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Broadwater Farm Riots 1985
Broadwater Farm - 20 Years On
Kurt Barling, BBC London’s Special Correspondent, looks back on the myth and reality of a night of rioting that the changed the face of London policing
The chain of events set in train would end in the murder of a community beat officer PC Keith Blakelock. It culminated in two deaths that would change the face of modern policing and stigmatise Broadwater Farm for a generation.
The following weeks and months were a time of deep trauma in the Black community in Tottenham as the rage of the police turned on the very people who might have helped them solve the crime.
Shortly before his release from prison in 2003 I visited Winston Silcott in prison. He was still seen as the “monster” of Broadwater Farm captured by the lurid photograph released to the press by the police on his arrest. Neither he nor the Farm had completely overcome the reputation that the riots had bestowed upon them.
Kurt Barling with Pc Tim Allpress
On his release we agreed that I’d make a film about the riots and how they came about. On the day of his release myself and two of his closest friends including Stafford Scott went to fetch him. The press were officially told of his release two days later and all hell broke loose. The tabloid newspapers laid siege to his parents’ house and it seemed as if the nightmare they’d endured all those years before would be re-visited.
There was a real concern on the Broadwater Farm estate that all the good things that had happened on the estate in the 1990s would be overlooked once Winston returned to Tottenham. I’m happy to report that broadly speaking this has not been the case.
Built in 1976 by architects who had more vision than common sense, it soon deteriorated into a crime zone with police no go areas and poor investment by a local authority starved of funding for social housing by central government.
Despite the local borough commander at the time feeling it was still the haunt of thieves, by early 1985 a series of initiatives had started to get the Farm noticed again for its constructive work in nurturing youth development. Even Princess Diana decided she wanted to pay it a visit, which she did to the delight of most of the families on the estate (white and black) in February that year.
One of the people at that day of celebration and who is still a youth development worker at the farm is a man who has used football as a way to nurture discipline, purpose and life skills. Clasford Stirling believes the riots put the estate back several years and it bestowed on it a reputation which to this day has not been entirely eradicated.
Despite all this Broadwater Farm has had the best part of £33 million pounds spent on it over the past decade and this has transformed the architecture and feel of the estate. It got rid of sixties utopian walkways which had become a policing joke. This forced everyone back to ground level to get around. A concierge system means that the street starts at the door to the block rather than the doors to the flats. Burglaries are now virtually unheard of on the estate.
Extensive landscaping has given the whole place an airier feel. Perhaps most significantly all the residents themselves have been involved in prioritising the changes.
And it’s amongst the residents themselves that some of the most significant adjustments have taken place. It is now Ghanaians and Turkish Kurds who are in the majority and not Afro-Caribbeans.
I don’t get the sense that the team that helps run the estate are at all complacent. They recognise this can still be a challenging place to live. Objectively speaking, though, the Farm is probably one of the safest places to live in that part of North London the transformation is pretty much complete.
There is possibly no better proof of this than Broadwater Farm Primary School which I visited last week. It has improving standards and Ofsted described it as having a caring school environment. Its Head Stephen Spooner grew up on the estate and even went to school with Mark Braithwaite, one of the men wrongly convicted of PC Blakelock’s murder.
The Farm also made a huge stride this summer in exorcising the ghosts of the riots in the shape of a summer programme for local young men. The scheme was supported by the local police and Winston Silcott helped deliver a message of diversion to young men who are angry and frustrated about their circumstances and inclined to stray beyond the law. There was some opposition to this cooperation, particularly from some sections of the tabloid press.
Kurt with Stephen Spooner
The brutal reality though is that Silcott has perhaps the strongest, most sobering and authentic voice of the “where I went, you too could go” variety. He has told me he feels the least he can now do in Tottenham is divert vulnerable young people from a path of self-destruction. I doubt there are many individuals better qualified to know about such things.
Looking back on the riots it seems to me that Broadwater Farm was a parable of what 1980s Britain had seemingly become. A society where many had turned their backs on deep seated social deprivation and there was widespread official denial about police racism.
The Met learned many lessons from the Farm. Community policing got its first outing in the wake of the riots although the idea that is was a “service” rather than a “force” took a little longer to take hold. And that one night of mayhem that I witnessed twenty years ago, left a stigma that’s been hard for some police officers (although not the local ones) to cast off.
Negotiations are currently underway with Transport for London so that a bus service might soon run once again through the Farm. The symbolism of that departure needs no explanation. Perhaps then people from the outside will literally start to see it for what it is rather than what it is supposed to be.
There is one note of abiding sadness and injustice which no amount of physical transformation can completely remove. Two people died twenty years ago. No-one was ever held accountable for Cynthia Jarrett’s death and no-one has ever been successfully prosecuted for either the murder of PC Keith Blakelock or the attempted murder of PC Richard Coombes.
Perhaps the best chance of ever solving these cases was lost when the police treated many Tottenham residents as suspects rather than potential witnesses in the wake of the riots. It could also be that those who know who did it, can only know who did it, because they were a party to it. Admitting knowledge would also be a confession of guilt.
last updated: 15/05/2008 at 14:24