An experiential witness from Nigel Norie of Tottenham Meeting
‘Love is the hardest lesson in Christianity; but, for that reason, it should be most our care to learn it. We are too ready to retaliate, rather than forgive, or gain by love and information. And yet we could hurt no man that we believe loves us. Let us then try what Love will do: for if men did once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel.’ William Penn, 1693
Friends, our testimony to the healing power of love and forgiveness is needed more than ever at this challenging time.
Once again, Tottenham is identified as the symbol of the fault lines of inequality and oppression that are dividing our society. Sadness, anger and hope lie at the heart of these few short words from Tottenham High Road and we have all felt upheld by the many letters, texts and emails of support.
We meet in the most culturally and faith-diverse area in the UK, as well as one of the poorest. Personal inner quiet is the only ‘silence’ possible sometimes, while our French Congolese neighbours worship with amplified music, imams chant below us, sirens blare and the carwash at the back blasts hot steam, while beautiful birdsong fills the spaces in between. Yet we do not mind – these sounds of life offer connection to those leading parallel lives to our own and our ‘inner silence’ is all the more profound for it.
None of us was physically hurt and our Meeting house remained untouched from the raging fires that flanked it on either side. It remained cordoned off and out of bounds for safety reasons until Friday 12 August. The Spirit is not to be found in property or temporary possessions. These can be replaced.
The deeper life scars are to be found in the hearts of the children deprived of a father, whose life-breath was taken by a single bullet fired from the gun of a fearful policeman – their dad can never be replaced. Here lies sadness at the unnecessary extinguishing of Mark Duggan’s life and anger that our police think to use a gun unit when making a potentially dangerous arrest.
In Tottenham, the wounds from 1985 still quietly fester and, even though that was a completely different set of circumstances altogether, the death of another young black man seems so inevitable.
I comforted such a man twenty years ago, with as much grace as I could, as his life ebbed away from a pointless stabbing. I feel numb, knowing that it will happen again unless the powerless are given a voice to share their pain with us, and we are willing to listen with open hearts.
Understanding is not condoning, and, as Quaker faith & practice 23.04 reminds us:
The duty of the Society of Friends is to be the voice of the oppressed but [also] to be conscious that we ourselves are part of that oppression… The political and social struggles must be waged, but a person is more and needs more than politics, else we are in danger of gaining the whole world but losing our souls.
Eva I Pinthus, 1987
Mark Duggan was a good person and that of God within him was easy to speak to – I have known the family for many years, from their time on Broadwater Farm, and knew him both as a child and as an energetic young man with leadership qualities. His family are warm, close and love one another dearly. He was the doting father of four beautiful young children with his devoted fiancée, Semone. At least 300 family, friends and community leaders gathered together to celebrate his life at the weekend.
His mother and father found out about his death on their television; his name was publicised before anyone had contacted them first. They were too shattered to join other family members on a peaceful vigil outside the local police station seeking information or answers. None was forthcoming and when a sixteen-year-old girl shouting ‘Justice for Mark’ was violently hit to the ground by police, it was too much to bear. Violence begets violence and a tenuous tolerance evaporated.
Out of control
The next sequence of events is complex to understand. Empty police cars were ignited with no police response, emboldening young men to think that they would not be confronted – news spread like wildfire and things got out of hand.
Mark Duggan was apparently forgotten as marginalised black and white youngsters, with no prospect of respect or justice, heads full with dreams of ‘impossible consumerism’, went for money instead.
Four more people died, there was widespread damage amounting to more than £100 million and 2000 people were arrested, many of them under eighteen.
It was déjà vu for me as all my old community-leader friends from 1985, along with some new ones, prepared to meet the media or explain to politicians, yet again, the obvious steps needed to quell the disquiet engendered by the deep inequality and prejudices experienced by our young people, both black and white: remove ‘Stop and Search’ without reason; create jobs and opportunities; return a full Youth Service provision; return Education Maintenance Allowance; remove tuition fees; stop the real vandalism of immoral wars so that you can pay for the repair to our own damaged society before you seek to interfere in others. We are not poor financially but our state lacks a moral foundation for setting truly humane priorities, although I still remain hopeful that we can.
That of God in everyone
Our lives are the expression of our faith and, as for our role in healing these painful wounds, Advices & queries 1.02.33 helps us to reflect on this:
Bear witness to the humanity of all people, including those who break society’s conventions or its laws. Try to discern new growing points in social and economic life. Seek to understand the causes of injustice, social unrest and fear. Are you working to bring about a just and compassionate society which allows everyone to develop their capacities and fosters the desire to serve?
Seeking and exercising our capacity for the unconditional love for that of God in everyone is the only way forward. We hold in the light of God’s love, all those families who have lost a loved one or suffered as a consequence of these desperate days; as well as every young person lost enough to commit uncharacteristic acts that have given them a criminal record for life.
We pray that a new spirit of compassionate morality and integrity will guide the thinking of those who hold political and financial power over our lives and that the punitive post-riot rhetoric will be replaced by calm reasoning that aims to recognise and encourage the best in everyone.
Nigel was appointed by Bernie Grant as a community development worker on Broadwater Farm in 1983. He remains active in that community today.
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