London Riots: A Blast From The Past Or A Glimpse Of The Future?

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Buildings burn on Tottenham High Road after youths protested against the killing of a man by armed police in an attempted arrest, August 6, 2011 in London, England. (Photo: Matthew Lloyd / Getty Images)

At first glance there’s little to separate the riots that swept through Tottenham overnight and the street battles in the same part of North London a quarter of a century ago that reached a peak of violence with the murder of a policeman called Keith Blakelock. Both riots were sparked by fury at police after the deaths of black Londoners during police actions. In 1985, 49-year-old Cynthia Jarrett fell and died during an altercation with four police officers during a search of the family home. A protest outside the local police station the next day escalated quickly, with rioters throwing stones and petrol bombs, and setting fire to buildings on the Broadwater Farm housing project. Two officers and two BBC journalists were treated for gunshot wounds. Blakelock, separated by colleagues, was hacked to death by unknown assailants with knives and machetes. Three men imprisoned for his murder were cleared on appeal after serving four years for the murder. The 2011 riots kicked off after a peaceful protest over the shooting, by police, of a 29-year-old Broadwater Farm resident and father of four, Mark Duggan. On Aug. 4, officers from Operation Trident, a team that investigates gun crime in the black community, stopped a cab carrying Duggan; one officer was reported to have been saved after a bullet lodged in his radio; Duggan died at the scene.

Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

The Independent Police Complaints Commission is investigating the circumstances of Duggan’s death but that has not prevented a rush to conclusions. The mass-market Daily Mail described Duggan as “a ‘gangsta’ gunman” and “a known offender from London’s notorious Broadwater Farm Estate.” A local woman, interviewed by the broadsheet, the Guardian, as the peaceful protest curdled into something much more volatile, said the police “lied about what happened. They said he pulled a gun but he wouldn’t have done that with armed police. They shot him so badly that his mother could not recognize him.”

The ensuing riot did not cost further lives, but has left homes, shops, cars and a double decker bus burned out and deep rifts on view. David Lammy, the black Labour MP who represents Tottenham, issued a statement calling for calm. “Those who remember the destructive conflicts of the past will be determined not to go back to them,” he said. “We already have one grieving family in our community and further violence will not heal the pain.”

“True justice can only follow a thorough investigation of the facts,” he added. The question is whether the people who spilled on to the streets to express their anger are prepared to wait—and how deep that anger runs. The 1985 Tottenham riots were part of a chain of urban disturbances during a period of economic austerity that saw divisions deepen between the wealthy and the underprivileged, and that often meant between white and non-white communities. Tensions were exacerbated by casual, institutionalized racism in police forces.

The Metropolitan Police Service, better known as Scotland Yard, has worked to address these problems, but it is still overwhelmingly white—only 9.5% of officers are black—and still contends with assumptions of bias within its ranks. Moreover it is currently leaderless and dealing with criticisms about its mishandling of the inquiries into phone hacking.

And British society and institutions are again feeling some of the same forces that underpinned the discord of the earlier era: chill economic winds, a government intent on cutting its budget deficit, a realization that the pain of the cuts will be sharper where there is little or no fat to cut. The Broadwater Farm housing project is still bleak. A giant mural of a waterfall in a sylvan scene on one apartment block serves only to draw attention to that bleakness. “Talking to a couple of women on corner of High St. Everything smashed. Reeking of smoke,” tweeted Peter Beaumont, the foreign affairs editor of the Guardian‘s Sunday sister title, the Observer and Tottenham resident, who posted regular updates on the riot throughout the course of the night. “Tottenham didn’t have much, now got a lot less.” The fear must be that other communities in Britain, who have little to lose, may be resentful enough to lose it all.

Catherine Mayer is London Bureau Chief at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Mayer or on Facebook at Facebook/Amortality-the-Pleasures-and-Perils-of-Living-Agelessly . You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME .