London riots: When the riots reach your doorstep
“The police are telling people to leave. They said that the riots are kicking off in Camden. All the shops are shutting down.”
At 4:30 on Tuesday afternoon, Ruth, who works at an office down the road from ours in North London, stopped by to bring us the news on her way home.
My co-workers and I looked at each other nervously. It’s about a 20-minute bus ride from Camden to our office. Ten minutes if you take the tube.
We had been listening to sirens wailing past all day. Police vans sped south down Holloway Road in groups of three and four. My co-worker spotted a police officer standing near the station questioning passersby.
We checked the news constantly – BBC, London 24, and other local news sites. Images from the previous night showed fires blazing, windows smashed and streets full of young, hooded looters.
As we stayed glued to the news throughout the day, we noticed that the media - and the police - couldn’t keep pace with the rioters. “They’ve hit Warren Street!” Charmen Menzie, receptionist, called out, after receiving a message from a friend around 12:15 pm. She immediately posted this message to Facebook.
“IT’S ALL KICKED OFF IN WARREN STREET, LONDON W1 NOW!!”
Despite Ruth’s warning about looters in Camden, we stayed at the office but kept the front door shut. Each time we heard loud voices or sirens we eyed the door nervously.
We left work without incident at 5:30 pm. The looters had spared Archway, the area of north London where our office is located.
The riots in London began on Saturday night in Tottenham, an impoverished area in the north of the city. They were triggered by a protest organized by residents of the area in response to the shooting of local gang suspect Mark Duggan, killed by police officers earlier in the week. Investigators have since determined that, contrary to police reports, he never fired at the officers.
After the rioting on Saturday night, the violence soon spread to other neighbourhoods, including areas where some of my co-workers live. On Tuesday, while we kept a close eye on the neighbourhood for signs of disturbance, we traded stories of witnessing the riots.
In Enfield, an area of North London, Maurice Evans, solicitor, saw a group of young people gathering “clearly ready to riot” on Sunday. It was a copy-cat event from Tottenham, Evans said. “In Tottenham I think it’s possible that the riots stemmed from an initial anger, but in Enfield people came primarily for purposes of looting.”
Monday afternoon Charmen Menzie, receptionist, heard helicopters flying over her apartment in Hackney, an area of East London. “All the shops closed down. They smashed the bus stops. It was mayhem. Most people tried to get into their houses as fast as they could.”
We knew it was going to end up coming to Hackney, Menzie said. She believes that the violence was perpetrated by a lot of “small pocket gangs” from the area and also from other neighbourhoods.
On Monday night, Surinder Bhogal, legal assistant, was escorted from the train station by the police in Ilford, a suburb of East London. “We weren’t allowed to go towards the police station, which is on the high street [i.e. the main street in the neighourhood],” she said.
She described feeling scared and nervous during the experience. “I thought something had happened.” Although she didn’t see the looting herself, her friends in Ilford began sending photos of the violence and posting them to Facebook. A friend’s neighbour had their house set on fire and burned to the ground by some of the looters.
The video above, taken by a friend of Bhogal’s, shows a young man who has been beaten up. As he sits on the ground bleeding, he is mugged by a group who initially look like they are going to help him. It has since been broadcast by the BBC.
By Wednesday, the atmosphere in the office had changed. Tuesday night had been quieter in London. The violence had spread to other cities - including Manchester, Salford, Liverpool, Nottingham and Birmingham.
But many questions remained. How had this gotten so out of control? Had the police responded appropriately? Were the politicians doing enough? What should be done with the offenders?
Tatiane May, a legal secretary originally from Brazil, said the British police reacted very differently than the police in Brazil would have. “The Brazilian police would have finished it off on the first night. They wouldn’t have allowed the fighting and the looting to start.”
She said that the police should have been tougher on the first day because the rioters caused so much chaos. “Now people are homeless and many shops have been damaged.” However, she said that the police should not be blamed. “They are there in the line of duty trying to protect us.”
Bhogal was unimpressed by the response of politicians. “It was delayed,” she said.
She’s not alone. Prime Minister David Cameron cut short his holiday in Italy, but many people feel that he should have reacted more swiftly. Despite his strong condemnation of the violence, some are calling this his “Katrina moment.” His critics have blamed the riots on spending cuts by the government on services like job centres and on increases in tuition fees.
Former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone told the BBC on Tuesday that the riots show “anger and disaffection.”
“A lot of these young people, they are criminals, yes, but there’s a disengagement – they feel no-one at the top of society, in government or City Hall, cares about them or speaks for them,” Livingstone said.
At my office in Archway, reaction to these theories was mixed.
“I can understand the frustration young people have with the government because they have cut lots of services, but I don’t agree with the young peoples’ response,” Menzie said.
“The riots have shown that there is a large element of young people who are not as law abiding as the older members of society,” Maurice Evans, solicitor, said. “Perhaps that says something about not feeling connected and feeling like there’s no future.”
But while this might be an explanation for the violence, it's not a justification, Evans said.
"The full force of the law should be applied to the offenders," Bhogal said.
The police are likely to have mountains of evidence on their hands - many of the looters were captured on film with faces fully visible. Newspaper The Sun published an article today urging reading to "Name and Shame a Rioter."
Communities have also responded to the riots by participating in clean-ups in areas like Clapham in South London.
"Communities are coming together but trust needs to be re-built - both between the government and the community, and the community and young people," Menzie said.
But should the outside world be concerned about coming to London for the 2012 Olympics?
"This has certainly given the world a negative view of London, but I wouldn't want people to be concerned. At the same time, how do we know that it won't be the same the next time?" Bhogal asked.
For in-depth coverage of the riots, including maps and timelines, see this report by the BBC.
See related coverage on the Vancouver Observer.