It is almost 10 years to the day since the London riots – and Boris Johnson has learnt nothing

I remember the 2011 riots vividly. They began just up the road from Hackney, the area that I live in and represent. That evening I saw the glow in the sky from the arson in Tottenham

<p>‘That evening I saw the glow in the sky from the arson in Tottenham’</p>

‘That evening I saw the glow in the sky from the arson in Tottenham’

It is almost 10 years to the day since the London riots – triggered by the police shooting of Mark Duggan – erupted in Tottenham and swept the country. But our prime minister Boris Johnson seems to have learnt nothing from these events; which is a little surprising, because he was Mayor of London at the time the riots began in the capital.

I remember those riots vividly. They began just up the road from Hackney, the area that I live in and represent. That evening I saw the glow in the sky from the arson in Tottenham. At one point, with a small group of friends, I got as close to the disturbances as I could safely venture in order to see for myself what was going on.

At the time, the response from right-wing politicians and those who had nothing to do with the inner city areas gripped by rioting was to dismiss it all as sheer lawlessness. Some people even suggested using water cannon to quell it.

The-then home secretary, Theresa May, spelt out that view – which was clearly more than palatable to Tory voters. “I think this is about sheer criminality,” she said. “That is what we have seen on the streets. The violence we’ve seen, the looting we’ve seen, the thuggery we’ve seen – this is sheer criminality, and let’s make no bones about it.”

But attractive as this analysis was to Tory politicians and some voters, there was obviously more to the 2011 riots than just criminality. At first sight, it was easy enough to blame the arson, the looting and the destruction of police vehicles on the mindless activities of thugs. But on closer examination, there were other underlying issues behind why inner-city areas all over the country erupted.

First and foremost were the effects of government cuts and austerity. In Tottenham itself,  there were very many local authority cuts, including no fewer than eight out of 13 youth clubs closed. And in London as a whole, there had been big cuts in police budgets. But it was a similar story in other parts of the country.

Unemployment, then as now, was a serious issue. Tottenham, for instance had the highest unemployment in London. There were more than 10,000 unemployed residents – but only 367 job vacancies.  It can be no surprise that without hope, people turn to the streets.  

Scrapping the Educational Maintenance Allowance was also a big blow to aspirational young people all over the country. It was as if the government didn’t care whether you got an education or not.

Together with all these economic and social woes, there were longstanding tensions between the community – particularly young people – and the police. Not just in Tottenham, but all over the country, the riots took on the character of anti-police riots. I remember talking to some young men in Hackney shortly after the riots and asking what was behind the rioting. “It’s the police” they said. “It’s the way that they talk to us.” A world of anger and resentment lay behind those short phrases.

But for Boris Johnson, it is as if none of this happened. The public spending cuts of a decade ago have not been made good. And, far from building better relationships between the police and the community, Johnson wants to make it easier for the police to stop and search people. He claims that this is to help fight knife crime. On the contrary, the main thing the police find through stop and search is small quantities of cannabis for personal use.

Stop and search is performative policing, done to give the police the sense of control and to reassure the public that the government is “cracking down”. And nothing provokes more antagonism between the police and the community than non-evidence based stop and search.

If only Johnson had learnt the real lessons of the 2011 riots: on the one hand, he would know that cutting back on benefits and social provision inevitably provokes the type of explosion that we saw in 2011. And on the other, he would know that all the baton rounds and water cannon in the world cannot protect society better than basically sound and mutually respectful relationships between the community and the forces of law and order.

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