Byline: MIKE KELLY
LATE on September 6, 1991, a stolen high performance car careered down the Coast Road reaching speeds of 125mph. Inside were two car thieves, Colin Atkins, 21, and Dale Robson, 17, with the police in hot pursuit. What happened next - or rather what was believed to have happened next - sparked a riot which saw the Meadow Well estate in North Shields turned into a no-go area and the local community ripped apart. As it left the Coast Road, the driver of the stolen vehicle lost control, smashed into a lamppost and burst into flames. The two men inside were burned to death.
When news of the tragedy reached the Meadow Well, the story soon spread that they had been forced off the road by the police car pursuing them. The police have always claimed they were travelling half a mile behind.
Fast forward 20 years to Tottenham in London. Mark Duggan, 29, a suspected criminal is stopped by police while travelling in a taxi and is shot twice. Pronounced dead at the scene, it was initially claimed he had fired first.
Family and friends staged a peaceful march to the local police station for answers, but when none were forthcoming tensions rose and riots erupted. It was later revealed Mr Duggan had not fired at police.
As writer and broadcaster Beatrix Campbell, who wrote an acclaimed book about the 1991 riots, said: "The trigger of the riots on Tyneside was incredibly similar to Tottenham. The police were swift to deny they had been inappropriate or hostile in their treatment." In 1991, relations between the police and sections of the Meadow Well were strained to breaking point. By the force's own admission, they had "lost control" of it. In the weeks leading up to the riots there were frequent arson attacks and disorder. A local police officer had his car trashed and his home attacked, showing the contempt for authority which was the reason why Northumbria police's version of events surrounding the Coast Road crash was not believed. Within hours of the crash, a furious mob of local residents went on the rampage, looting shops and setting fire to buildings, including a youth centre, a fish and chip shop and an electricity sub-station, causing millions of pounds worth of damage. Police and fire crews who attended the scene were pelted with bricks. It was estimated that, at its height, 400 people were involved. Some 37 people were arrested, including one who was jailed for four-and-a-half years.
The protests spread to the west end of Newcastle, the Armstrong Road Post Office in Scotswood being burned to the ground in a further three nights of rioting. In the wake of the riots on Tyneside, as well as those in Cardiff and Oxford which occurred in the same year, Ms Campbell headed to the affected areas to find out why they had happened and "interviewed everybody I could get my hands on". They ranged from the victims of the riots, the rioters themselves, police, social services and local politicians. The result was Goliath, Britain's Dangerous Places, which argued that unemployment produced the riots in British cities in 1991 not as a response to poverty, but because it stranded man in the domestic world traditionally associated with women. Ms Campbell argued that young men brought up in an age of "macho propaganda" took over the streets because they had nothing else to do.
Ram raiding and joyriding was part inspired by the films of the time like Lethal Weapon. In the age of the camcorder, joyriders on Oxford's Blackbird Leys estate were able to emulate their cinema heroes, and achieve celebrity status by filming each other as they performed hand brake turns in high-performance stolen cars. Ms Campbell's book was generally well received, particularly her accounts of the people caught up in the riots, although there were criticisms that as a feminist she had a tendency to stereotype men and romanticise the world of women. It's a theme she returns to today. "Shopkeepers, credit unions, community organisations, community buildings were very vulnerable to attack. People known to be community activists, giving their lives to the community services, making life liveable, in the main are mothers. What these young men were doing was being engaged in forms of crime, providing them with a context for marking their masculinity." When friends of Mr Atkins and Mr Robson were interviewed after their death, they were angered by their description as "joyriders", insisting they were actually "car thieves". Ms Campbell said: "They thought they had a business and that business was stealing cars and selling them. In the absence of a legal living, they were making an illegal living, so in describing them as car thieves and not joyriders they were insisting what they were doing was not stupid." She said her view was reinforced later when she did work with prisoners as a writer-in-residence. "There were men who were locked up for terribly violent offences I worked very closely with. They were very clear about what they were doing, being soldiers, part of a gang that took the power. "It gives them a modicum of economic power because they rob and burgle.
They make their mark." Some saw Ms Campbell as a little mad for seeing the riots purely in feminist terms, but the vast majority of people prosecuted in the 1991 riots were male and white, while the person who received an MBE for her work in reinventing Meadow Well was female: Carole Bell. The thought of why the riots this summer didn't extend to the North East has crossed many people's minds. At a time of economic recession, with unemployment rising - particularly youth unemployment - and, as ever, the North East perhaps the most hard-hit region in the country, the region had this potential catalyst in common with those areas which did take to the streets. Political expert Dr Martin Farr of Newcastle University said: "I suppose it fundamentally reflects that the riots this year - as well as the riots in 1981 (which also didn't affect the North East) - had a racial trigger. There was a racial tension to provoke it which went beyond the issue of oppressive policing. "Newcastle is not as ethnically diverse as places like Birmingham,
Manchester and London - so I suspect this means it was less prone to the riots. Leeds was another city which was unaffected." While economic deprivation, particularly with the Government's "austerity cuts", could have provided a trigger, Dr Farr pointed out that over the last six months there had been a number of demonstrations in which people vented their anger and frustration. Economic deprivation still exists in both the Meadow Well and Newcastle's West End, but the communities have worked to help create a new future for themselves.
Deprivation haunted estates and sparked the frightening riots THE riots which started in Meadow Well in 1991 spread to other parts of Tyneside, including Scotswood and Benwell in the West End of Newcastle. Businesses and homes were targeted indiscriminately and the fallout saw the council announce plans to demolish hundreds of properties in the area and start again from scratch. Some houses were sold for as little as 50p, while others were eventually knocked down. Former Tyne Bridge MP David Clelland, who represented the area at the time, said the riot had its roots in the long-term deprivation which continues to haunt many West End estates. He said: "I remember it was something that was very frightening to those who were caught up in it - for the shopkeepers and those who lived there it was a terrible experience. "Large parts of Benwell and Scostwood were damaged, maybe not on the scale of those events in London recently, but certainly damaged enough to ruin the livelihoods of people. "The riots at the time were huge news, there was media attention from across the globe.
"I was at one point doing interview after interview and then finding myself speaking to a reporter from Japan. It was huge news. What we had in Scotswood and Benwell was a history of deprivation, of unemployment, of joyriders, and it was there just waiting to kick off. "We saw as a result of this that the then-Labour council decided that the best thing to do was to in effect break up the area and start again. We saw them demolish three-bedroomed homes and whole streets and just start again. "The problem with a lot of this is that you get, say, three or five years of Government help and money and then it goes and you have to hope it was enough to make a lasting difference." Asked what reason there might have been for why the North East did not riot as unrest spread across England this summer, Mr Clelland said: "I think the weather maybe played a part in a lot of places. "We'd had several days of rain and these things just don't happen in that weather. But also, we have done a lot on these areas to try and bring some change, so maybe it is working."
AUTHOR Beatrix Campbell, who wrote a book about the 1991 riots MEADOW WELL 1991 Above: Firefighters during the 1991 riots on the Meadow Well estate, North Shields. Right: Police officers keep vigil over smoke-filled streets. Below: Policemen in riot gear at the height of the night's disruption on Waterville Road, Meadow Well. Left: Residents take what is left from a looted store with the owner's permission…