racial resentment. The riots, Scarman said, were "essentially an outburst of anger and resentment amongst young black people against the police" their hardline methods, lack of consultation and widespread racism.

After Scarman came new rules on stop and search procedures, better training for police and a call for more black officers. An independent Police Complaints Authority was set up. Large amounts of public money was put into urban regeneration. Generally race relations improved, with the Macpherson report intensifying self-scrutiny among the police.

Evidence of progress is clear in the Met's Operation Trident, a dedicated team to tackle the rise in gun attacks, which has broken through the suspicion between blacks and the police. It is sadly ironic therefore, that the weekend's rioting was sparked by an arrest by the Trident team. Perhaps significant progress has not yet eradicated the deep-seated resentment of the police among black youths which after Broadwater led the black leader, Bernie Grant, to claim, with a tinge of approval, that the police "got... a bloody good hiding".

Or there may be something self-destructive in black youth culture which, 30 years on from the Toxteth riot, led the man who detonated it, Leroy Cooper, to reflect to the Liverpool Daily Post: "The riot was a symptom of there being something really wrong with our society. We smashed our own community up, we destroyed our own homes. There had to be something wrong."

But there are other differences too. The riots in the 1980s were on a much bigger scale. Several people died, hundreds were injured and the damage bill ran into billions at today's prices. There was more planning too; the weekend's riots were orchestrated impromptu on Twitter, but in the 1980s serious preparation went into assembling barricade materials and manufacturing large numbers of petrol bombs.

There is something else. Today's riots have been characterised by opportunist looting on a scale which befits our era of wanton materialist consumerism. Looters have been seen trying things on for size or browsing through vitamin supplements in smashed up shops to find the particular brand they crave.

This is rioting-meets-shopping. It does not, as one eye-witness put it, feel like an "appeal from the heart of the ghetto" so much as an opportunity "to get a nice new pair of trainers." Not so much desperate as decadent.

Suggested Topics
News
Actor Burt Reynolds last year
peopleBurt Reynolds, once among the most bankable actors in Hollywood, is set to auction his memorabilia
News
Gordon and Tana Ramsay arrive at the High Court, London
newsTV chef gives evidence against his father-in-law in court case
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books
News
i100 Charity collates series of videos that show acts of kindness to animals
Arts and Entertainment
One of the installations in the Reiner Ruthenbeck exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery
artCritics defend Reiner Ruthenbeck's 'Overturned Furniture'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game