From riots to vigil: The community, the police and Mark Duggan’s legacy

By Jill Russell


January 11th’s vigil in Tottenham, a response to the findings in the Coroner’s Inquest that the shooting of Mark Duggan was lawful, was promised to be a peaceful though disappointed demonstration in response to the official findings.

I would go. 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. Being directly related to my riots research my attendance was imperative. 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 the last in the series of thought pieces on my way to a historical treatment of the 2011 London riots, I have chosen the vigil as the moment to open the piece whose focus is the local Haringey and Greater London communities which identified with the personal tragedy of the Duggan family. More than an understanding of them as an independent subject 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 a complete, if abstracted, landscape one is compelled to consider such issues as the greater meaning of the events. For me, the most satisfying path forward leads to better policies and approaches, and so the final section of this piece dovetails into my thoughts on those.

As it turned out, returning to the vigil, although confronting contentious and difficult issues the event was mild, almost pleasant. Of course, as the Metropolitan Police Service (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, there was palpable in the atmosphere a commitment by all present to maintain as much geniality as was possible given the context.

Those identified as the street pastors stood out as an intellectually inspiring and engaging image. There not with a position on the vigil, it seemed their purpose was to provide a caring and sympathetic voice and ear to attendees who might be distressed. Their sweet countenances were an unexpected though much appreciated sight. In addition to other members of the clergy participating in the event itself, the senior chaplain to the MPS, the Reverend Jonathan Osborne, was there and by my observation his presence seemed to be for the police themselves. In all, the spiritual component had a positive influence upon the atmosphere.

A similarly important image was the demeanour of the police. Against the chants of “No Justice, No Peace” and those calling for an end to violence and injustice, the officers tasked with the public order function stood back and maintained a low-key presence. They strove quietly for the objective of facilitative, even in the face of anger towards them, and they succeeded. [1]

In all, it was a much more than simply the passage of time since when last these groups assembled outside the Tottenham police station.

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

At the outset I should point out the certain 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 the this side of the 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 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 and hyper-local. [2] Such heterogeneity characterizes the actors at the granular level.

What does become apparent is that emerging from this mix was – and remains – a shared understanding of the Mark Duggan shooting, the immediate aftermath, the riots and the response. 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) But more, beneath, either because it is as yet unacknowledged or remains simply unspoken, is dissatisfaction with society at large for having forsaken them as well. The riots 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 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]

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. The first concerns the diplomatic brinksmanship that occurred that fateful Saturday night in front of the Tottenham Police Station. On 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 enough 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 responsibility for this to those in a community leadership position. 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 I have to believe that community leaders should follow the ethos set out for the police in public order, approaching their interactions in such events from the starting point of being a positive and productive force, of facilitation. 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.

I make the point about this because, amidst the discourse on powerlessness in the community, it was on that night the Duggan family who held the strongest position. In that moment their satisfaction was vested with the interests (and hence power) of the entire community.  Power can be used to crush your opponent or raise up all. 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. 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 riots; 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.

Finally and most importantly the influence of community sentiment must shape understanding and responses. The grievances of the immediate and greater London communities of concern here cannot be dismissed. The 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 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 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, less aggressive approach (supported by the overall casualty statistics), the former served their public order function while setting the stage for healing and reconciliation in the aftermath.

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, so contrary to expectations that it would have had the capacity to achieve much progress against the 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. Nevertheless, even an initial cursory review makes clear that their approach to the event and demeanour went a long way to maintaining as pleasant 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, this role could serve profitably across a much broader spectrum of public order activities. Protest is inspired by varying levels and forms of distress, and it seems to me that the pastoral function could serve quite well. More than that, the presence of the MPS senior chaplain suggests this resource has potential value for the police themselves in public order events. 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 protesters, it must be equally plausible that other visual cues can have beneficial effect.

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 stands, community dismay, especially locally, 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, the path forward is clearer, which is how to improve where that ‘honestly held belief’ lands with respect to members of the public (e.g., 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 scepticism. 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.

Some – OK, many – will decry this as unfair and question 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 first fatal night, it is a matter of which side holds the power. Here as well, it is the community which has the greater power in this matter. But furthermore, if this tragedy can have any meaning, wouldn’t its best be to serve as a bridge to a better state of 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 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.


Jill S. Russel is a regular contributor to Strife, Kings of War and Small Wars. She is currently doctoral candidate at King’s College London looking at military history.


[1] Commentators should stop using the ‘softly, softly’ description – it is snarky and derogatory of a stance that is not only necessary but often proven effective stance.
[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 this upon criminality – comfortable, perhaps, but not at all useful.
[3] Another documentary that I found interesting was ‘Perfect Storm’ to be found at There are very many 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 consider the events and create something by which to understand or explain it. It is clearly 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 taht emotion, not criminality, was at work.

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