A whole decade on, watching the vivid, violent footage of the 2011 riots will still raise the hairs on your head, and make you deeply sorry for what befell the nation in those few warm days in August that year.
The BBC’s documentary about the UK’s most widespread riots in a quarter-century – if not longer – gauges that sense of immediacy (and, frankly, danger), but also lends a sense of perspective. It is difficult to see that any good came from those times, and none of the many eye witnesses and participants interviewed even try to do so. The most one of them can manage in this rather grim retrospective is a bittersweet reflection that these were “multicultural” riots, rather than the more familiar and straightforward race riots that had disfigured the streets of Notting Hill and Nottingham in the late 1950s, Brixton, Toxteth, and St Paul’s, Bristol in 1981, and Broadwater Farm, Tottenham, in 1985.
There are other fresh insights. The film takes as its starting point the earlier disturbances on Broadwater Farm, which took place after the deaths of an innocent woman of colour during a police raid and of a police officer, PC Keith Blakelock. One community activist claims that on the day that the shooting of Mark Duggan emerged on the news, officers in a patrol car were going through the estate making gestures with their fingers as if to say that they had “evened the score” – Blakelock was killed on “the farm”, and Duggan came from “the farm”. Could that have been the spark?
It has, sorry to say, the ring of truth about it; but the dead hand of bureaucracy also played its part. When a peaceful crowd led by women turned up at Tottenham police station looking for some answers, if not justice, they were turned away because the police could not legally speak to them once the shooting had been referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). The shutters literally came down on the station, and the frustrations were allowed to fester, and spread – well, like wildfire.
The police made a mistake in shooting Duggan dead: though he was a gangster in possession of a gun, and no one’s idea of a hero, they should not have shot him dead. They should have ignored the IPCC rules and talked to the family. And then, as the documentary makes clear, they should not have retreated and retreated and retreated and given the signal that the mob could do what they wanted. Sadly, this involved trashing their own neighbourhoods and looting.
Unlike Steve McQueen’s fine study of the 1980s riots that was recently broadcast, the makers of this film, and some of those involved, do not view the frightening events of the summer of 2011 as an “uprising”, but as a riot. Unlike the uprisings of 1981, or the Black Lives Matter protests of last year, the 2011 riots felt less political and more about theft and arson – what Cameron called, at the time, “criminality, pure and simple”.
It wasn’t as simple or pure as that, but plenty of people were filmed running out of JD Sports with some new gear or strolling down the road with a new widescreen TV. Those who took part in this film are captioned simply “Rioter”, and their surprise at their sudden fearlessness in a lawless environment, and later shock at their harsh sentences, is all too evident. The judge from Nottingham seemed almost to take pleasure in dishing out the savage retribution. Maybe it has had a deterrent effect.
What stopped the riots (which oddly never extended beyond England) was easier to identify. Tariq Jahan spoke with an amazingly moving effect on a street in Winson Green, Birmingham, where his “angel” son Haroon (21) and two of his friends, Abdul Musavir and Shahzad, were mown down and killed as they stood guarding shops and businesses. When Jahan asked those who wanted their children to die to step forward or go home, it was the moment when reason took hold of the nation.
Boris Johnson (then mayor of London) and David Cameron (then prime minister), dragged back from their hols, had no such natural authority. Ten years on, though, and Jahan confirms that no one has been found guilty of Haroon’s murder, there’s been no public inquiry into it, and he feels it could all happen again: “As for the riots, they took place then, and still to this day I don’t believe they’re over.” The most terrifying thing of all is that he’s right.
The Riots 2011: One Week in August airs Monday at 9pm on BBC Two
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