London riots hit home
By Rita Payne, eTN | Aug 10, 2011
LONDON, England (eTN) – We had watched the late TV news and were shocked by the images of looting, arson, street battles, and general mayhem engulfing swathes of north, east, and south London. We headed for bed relieved that at least we were in a safe part of west London far from the centers where the worst of the riots were taking place. We heard police cars with sirens blaring in the distance but were not overly concerned since these sounds are very much the backdrop of city life. I decided to check the latest news on the Internet and noticed a couple of lines about some incidents in our borough, Ealing. The reports said groups of marauding youths were smashing shop windows, a local building had been set on fire, and a number of cars had been torched. The road outside our house looked quiet but sleep was difficult; we were uneasy.
Shortly after 1:00 am, a ping on my phone alerted me to a text message from a journalist friend who lives in a block of apartments about a ten-minute walk from our house. It read: “Roving gangs on our estate now at Bloomsbury Close. Some jumped the tube line and are walking down past your house. Don’t answer the door. Ealing burning.”
Since the friend is a new father with a baby just a few months old, I texted back to ask if he was alright and whether the police had been alerted. He texted back, “Police are too busy tonight. The thugs we saw were masked and armed and looking for trouble. Several jumped onto the tube [underground] tracks. They now seemed to have left the area.”
As a precaution, we checked that all the doors and windows in our house were firmly shut. Police sirens continued to wail through the night while helicopters circled overhead. To our relief there were no signs of trouble on our road. We found out later that elsewhere in Ealing, thugs broke into homes by kicking in front doors and made off with whatever they could find.
A man in his fifties was badly beaten up after apparently remonstrating with rioters who had set fire to a bin; he died later in hospital. Police were initially unable to identify him because they suspect his attackers stole his wallet and any other items which might have provided information about him.
There were reports of hooded youths barging into restaurants and making off with diners’ wallets and credit cards. We were told about gangs roaming the streets carrying rolls of toilet paper, which they doused in petrol and set alight under cars. As far as the rioters were concerned it was a party; for the victims it was a nightmare.
The next morning I decided to walk to Ealing town center to see the extent of the damage for myself. I came across clusters of people exchanging accounts of the previous night’s events. A tall, lean man passed by pushing a white bicycle, which looked too small for him. He was wearing jeans, a dark jacket, and white trainers. I noticed he had a slight limp. As he walked past a girl called out, “That’s my bike.” The man stopped, hesitated for a moment as though unsure how to respond, then casually mounted the bike and rode off.
As I turned the corner towards the main underground station, I saw the first signs of serious damage. The windows and doors of a Tesco supermarket had been smashed in. Further down, windows of restaurants, bars, and a pharmacy were also shattered, with glass shards scattered on the pavement. A TV camera crew was outside filming. The worst destruction was on the high street where no shop or restaurant appeared to have escaped the attention of the rioters. A traffic cone had been hurled at the entrance to a shopping mall, and it was now wedged in the glass door.
Crowds of people gathered on the green opposite a small supermarket, which had been set ablaze during the night. All that remained were the charred, exposed walls; everything inside had been stripped. Reporters and cameramen were busily relaying images of the devastation to viewers across the world. It was shocking and painful to see familiar buildings and stores we visited every day scarred and wrecked. Small businesses built up through years of hard work and sacrifice had been destroyed overnight. Referring to the rioters, one woman commented to her young son, “It’s about stupidity; they don’t think.”
By early afternoon, much of the debris had been cleared by teams of volunteers who had linked up through the Internet. Within a few hours, young men and women armed with brooms and brushes had cleared the worst of the debris. It was heartening to see that the ugly and wanton destruction of Monday night had also brought out the best in people. The community came together determined not to allow the rioters to break their spirit. A bystander observed, “I hope there will be something positive coming out of this.” This was a hope we all shared.
Politicians and the police were caught unawares by the scale of the violence which erupted in London and spread to Birmingham, Manchester, and other cities. The trouble was triggered by peaceful protests over the death of a young man shot dead by police. The protesters were demanding to know exactly how the man came to be shot.
Gangs went on the rampage and soon Londoners were transfixed by images on TV of buildings and cars in flames, masked youths, some as young as twelve, breaking into stores and emerging with bags full of clothes, shoes, mobile phones, or struggling to carry out looted flat-screen TVs. No one was prepared for the total breakdown of law and order.
The events of the past few days have been traumatic for people in Britain who felt helpless while anarchy seemed to prevail. Serious questions are now being asked about the root causes of the violence and the actions of what commentators described as a “feral generation,” brought up in broken homes, without education, jobs, or any hope of a decent future.
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, and his colleagues rushed back from their summer breaks to demonstrate that they were in control. The Prime Minister announced that 16,000 police would be deployed across London and all leave for metropolitan police was being cancelled. Many complained that the response came too late. The timing could not have been worse for London with the Olympics exactly a year away.
We were relatively fortunate in our little corner of London, where on a scale of one to ten, we had experienced a fraction of the disturbances that had affected other areas of the city. Nevertheless, for Londoners on the whole, it was a loss of innocence. One gets used to images of riots and lawlessness in distant parts of the world projected on our TV screens; we discovered that the horror becomes very real when it occurs on your own doorstep.
Rita Payne is Chair of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (UK)