British MP Recalls Riots Nearly 3 Decades Ago

London's recent riots grew after a peaceful vigil outside Tottenham police station spiraled out of control. Twenty-six years ago, a similar riot in the area sparked a lasting debate about policing and social integration in Britain. David Lammy, a life-long resident of Tottenham and its Member of Parliament, talks to Steve Inskeep about the social and economic problems within his community.

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: Tottenham, in London.

David Lammy is a life-long resident of that area, and has served as a member of parliament since 2000.

Welcome to the program, sir.

DAVID LAMMY: Thank you. Nice to join you.

: How would you describe Tottenham?

LAMMY: Well, you know, Tottenham is a traditionally poor, inner-city neighborhood in the north of London, and it would equate with parts of your downtown areas in your major cities similar to the South Side of Chicago or, you know, Queens in New York, say.

: And racially diverse?

LAMMY: It is the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in Europe, with people speaking over 200 languages.

: I want to ask a little more broadly about what happened here. I understand that there was this incident involving the police, a tragic incident involving the police. But what do you think made that the spark for a wider disturbance?

LAMMY: Well, look. When a young, black man loses his life at the hands of the police in an area like mine, that is a major, major event, and the community has questions to ask and wants answers for sure. That then turned or escalated into some unbelievable that is now sparking riots across the country. And I think that that is linked, one, to, I'm afraid, a lack of policing. The police have not been able to move quickly to deal with these issues. And we've seen an escalation. We certainly did in Tottenham on Saturday evening, and that is the cry that we're hearing across the country.

And second, there is a situation, I think, with young people. The majority of young people, obviously, in Tottenham and other areas similar to Tottenham are totally against this violence. But there are two or 300 people in areas like mine who are very much at the margins of society who have a different value set, and I'm afraid we are seeing those young people running rampage through the country. And to see people losing their lives now as a result of this is something I never thought I'd see.

: What do you mean by a different value set?

LAMMY: Well, it's not to say that riots aren't new. I am from a generation that saw riots in the 1980s, and indeed Tottenham saw some of the most serious riots in 1985. But on that occasion, it was a pitch battle between Britain's black community and the police, and there was profound racism in the police force.

W: What we're seeing is not a battle with the police. We're seeing a battle with the neighborhood with which you're from. We're seeing the destruction of people's homes - literally, people running out of their homes in only the clothes that they are wearing and watching their homes burn to the ground.

We're seeing not retail chains, but independent shops - hairdressers, travel agents, post offices - burned to the ground. And I'm afraid there will be profound questions about what has happened with a particular constituency of young people such that their values are such that they could steal, rob and endanger life in their own neighborhood in this way. And where are their parents? What are their parents doing? Why are there young peoples on the streets? Those are the questions that we will need to ask in the days ahead.

But at this stage, we need to get a grip in Britain of our law and order situation. We need to get over this problem, and it is deeply worrying that the police are being outfoxed by these young people using Twitter and using their BlackBerry messengers to move to other areas and get there long before the police can catch up with them.

: What do you think of those who are trying to find some political meaning in these riots, suggesting that they are a protest against economic conditions, a protest against British budget cuts and that sort of thing?

LAMMY: Look, I am a black member of Parliament. I grew up poor. I grew up fatherless. I know what it is to struggle. But as my mother used to say: You can be poor, but you can still have pride. Politicians have to be really, really careful about the excuses that they are playing into this story, despite the profound, difficult economic backdrop, which I think is, of course, being accelerated by this government.

: David Lammy is a member of Parliament for the neighborhood of Tottenham, where the London riots started over the weekend. Thanks very much, sir.

LAMMY: Thank you.

: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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