Small Wars Journal

From Riots to Vigil

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 11:04am

From Riots to Vigil: The Community, the Police and Mark Duggan’s Legacy

Recently, the court ruled that it was “arguable” that the Coroner erred in his instructions to the jury regarding the standards for finding that the shooting had been lawful. The matter of whether this argument holds will be decided after hearings at a later date. This piece, originally written in the wake of the January verdict, is being reposted in light of this event and revisions based on subsequent research.

When the Coroner’s Inquest released its findings in January of this year the verdict that Mark Duggan’s shooting was lawful inspired assembly just as his death did. This time, however, it was promised to be a peaceful though disappointed demonstration in response to the official findings.

I would go, I had to. Being directly related to my riots research my attendance was required. It was a public order event to observe and in support of any work I find this eyes-on style offers more insights, views, knowledge and awareness than can be anticipated. But not knowing how things would turn out on the day, I noted to a friend as I made my way to North London, it was either the best or the worst idea I could have had.

This being the last in the series of thought pieces on my way to an historical treatment of the 2011 London riots, the vigil is the apt moment to open the exploration of the local Haringey and Greater London communities who identified with the personal tragedy of the Duggan family. More than just understanding them as an independent actor in the story, adding the people and the rioters also has the effect of completing, if not perfectly, the picture of the event. Looking upon this whole, if abstracted, landscape one is compelled to consider such issues as the greater meaning of the events. For me, if I step from history to policy, the most satisfying path forward leads to progress on the problems and challenges brought out by the long cycle of these events, and so the final section of this piece dovetails into my thoughts on where one might go from here.

Returning to the vigil, as it turned out, although contending with emotion and  contentious and difficult issues the event was mild, almost pleasant. Of course, as the MPS and Haringey Police must have scrambled to prepare given the short notice, to complicate matters there was also a home football match scheduled for the day. Between both events, the surrounding area was awash in hi-viz yellow. At the vigil site outside the police station I would dare say that it felt as if there were as many if not more workers, observers, police, clergy and pastors, and members of the media than demonstrators. Above all, the commitment by all present to maintain as much geniality as was possible given the context was palpable.

Being a vigil, of course, the religious component was obvious. But with respect to this as a public order event, this involvement had deeper significance. Those identified as the street pastors stood out as an intellectually inspiring and engaging image. Present not with a position on the vigil, they provided a caring and sympathetic voice and ear to attendees who might be distressed. Their sweet countenances were an unexpected though much appreciated sight. And in addition to other members of the clergy participating in the event itself, the senior chaplain to the MPS was in attendance and by my observation his presence was for the benefit of the officers on duty for the event. [1] In all, the pastoral and spiritual component had a positive influence upon the atmosphere.

The even more important image was that of the demeanour of the police. Against the chants of “No Justice, No Peace,” and others calling for an end to violence and injustice, the officers tasked with the public order function stood back and maintained a low-key and even pleasant presence. They strove quietly for the objective of facilitative, even in the face of anger towards them, and they succeeded.

In all, more than time had passed since last these groups met outside the Tottenham police station.

Thus, this event, without the sturm und drang of violent chaos but nevertheless full with the pathos and problems expressed on those turbulent August nights, provides the right vantage point from which to highlight what I have found to be important to consider about the people, lives and circumstances which fuelled the riots.

At the outset I should highlight the limitations to sourcing for this side of the story. I have sought out what there is by way of published material, and hounded as well as many of those individuals willing to talk with me. Lacking hubris, I do not claim to fully know their story. But there are impressions which have emerged from the research.

Complicating any understanding, one must accept that there is no single identification or entity which represents the affected community or all of the rioters, even as my purview is limited to London. For example, while there are shared broad or meta motivations – anger with the police, despair over dismal future prospects, an overwhelming sense of unfairness in society, the hypocrisy within the economic landscape – the proximate initiative to act on those nights was nearly uniformly independent, hyper-local, and individuated to personal experience. [2] Such heterogeneity characterizes the actors at the granular level.

With that disclaimer aside, what does become apparent is that emerging from this mix was – and remains – a shared understanding of Mark Duggan’s shooting, the immediate aftermath, the riots and the official and popular responses. The direct anger with the police and the next layer of political authority is palpable. Said one rioter on one of the Guardian/LSE’s “Reading the Riots” videos, “It was a war, and for the first time we was in control...we had the police scared.” (@9:55m) And more that remains beneath, either because it is as yet unacknowledged or is simply unspoken, is dissatisfaction with society at large for having forsaken them as well. Not just the riots, but the looting and attacks upon the city itself were seen by the participants as an act of revenge, whether for poor treatment at the hands of police or society.

Whereas the Guardian/LSE’s effort was of dispassionate outsiders looking in, Fahim Alam’s “Riots Reframed” documentary is the voice of the riot participant as creator of the narrative. Although much about the film and its contents is difficult to contend with – there is so much anger, disappointment and alienation – the fact of its creation is the embodiment of optimism. “Riots Reframed” is a work of thoughtful art and discussion, including not only voices from the community, but respected scholars and leaders (to include KCL’s own Professor Paul Gilroy.) It is in fact an opening for dialogue, as its contents and existence must signal a fundamental hope that things can improve. At the very least, what becomes quite clear is that these were not mindless, thoughtless, merely criminal events. [3] How do you do counter-radicalisation? You start by listening to and promoting efforts such as this one.

Thus, whether we can understand that side fully it still must be accepted that there was more meaning in the actions of the rioters and looters than mainstream commentary has been willing to admit. Even the “common looting.”

Moving from the nature of the group to the events themselves there are points I have consistently found compelling throughout my research. One in particular concerns the diplomatic brinksmanship which set the stage for that fateful Saturday night in front of the Tottenham Police Station. Looking back at that first night, when anger and disorder erupted out of the frustrated demonstration, one must wonder what might have been spared had the family and the police representatives been able to find sufficient common ground to retire to the station for a cup of tea while they awaited the arrival of officers of sufficient rank for the family’s peace of mind. [4] I attach the greater responsibility for this to those in positions of community leadership. They did not serve the family or community well in their recommendations for a rigid stand not to engage that evening. I am not suggesting or asserting malice in this act. Rather, my point is to highlight the risks of such brinksmanship, as this case more than demonstrates the ramifications of failure.

From this perspective it seems only reasonable to expect that community leaders should follow the ethos set out for the police in protest and public order, approaching their interactions in such events from the starting point of being a positive and productive force, of being facilitative. And in that many of them have extant relationships with the police it becomes almost a duty for them to use their “good offices” in such situations to help maintain dialogue and relations. It was the break in communications, in the relations between the police and the community that night, which was the final breaking point. And it was quite possibly unnecessary.

I make the point about this because, amidst the discourse on powerlessness in the community, on that night the Duggan family held the strongest position with respect to the police and other authorities. In that moment their satisfaction was vested with the collected interests (and hence power) of the entire community.  Power can be used to crush your opponent or raise both him and yourself. Inadvertently the former occurred, but who would not have chosen the latter? Furthermore, by correctly framing the relationships in this case the police can understand better the (potential) nature of such situations.

Another key point relates to the depths of cynicism that taint perceptions of the police on that first night. The rumour that the police had beaten a young woman was believed and spread as the rallying cry for disorder and violence. It remains an important part of the narrative in the community today. Making the entire matter very compelling, there seemed to be direct proof, a video which captured the event. However, the “girl in the video” as the spark of events must be questioned and examined with a critical eye. All evidence seems to suggest that this was not appropriately a casus belli for the outbreak of violence; in that matter it was more Gulf of Tonkin than Pearl Harbour. To begin, it is nearly impossible to see what is happening in the video – the viewer is moved more by the shouting female narrator than what is actually visible. As well, the timing is wrong: it is dark and the police are in full public order kit.[5] The disorder has thus already begun. I understand that a young female suffering police brutality has terrific cachet as a framework to justify the anger, but it is far better to render events accurately.

What should be of concern is the extent to which this story affected subsequent action. Did knowledge of this event inspire future violence? If so, if this rumour turned anger into action over the coming days, then you have the very serious problem with the public profile and reputation of policing.

Finally and most importantly the influence of community sentiment must shape understanding of the events beyond tabloid hysteria now, and should have shaped responses then. The grievances of the immediate and greater London communities of concern here cannot be dismissed. The socio-economic issues within the community, the added burdens of budget reductions and cuts to services, the brewing antipathy to how stop and search was conducted, were known to Boris Johnson and David Cameron. A strong judicial response may have been the obvious answer, but the better one was for these leaders to recognize that party affiliation notwithstanding all members of society must be able to rely upon their government. Reasonable and fair are neither signs of weakness nor do they promote future bad action. [6]

What could the political leadership have done differently at the time? I think an approach along the lines of an amnesty was in order. This path, not harsh justice was the choice of greatest benefit to all. The repercussions of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graibh are the lessons that matter here – don’t sully your own character, don’t create disaffected citizens. Boris could have pulled it off with a charming nod to the police effort – by containing the riots in the least confrontational, least aggressive manner (supported by the overall casualty statistics), the former served their public order function while setting the stage for healing and reconciliation in the aftermath. The physical damage to the city, although costly and individually heart-breaking to the victims, was the far better loss.

I take the position that this was the best policy because the unavoidable truth made clear with “Reframed” and other similar efforts is that the emotion and desires of the riots did not deserve incarceration.[7] In fact, too many of them need release from the prisons of poverty, maleducation, and un(der)-employment. Responding to the riots offered a powerful moment to act with generosity and graciousness (and no small amount of gratitude for one’s own good fortune), so contrary to expectations that it would have had the capacity to achieve much progress against these issues. Great leaders seize such moments because they recognize this potential.

If we have dealt with the past and the present, what should be considered for the future? Returning to the opening scene and last Saturday’s vigil, for its public order efforts the MPS should take note of the result. A careful reckoning of what was done will serve future public order efforts well. By my initial cursory review it is clear that their approach to the event and their demeanour went a long way to maintaining as positive an atmosphere as possible.

The Street Pastors are a fantastic idea for public order and their future use should be considered. Not just for events with a religious facet, such as a vigil, a role for them could be defined to serve profitably across the spectrum of public order activities. Protest is inspired by varying levels and forms of distress, and it seems to me that this pastoral function has much to offer. More than that, the presence of the police senior chaplain argues for the broader consideration of this resource in public order policing. Certainly, when it is your function to stand amidst crowds at various moments of anger and emotion, at times directed at you specifically, a pastoral voice could serve as an influence of equanimity. And it bears considering whether such a presence, by humanizing the police might reduce tensions in public order events. Where NATO helmets and shields are seen as elements which can put negative distance between the police and protestors, it must be equally plausible that other visual cues can have beneficial effect. Finally, it must be admitted that a Chaplain, more than anyone else, could have been the one to calm the mood and coax the Duggan family in that fateful night in August. His seniority and core function would have been difficult to reject. Especially in cases where the source of friction is PoCo relations, recourse to his “good offices” should be reviewed.

On the broader issues of social justice, how does anything move forward from this moment, how will progress be pursued? Where the Coroner’s Inquest judged the shooting to have been lawful, that the officers “honestly held belief” stood, community dismay, especially at the local level, is understandable. Nevertheless, as difficult as it clearly must be, they will have to move to the more productive stance that even when things are done correctly tragedy and the wrong outcome can still occur. From there, progress becomes possible, which is how to improve where that “honestly held belief” lands with respect to members of the public (eg, being able to know with reliability that Duggan was not the sort to resist in such a moment). What can the community do? What can the police do?

There are any number of tactical, doctrinal, strategic and policy recommendations I could make on the policing side of the issue of police and community relations. But if I understand the context, the environment, the tone of the situation correctly, no first move from the authorities will overcome the prevailing scepticism, the community’s “honestly held belief” Yes, to any community initiated overtures it will be imperative for the police will have to respond well and with timeliness. But the first and critical barrier will only fall to action and intention from within the community. Contrary to all that might seem fair or just, healing and progress on this will only come at the end of the community’s outstretched hand. Nobody can say that they want no policing, so improving the relationship between the police and those whom they serve is necessary. The community and its consent are critical elements in British policing generally, and in this instance specifically, and so any progress will come in large measure from that quarter. By their positive and constructive actions the members of the community can lead the way to the greatest change.

Why it should be their burden to go first? In my mind I am chastised by one young Londoner in the documentaries who commented that the “police are not for us.” To that I will say that it is for you to make them yours. It is time to overturn the “culture of distrust.” Mentioned above, as on that Saturday night in August, it is a matter of which side holds the power. Here too, it is the community which has the greater power in this matter. But furthermore, if this tragedy can have any meaning, its best could be to serve as a bridge to better relations between police and community so as to avoid such tragic errors in the future? More importantly, I return your attention to the vigil. The reasonable discourse on the issues between police and community opened on Tottenham High Road that day in January is an opportunity. This is a moment to act.

When you are shouting about undue police violence while standing amidst a smiling constables giving directions you have to ask whether it isn’t time to give at your own end as well.

End Notes 

[1] Commentators should stop using the “softly, softly” description – it is ignorantly snarky and derogatory for political points not substance. The calm facilitative stance is not only necessary but often proven effective.

[2] Do I really need to acknowledge that there might have been a purely criminal element? But they were not the leaders, nor the inspiration, nor even likely the majority of those present on London’s streets those nights. It is obfuscation to lay the blame for these events upon criminality – comfortable, perhaps, but not at all useful.

[3] Another documentary that I found interesting was “Perfect Storm,” at There are very many more independent documentaries about the riots, some quite compelling others less so, some searching for a truth others attempting to build a narrative. What is clear is that these events have inspired very real urges to create something by which to understand or explain events. This is an important phenomenon.

[4] MPS, Four Days in August: Strategic Review into the Disorder of August 2011 – Final Report, p. 32 discusses the events surrounding Chief Inspector Adelekan’s efforts to engage the demonstrators.

[5] MPS, Four Days in August, p. 42, “By 2045hrs all the officers were deployed in full protective kit....”

[6] Before he made his fame as the father of modern British policing, Robert Peel was responsible for the rationalisation of the criminal law which, though aimed at its muddling nature, had the effect of making it more fair and defensible. Douglas Hurd, Robert Peel: A Biography, pp. 74 ff.

[7] There were clear dividing lines, thresholds below which it could be profitably argued that emotion, not criminality, was at work.

About the Author(s)

Jill S. Russell is a military historian. Her primary area of expertise is the contemporary American armed forces and the conflicts which have shaped this history. She has worked as a defense consultant, serves as an editor of H-War, and is currently at King's College London working to finish a dissertation on the history of subsistence and logistics in American military history.