In London's riot-torn neighborhoods, Olympics buzz feels far away

A year after Britain's worst rioting in decades, scars remain in London's Tottenham district. Many young people in cities say that rioting could break out again as poor conditions persist, says poll.

Paul Hackett/Reuters/File
Britain's Prince Charles (7th l.) and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (6th l.) look on as they are entertained by dancers at MENCAP Community Centre, Tottenham, north London, July 25.

The Olympics fever gripping crowds just a few short miles away is weak in the north London district of Tottenham, the starting point for riots that last year saw the area become a battleground at the outset of Britain's worst civil disorder for decades.

While many of the shops that were looted or burned have been reopened, scars remain on the main artery, the Tottenham High Road, where work to resurrect a torched supermarket continues behind boarding with a banner pledging: “We are never far away – we'll be back soon.”

Worries for the future are also fueled by soaring youth unemployment and continuing tensions surrounding the investigation into the spark for the rioting, the police shooting of a man from Tottenham’s black community. Even as Olympic medals were being won in recent days, rioters who rampaged across west London were being being given some of the harshest sentences for crimes committed during last August's disorder.

It's against this backdrop that commentators and political figures like London's Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson, have talked up what they see as the potential of the Olympics to make a repeat of the riots less likely, while others warn of potentially perfect conditions for new riots as Londoners in deprived areas go back to harsh local realities amid a post-Olympic letdown.

“We are still in the desert here, with or without the Olympics,” says Niche Mpala Mufwankolo, owner of the Pride of Tottenham, a bar on the High Road where a small television in one corner is showing the medal-winning performance of one of Britain's dressage riders at Greenwich Park, a plush royal park used as a venue for equestrian events.

“The Aldi [a cut-price shopping chain] is still being rebuilt," he says, "and our post office is not where it used to be because it was also burned down. That was there for years, so people cannot just forget in one year."

He asks: “If the government wanted to use the Olympics to help this area then why couldn't they have organized some kind of events to take place here?”

Speaking this week on BBC Radio 4, Mayor Johnson meanwhile gave a contrasting take on what he said was the need to deal with a culture of "easy gratification and entitlement.

"I think, actually, the Olympics – with this very, very clear message about effort and achievement and what it takes to connect the two – could not come at a better time for a country that is making a difficult psychological adjustment to a new world without easy credit, where life is, I'm afraid, considerably tougher than it was before the crunch," he stated.

In Tottenham, traditionally a solidly Labour-voting area where Johnson’s party faces an uphill struggle, Conservative activist David Allen says he hopes that the massive regeneration of the area around the Olympic Park in east London will encourage investors to seriously consider other marginalized areas.

“It’s also good for young black people here to see a lot of black faces on television getting cheered and so hopefully it will be good for that community, by putting black people center stage,” he adds.

But a survey last week found that more than 1 in 4 young people believe that the riots seen last summer could be repeated this year.

The July poll of 1,008 older children and teenagers living in cities found that many youngsters say boredom, copycat behavior, peer pressure, jealousy, and fears about the future caused last year's scenes of disorder and violence, and that little has changed. A total of 13.8 percent thought that the actions of the police had led to young people rioting.

Faiza Shaheen, a researcher on economic inequality for a left-leaning British think tank, the New Economics Foundation, said such findings were a reminder of underlying issues that still needed to be addressed.

“In many of the areas where the riots happened, youth unemployment is now even higher than it was a year ago, and of course there are still those problems arising from public-sector cuts,” says Ms. Shaheen, who welcomes the fact that the government is coming under pressure to reconsider cuts in sports funding as sports centers around the country find themselves inundated with requests to use facilities.

“Potentially, the Olympics make it less likely in the short term that there will be repeat of the riots," she says, "but in the medium to long term, it is a different situation, especially given the fact that we know from games elsewhere that Olympics tend to have a halo effect that eventually goes away."

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