Stories from the frontline: We kept hearing 'officer down' on our radios

Residents, shopkeepers, police officers and looters – all have a tale to tell of a week when lawlessness gripped the country
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The Independent Online

The campaigner: Dan Thompson, 37

Artist and activist

I was at home in Worthing on Monday, watching the riots on television and just thinking that there must be something that can be done. I floated the idea of a clean-up on Twitter and, within an hour, the idea snowballed. We set up a hashtag on Twitter and built a website. The response we got was phenomenal. By the first day, I had received 5,000 emails from people who wanted to help.

There simply is no type to the people who have volunteered. Most of us at the core of the group are freelancing artists, musicians and journalists, and that has given us the flexibility to dedicate a whole week to this.

During the day on Tuesday I got a call from Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, to say he had heard about what we were doing and that the Government was not going to try to claim it as a Big Society achievement, but wanted to offer whatever help it could.

On Tuesday night, I got a call from Downing Street, asking me to come and meet the Prime Minister on Friday. I got the train up to London on Wednesday and there it was: a non-stop flurry of television studios and interviews for press all over the world. I also made a flying stop at the Cabinet Office where Nick Hurd thanked me for what I had done.

On Friday, I got the train to London to meet David Cameron at No 10 along with people from the "Not in my name" campaign. He was interested in exactly how we had organised everything on Twitter. I think that's what got the Government's attention: the fact that, in the midst of all this negativity about social media, there was this massive movement of people using it for good.

The rioter: Name withheld, 19

Took part in the Tottenham rioting

I was involved in the riots and everything that happened. The killing of Mark Duggan was not an isolated incident. There have been killings of more than 340 black people in the past 12 years. No police officer has ever been brought to justice. After Mark's death, no one contacted the family. There were lies, but last week the truth came out: no shots were fired by Mark Duggan. The riots were a statement; to fight against the police, to stand our ground – and to say we're not having any more of this. We've been stopped and searched and harassed and bullied.

The looting itself came afterwards. It was a realisation that people could get something they might not be able to afford. Many of these [trainer and electronics] companies market directly to young people, pushing the product on them. Yet young people cannot afford them and a lot of people got caught up in the moment and did it because others did it.

I'm not going to sit here and say someone's house getting burnt down is OK; it's not. The fight against the system needs to be directed correctly, because the Government does not listen to us. They've isolated us. In my borough of Haringey they have cut all the youth services. Where are young people meant to go? Overall it was just a general statement because young people feel that they cannot be heard. No one took notice when we kept saying something like this is going to happen. Well, now it has.

This account, published exclusively today in 'The IoS', will form part of a forthcoming documentary about the riots by 'Fully Focused Community'

The riot squad officer: PC Paul Warner, 28

Police driver from Sutton

We got a warning at the end of our shift that trouble was brewing in central London and that public order trained officers might be needed. About 20 of us went in two police buses. On the way to Tottenham High Road, both of our vehicles came under attack.

We tried to make our way further up, but we came across about 300 people who had all the shopping trolleys knocked over on their side. We couldn't get through, even in our big vehicles. They'd ripped up piping and put that in front. Behind that they'd set on fire anything that was flammable. There were no more than a dozen or so officers there. We could hear time after time on our radios "Officer down", "Officer injured" and we knew it was bad.

I've done other large-scale events like Notting Hill carnival but I'd never seen anything like this. We went past a police car that was just burnt to ashes. When our guys were on the ground they became a bigger target and we had to cover them with our shields. It was now a pitched battle. We were there for a good few hours.

Support came at around 4am and we were allowed to fall back and recover. We looked round to see where we could help and went to Tottenham Hale retail park. That's when we saw massive-scale looting. We managed to arrest eight, which was the best we could do with the numbers we had.

I don't think I'll ever understand why they did it. I've never seen anything this extreme. We always hope, whether people are having a march or doing something to support a cause, we'll do everything we can to keep it peaceful. But this was something different.

The shopkeeper: Ismail Patel, 43

Owner of City Centre News in Salford Shopping City

As the riots looked more likely to hit the heart of Salford I was told to leave the shop immediately. I returned to find one of my shops smashed open and looted and the other burned to the ground by rioters. I was completely heartbroken.

More than £16,000 of cigarettes were stolen – there was not even one packet left on the shelves. The CCTV camera had been broken, and the screen was smashed up and left outside the shop. The cash till was also left on the street, empty. About £150 in £5 notes had been in there, and all the change was scattered on the floor. That was the first thing I saw when I walked up to the doors. My other shop was burnt down – all of it, completely gutted. I can't even get in now through the entrance.

I think it is about £50,000 damage in total, but the insurance are still working it out. The ceilings were burnt and the shutters gone. The first thing I did was call the shutter guy to get new ones on. That cost me another £150. I don't know if I will make the rent this month now. I have five children to feed and it costs me £560 to pay for each shop. I am not sure how we will survive. My brother has already lost his job. No one can work in the burnt shop for at least two months, and my other employees are worried they will be attacked.

At the moment, there are police here by every shop until 2am, but what happens when they leave? The rioters might come back. People are saying the rioters have taken advantage of us, to make easy money. But this isn't about easy money for me. They destroyed in 20 minutes what it has taken me 20 years to build up.

The local resident: Joel Seaton, 39

The arson victim

We live in a friendly multicultural community in Croydon, so I was shocked when on Monday evening my neighbours called to say it had been set alight. Up to 20 hooded youths had disappeared down an alley and set fire to my gas meter, with flames roaring from all sides.

The police said that all the crime and vandalism was organised by gang leaders; that there was one faction doing all the looting and robberies, while other splinter groups had been creating distractions to draw the police away from the main areas.

I was in shock, feeling utterly violated and terrified. For the first night I slept for about two hours in broken sleep. Every noise I heard, I'd jump out of bed and look out the window.

Like much of the country, everyone here is wondering exactly what is behind these actions. Much has been made of the shooting in Tottenham, but there is no connection. You can talk all you want about privileged politicians and the middle classes who reap all the advantages in life, but it doesn't wash. You've got to go out in this world and work for what you want. Things don't come for free.

Many of the people who committed it are on benefits anyway and half of them complain there are no jobs out there. There are plenty of jobs out there.

I've got a nasty feeling that we haven't seen the worst of it and that it will return. But, hopefully, with the police force that we've got, we can keep it under control. I've got a lot of respect for the civilians who are coming together to protect their livelihoods.

The voice of the future: Emma Ratcliffe, 15

GCSE student from Manchester

When I saw it was London and Birmingham I almost knew that it was going to spread. When you see people running into shops and getting away with it, you know it's going to catch on and they'll always be copycats.

Looking back, you can see this was building up from all the social changes. There is definitely mounting anger among young people. But what occurred last week was just a rare window of opportunity to do what you want and take what you want without consequences. It's a Lord of the Flies moment: if nothing's going to happen to you, then there's nothing wrong with it. It seemed as though many felt like they were simply seizing an opportunity.

Seeing it happen in my town, I felt they were just destroying our own community. It was heartbreaking. I was angry because it was all along the main street where I go shopping. But it was clear that this was just a rare moment of lawlessness in which everyone felt that there would be no consequences. Once that realisation sets in, I think you're going to see a massive collective guilty conscience.

I was really disappointed with the lack of public involvement. People were lighting fires, raiding shops and people were either staring in amazement or walking past. The reason I would never do it is because I realise that it will have a huge effect on my life, and will have a huge impact on the trust running through the community. Water cannons and rubber bullets will just promote more anger. What we need is to get more police on the street to respond more quickly to emergencies.

The country has to hold firm. What happened is bad, but with more police and faster responses it will fizzle out.

The samaritans: Jonny Walker, 31, and wife Philippa Morgan-Walker, 25

Served tea on a police riot shield in Camden

On Monday at 10pm, Philippa and I heard screaming near our street. We moved our car to a safe place and when we came back the police were telling us that we couldn't return to our house. The rioters were throwing rocks and fireworks at the police. We found ourselves trapped on both sides, by the police and the rioters.

We took shelter in a security booth for the next couple of hours. There were a couple of incidents that were particularly frightening. The rioters kicked in a store near by and looted it. They started a crate fire. But we didn't feel too scared because the rioters weren't attacking ordinary people.

The police were doing the best they could. It was very strategic. They were holding their line. I felt a large amount of respect for them.

A police officer escorted us to our flat and we realised that the officers must have been weary, standing there for who knows how long. So we asked if they wanted some tea and their eyes lit up.

We were passing stuff around when a policewoman came up with a riot shield and asked for 10 cups of tea. That's when a photographer snapped our picture. The response to it has been surreal. I love London; it's a mix of people of all classes and cultures. I want to live in a city where we all get along. I will continue to make my home here.

If anything, my faith in humanity has been strengthened. I saw a lot of confusion and anger but the police acted with a lot of restraint. These events have made me want to become more involved in my community, get to know my neighbours.

The peacemaker: Jamal Edwards, 20

Founder of SBTV, online music channel

I went to Ealing after the riots and it was total madness down there. The first question I asked was: "What's wrong with you and why are you doing this?" Some said they saw what was going on on TV, and thought they should get involved. There they saw so many big TVs, new garms [clothes] and jewellery being taken and decided to see what it was about.

Others had watched the news and seen how weak the police seemed and wanted to see how much they could take. The fact that it was popping off [happening] in all different endz [areas] suggests that people were impulsively thinking "let's have a go" rather than something more premeditated.

I asked people what would make them stop doing this. Most of them didn't feel they had a voice. They wanted to be talked to straight but felt that people in government were separated from their cause. I know Boris Johnson went to Clapham, but what about the places where loads of people are seriously struggling? They need to go down to the estates and talk to the people on the street.

Talking to community leaders who don't have a strong connection with the youth is useless. The Government needs to address people who the youth respect and work with. If there are community centres open, yet have no one going there, then they need to sort themselves out and promote themselves better. Another of the rioters said that when you hear politicians constantly talking about how there's no jobs, it's utterly deflating.

The police chief: Sir Hugh Orde

President, Association of Chief Police Officers

As soon as things looked difficult I came straight back (from holiday) to London to oversee the National Information Centre, and mobilise forces.

By the time the Prime Minister had arrived, the movement of officers had started hours before. It meant that by the time of the first Cobra meeting on Tuesday morning, I was able to assure the Prime Minster that the aid mobilisation was already in place and that by Tuesday night we'd have thousands of police officers on the streets.

My time in Northern Ireland had given me a context by which to assess the situation. My instinct was that while the scenes were clearly disturbing, we needed more officers on the street. What was different about this was the complete lack of pre-intelligence. This event was entirely spontaneous.

In terms of social media, let's be cautious about knee-jerk reactions like switching everything off – because ultimately social media is one of our key sources of intelligence. One of the things it has taught us is that rumours fly very quickly. One of my colleagues was travelling home from work and overheard someone saying: "The Queen has authorised someone to shoot people in the foot."

Much of the criticism we received was to do with curfews. There was no need for curfews, and there was no clarity on how we would implement them. What struck me is that the public wants water cannon. These are huge pieces of kit. Even if we could mobilise them, you need at least two for every position you hold.

Last week certainly kept me busy. By the end of it I was still walking around in my press officer's husband's shoes, while the Met Police have kept me with a steady supply of new shirts.

The tourist: Joy Raubenheimer, 32

A hairdresser from Johannesburg

I came to London the week before the riots. On Monday night, I was in a pub in Ealing and the landlord suddenly announced that the pub was closing. It wasn't long afterwards that I heard that the windows were smashed.

My whole week since has changed. Instead of going out, I have stayed mainly at home, watching television. I have received numerous texts and phone calls of concern from my friends back home. Some even sent texts from mates asking whether I had been plasma TV shopping – everyone is looking on with a sense of disbelief.

The last time London was in the news at home was during the royal wedding. And it was great to see a country so proud of its monarchy and institutions. But what you're seeing now is the other side of that. This is the young generation that is not in reach of such privileges, so is helping itself to televisions and trainers.

In South Africa, there are certain colour categories that you expect this type of behaviour from. But, over here, it was young children from all classes, colours and backgrounds. I am amazed by the brazen lack of respect. Unlike back home, it wasn't contained to certain areas. And the excuse for the violence is unpalatable. If you say you're poor, that's just a bad excuse. You have to make life happen – not feel entitled to it.

I'm amazed that so much debate has gone into whether or not to use water cannons. In Johannesburg, there would have been no second thoughts about rubber bullets. I now have a different view of London. Compared to South Africa it was always perceived as a safe haven. No longer.