Diane Abbott: A tinder box waiting to explode

Monday 08 August 2011 00:00 BST

I remember the original Broadwater Farm riots clearly.

So it was a heart-stopping moment on Saturday night to realise that, 26 years later, Tottenham was in flames again. But in 2011, a lot is different. For one thing, the first I heard about the riots was on Twitter; complete with photographs of burning police cars. And, if I was alerted in that way, I suspect that thousands of others were. For most of us it was just a piece of shocking news. But for some, it was a cue to get down there.

The other thing that may be different is the underlying relationship between the police and the community. My friend David Lammy, who has been the Member of Parliament for Tottenham since 2000, was correct to point out that, while the original Broadwater Farm riots were a straight fight between the police and the youth, the latest disturbances were an attack on Tottenham itself. It was not just cars and buildings that went up in smoke on Saturday night. It was 25 years of investment, of painstaking attempts to transform Tottenham's reputation and (above all) of trying to build better police-community relations.

As the MP for the neighbouring borough of Hackney, I am aware that the current leadership of the Metropolitan Police is light years ahead in sophistication and sensitivity from the Metropolitan Police that I used to march and demonstrate against in the Eighties. But I know that things are not uniformly so rosy on the ground and that the old "canteen culture" still prevails in too many quarters. However, it is precisely because I thought that the Metropolitan Police knew better, that I am shocked by the police disregard for the family of the dead man Mark Duggan. Why did it take until Saturday (36 hours after the shooting) for the Independent Police Complaints Commission to take the family to see the body and pay their last respects?

And it is the death of Mark Duggan that leads to the similarities between the original Broadwater Farm disturbances and this weekend's event. Just as was the case 26 years ago, it was police-community relationships that provided the spark for the riots. Last week, Duggan was shot and killed in the back of a minicab by members of the Metropolitan Police's Operation Trident squad, who specialise in black gun crime. (A gun was later recovered from the cab.) The black community is largely wholeheartedly behind the activities of Trident. Black gangs and gun crime are as much a scourge of the black community as anyone else. But rumours were swirling around Tottenham that Mark Duggan had been executed by the police in cold blood. An unhappy family and the pulsating rumours resulted in a vigil outside Tottenham police station on Saturday night. It is alleged that a young women taking part in the vigil was hit by a baton-wielding policeman. And (whatever the trigger) the vigil erupted into a riot.

As was the case 26 years ago, nothing excuses violence. There is no doubt that all types of mindless thugs latched on to the disturbances. There were also hours of looting at Wood Green and Tottenham Hale, both shopping centres I know well. But just as with the original riots, parts of the community seem to have been a tinder box waiting to explode. Haringey Council has lost £41m from its budget and has cut youth services by 75 per cent. The abolition of the education maintenance allowance hit Haringey hard, and thousands of young people at college depended on it. Again none of these things are reasons for rioting and looting. But with these and other cuts in jobs and services, it is difficult to see how areas like Tottenham can become less flammable soon.

Diane Abbott is the MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

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