Photography and words by Zarina Holmes
The Guardian published a report of potential unrest in Tottenham five days before Mark Duggan was shot by the Metropolitan Police, one week before the riots broke out. Why didn’t anyone listen? Zarina Holmes visits Tottenham High Road to find out.
Parents and children watching the traces of destruction at a local supermarket after the riot in Tottenham. Photo © Zarina Holmes / Sojournposse
London, UK. Tottenham High Road is not a particularly beautiful place. If you walk half a mile up the road from Seven Sisters tube station, you will see supermarkets, local grocers, hairdressing salons and cheap clothes shops. Hardly any sign of middle class eateries such as Pret A Manger or Eat, or even something as working class as MacDonald’s. They closed down MacDonald’s to replace it with a betting shop. There is nothing that you can call special there.
Tottenham, where the August riot first broke out, sits on the periphery of Zone 2 and Zone 3. It is not close enough to the City to be included in the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme. The working class residents are not as dynamic as the people in Brixton, or boho-chic as like those in Notting Hill, or hipster like those in Hackney. It’s like a scene from Little Britain, without the humour.
On Monday 8 August 2011, like many Londoners, I was barely three miles away from the arsons and lootings that broke out in Clapham Junction, Fulham, Chelsea, Brixton and Notting Hill. Londoners have witnessed the worst and also the best out of their neighbours during this period.
Yesterday, I visited Tottenham with Steven Lee, a photographer colleague and founder of ExploreNation.net. He suggested that we visit Tottenham a week after the riots. He said: “I couldn’t sleep. I feel that I have to see it myself.”
Other journalist friends also shared the same feeling. During the unrest, we were confined to our homes, feeling powerless as we witnessed the events unfolded on Twitter, on the news websites and on television. The night after the riots, I went to Dalston with Vipul Bhatti, a finance journalist who is also artistic director of the social art movement, London Love Is.
Bhatti said: “We can’t just sit here and read inaccurate reports. We must go to the streets and talk to the people. That’s our purpose as journalists and storytellers.”
Seeing the Tottenham High Road, it is understandable why the community is ignored. There is a sense of dejection and lack of pride there. High street businesses struggle to thrive with constant petty thefts. The long history of a difficult relationship with the Metropolitan police doesn’t help. Until the recent London riots that started here last Monday, no one really took notice of the town.
One colleague in broadcasting pointed out that it’s probably easier to deploy a team of reporters to Libya, rather than to report on the street, “because who wants to camp out in Tottenham.”
Too many betting shops for those with “nothing to do”
Government buildings, banks, betting shops and legal services were targeted by rioters. Photo © Zarina Holmes / Sojournposse
The alternative for local youths who have “nothing to do” are the many betting shops that dotted along the road, all the way up to the local Job Centre. There are, were, probably six or seven of them. The Haringey Council’s Youth Offending Service (YOS) is, or should I say, was, sandwiched between two betting shops – Betfred and Ladbrokes. They have been smashed or torched down, like all others we saw.
Opposite this youth centre is a bus stop. This was where a double-decker bus was set on fire. That image of the burning bus has come to symbolised the London riots. The tarmac beneath it had melted. The heat from the bus was so intense that it had cracked the glass windows of The Ship pub across the road.
This was pointed out to me by a passer-by in a shell suit. “Look, the pub’s got no windows.” He stuck his hand inside so I can take a photo. Inside, a few workmen measured the window frames.
It was reported that 49 fires were started by rioters that night.
As I snapped away, a middle-aged black woman walked past. Without stopping or even looking at me, she said: “It’s further up the road.” Indeed the ground zero was further up the road.
The post office was a handsome four-storey building with residential flats above it. Now it is burnt to the ground. A Scrubb digger ripped through the condemned building. I could see fridges and tiled kitchen walls inside. People used to live there.
I asked an engineer at the site when the reconstruction will be complete. He said: “We are not reconstructing this, love. We are tearing the whole thing down, even the flats next to it. The foundation is not stable anymore. It’s not safe.”
Steven and I walked on. We met John, a Malaysian-born resident who owns a glasses shop. According to him, the riot started because the police didn’t address the protestors outside the station with respect. He said: “They should have invited them in for a proper chat, instead of leaving the disgruntled crowd on the pavement.”
“Luckily we are safe from the fire because the wall is fire retardant. Different groups did the riots and lootings afterwards. First, the angry mob set the post office on fire. Then the gangs took advantage of the situation and started looting the jewellery shop next door.”
He added: “I have been here for 20 years. The racial tensions and bad relationship with the police have been going on for generations. It’s pretty sad.”
Mark Duggan shooting was “unnecessary”
Formerly Tottenham High Road post office. A jewellery shop next to it was looted and set on fire. Photo © Zarina Holmes / Sojournposse
Finally we reached the Job Centre, which is opposite the Housing Benefit building. Both buildings are boarded up, with traces of fire damage. For a good few minutes Steven and I were speechless. We continued photographing in silence.
A handsome man approached me. He was white, well-dressed and holding a copy of Financial Times. He said his name was Darren. He asked me: “You don’t suppose to know where I should sign on now, do you?”
I said I have no idea. He laughed: “I am unemployed. I am supposed to sign on today, but the Job Centre is now closed down.” Or rather, burnt down. “I’m not sure what to do now.”
Then he added: “You know, Mark Duggan was not as bad as they make out to be. I don’t know him personally, but my friends knew him. The shooting was really unnecessary.”
So that was pretty much what the locals think. But that doesn’t justify the opportunistic lootings and mindless destructions that followed, and the deaths of five people during the riots that spread throughout England.
I visited Dalston, Notting Hill, Trafalgar Square, Parliament Square and Tottenham, to know the story behind the riots. Everyone was approachable. Everyone was eager to share their stories. Everyone wanted to be heard. Everyone wanted to explain themselves. Perhaps this is what we haven’t been doing enough lately.
Zarina Holmes is the founder of Sojournposse Purpose, a storytelling project for Corporate Social Responsibility and Community Interest companies.