London’s Burning! (And History’s Repeating Itself)

Dana Goblaskas

When I first heard about the riots that broke out in London’s Tottenham neighborhood on Saturday, I couldn’t help thinking that the situation sounded a little familiar. It all began peacefully as people protested the death of a young man at the hands of local police, and allegedly the chaos erupted after a 16-year-old girl threw a rock at police officers. That proved to be the spark that lit three days’ worth (so far) of riots all over London, as well as in Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, and Manchester.

The niggling thought that the riots reminded me of something bounced around in my brain for a few hours until it hit me—the Notting Hill Carnival riot of 1976. On August 30th of that year, the annual West Indian carnival descended into violence as youths threw bricks and rocks at police and set cars afire. I had heard about it from several interviews with The Clash’s front man Joe Strummer, who sang about the effect the riot had on him in the song, “White Riot.”

Strummer, along with Clash bassist Paul Simonon and manager Bernie Rhodes, was at the carnival when the riot broke out. As Strummer remembered in an interview in 1999, “Paul, Bernie and I [saw] this conga-line of policemen coming through the crowd. . . . Someone threw a brick at them, then another, [then] all hell broke loose.” (quote from The Complete Clash [2003] by Keith Topping) According to the BBC, the trouble started when police tried to arrest a pickpocket and “several black youths came to the pickpocket’s aid.” Relations between the police and London’s black community had been unstable all summer, and the Carnival ended up being the tipping point.

Fast-forward 35 years to the present. The Metropolitan Police, as part of Operation Trident—a unit dedicated to investigating gun crime in London’s black communities—have supposedly been increasing the number of stop-searches made on members of the community. As a result, suspicion of and resentment for police is bubbling under the surface. Unemployment rates in Tottenham are double the national average, and the neighborhood has one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the country. Then on August 4th, 29-year-old Mark Duggan was shot and killed by police during an attempted arrest. That lit the tinderbox.

Both the riots of 1976 and 2011 were prefaced by stark economic climates (as Strummer growled in “White Riot:” “All the power in the hands of the people rich enough to buy it”), high unemployment, and tense race relations. All it took each time was one moment of perceived injustice for the violence to erupt. Though it feels cliché to say it, these riots happening in London are a perfect example of history repeating itself. But whereas the Notting Hill riot lasted only one day, the current chaos in London has been going on for three, and has spread to other cities.

If people continue refusing to recognize what can happen if we don’t learn from history, how bad will the riots be a few decades down the road?