British violence brings a first: use of lethal arms by rioters

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Tottenham, a suburb in north London, has become the latest flash point in a succession of urban riots in Britain. These latest riots carry increasingly disturbing ramifications.

The violence Sunday night, triggered once more by police action, was the most intense experienced since rioting first began last month in the Handsworth district of Birmingham.

The escalation in the violence also means an escalation in the methods used on both sides.

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The stabbing murder of a police officer marks the first fatality of a policeman in a riot in mainland Britain.

For the first time, too, a gun was produced during the riots. A sawed-off shotgun was fired, injuring two policemen and three journalists.

The media have now become almost as much a provocation in these tense communities as the police.

To carry a press camera or a television camera into a riot area now is an invitation to have it snatched and smashed. Reporters are also having their notebooks torn from their hands.

More than 200 people, most of them policemen, were taken to the hospital in the aftermath of the Tottenham riot which began after a black woman, Cynthia Jarrett, had a heart attack and died following a police search of her home.

Hundreds in the community, most of them black, but not exclusively so, immediately suspected police harassment -- if not brutality -- in the incident and went on a rampage.

The community reaction was an echo of last month's Brixton riot in which police accidentally shot and injured another black woman, Sherry Groce, while conducting a house search.

Ironically, such police actions were intended to reduce the risk of confrontations. This was done by reducing the number of random but clearly visible stop-and-search measures on the streets, and concentrating instead on a strategy in which the police would try to surprise targeted criminals. In both Brixton and Tottenham, the strategy is cited as the immediate cause for the outbreaks of trouble that followed.

The police are now in the unenviable position of having in each case ignited the fuse in the riots of Handsworth in Birmingham, Brixton in south London, Toxteth in Liverpool, and now Tottenham in north London. The streets of Tottenham were quiet during the day on Monday.

The Tottenham riot will increase the clamor for an inquiry into community policing because of a growing erosion in black confidence in British police. There is genuine concern that recent troubles have undone much of the good work put in by both policemen and community representatives.

In some cases hostile militants, opposed to any kind of community-police accommodation, have ruthlessly tried to destroy community-relations meetings.

The level of violence has also forced police to take much tougher action against inner-city rioting.

Four years ago, when youths pelted police in Brixton, police took cover behind trash-can lids.

This year, they sheltered behind large police shields, but their vulnerability was underscored Sunday night when the sawed-off shotgun tore a gaping hole through one riot shield.

As an indication of the seriousness of unrest in British inner cities, police went into Tottenham for the first time since the riots began with riot guns.

Continuing violence is causing agitation among government critics who challenge the assumption that vigorous policing in areas hit by arson and looting is the answer to the lawlessness.

Unless the problems of unemployment and social deprivation are examined, they argue, Britons will find themselves a year from now debating possible further riots without getting down to the underlying causes.

The police, meanwhile, are showing increasing signs of frustration.

With reinforcements having to be called in every time a community explodes, police officers are calling for increased manpower.

The government has turned down the suggestion saying it won't allocate any further expenditures because the police won substantial pay increases earlier this year.

If police manpower is not boosted it will mean pulling more policemen off the beat and placing them on riot duty.

To community officials, this would be doubly unfortunate because the policeman on the beat is the one who has done the most to build bridges to the community.

Some policemen are also responding with rising irritation to the so called unemployment syndrome as the explanation for urban rioting.

A senior police officer at New Scotland Yard points out that as many as half of those arrested in the aftermath of last month's Brixton riots had jobs.

Some police are so cynical about black youths that they express serious doubt that such youths would accept jobs even if they were presented to them.

``You go down to the Job Center and tell me why jobs are going begging down there when there is supposed to be so much unemployment in this area,'' said a senior police officer to this reporter in the streets of Handsworth, Birmingham recently.

Surveys have shown, however, that blacks feel that job opportunities are weighted against them.

In a recent study job applications were simulated for three prospective employees: one white, one Asian, and one black.

Although each were given comparable qualifications, the black applicant was consistently shown to be the least favored.

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