You never see police officers in Tottenham. My dear Socialist Worker housemate attributes this to the fact that police exist to protect property, and everyone here's broke. So on the rare occasion when you do see someone in uniform, your gut response is not "hurrah, our noble protectors are here, nothing to worry about" but "holy fuck, what's going on?"
Turns out we're having a riot!
Two days ago, a local man, Mark Duggan, was shot dead by police officers. A peaceful protest gathered at Tottenham Police Station this evening to press for answers. Surprisingly, none were forthcoming, and someone chucked a brick through a panda car window. And off it went. Two cars, a few shops, and a bus are on fire; at least 200 people are confined in the area around the station, hemmed in by riot police, mounted police, and police dogs. I can hear the helicopters through my window, echoed a few seconds later on rolling news.
A BBC interviewer asked former Met Commander John O'Connor whether the violence could have been avoided if a police spokesperson had come outside early on to give a statement and calm the crowd.
"You can't have dialogue with people bent on violence," he replied. "Do you really think we can have dialogue with people like that? These people are hell-bent on causing something which I suspect is something to do with revenge. It's a tad hopeful to expect that you can talk people out of this."
Not now, no. But before?
He spoke of "the nature of the area, the history of that part of London, the smouldering antipathy towards the police, [which means that] this kind of thing is likely to happen. And if you get the catalyst of a police shooting, you can anticipate that things could kick off."
'Catalyst' is an interesting choice of word. It sounds uncomfortably close to 'excuse'.
He says that officers should "protect life and property, and we can talk about the niceties afterwards."
I spent eight hours in that police station once, queueing for six of those hours to report being mugged. Aforementioned Socialist Worker Housemate and I took it in turns to nip out for fag breaks, battling raging hangovers and striplight-induced nausea. We're both nice white middle class people, 'well-spoken' and frightfully respectable, and they treated us like fraudulent criminals wasting valuable police time. So I can only imagine how they treat people of colour, working class people, who make up the vast majority of this area. I can only imagine what my attitude towards the police would be had I grown up here, faced with that kind of dismissive antipathy every time I came into contact with our glorious forces of law and order.
Clearly I'm not saying "woohoo, let's riot!" - I'm nervously peering out of the window, checking that the front door's bolted and hoping to fuck that the riot doesn't spread any closer. I'm saying that if this area is indeed characterised by a "smouldering antipathy" towards the police that Mr O'Connor speaks of, it's not because we're all violent crims intent on bashing coppers. People are angry, people have questions, and even I can see why.