Tottenham Riots: 'Do You Expect People Not to See an Opportunity?'

Firemen at work on Tottenham High Road, in north London. (Photograph: Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images)

Tottenham Riots: 'Do You Expect People Not to See an Opportunity?'

Youths in Tottenham complain of few jobs and disrespect from the police after peaceful protest leads to disorder across London

Lingering near the burnt-out shell of a betting shop on Tottenham High Road - its door ajar and the detritus of its walls on the pavement - the group of young men had little to say when asked where they were when their neighbourhood erupted into flames on Saturday night. One was "under the bed"; another was "in Yorkshire"; the third admitted he was there on the high road but insisted he "just watched".

When asked about the police, however, there were not enough words to express their contempt. "Come on, who likes the Feds? They're annoying, nagging," said one. Scrunching up his sweatshirt to hide his neck tattoo, his friend added: "You know hot food? You know when you eat it and then it hurts when you go to the toilet? That's the Feds."

Like many interviewed by the Guardian in the shell-shocked north London district , the men - aged 21 and 22 - would not give their names. But they were happy to give their version of events and claimed many people from outside Tottenham had come in and whipped up tension, transforming an intentionally peaceful protest over the death of Mark Duggan into a frenzied spate of rioting and looting. And, like others, their explanation for the rioters' motivations differed.

"It was all for the money," said the man with the neck tattoo - and he wasn't alone in casting the rioters as opportunists keen to make a profit from chaos. "We hit the jackpot! We hit the belly!" said one teenager, who tacitly admitted he had participated in Saturday's disturbances but would say little except: "The moral of the story is 'fuck the Feds'." The riot had kicked off, he said, when the police had allegedly attacked a teenage girl. When his friend admitted that the looting of local shops "wasn't right", he corrected him: "And it weren't wrong."

Such ambivalence and bravado was easy to find on the streets of Tottenham on Monday . But while many were quick to condemn the rioters and looters as thugs and thieves, others were more circumspect.

With the highest rate of unemployment in London and a population feeling the squeeze from the downturn and cuts, some locals appealed for understanding. Duggan's death, they said, had unleashed a tidal wave of anger. "This has been building up for a long time," said Leon, who refused to give his surname and said he "saw" a lot of what happened on Saturday night.

Yes, he said, there had been a large element of opportunism behind the looting: "This is an area with no opportunity for employment so do you expect people not to see an opportunity?" But, more than anything, it was about the police and politics. Young black people felt they were treated differently by the police, being stopped and searched on a "constant" basis. And, he added, he couldn't find a job: "Even if you do, it's on the minimum wage."

A friend of his, who gave his name as Rozay - the name emblazoned into the side of his neck - agreed. He was from Tottenham, he said, and had been part of a gang - but had left to start a new life for himself and his family.

He was not surprised by what had happened. "Tottenham is poverty. I'm surprised we ever got a football stadium," he said. "The streets of London are not happy. We don't agree with burning buildings but the police do treat young black people with shocking disrespect ... labelling us like we're nothing."

Surveying the wreckage of Tottenham Hale retail park, where shattered glass littered some pavements and wooden boards were covering blown-out windows in shops such as Orange, Argos and PC World, Osagyefo Tongogara insisted "the problem is not the young people". The 68-year-old added: "The underlying cause of this is the socioeconomic climate and police oppression."

For the victims of the weekend's violence, however - which revived memories of the infamous Broadwater Farm riots of 1985 - it could be hard to feel sympathy for the people who burned down or broke into their shops and - in some cases - assaulted them.

A videographer, Ben Stockman, 32, was attacked outside his house and needed 10 stitches after trying to take pictures of the two smashed up police cars that were later set alight. Between six and 10 men had run at him in an attempt to get inside his house and, after two minutes of trying to hold the door shut, he was attacked by one of them.

"He immediately picked up a bottle and started hitting me on the head with it, and other people did as well, as hard as they possibly could. It felt like a hammer to my head. It must have got to 20 or 30 strikes and I managed to make it out of the door," he said.

"They kept hitting and hitting me. I was in my front yard screaming for help. My camera was still on, though you can't really see anything, you can hear me wailing 'sorry' and screaming 'help'." The youths eventually ran off, he said. "I knew when I was being attacked there were no police in sight that were going to be able to help. There was no ambulance that was going to come and get me. I was just completely on my own."

Seyfullah Senmez, too, whose grocery shop on Tottenham High Road was broken into and partially pillaged, felt a similar sense of helplessness. "I was asking myself: how am I going to protect myself because the police couldn't do anything?". The looters took bottles of wine and threw a watermelon in his face.

Although shaken, Turkish-born Senmez has reason to believe in his community. "Those weren't Tottenham people. They were from a different area. I didn't recognise them. I think they've done very bad things to Tottenham," he said.

Many witnesses agreed. One teenager, who refused to give his name or age, said: "I've seen so many people that I've never seen before. I think there was some people who just came to take the opportunity."

It was a similar story in Enfield, where locals were insistent that the looters, who raided many stores including a jeweller, a chemist and several chain stores, were largely from the fringes of the borough or further afield.

They were equally clear that the trouble, or at least the preparations for it, was planned and premeditated.

Many teenagers showed off the same BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) alert passed round on Sunday, telling people to meet at Enfield's train station at 4pm.

"Everyone I know got that BBM. I knew what was going to happen here that morning," said Alice, 17, who lives close to the town centre. "It told you to pass it to all your contacts."

Her friend, Alixe, also 17, did what the message asked. "There was a whole load of people at the station from 4pm, waiting round for a couple of hours. People were driving past slowly to check it out - you could tell they knew what was going on."

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