The 2011 riots: What happened? What now?
The clean-up is well under way on the damaged streets. Now, it’s time to count the cost of four days of lawlessness and destruction
Sunday 14 August 2011
Walking the streets of Croydon in the aftermath of the disturbances, I had to get over and round quite a few obstacles. There were police cordons, scenes-of-crime tape blocking roads, broken glass, items discarded by picky looters (packets of hair extensions lay on the ground at one point), and eddies of charred paper, drinks cans and other garbage were being blown about by a strong wind. Into the eyes flew dust, and, as I neared burnt-out buildings, there was the lingering smell of fires now extinguished but, somehow, not altogether gone.
There was something else to pick my way through, too: all that instant pontificating, diagnosis by the Tweetocracy, and opinionating of armchair experts stamping their agendas on these chaotic scenes. They cluttered the mind every bit as much as the detritus of Monday night littered the roadways. So it was to get some measure of what actually happened that I went out on to the streets I'd first covered as a junior reporter 36 years ago.
Croydon's main drag and Whitgift Centre are the Oxford Street of south London. So when warnings and rumours came of impending trouble on Monday, this chain store reservation was the official concern, and a double police line drawn across its northern border. It held, which is why anyone visiting the town centre this weekend will see no damage. It was mainly the fringes, and the small, independent traders, who were hit.
The disturbances began on a stretch of London Road which runs north of the downtown core for about a mile. Along here, starting near Mayday University Hospital in early evening, came steaming about 200 troublemakers. They attacked shops, a bus, pelted police with rocks, drove a vehicle at their lines, and even tried to open the doors of passing cars. A few highlights: some seven businesses including Totesport and the flats above them burnt out; Greyhound Motors motorcycle business, started in 1947, now burnt out; Lidl smashed into, looted, its scorched roof and missing tiles revealing signs of an attempt to fire it; Age UK's windows broken; the Bakhan Restaurant trashed; Rock Bottom, a guitar store, cleaned out; and a traditional pawnbrokers, and three storeys of flats above it, burnt to a blackened shell.
This is, the odd chain store apart, a street of small businesses owned by people of almost every kind of ethnic background – a place of Caribbean hairdressers, halal butchers and specialist restaurants. Self-starters, entrepreneurs, role models, if you like. People like Ritesh Patel, manager of Shiv Travel, who told how six people used a concrete slab to smash their way in and steal nearly £4,000 in cash, and customers' credit card details. Lucky ones like Nashreen Antwi, a nurse originally from Ghana, into whose Nash Unisex Hair Salon she and her husband have sunk their life savings. Her premises escaped – thanks, she says, to "my God". But traders like her, and Sajid Butt, who owns Savemore Spicy Foods and a frozen food store, employ seven or eight people each, and it will be some time before business returns. Mr Butt, whose store has been here 21 years, says: "I am very angry. The police didn't protect the small people."
Meanwhile, to the west of the town centre, a mere rock's throw from the place where Craig and Bentley, hooligans from an earlier age, staged their night of lawlessness in 1952, a bus was on fire. Beyond was the scene which caught national attention: the burning of the House of Reeves furniture store. As night fell, about 80 youths gathered around the rambling building which sits on an island ringed by roads. YouTube footage shows a few kicking at its windows and doors, two armchairs pulled into the street, and a small fire starting on a sofa. Soon it was the lurid blaze that would mesmerise the rolling news channels and their viewers. Such was its intensity that its heat leapt the street and ignited buildings from which a woman was to so photogenically leap.
By Wednesday morning, as masked workers from 777 Demolition Ltd busied about, Reeves was a pile of rubble. The family store had stood here since 1867, the area was officially named for it, and locals like me bought from staff who knew their stock, priced it fairly and delivered promptly. And now it was gone – or, rather, half of it was. Across Reeves Corner was the bed and wardrobe department where the company's main records are kept. This had almost all its dozen large windows broken, but was otherwise in tact. Inside, senior staff David Barnes and Ron Hillman were organising the 15-strong full-time staff and the premises for a weekend reopening.
Amid it all stood the erect figure of 80-year-old Maurice Reeves, great-grandson of the founder, whose sons Graham and Trevor now run the business. He saw on television, as he puts it, "my shop destroyed in front of my eyes", and has barely slept since. "We are relying," he said, "on the support of local people to get back on our feet." The signs are good. The Croydon Advertiser has offered free advertisements; by midweek, more than 800 emails of support had been received.
As Reeves burned, youths steamed along nearby streets, but no residential property had so much as a hanging basket touched. It was consumer goodies they were after, as a walk back towards the centre, and then south, reveals. Here, at every few hundred yards – interspersed in places by the odd smashed window – are the targets of a succession of impromptu burglaries: an Argos store, a jewellers; Geoffrey Butler Cycles; Aurum, a jewellers; Richer Sounds; and Cycle King. Outlying hyperstores, such as Staples, Curry's and PC World, were similarly robbed.
As it happened, on Monday evening, across the road from Richer Sounds, Terence Channer, a partner at McMillan Williams solicitors, was working late. What he saw (and filmed on his phone) is instructive. At about 8.30pm, a red van pulled up, a man got out, unscrewed the number plate, and several people started to try to break into Richer Sounds. Mr Channer began filming them, and rang the police. As the would-be burglars struggled with the shop's shutters, Mr Channer took a photograph. Its flash alerted them and they took off. Some 45 minutes or so later, a larger number of people arrived and this time made a successful entry. "For the next hour and a half it was like watching ants carrying eggs as people scurried in and out of the store and bore away televisions, hi-fi equipment, etc," he says. The thieves included a number of young white women, and a man who seemed to have trouble carrying a large boxed television. He asked for help. None came, so he took his booty from its cumbersome box. As he did so, the scarf around his face slipped, showing him to be, in Mr Channer's words, "50 if he was a day". Only much later did police finally arrive. It was less "looting", more a leisurely burglary.
It seems that, with police stretched, their commanders flat-footed and ceding control of everywhere but the town centre until it was too late, this was the anti-community realising that it could boss – bully – the streets at will. It was, as two drunk teenage girl thieves in Croydon told the BBC on Tuesday morning, "showing the police we could do what we want". To them it was as if they were living out a violent video game, stalking a townscape where there was no law and order and the only restraints the extent of their own callousness. Score 200 for an Asian-owned corner store, 400 for a guitar shop, and 1,000 for burning down a family-run business. "Urban Mayhem" – available on all high streets, while stocks last.
Broken glass, a discarded newspaper stand and twisted pieces of metal littered an innocuous petrol station forecourt in central Birmingham. The image of debris and disorder was all too familiar, repeated in reports up and down the country. But this particular garage also serves as a murder scene.
As people gathered on the pavement where dozens of floral tributes had been laid for the three dead men, the tension was palpable. Those congregated represented the diverse community in the neighbourhood: black, white, Sikh, Muslim and Pole – all gathered in an attempt to come to terms and make sense of the week's tragic events.
Then, minutes before Tariq Jahan, father of Haroon Jahan, one of the three men mown down by a car in the early hours of Wednesday morning, was due to appear to inspect the floral tributes, a double-decker bus passed the scene. In a moment, the atmosphere changed dramatically.
A youth on the top deck, believed to be black, shouted something indistinct, drawing his finger across his throat. Instantly, the mood changed from one of quiet grief to fury and outrage. The police rushed to halt the bus, reprimanding those responsible before anyone took the law into their own hands. But the damage had been done. The hushed conversations that followed were full of recriminations; the atmosphere became charged.
"I've never seen anything like this," said Baljinder Singh, 69, who, along with his brother Dilbagh, 71, has owned D&B off-licence on Dudley Road since the 1960s. "We are a very mixed community here, with good relations. The community has to just pull together. For the future, we have to get through this."
This weekend, as Muslims held Ramadan's night-time taraweeh prayer at mosques in the city, Sikhs stood guard outside, a deterrent to any potential looters and thugs. The honour was returned by Muslims as the Sikhs held their own night-time prayers at temples. A number of Christian churches benefited as the two communities moved to protect other places of worship in the city while vandals rampaged through the city.
Jonathan Jackson, Bishop of the New Testament Church of God, agreed: "Here [Winson Green] is not a flash point. It is a community that has reasonable cohesion. People work together, they get on. Look over there." He gestured toward a Jamaican food store. "That's run by a couple who came from the West Indies, but they're originally from India. It's not a race issue. The powerful message from Mr Jahan for calm is the mantra we've now got to carry."
Yet still there are those who remain uneasy about the future in Birmingham, especially for young people. Pioneers, a charity run by Mohammed Azkar, sends volunteers to 40 different schools in Birmingham to give young people positive role models. It has just had its funding pulled. The enterprise, which Mr Azkar started from his home 12 years ago with money lent to him by his parents, will close, his employees laid off.
"We seem to be forgetting the grievances of the young people. Nobody is looking at the root causes," said Mr Azkar. "We're getting no support from the local authority, no support from the councils. This is the Big Society falling flat on its face. You can't expect the Big Society to be managed if there are no resources to manage it."
The masonry thrown through the window at Poundland last Monday during seven hours of rioting in Peckham, south London, left a hole directly over a poster of a giant red £1. The shattered window summed up the senselessness of much of the rioting: the shop is not worth looting. There are no expensive trainers or mobile phones. Everything is £1. Some things are even cheaper: you can buy two packs of Post-It notes for £1.
On Tuesday morning, as shop-owners picked through broken glass strewn across Rye Lane, four members of the Peckham Shed Youth Theatre Company joined in pavement discussions of what the community could do to defy the violence. One noticed the newly boarded-up windows of Poundland, and suggested it could be used as a focus for their defiance. Armed with Post-It notes bought from Poundland and marker pens, they asked passers-by to write messages explaining why they loved Peckham.
By Thursday morning, the entire 10ft-square board looks like a pastel-coloured kaleidoscope, with messages such as "Peace Will Rule", "There's more to life than trainers", "Less God, more education" and "I live here, we live here, now love here, all cultures, all colours, all peaceful". Someone had taped sprigs of lavender to the board.
A tattooed man and a woman and their fierce-looking dog walk by, pausing to look at the Peace Wall, as it had become known, and continue up the high street. "Peckham is a shithole," the man says as they walk off. His friend replies: "No, it's not. Well, it is now, but it wasn't."
This is, perhaps, an image of Peckham widely held across the country: it is where Damilola Taylor was left bleeding to death and where gangs and drugs rule. But this is not the complete picture. Few were surprised that Peckham, with some of the highest crime rates in the country, was one of the places to be hit by riots. Yet the response of the local community has been startling. The contributions to the Peace Wall have been from the sort of diverse community that Nick Griffin described on Twitter this week as a "multicultural mess": white, black, Asian, middle class, working class, and even the "underclass" that is held responsible for the violence.
Peckham residents speak enthusiastically of the openness and friendliness of strangers they encounter. Since Monday, that openness has blossomed, they say. Chikara Stewart, 19, who has just finished college, says: "It is nice to walk around here and feel quite carefree. When people ask me where I live and I say Peckham, they say, oh, gangs. But it's not all like that. The wall is beautiful and is so nice to see there is some good in Peckham, and that not all of London has gone to the dogs."
Peter Hill, 69, an actor who has lived in the area since 1986, says: "Maybe this is actually a positive moment in the history of the world that we live in. Maybe this is going to bring people together so that we all feel we belong, and the love that comes from that."
One of the instigators of the Peace Wall was Jo Tyabji, an actor and director from the Peckham Shed Theatre Company. She says: "There is a sense that, for all the area's problems, the people of Peckham have fortitude, and hope. Hope is part of the fabric of everyday life."
On nearby Bellenden Road, a bohemian haven of delis, restaurants and independent art galleries, Isabelle Alaya, who came to the UK from France seven years ago, is working in her Melange chocolate shop and café. Her new apprentice, Mamadu Tyson, 17, says: "I understand why they are doing it, because they want the anarchy, something to do in the summer holidays, and some want free phones and clothes. I don't see the appeal, but I do see the reason."
Lindsay Johns, a writer and broadcaster who volunteers as a youth mentor, says: "It is tempting to be depressed but I am an optimist and I think we can overcome this. People are fed up with all the negative things they hear about Peckham. Things do happen here. There are a lot of stabbings, gang shootings. Maybe the Peace Wall, the positive messages of community spirit, is in response to that."
The late afternoon sun is shining on CodFellas on Bellenden Road, and three riot officers from North Wales Police, among 10,000 brought from outside the capital, are waiting outside for fish and chips before their break ends. A man crosses the street to ask: "Are you Welsh police?" North Wales, confirms one of the officers. The man laughs. "We're used to seeing you on Traffic Cops," he says. "But, cheers, mate. Good to see you around."
One of the officers says later: "For the past 20 years I've been in the police, no one has ever said thank you. In the past week, down here, everyone has said it. People in cars have been beeping their horns, thumbs up, at us."
Peckham may not be transformed overnight, but, ironically, its image may have been improved in the aftermath of the rioting. The Peace Wall – which will be put on permanent display at the local library – suggests that not only will Peckham bounce back from the riots, it will be reborn – not just in bright yellow and pink Post-It messages but with a community thrown closer together.
The charred Market Street sign in Manchester's city centre presides over the ashes of Miss Selfridge and a prospect of boarded-up shop windows. But while visitors to the Arndale shopping centre are down 25 per cent, it is hard to spot a shop that does not have a "Business as Usual" sign on its battered doors.
This is a city, after all, that remembers the IRA bomb that exploded in the same place 15 years ago. "That changed the whole city. This was just kids attacking shops," says Stephen Corlett, 32, who was one of the 200 people who spontaneously gathered in Manchester's city centre on Wednesday morning to sweep up the debris the riots left behind. Mancunians, it seems, will not be deterred by the 800 recorded incidents of violence that spread through the city on Tuesday, or the 130 or so that left a pocket of nearby Salford in flames.
While journalists swarm around Manchester's magistrates' courts, hoping to catch a bona fide looter, the eyes of passers-by are fixed on Adam-Lance Brookes, 23, who has been sitting outside a looted clothes shop, Footasylum, since the morning after rioters smashed through its doors. He turned up with Post-It stickers and markers and stuck a poster of support on the shop's side. It read, "Pride of Manchester". Local residents have stuck their own brightly coloured notes on top, ranging from "Lock up all looters" to the simpler "Why?!". Mr Brookes, whose father worked in the nearby Marks & Spencer during the IRA attack, said: "I wanted to show my pride in my city. I have lived here my whole life. It was heartbreaking what happened."
Sympathy for the rioters is, as expected, hard to come by here. Danielle Fuller, 24, was working in Ben's Ices, an ice-cream van opposite the Arndale centre, when she was forced to crawl under Tesco's shutters to escape the violence. Describing the day as "eerie", Ms Fuller is forthright in her description of the events. "It was pathetic. It had nothing to do with the man who died in Tottenham. It was about pure greed," she says. "It is fantastic how Manchester has pulled together. We have shown more unity than the rioters could achieve."
One pensioner, who didn't want to be named, says her 18-year-old son was in the same class as one of the arrested rioters. She called what happened "opportunism", sighing as she adds: "They are robbing their own." A glimmer of analysis is offered by 22-year-old unemployed Gary Brookes. Wearing a tracksuit and hooded top, he has just been stopped and searched on his way to meet his mother in town. "It is very hard for me to get a job. I suppose others in the same circumstances might also find it hard to work, so maybe that is why they turned to crime," he says.
About 1,000 police officers in Manchester and Salford intend to maintain the operation this week. For some, like Ismail Ahmed Patel, 41, who watched on CCTV from home as his newsagent was looted, this is a huge relief. He explains how rioters stole cigarettes worth £9,000 from his shop when he is spontaneously hugged by a passing vicar, who promises to help him however she can.
As Manchester City Council prepares to launch a campaign to get "people back into town", it is worth remembering some of the worst affected live further afield. Shops in Salford Shopping City have yet to reopen after they were razed to the ground. Jamie Wykes, 18, who lives on the estate closest to the shopping centre, calls the riots "madness". For him "things still seem unreal".
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