“This way, please!” says the man in the high-visibility jacket. He looks worried. They’ve blocked off the main exit of Clapham Junction Station, sealing it off behind a wall of police. The exit we’re being directed towards spills out onto Lavender Hill, just up from the main intersection. People mill outside the station, staring down towards it. Nobody seems to know what’s happening, and few seem willing to head down the hill to find out.
The riots that have engulfed London over the past 12 hours have finally reached us.
It’s 22:00 and my girlfriend and I had been at a climbing wall in north London. We’d been relieved that we hadn’t run into any trouble. Hackney, about 3km away from where we had been, was already a burning wreck. Trouble had started south too, boiling up the line from Croydon and Waddon. The big screens at Vauxhall Station had been filled with images of burning buildings and aerial shots of black-clad riot cops holding off charges of hooded youths.
Coming out the station, our route takes us past the boarded-off entrance. My girlfriend asks one of the cops what’s going on. “It all kicked off earlier,” he says. “They’re wrecking all the shops.” Wonderful. So which way should we go? “Anywhere that isn’t that way,” he says, pointing in the direction of home. Between us and our house is a seething street full of rioters. Clearly, getting home the usual way is not an option.
Watch: British PM Recalls Parliament Amid Riots (AP Video)
We can see the Debenhams department store building at the corner of the intersection. It’s a venerable old structure, a listed building which was the first of its kind in South London. As we watch, a rioter in a black hoodie puts a fire extinguisher through one of the windows. Then he’s in, disappearing into the store. Clearly, we’re not going that way.
But we’re South Africans. We can handle urban unrest. Besides, we tell the cop, we know the backroads. It’ll take us longer to get home, but we can do it. We duck off the main drag onto a side road, Severus Street. Away from the high street, it’s quieter, darker. And it becomes very clear that this is the worst possible thing we could have done.
What’s the only thing more stupid than walking home through a riot zone? Walking home through the streets surrounding it, which the rioters are using as access points. Especially when you’re outnumbered, laden down with two full backpacks and wallets, keys, cellphones. The words “easy targets” don’t quite cut it. Already, we’re being stared down by huddled groups of people on the corner. They’ve got boxes at their feet: Playstations, HiFis, flatscreen TVs.
We turn right off Severus Street, heading deeper into the council housing area. We can see the high street at the bottom of the road. It’s a war zone: shop windows are smashed, and there’s litter everywhere. We’ll learn later that there were no police attending to the looting at all; they didn’t venture any further from the station. The force is already somewhere north of breaking point and every cell in London will soon be full. For the moment, the high street is the biggest free-for-all in south London.
And why are they doing it? Why are the rioters – most of whom seem to be in their teens – opening up the business district like a tin can? Many will say they’re doing it in support of Mark Duggan, a Tottenham man shot dead by police last week. His shooting was the spark that ignited the protests that turned into citywide (and now countrywide) riots, although his family have roundly condemned the rioting. But frankly, it’s a little hard to believe. When we’ve got a young boy running past us, screaming “I got an Xbox, bruv, believe it! There’s bare free stuff down there!”, the explanation starts to stick in the throat a little. Likewise when BBMs start to circulate, urging people to meet up in Oxford Circus and smash shops for more “free stuff”.
Photo: A police dog handler stands behind officers in riot gear blocking a road near a burning car on a street in Hackney, east London August 8, 2011. Youths hurled missiles at police in northeast London on Monday as violence broke out in the British capital for a third night. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor
We head deeper into the rows of houses. Turning left by the park, we stop dead. There are three hooded figures standing at the end of the road, leaning on parked cars, blocking off the pavement. Something about the way they’re standing causes hairs to stand up on my neck. “Turn around,” I say to my girlfriend. “Right now.” We start walking in the opposite direction.
And at that very moment, our phones go crazy with bleeping. Oh hell. Friends are seeing Clapham on the news, and are texting us to find out if we’re okay. Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks. Just keep walking. Are they following us? Not sure. I want to go down to High Street, thinking we can slip unnoticed through the chaos and avoid the hairy backstreets, but it’s too late for that. My girlfriend is – sensibly, in hindsight – dragging us up to the main road above Battersea Cemetery. A few roads down, and a quick hop across the bottom part of high street, lies our house.
By now, we’re looking everywhere, trying to see if anybody else has spotted us. The noise from High Street is louder: a roaring whoosh of shouts and smashes. It’s a long walk across the top end of the dark cemetery. At one point, we spot someone ducking behind a pillar at the main gates as we approach. Crossing the road to the far side, we see that he’s vanished, presumably having hidden among the trees and the gravestones.
Normally, this is one of the safest areas in London. They call it Nappy Valley: apocryphally, there are more under-fives in this suburb than in any other area in Europe. Tonight, it’s been turned into… well, something else. We make it home – but we’ve never been so happy to hear the door click shut.
The next morning, High Street is a broken, twisted, boarded-off mess, eerily quiet. The electronics store Curry’s has been utterly taken apart, as has Costa Coffee. Even the Boots chemist has been smashed in. Ironically, the only thing that hasn’t been touched seems to be a bookstore, WH Smith’s.
Throughout the day, the news will be awash with footage, both pro and amateur. The Sky reporter, who ventured up Lavender Hill, caught footage of a group of rioters tearing a flatscreen TV off the wall of the bookies. The Wimpy just down the road has been smashed: it’s owned, as the local paper The South African will report, by Odile Ham, a Saffa who also owns another Wimpy in Twickenham. The rioting has gone nationwide: Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol have all gone crazy. People have lost their jobs, their houses, their places of work.
As I write, they’re showing footage of High Street in Clapham. I walk down that street every day. It’s as familiar as my face in the mirror. Now it’s been brutally scarred. DM
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Main photo: Police officers stand near a barricade of burning and vandalised cars on a street in Hackney, east London August 8, 2011. Government officials branded rioters who fought police, looted shops and set fire to buildings at the weekend as opportunistic criminals and said the violence, the worst in London for years, would not affect preparations for next summer’s Olympic Games. REUTERS/Toby Melville
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