Angry words that ignited the tinder-box
Anatomy of a disturbance: How a 200-strong protest rally turned into a night of looting and ugly confrontation
Friday 15 December 1995
With these words, hopes that Wednesday night's protest over the death of Wayne Douglas would remain peaceful seemed to evaporate into the freezing night air.
Until they were shouted by Rudy Narayan, of the protest group Civil Rights UK, the 200 demonstrators who had gathered outside Brixton police station were intent on nothing more than making known their complaints about the death of a young black in police custody.
The seeds of their anger and frustration had been sown at 2.30am on Tuesday last week when police officers arrested a confused and violent 25-year- old who had spent the previous six weeks living in a shelter for the homeless in Crystal Palace.
Wayne Douglas had broken into a flat in Strathleven Road, Brixton, and threatened a family with a knife. Details of his state of mind will emerge in the coming days, but the fact that he stole no more than a loaf of bread may turn out to be a significant pointer.
After he fled with the loaf, he was chased by police and cornered in a children's playground in New Solon Road. He threatened the officers with at least one knife - some reports say two - and had to be overpowered with the use of long batons. It is these batons which are seen by some sections of the Brixton community as offensive rather than defensive weapons. Police officers simply believe they offer more protection against knife attacks.
After being wrestled to the ground, Douglas was taken to Brixton police station but was found dead in his cell an hour later.
Scotland Yard has released preliminary details of a post- mortem examination which suggest that he died as a result of a heart condition. However, last week's issue of The Voice, a black community newspaper, carried an interview with an unnamed witness to Douglas's arrest who said police had kicked and beaten him, using unnecessary force.
This, then, at 6.30pm on Wednesday, was the background for Mr Narayan's angry words. The meeting had started peacefully. It seemed that it would take more than his strong words to inflame the crowd but after he had uttered them, Mr Narayan was asked by Paul Rees, a London Evening Standard reporter, whether they had been "misguided and possibly dangerous".
According to Mr Rees, Mr Narayan replied: "The police are using public money and public equipment to kill black people. If a policeman is killed because he is behaving badly, I will not fret."
7.20pm: The crowd had decided to stage a march - which had not been cleared with the police - and a further protest at Brixton Oval, a busy traffic junction. Within 30 minutes, police wearing riot gear were mobilised to stop the protestors blocking traffic.
With an increasingly hostile mood developing, journalists and passers- by were threatened by some protestors as a police cordon was set up across Acre Lane and Brixton Road.
"From here on in, it just got angrier and angrier," said one witness. Others leaving the nearby Ritzy Cinema said they saw groups of youths with mobile phones being dispersed by police, only to re-group elsewhere.
8.20pm: Mounted police were brought in as other officers in riot gear tried to move protestors north and south, clashing with a group outside a 7-Eleven store next to Brixton Underground station on Brixton Road. One witness said: "They were pushing people with their shields and the window smashed. Some people were saying the police actually pushed someone into the pane. After that, all hell broke loose."
A mob ran into the store, causing staff to flee through a rear exit, and looters virtually emptied the shop while, outside, bricks and bottles were thrown at police and motorists.
8.55pm: Riot police moved into a crowd that had gathered outside the Ritzy Cinema. With other roads blocked by police, witnesses reported general panic. One taxi driver who got in the way - and hurled racist abuse - was dragged from his cab and beaten, but he managed to escape and drove away.
9.30pm: Rioters continued to throw bricks and bottles in running battles with police until a group set fire to the looted 7-Eleven store. The store manager, Chris Edun, 33, said: "I just stepped out on to the street for a couple of minutes and when I came back the whole place was up in flames. There were people coming in, taking stuff from the shop. The six staff that were working at the time just ran out the back and left them to smash the place up."
Looting and vandalism continued along Brixton Road for at least 30 minutes more. Morley's department store, a hi-fi shop and florists' shop were all looted. Customers in Pizza Hut were showered with glass when a gang of youths threw bricks through its front fascia.
10pm: Violence escalated until the most harrowing incident of the night occurred. John Tisshaw, 39, a motorcycle patrol officer, was dragged from his motorbike at the junction of Ferndale Road and Brixton Road by a gang of youths who severely beat him.
One witness to the attack said: "They were kicking him and one of them had a big stick which they used to hit him. He had his helmet on, so at least that protected his head. He was lying on the ground, but then they got him on to his knees and they were holding him like that, kicking him in the back as if they were trying to break his spine. It was horrific."
PC Tisshaw was rescued by colleagues after a member of the public had driven at his attackers, causing them to back off. He suffered a broken shoulder and cuts and bruises.
10.35pm: Looters turned their attention to a car showroom in Effra Road. They wheeled three cars from a forecourt and set them alight.
Reports vary, but within minutes of the Effra Road incident, police, journalists and local people heard three gunshots. Armed police were deployed and hundreds of police in riot gear fanned out to try to reclaim the area.
11.15pm: A gang forced along Ferndale Road by the police raided the Frank Johnson sports shop, looting expensive training shoes and sports gear. A shop stocking Adidas sports gear was also looted.
Midnight: The Dog Star pub at the junction of Atlantic Road and Coldharbour Lane was vandalised as part of the mob's retreat.
1.10am: Police had secured the centre of Brixton, although small sporadic outbreaks of trouble continued along Coldharbour Lane.
By the time Brixton returned to a relative state of normality, 50 shops had been looted, three pubs had been attacked, 10 cars and a coach had been torched or vandalised, 22 people had been arrested and 12 people, including three police officers, had been injured.
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