Why Tottenham Is Burning

The MP at the epicenter of the UK riots

In 2004, I spent a summer working as an intern for David Lammy, the Member of Parliament for Tottenham, a safe Labour seat in North London that also happens to be both the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in Europe and the site of the first of the riots that plagued Britain’s cities this August. Lammy was then considered a rising star in British politics—he was young (he won his first parliamentary election in 2000, at age twenty-seven), black, and a loyal disciple of Tony Blair (some of the papers called him the “black Blair”). By the time I worked for Lammy, he had become a low-ranking minister in the government.

As Barack Obama began his rise to national prominence, much ink was spilled comparing the two men, who know each other a bit. Both went to Harvard Law School, both were the sons of single moms, both were young and black and politicians. Last week, when asked to describe Tottenham on NPR, Lammy’s first comparison was very Obama-esque: he said his hometown was like Chicago’s South Side.

British politics, however, does not offer quite the same opportunities for ambitious young black politicians that American politics does. Gordon Brown (who had kept Lammy in government despite his reputation as a Blairite) lost to the Conservatives last May. Lammy subsequently turned down a chance for a spot in Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet, became a lowly backbench opposition MP, and seemed destined to fade into obscurity—at least until Labour wins another election.

That was not to be. On August 4, police in Tottenham, Lammy’s district, stopped a cab carrying Mark Duggan, a twenty-nine-year-old black man, and tried to arrest him on suspicion that he was planning a murder. It’s unclear what exactly happened next, but Duggan ended up dead, felled by police bullets. At least one witness claimed Duggan had been shot while restrained on the ground, a la Oscar Grant, the Oakland man who was killed by a transit cop who claimed he thought he was firing his taser, not his pistol. Whatever the truth of the matter—and multiple investigations are ongoing—Duggan’s death sparked a protest two days later. That protest devolved into rioting, which subsequently spread throughout Britain, leading to hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage, hundreds of arrests, and several more deaths. Lammy—who not only represented Tottenham, but was born there as well—was dragged into the media spotlight.

Lammy, who has close-cropped hair and wears glasses and sharp shirts with the top buttons undone (Obama-style), is always a whirlwind of activity, but even he was forced to pick up the pace when the riots started. His message was an expert mix of condemnation (for the looting and violence), calm, and confidence. “The media will have no problem recording the violence and discord,” Lammy wrote in the Daily Mirror. “But for every person on camera throwing stones there will be 1,000 others off camera rebuilding what has been destroyed.” It’s a nice sentiment, and Lammy, who personally witnessed another round of riots in Tottenham as a teenager in 1985, speaks with some authority on the matter. But Lammy’s Mirror op-ed, which focused on how to move forward in the wake of the chaos, didn’t really answer the question on everyone’s mind: why did this happen in the first place? An interview Lammy gave to NPR’s Morning Edition offered some answers. “Well, look,” Lammy told NPR, "when a young black man loses his life at the hands of the police in an area like mine, that is a major major event and the community has questions to ask and wants answers for sure.” But Duggan’s death wasn’t enough on its own to cause the riots—young black men are often killed by the police, and every death does not lead to rioting.

Some liberals point to the Conservative government’s austerity measures as one factor that could have provoked the rioters. But Lammy doesn’t take that seriously. In a speech to Parliament on August 11, he declined to blame the Conservative government’s austerity measures, and instead pointed to values:

These riots cannot be explained away simply by poverty or cuts to public services. That the vast majority of young men from poor areas did not take part in the violence is proof of that. Many young men showed restraint and respect for others because they have grown up with social boundaries and a moral code. They have been taught how to delay gratification. To empathise with others rather than terrorise them.

Values aren’t sufficient explanation, either. The idea that crime and violence stem from a lack of respect for normal social bounderies is almost a tautology. It’s true that some young men in Tottenham have have not “been taught how to delay gratification.” But most days, even those young men don’t burn down buildings and loot storefronts.

Sometimes the most obvious explanation is also the correct one. The real problem in Tottenham was fairly simple. “The police have not been able to move quickly to deal with these issues, and [there was] an escalation in Tottenham on Saturday evening,” Lammy told NPR. “It is deeply worrying that the police are being outfoxed by these young people using Twitter, and using their BlackBerry Messaging to move to other areas and get to them far before police can catch up to them.” Lammy expanded on this point when I later asked him for a comment on the riots.

“The truth about Saturday evening [August 6] was that Tottenham was left to burn. The Police were too slow, too hands off, meaning a set of small scale skirmishes outside at 7pm turned into a full scale riot by 9pm. Questions have to be answered -- there are people who have been made homeless because they were effectively abandoned by the Police. That is why I have asked for a full, independent inquiry into the decisions made on the Saturday evening.”

Riots spread because as more people join a riot, the cost of rioting (i.e., your chance of being caught) tends to decrease. The Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has argued convincingly that rioting, at least in a democracy, can generally be explained by police failures and can almost always be prevented by “light penalties widely applied and serious penalties applied to a few.” As the blogger Matt Yglesias has written, “the fact that riots also often originate in sports fans’ response to game outcomes should make us think that the real issue here is the existence of a crowd of people in the streets.” Sufficient police presence—and the promise of minor penalties for minor misbehavior—can prevent peaceful crowds from descending into chaos.

It’s tempting for liberals to point to broader social ills as the cause or justification for rioting. That’s a mistake. Liberalism is about peaceful, nonviolent change, brought about through politics, not burning down buildings and looting stores. Thoughtful liberals who are worried about the rioting in the UK should follow Lammy’s example: condemn the violence and the looting, call for answers about Duggan’s death, emphasize that social and economic justice have to go hand-in-hand with a moral code, and remember that a few more cops in the street—well-trained, social-media savvy, and not too eager to dish out harsh punishments—would have probably stopped all this from happening in the first place.


Photo: Andy Armstrong

This article was updated on August 17.

Related: Revenge of the Neets, by Simon Radford

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About the Author

Nick Baumann is the news editor for Mother Jones.