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When the underbelly roars

9 August 2011

6:42 PM

9 August 2011

6:42 PM

When the first riots hit Brixton, I was 12 years old. My mates and I came from south London council estates and, while we were no angels, we certainly couldn’t be described as bad kids.

I can’t pretend that I had any real grasp on why people were rioting but I knew it was against the same police who would stop and bug us constantly — even though none of us had either the
balls or inclination to commit crime.

It may sound like a tired cliche but the police didn’t feel like our protectors. They felt like more like an occupying force. And why? There were countless incidents to explain it, but one
that sticks in my mind was in 1981 — the same year as the first Brixton riots. Riding my bike on Oxford St, I was passed by a police van and every single officer made monkey noises at me as
they went by. It wasn’t particularly upsetting. It just cemented in my mind the idea that many black kids had then: that the police were the enemy. So when the riots came, and we heard that
the police were struggling to keep control of chunks of the country, we were more excited than scared.

After the troubles, something changed. It felt like people were afraid of us, just for being young and black. We were used to being disregarded, hassled and underestimated — but we weren’t
used to being feared. As an immature group of bored boys, we enjoyed the temporary shift of power. We talked about how we hoped the troubles would come to our neighbourhood — and told each
other tall stories about the stuff we would loot. Fortunately, for the protection of our posturing bravado, the riots didn’t hit Wandsworth.

Today, 30 years on, I still live on a council estate. I even have a couple of the same friends. We’ve grown up as British society has. While still sometimes irrationally wary of the police, I now
see them as ordinary people with good intentions, trying genuinely hard to build bridges with many formerly “hard to reach” communities. Discrimination still exists, of course, but to
say there haven’t been major improvements — both in the law and in the nation’s culture — is a fantasy. A policeman could conceivably still make monkey noises at a black boy, but he
wouldn’t now do it in a van full of his colleagues and in broad daylight on Oxford St.

So when trouble flared up in Tottenham on Saturday, I was surprised and saddened. I just couldn’t understand what there was to fuel the sustained bout of anger needed for a riot. The only
conclusion was that society had becomes so empty and mindless that a new pair of trainers, or the thrill of setting fire to something, was now enough.

Coming home from work on Monday evening was eerie. The afternoon had been full of stories about trouble in areas as far apart as Hackney and Croydon. Even in my home, Tooting, there was a tense
atmosphere, with a clear police presence and nervous looking shopkeepers.

After watching the rolling news for a while I got a text warning me to keep away from Clapham Junction as there had been some signs of trouble there. My dormant journalistic instinct suddenly
kicked in — and I decided to go to Junction to see first hand. Walking down Falcon Road, where my aunt lives, every face I passed seemed wired — with trepidation, excitement or plain,
stark fear. The roads were empty and shops had shut and, where possible, boarded up.

As I got closer to the Debenhams store, I passed hooded figures nonchalantly going the other way with arms full of booty. More and more people passed me with their grabbed sportswear and electrical
goods. One young guy, who looked about 15, stopped to throw a couple of tracksuits to a girl he fancied from the pile he was struggling to carry. I looked at the faces of the looters and didn’t see
anger, hatred or even a desire for justice. These were just opportunist young people, looking as if they were having the time of their lives.

When I got to Debenhams I saw people walking in and out of the smashed door and window as if they were doing their shopping. I saw people walking up escalators looking for more prized items than
the costume jewellery on the ground floor. I saw a group of around 30 people desperately trying to smash their way into JD Sports.

I saw people watching, open mouthed, struggling to take it all in. What I didn’t see — and this really amazed me — was the police. Not a single one.

Of course, the police had an impossible job as area after area caught the rioting bug, and in Clapham they clearly decided to simply stand back and let the rioters run out of steam. What was also
strangely missing, especially watching the coverage of other areas, was anger or even a feeling of danger. The mood was more like a street party without the music.

The looters and the onlookers were both stunned that this was being allowed to continue.

It seemed that the police would surely show up but with every police-free minute the looters grew bolder. The group breaking into JD sports had now made their way inside through a smashed window
and were emptying the shelves. Not in a panicked way but as if they had all day. People had time to try clothes on, swap them with their fellow looters and even throw away items that weren’t
up to scratch.

Some of the group threw footballs out of the store and these started being kicked around St Johns Rd as the mob laughed and ran amok.

A police car showed up going at speed from Lavender Hill and was met with bottles and soon sped away. It felt like the streets had been conquered by this disparate, opportunist mob.

There were people there with their children, walking into busted shops and filling their hands with property.

I spoke to a guy with a cycling mask and a hood who told me that he saw nothing wrong in taking stuff from the shops. And did he feel guilty? “They’ll get it all back on the insurance
anyway” he said. On and on it went. I saw some people return several times to get more stuff, apparently heading home and unloading and coming back to get more.

Eventually, after about two hours of rampant looting, the police showed up in the shape of two vans. They sped along St Johns Rd and the majority of the mob scattered instantly, fleeing with their
arms full along Falcon Rd back towards Battersea.

The vans screeched to a stop outside Debenhams and JD Sports. They were both full of officers in protective gear but no one got out. The vans then sped back the way they had come down St Johns Rd
and within minutes the looting started up again in slightly smaller numbers.

Then from down St Johns Hill, where the police had set up road blocks, officers with dogs came walking into the trouble zone.

I decided that this would be a good time to leave as I doubted the polices’ ability to tell me apart from a looter even though I made sure not to have anything covering my face and I carried
no bag.

The police — who, from what I saw, behaved with incredible control — can only do what their numbers allow. They rely on those that want to commit crime fearing being caught and for the
rest of us to feel empowered to stand up to them when they get too brave. Sadly, none of that happened last night.

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