Wednesday, August 17, 2011
The curtain raiser to the days of anarchy we've all just witnessed was of course Tottenham which blew up when we were in Kent visiting some friends. I watched what was happening on Twitter, and had a look at the initial news pictures. For what it's worth I now think one of the most significant things about Tottenham as far as the overall policing picture was concerned was what happened next door in Wood Green where a lot of looting went on unopposed for some hours.
Certainly what transpired in Brixton the following evening was definitely more about Wood Green style looting than anger against the police. I was turning in at around eleven on Sunday when I saw on my twitter feed that something was afoot there, so I took my iphone and ventured into the streets.
I'm still trying to make sense of what I saw. First, in central Brixton, deployed around Coldharbour Lane, I found about a hundred and fifty police officers sealing some streets. These were a 'hard core' of public order trained officers with riot equipment, and a larger number of uniformed officers who chatted when I ID'd. They had been deployed to meet with some trouble that had happened directly after the Brixton Splash festival, and were clearly apprehensive. The usual resources the Met can deploy along with riot equipped officers weren't there. No horses, no dogs and the chopper wasn't in evidence. One officer said to another that "we're stretched across the Met" and I started to realise that it was now kicking off across London. They were forming into lines, and were clearly expecting Tottenham style confrontation. What they got was Wood Green.
I watched as a line of worried police in normal uniforms stretched across one end of a side street - then they heard something on their radio and ran fifty metres to the other end. There were no locals to be seen. It was as if they were waiting for a battle but it simply wasn't going to come.
To cut a long story short I wandered out onto Brixton Road, where all the shops are - and here there were no police at all. It was about midnight and H&M had already been looted, and I think the Footlocker might already have been torched. There were loads of older kids running around and cycling about with masks on their faces. But there was no massive angry mob - really a couple of hundred or so people, if that. They'd form into a group suddenly - then disperse just as fast.
I saw one kid in a bikers helmet attack the McDonalds windows with a pole. Up the road a bit a woman had grabbed a chair and was smashing the windows of Morleys the department store, which has been in Brixton through thick and thin. The windows and door of the KFC was smashed and the till was in the middle of the pavement outside. I saw a member of staff still inside who looked at a total loss. The H&M was ransacked, with people shouting at each other to get something. But there was no rhyme or reason to it, clothes were just left up and down the street. I watched as one girl struggled with a bin liner full of stuff not thirty feet from the line of riot police watching in a line across Coldharbour Lane. Some sort of collective madness had descended.
I heard one character say to another that Curry's was next and people began to stream up the road towards it. The atmosphere was odd, like Guy Fawkes night gone wrong. I saw two guys try to pick up some girls. When I got to Curry's which is in a kind of mini retail park with a neighbouring Halfords (not robbed when I was watching - I'm still trying to work out why) the shop was being attacked by about thirty people intent on getting through the steel doors. There were no police in sight. People were bringing up storage wheelie bins from around the back of the building - it had an semi - organized feel.
Rain began to fall and I decided I'd pushed my luck as far as I was going to that night. I toddled off home along reasonably quiet streets, seeing small groups of youths emerging from a nearby estate already wearing hoods and masks - clearly the weather wasn't going to put them off.
What followed was some of the busiest days I've ever had on a newsdesk and it began to dawn on me how privileged I am to work with the people I do - night after night they were putting themselves out there, doing the coverage, with not a single whinge.
When Manchester, Salford, West Brom and Birmingham all kicked off simultaneously on Tuesday evening I gave up trying to work out why things were happening, and to be honest I still don't have the sociology or even the politics to rationally account for the things we've all seen. It's easy to guess the causes, much harder to really know.