Making Riots History; It Was 20 Years Ago Today That the Tyneside Riots Began on the Meadow Well Estate in North Shields, Later Spreading to the West End of Newcastle. as Riots Hit Other Parts of the Country, MIKE KELLY Looks Back at the Events of 1991 and Asks Why the Region Escaped the Mass Disorder This Year
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. …