Riot Britain: The looters and their victims, one year on

The stories of those who were there, from the jailed looter to the ransacked shopkeeper.

Holly Williams
Friday 20 July 2012 22:38

It starts with a shooting. At 6.15pm on Thursday 4 August last year, officers of the Metropolitan Police Service stop a minicab in Tottenham Hale, north London. Inside is a 29-year-old man by the name of Mark Duggan, who, according to the police, is suspected of possessing a firearm. Eyewitness accounts of what follows are bitterly conflicted – but what is certain is that Duggan is pronounced dead at the scene at 6.41pm, having been shot once in the chest by an officer attached to the Specialist Firearms Command (known as CO19), who is accompanying officers from Operation Trident, the Met unit responsible for gun crime within the black community.

Two days later, early on Saturday evening, peaceful protesters gather outside Tottenham Police Station, demanding justice for Duggan – and information about the circumstances of his death. After an incident involving a 16-year-old girl, the scene turns violent, with attacks on police and vehicles. Matters quickly escalate, with large numbers of police arriving to disperse the demonstrators; in a sign of the high drama of the instantly YouTube-able actions to come, a double-decker bus is set alight.

Something in the wild, take-to-the-streets mood of the violence ignites the capital; Sunday brings rioting in Enfield and Walthamstow in the north and Brixton in the south. Soon London feels like a city under siege: looting is rampant and fires rage in the streets, as the emergency services struggle to contain the damage. Police report 100 arrests, but still the copycat crimes multiply: Hackney, Peckham, Lewisham, Croydon, Clapham and Ealing are all ransacked in the days that follow. Extra police forces from Essex and Sussex are sent for – only to be followed by reports of riots breaking out in other UK cities.

Nottingham, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool will all see their share of disorder. As police seem to flail under the volume of incidents, politicians return from their summer holidays, and law-abiding citizens pick up their brooms (or baseball bats) to take tidying up the streets (or protecting local businesses) into their own hands.

By Wednesday, those arrested at the scene are being sentenced, with courts staying open overnight to deal with the numbers. Huge public anger and distress sees rapid – and according to some, heavy – sentences handed out. David Cameron condemns the riots as "criminality, pure and simple" – though making sense of what happened will prove anything but simple. Soon, a liberal backlash begins, questioning what caused the riots in the first place, and whether sentencing young people for nicking bottles of water is really a proper response.

A year on, and 3,051 people have appeared in court, with 1,292 found guilty and sentenced. Almost 700 people are still in prison because of their actions, the large majority of whom are young and male.

And the victims? Hundreds are still waiting on insurance pay-outs or compensation from the Government's riot funds; by June, 656 cases had still not been settled.

For many businesses still struggling, or individuals who lost their homes, there's a sense of bitter abandonment – from a perceived underdeployment of police at the time to politicians promising financial help, then failing to deliver. But let's not forget the many examples of community spirit – the clean-up operations and co-operative build-back initiatives – which said, loud and clear, "We care."

For some rioters coming out of prison now, there is regret at a moment of madness: the opportunity to get stuff for free, grasped unthinkingly. For others, there's anger at the harsh sentencing, and at the perception that the poorest in society are "made an example of" when those at the top get away with more serious crimes: if you promote greed and consumerism but fail to offer disadvantaged young people employment or opportunity, then it should be no surprise that frustration and violence spill on to the streets, goes the argument.

For many of us, the riots had a personal as well as a political impact. We remember the fire and fear, the sense of besiegement and bewilderment. Damage and devastation were wrought not only on properties and persons, but also on our faith in humanity and trust of our neighbours.

Here, we speak to a range of people who were directly involved in the riots, to hear about their experiences, and see what lessons, if any, can be learnt a year on…

The mother's story

Fiona James

The mother of Reece Davis-James, an 18-year-old sent to prison for looting a stereo from Argos in Catford on 8 August. Angered by the sentences handed down, James set up a Facebook group, Free the 1st Time Offenders

"Initially, I sent [Reece] to the shops – nothing was going on at that time, it was about 1 o'clock in the afternoon. I said, 'It's fine – hurry up, get down there and get home.' That was the last contact I had with him.

"Someone called and told me that Reece had been arrested. I just felt sick. People make assumptions, that because you've done something wrong, you must be a villain, and it isn't really like that at all. He was around a heightened situation. He was restricted from getting home: the officers said, 'Oh you can't go past here.' He said, 'I'm just up the road, I'm going home.' And they wouldn't let him through. [Reece] shouldn't have gone in [Argos], and he shouldn't have been nosey. But why wouldn't they let him go through? Stopping him caused him to be in a situation.

"I think the young people were getting involved because there was nothing going on; it's summer holidays, boredom. Call it excitement, call it what you like. But most of the time, there weren't more than 100 young people in one place. I'm finding it really hard to believe the police [couldn't] manage that.

"I was at court [when Reece was sentenced to 14 months]. It was ridiculous. Community service, tagging – that would have been sufficient punishment. I know people did violence, and their punishment may have to be slightly stronger. But first-time offenders, nicking bottles of water, crisps, all them silly things… come on. I was sick to my guts when I walked home from court, I could not believe the judge. It's not like [Reece had] been an offender before.

"He was in Feltham [Young Offenders Institution] for a couple of weeks, then Rochester Prison for three months. It was heartbreaking – it's the first time Reece has been away from the family. After about a month he said he was bored. He's never used that word before – I've brought him up to be creative. So I knew we just had to get books and stuff in because boredom could lead him to get involved with other people in the prison. But he didn't do that, which is great. They just drop you in the cell, with a TV, and to me that's not good enough.

"If there were jobs for everybody, people wouldn't do petty crime, thieving… It's because people haven't got money. I'm not saying I'd go out and do that – I'd rather eat bread and water – but some people do.

"I know Reece is OK, but there are a lot of people who aren't. He works with young people, and he dances – he was in Britain's Got Talent [as a member of the dance troupe Abyss] last year. He's still doing youth work at his school and in the surrounding area – luckily, he's still there, because people know that's not his true character. I'm not going to abandon him; he hasn't committed murder. As far as I'm concerned, it's a blip."

The victim's story

Neil Allum

The 37-year-old set designer was living on Clarence Road, Hackney, which on 8 August became one of the worst scenes of looting and burning

"I lived above a newsagent that got ransacked. I got home, dropped off my stuff, opened my door and was watching it all – to the left were riot police, to the right were rioters. There were cars burning and getting blown up. It was crazy – like something from RoboCop.

"I decided I ought to move my car – I got it out, and then a friend phoned me and said, 'I've just seen on the news, there are people going in and out of your front door.' I started running back, and there were maybe eight to 10 people in my house. I don't know what came over me, but I decided to go for it; I said, 'What the hell are you doing in my house? Get out.' And actually, they weren't aggressive, they were quite pleasant. They were like, 'Oh, OK, right – sorry.' And they got out.

"Then I suddenly thought, oh bugger, what if there are people upstairs? So I had to go into the kitchen and get myself a carving knife and go round all the rooms… my heart was absolutely pounding, I was really fearful, but luckily there was no one else in there.

"People were starting to try to bash the door in, so I decided it would be a good idea to barricade myself in – I pushed the sofa up against it. Then I realised I was locked in… and if there was to be a fire, I could be burnt to death. The only way out was to climb through the windows into a little courtyard. There was a gap of about 20cm I had to squeeze through. Some people got a ladder round the back to help me get out.

"I walked round the front, and it was just horrible. There were hundreds of police, and they were standing there, watching the shop being gutted. I have no idea [why]. There were about 20 people ripping it apart, and the police were literally five metres, 10 metres away, rows and rows of them, but they weren't doing anything.

"I ended up staying round a friend's house. I came back the next day, and my door had been broken down. The shop was an absolute state – it stank of fire, and booze, and there was rubbish everywhere. The girl I lived with, her car was one of the ones that got burnt out.

"I moved back in – it stank for a long time, but I had nowhere else to go. The place was ransacked, but luckily I'm not the sort of person who has a widescreen TV and Nike trainers; I collect Staffordshire pottery and taxidermy heads, and I think they didn't know what to do with them! I wasn't insured – an iPod and things like that went missing, [but] what can you do?

"It did change how I felt about the area: though I'd never had any problems before, it's never been the safest of places, and I definitely felt on edge afterwards.

"But I also think it brought the community, those who weren't involved [in the violence], together. People rallied round and raised quite a lot of money for Siva [Kandiah], whose shop it was. And it was amazing when troops of people turned up with mops and brooms."

The looter's story

Aston Walker

On 10 August, the 41-year-old film-maker went out in Birmingham city centre with a camera intending to film what was going on – before turning to looting himself. He was arrested, sentenced to 16 months for burgling commercial premises, and served four months in prison

"It was five in the morning. I went out to film it. I've just made a feature film, and I've won awards for my music videos, so I film most days. From the age of 15, I've also been involved in petty criminal activity, and kept the company of ex-cons and criminals. I didn't really feel bad about it – one lives a certain sort of lifestyle, outside of the law, there's a certain disenfranchisement. These things culminated in this event: I selfishly and greedily helped myself to several hundred pounds' worth of clothes from H&M: shorts, sweatpants, sweaters.

"The streets were empty, desolate, with the debris strewn around the high street. It was a very, very strange sight – akin to a post-apocalyptic scene. So I got stuck in.

"The CCTV cameras saw me leaving and a [police] unit was sent out. I was arrested, and taken into custody. Then it was just embarrassment, shame. But I also suffered a certain catharsis: after many years of petty criminality, the law had caught up with me at last.

"I got 16 months and I was sent to Winson Green Prison for six weeks, then Stoke Heath in Shropshire. The sentence seemed reasonable – I had in mind I'd be in two or three years – and I was out in four months. I wasn't afraid: I converted to Islam at 21, and fear is not part of my approach to life, except fear of God.

"No one's perfect. There are no perfect politicians, businessmen, bankers. There are no perfect Muslims, no perfect Jews. One accepts one's imperfections, and one tries to address those issues. The crystallisation of these thoughts occurred in prison: I have to make that [choice] – petty criminality or focusing on my creative activities. I've made that decision now, I've got rid of certain characters in my life, and I focus on my work.

"I'm starting a fashion and design course at college in September, and I'm working on the sequel to my film, Gozooheck. Probation also referred me to Sifa Fireside [a charity working with the socially excluded] and I'm helping on Open Cinema, which works with homeless addicts. As part of my rehabilitation, I'm also working with a charity in Cyprus, which has set up a YouTube channel called Stop Blood.

"Britain has a culture of greed, of entitlement, whether it's politicians [feeling entitled] to moats or businessmen to tax breaks. What do you really expect? The capitalist model, that the rich get richer but the benefits trickle down to the poor, it's not happening.

"We've all been encouraged to be suspicious, to be individualistic, out for yourself and the riots are a manifestation of that. It's not a case of anything being learnt: all the veils of mumbo-jumbo have been lifted, the gossamer-thin fig leaves of law and order are just evaporating, and people can see all the corruption."

The firefighter's story

Bernie Higgins

A deputy assistant commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, Higgins, 50, was involved in commanding operations across south London on Monday 8 August, the worst night of the rioting in the capital

"I'm head of London Fire Brigade's Special Operations Group, which deals with planning and training for critical incidents, including those involving large-scale public disorder. I was off-duty on Saturday and Sunday, but I was kept fully aware of what was unfolding. I was involved in [putting out fires] during the riots in Tottenham and Brixton in the early 1980s. Watching [the events unfold] on the telly, I was taken right back.

"On Monday, we had a debrief about the weekend's events; the general feeling was that the response had been very good, but there was also relief that no one had lost their lives, because there were times when we couldn't get to people as quickly as we wanted, as we had to wait for police protection.

"We were beginning to get the vibe that things might spread from Tottenham, but it caught us [by surprise] just how suddenly it went all over London in the blink of an eye. That night, I was called up about half past nine, and asked to go to Reeves Corner in Croydon, where the Reeves furniture store was alight. When I got there, one of the store's two buildings was already a gonner; the priority was to search and clear the surrounding buildings, and stop the fire spreading to them.

"The actual fire-fighting scene was very orderly: commanding the incident was easier than a normal emergency, oddly enough, because usually you'd be thinking about other things like getting the traffic flowing again and the area back to normal, but what was normality with all that going on?

"When we had the fire contained, after midnight, I went to Lavender Hill in Battersea, where three shops and the flats above were on fire, and then finally back to Croydon, Sumner Road. A whole row of shops and flats was almost totally burnt down; it looked like the Blitz.

"The most difficult aspect was knowing there were people on the immediate scene trying to prevent you doing your job; one of the things that kept playing on my mind was the possibility that I might have to withdraw crews in the middle of rescuing people.

"I know it sounds airy-fairy, but what really helped on the night were the acts of kindness, people coming out with cups of tea and cakes. I've also never met anyone more graceful under pressure than Mr Reeves, the owner of the furniture shop, who came and thanked the crews for saving the other building.

"I look back on it as a learning experience about how to do the job under extreme circumstances. I don't think there's anything we would have done differently, but we've been training with the Met and the ambulance service recently, and we need to do more in terms of co-ordination, in order to be ready for that level of risk and threat." Interview by Hugh Montgomery

The shopkeeper's story

Jan Asante

The 34-year-old runs Gisella Boutique in Peckham with her mother, Gisella Asante, 58, selling bespoke designs and bridalwear. The shop was looted by rioters on 8 August but has now re-opened

"We had been warned by a client that trouble was coming, so we started packing up the shop, as much as we could. As we were leaving, we saw a crowd – hooded, with masks – on the street.

"We live in Dulwich and we watched the news like everyone else that night. We were panicking about whether we'd find the shop in one piece the next day. Around midnight, we got the news from someone we didn't know, via Facebook, that the shop had been attacked. We went over around 6am, and the shop had been ransacked. We stood there in shock; it was brutal. We had just celebrated the shop's 20th anniversary.

"There had even been an attempt to burn it. Some of our customers had been on the streets, fighting people, trying to get them to stop taking things. One young lady brought back some fabric they'd been attempting to take. She actually came and did an internship with us afterwards – she was studying fashion – so that was one of the few good things that came from it.

"We found out that two children had been involved – an 11- and a 13-year-old. They were arrested and are still on referral for the attacks. I was shocked by that, even though from the TV footage you could see what was happening. I was horrified – yet six, seven, eight months on, you feel almost indifferent. Recreating that anger and pain is just debilitating and exhausting.

"We were boarded up for three months. It took an unbelievably long time for contractors and the insurance to pay up – we're still claiming the insurance. I don't know how we've survived without the pay-out. We did not take any time off from August till January; every day we were trying to put it back together. We've worked harder in the past year than in the previous 20, but it's [still] been touch and go. It will take us years to make back our own work. And it was the busiest time of the year, the bridal season. They looted fabrics, clothing, mannequins. They even stole business cards!

"The next day, there were very nice people, part of the clean-up operation, who helped – and friends helped us clean up the shop. But after the dust settles, you really realise it's left to me and my mum to just work hard.

"We did consider moving. It's a very animated area, to say the least, but for the most part it's been good. We have a great business and premises, and it would be difficult, in the midst of a recession, to move. And things are picking up. We have had so many kind words.

"I don't feel enough police were deployed [on the day]. I don't know [why]. I don't know what to expect for their preparations for the Olympics; I haven't heard anything about a strong deterrent for this summer. What has the [Government's] response been? I haven't heard anything. I do feel it might all happen again."

The Twitter campaigner's story

Daniel Thompson

After watching the coverage of the riots, the 38-year-old artist started the #riotcleanup campaign on Twitter

"I was in London for the first two days [of the riots], then I returned to Worthing, where I live, on Monday [8 August] and caught up with the news. I was shocked that this wasn't like the usual political protests; the people being hit were small, independent traders.

"I wanted to find a way to help them – but also to help all my friends in London who were getting increasingly scared. A lot of people were talking about barricading their front doors; I wanted to find a way for them to stand up and say, 'We live here too,' without it becoming a political act. So I started #riotcleanup on the Monday night. I started tweeting late, midnight, and set out with a target of getting 50 people involved. By the middle of the next day, it had 76,000 followers on Twitter…

"The most important thing for me was that the campaign happened very quickly – overnight – but then it encouraged other things, such as the Riot Rebuild campaign. The spirit of the people who got involved was phenomenal, from families with small children to old ladies. It was easy if you wanted to join in – you didn't have to be clever or have any special equipment.

"And that was what I intended to do on the Tuesday. But I had the first media call at six in the morning; I did 45 interviews throughout the first day, non-stop; I had 3,000 emails to get through at the end of the day. Tweets and retweets reached, I think, three million. Sadly, and this is the bit I feel guilty about, I never actually got to pick up a broom! All I could do was sit there and manage it, making sure the information flowed, that people got to a place where they could help.

"We completely dispelled the idea that Twitter was aiding the rioters. Twitter is, for starters, a neutral platform – it isn't good or bad inherently. But I think we showed there's an overall number of good people using Twitter. I went to Number 10 that week and met David Cameron: I had five minutes of his time and I spent it saying, 'Twitter is good.' After that, they did start to calm down, but there were some fairly bonkers thing from MPs saying we should close the internet.

"My politics have always been pretty well to the left; I believe in anarchy, in the spirit of people not needing government but standing up to organise themselves. #riotcleanup was an anarchic act; there weren't leaders. So to be a self-proclaimed anarchist and have David Cameron mention you in his keynote conference speech, where he used me as an example of great British leadership… [it] is very flattering but it missed the point.

"We're launching a project now called We Will Gather, which will use Twitter to start a community action of any shape or size – a clean-up after a riot, a litter-pick or beach-clean. It is [a direct descendant] of #riotcleanup; I wouldn't have been able to go to [the charity] Nesta and the Cabinet Office and get £100,000 funding to do that without it."