Grievances smoulder on as the barricades burn: Jonathan Foster spent two nights on the streets of Blackburn and Burnley as youths went on the rampage
Friday 24 July 1992
It was past one o'clock in the morning by then. The Stoops estate in Burnley had lost some furniture to a barricade, a few dozen milk bottles to petrol bombers, and 36 more residents or visitors to the custody of Lancashire Police. A fourth consecutive night of street skirmishes had given (at most) 200 youths the thrill of participation, of being the centre of attention on a make-believe stage.
'They're not reet bright, are they?' said a youth watching his peers from the lower slope of Florence Street. He should know: two came running past, greeting him as they ran the street as if the police vans were bulls. One had his arm tucked inside his jacket. 'I think it's broken with all that throwing,' he laughed.
Enough street lights were put out - despite applications of council tar on the posts - to turn Tuscan Avenue and Verona Grove into dark canyons. The script went like this: lurk there, waiting for the police. Then stone the vans and run. Put more combustible material on the barricade, but watch for the vans.
Lancashire Police added to the drama. Spotlights played across houses, and darted light down the alleys. Riot gear sparkled in the firelight, and Transit van wheels crunched glass. Occasionally, the police snatched a silhouette from a side street. Often the police's quarry got away for another bout of cat-and- mouse insurrection.
The police have tried to make sure that nothing in their tactics would alienate the community, for reasons that were later to become obvious on Tuscan Avenue.
Most of the bricks thrown in Burnley have come from teenaged hands - idle hands, too. Unemployment, a drab environment and poverty are familiar to most of those caught. Among those charged with violent disorder are two jobless brothers in their 20s, a pregnant teenager who looks after her baby sister, and a 16-year-old boy who could give only the simplest reason for his conduct - he 'did not like the police'.
More than 80 people from east Lancashire have been arrested, empty houses burnt and most residents disgusted. 'There are plenty of things wrong, but this won't get them put right,' an elderly man said in the pub.
The young do not care. They say they do not expect their standard of living to improve, and they have no real idealism. Compared with the angry riots of the Eighties, though, what Burnley has seen is aimless skirmishing.
The police try to stop crime, which is a legitimate enterprise to many. The police beat you up, but more than anything they try to exert their authority. Well, they don't exert much authority down a dark Tuscan Avenue.
Most residents on the estate watched the skirmishing with fateful compulsion. A man looking through binoculars from his upstairs window identified ringleaders and urged the police on as their vans backed on to a patch of waste land; many of the 36 arrests overnight were based on information supplied by residents. Others talked on the doorsteps, reclined in deckchairs with mugs of tea, or looked out anxiously, perhaps for a daughter with a ponytail.
Police, their courtesy turning hoarse by midnight, tried vainly to clear the streets. In a house in Tuscan Avenue, Ronald and Edna Watson were about to go to bed. They had to be up early to work at the electric blanket factory, but two hours later were still in shock. Three police officers, wearing full riot gear, smashed through the front door. They were looking for a stone- thrower, but found only a middle-aged couple.
Mrs Watson's hand pressed hard on her cheek. She shook with fright. 'How can people just walk through a locked door? How can I go to work now? They didn't give my husband any time to open the door.'
The police had more luck in Verona Grove. 'They're arresting Jason for fuck all,' a woman shrieked out of the darkness.
However careful the police operation, grievances real and imagined have built on an estate where, ironically, it is safe for the girl in the ponytail to walk home.
She said she had just been watching. The boys did it because they have nothing else to do and the police give them a hard time. The boy with her said the Stoops estate was a dump. 'Fighting the police won't make it any better I suppose,' he said. 'Won't make it any worse either.'
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