[dropcap]W[/dropcap]e were standing in a loose crowd of people in the middle of the road, watching a line of riot police advancing on an army of kids hurling bricks and bottles. Two helicopters circled overhead; a smashed-up bus stood abandoned on the road; the acrid smell of burning rubber, rising from the charred remains of a car, drifted in the air.
I’ve witnessed many protests before, both peaceful and violent, but these riots, which spread rapidly through London after the police shooting of a man in Tottenham, were different to anything I’d experienced before. The others had all been politically-motivated – or at least, had used politics as an excuse – but this outbreak of looting and lawlessness looked more like a spontaneous upsurge of criminality.
There didn’t seem to be any strategy either for the police or the rioters; one group would rush at the police to throw rocks or fireworks, the police would charge, swinging their batons, and then stop and draw back. Some local residents were screaming abuse – mostly directed at the police – from windows above looted shops, some were milling about taking photos, and groups of young teenage girls were dashing around, giggling with excitement.
At one point one of these teenage girls got caught up in a police charge, panicked and tripped over my feet. A riot cop ran up to her and started roaring ‘Raaaagh! Raaaagh!’ in her face to scare her off. It was utterly ridiculous, seeing a grown man making noises like a monster to frighten a young girl, but demonstrated very clearly that the police were as confused as the rest of us, and clearly panicking. The girl ran off, screaming and laughing, before a white guy in a hoodie jumped forward and hurled a large rock, which smashed against the policeman’s shield and prompted another baton charge. In the middle of this, East London hipsters, with trendy moustaches and skinny jeans, snapped photographs on fashionable cameras.
‘I wanted to be here at the start of the uprising,’ said a middle-aged man with an African accent. ‘I wanted to see history being made.’ ‘Shopkeepers are paying local gangs to steal a car, drive in front of their shop and set it on fire, for the insurance,’ said someone else I talked to. Rumours were flying through the air faster than glass bottles.
Undoubtedly, gangs were involved: on Clarence Road later in the evening, I saw a mobile army of kids, hooded and masked, on BMX bikes, riding in to shoot fireworks at police before escaping down an alley. At one point I heard one of them shout, ‘TV shop!’, and off they went, from one target to another, plundering what they wanted.
Clarence Road was the scene of the most determined disorder, which lasted throughout the night. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the worst rioting happened here, on one of Hackney’s most deprived streets. It certainly resembled an insurrection – cars and bins forming burning barricades to block the road at each end, a crowd of 300 or so resisting police attempts to advance – until I saw the local convenience store, a small, independent shop, looted and vandalised. The owner was on the radio next morning, saying his life had been destroyed, unable to comprehend why his neighbours would target him.
If this was an insurrection – poor people rising up against the rich – why were people attacking local businesses as well as high street shops? Why were they smashing up their own estates and trashing their own communities? Are we witnessing a youth rebellion or a massive crime wave? A reaction to the public spending cuts? Whatever the answer is, it was different to anything London has seen before.
The riots, sparked off by a shooting, exposed how deeply hatred for the police runs in many communities, especially in ethnic minority areas. But few people believe the violence had much to do with this. It doesn’t seem to be about race; the kids on the streets of Hackney were black and white in fairly equal numbers. A lot of it was opportunism, with local gangs taking advantage of an overstretched and unprepared police force. And a lot of it just seemed like the eruption of deep, pent-up frustration, coupled with an absolute disdain for all authority.
The government’s line so far has been ‘this is nothing but criminal behaviour,’ blaming the violence squarely on gang culture and lack of respect for the law. Yes, it was criminal behaviour. Yes, gang culture and lack of respect – for the law, for authority, for communities – clearly played a large part. But to say that these are the only factors seems every bit as naïve as saying ‘it’s all society’s fault.’ Anger doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It doesn’t build up without reason. I don’t believe it’s an accident that these upheavals are happening now, in an atmosphere of economic chaos and cuts to public spending. The kids throwing petrol bombs at the police may not be able to articulate their despair in economic terms – and their violence may be confused, unfocused, greedy and misdirected – but it is rooted in social exclusion, unemployment and alienation from what we call ‘mainstream society.’ The cuts, and the downturn as a whole, have hit the most vulnerable communities the hardest, and had a devastating effect on exactly the kind of initiatives designed to reach out to young people like these: programmes to keep kids out of gangs, rehabilitate young offenders and engage progressively with socially disadvantaged groups.
Again, the gangs looting jewellery shops do not necessarily frame things this way. But the message filtering down from above – and these messages do filter down – is: ‘There’s no more help for you. Society can’t afford it.’ Already lacking the opportunities that many of us take for granted, young people now have even less reason to engage with the wider community. They believe they’ve got little to lose, and this, ugly as it is, is how their anger expresses itself. Yes, the looting is selfish and greedy; but in a hyper-consumerist society, what greater prize can you hope to win from a seemingly hopeless situation than a brand new flatscreen TV or a pair of expensive trainers?
Later that evening in Tottenham I came across a gathering of residents, rallying round a megaphone to denounce the riots, the police and the cuts in the same breath. One black woman took the stage and started yelling at a kid in the crowd: ‘Those trainers on your feet, you just robbed them from JD Sports! Give them back! Have respect for yourself! You can be better than that!’ It was a positive scene, reminiscent of the clean-up operations, and other shows of community solidarity, appearing in the news.
But then a young black man approached the gathering from across the road. He was clearly furious, looking for any excuse to explode. He punched the wing-mirror off a passing car, kicked a bus, and plunged into the crowd. I saw a TV camera fly through the air to smash to pieces on the ground, and people trying to get away as he muscled his way towards the stage. He grabbed the megaphone from a man busily denouncing the government and hurled it against a lamppost. ‘Why are you doing this? You’re worse than the police!’ one lady shouted, as he tried to pick fights with anyone around. He then made for a nearby shop, shouting: ‘Turks! Kurds! Come on, you fucking pussies! What are you going to do?’ A group of Middle Eastern men came out warily, ready to fight. A police-car slowed down to watch, and the man challenged them: ‘Come on! Just do something! Do something! Fucking try it!’ The police simply drove away.
The guy’s attention was then distracted by a man with dreadlocks piled on his head, who had the appearance of a local drunk, making his way unsteadily down the pavement. For no apparent reason he attacked him, punching him to the ground and then proceeding to kick him in the head while passers-by stared, horrified. ‘That’s Noodles, man!’ shouted someone else in a vain attempt to get him to stop, ‘Noodles is cool! Leave him alone!’ The two of them obviously knew one another, but that didn’t seem to matter.
This happened in broad daylight. He didn’t care who he punched, who he attacked or intimidated. Passing traffic, community spokespeople, Turks, Kurds, policemen or drunks: he was waging war on the world, trying to smash everything in sight. I had the sense that the rioting has lifted the lid on a larger violence; that anger and hatred, normally hidden, were bursting out everywhere. This guy, in his rage, was as unable to distinguish his enemies as the kids rioting on Clarence Road were incapable of telling the difference between burning down a branch of a bank, attacking the police, attacking reporters and destroying a local man’s grocery store.
Again, I thought of the man on Mare Street: ‘It’s like everyone is angry – they just don’t know why yet.’
Nick Hunt – a journalist and a writer, concerned with climate change, language loss, biocultural diversity, politics and travel. His work has appeared in The Economist, The Guardian Travel, New Internationalist, Resurgence, Search, Geographical, World Conservation, Succourand and BBC Radio 4.