London’s burning: Violence is in the air

By Rebecca Davis 9 August 2011

What will probably come to be known as “The 2011 London Riots”, has not only spread to other major UK cities, but assumed a grotesque racial mask. If it wasn’t so real, it would be the stuff of Stephen King and Dean Koontz novels  - the manifestation of evil in ordinary people. Doubtless, moralists will also desperately seek plausible rationality in the madness. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Less than a year before the 2012 Olympic Games, Londoners were treated to scenes from a dystopian sci-fi flick last night as the capital burnt for the second day in a row. Police sirens bleated incessantly, performing an eerie duet with the continuous droning of helicopters overhead.  News footage of armoured cars rolling through Bank, the city’s financial heartland, carried a sense of the surreal.

Other video, largely camera-phone-shot, was destined to go viral instantly. Watch Debenhams, the upmarket department store which normally sees no action more violent than over-competitive shoppers in the January sales, meet a fiery end in Clapham Junction. Check out the looter filmed helping an injured boy to his feet with apparent solicitousness – only to rob him of the contents of his backpack. This was “Lord of the Flies” stuff: a city overrun by angry youth armed with knives and hammers. It’s the realisation of every Daily Mail reader’s worst nightmare.  

As the city uneasily licked its wounds on Tuesday morning, with every indication that the violence is spreading to other UK cities, the almost palpable question in the air was: What on earth is going on? The ostensible initial cause of the riots was the shooting of Mark Duggan last Thursday by police. Mark Duggan, 29, was a man described variously as “Michael Duggan” (Boris Johnson, proving how in touch he is); a “father-of-four” (by the Guardian); and a “gangster” (by the Daily Mail, who also repeatedly printed a photograph of him pulling a gang sign). There seems little doubt that Duggan was a bit of a bad seed, with a long and distinguished prison record, and it is likely he was involved in gang activity in Tottenham, in North London where he lived. Exactly what happened in the moments before his death is still unclear (and the police sure aren’t telling yet). The fact is, however, that he was killed by a police bullet after they pulled over a minicab he was travelling in to issue an arrest warrant.

On Saturday, around 300 members of Duggan’s community met outside the Tottenham police station to protest against his killing. The moment at which the “protest” tipped into “riot” is, again, uncertain: but by 20:00, shops were burning. What had begun as a legitimate expression of concern at police tactics had been effectively hijacked. Who was responsible? Young people it seems – largely teenagers aged between 14 and 17. Some of the partially-concealed faces in photographs of the looters look jaw-droppingly young.  There were scenes straight out of some caper movie where adults and kids swap roles for a day: a 14-year-old boy was spotted precariously driving a stolen car through Hackney.

Watch: ?Behind the London riots a multitude of causes? (Euronews)

And they stole. Boy, did they steal. Certain types of shops were more popular. Downmarket takkie shop JD Sports was consistently cleaned out in every area where rioting occurred. Electronics shops were a big hit – mobile phones, computers and TVs flew off the counters. In Clapham, a man was spotted – in a curious mix of anarchy and obedience – waiting for the green man at a traffic light with a large TV under his arm. As a Twitter user memorably put it: “The youth of the Middle East rise up for basic freedoms. The youth of London rise up for a HD ready 42″ Plasma TV”.

Part of what was so unnerving about the spectacle was the naked greed on display. They swept through shops like locusts, leaving bare shelves. Weeping shopkeepers today surveyed what will run to countless millions of lost pounds. There are photos of people looting bags of basmati rice and wooden rocking horses. There is an unconfirmed report that a genuine photo exists of a boy looting (or “lute-ing”) a lute. You know, the medieval stringed instrument. They sat in people’s front gardens calmly dividing and categorising their spoils.

And everywhere they went, they smashed and burnt as much as possible – proving that their motives were not merely avarice, but also destruction. Why? Columnists have already begun producing what is certain to be a highly tiresome epidemic of theorising about the psychology of the rioters. Certain facts are obvious though. They are urban, they are angry, and in the majority of images thus far, they are black.

England’s dirty little secret is its racism, which lies simmering underground until, every now and then, something triggers its expression. After the London bombings, anti-Muslim sentiment was everywhere – but it had always been there. It was simply that because Londoners were killed by al Qaeda, it was now okay to publically discuss your hatred for the “rag-heads” and “camel jockeys”. It is similarly grotesquely unfortunate that the current riots are certain to pave the way for a great deal of openly articulated racism against black people. This is already clear – take a look at the message boards of UK news websites like the Tory-favouring Telegraph.

One of the most astonishing film clips to come out of the riots features an elderly West Indian woman captured fearlessly confronting rioters in Hackney. Supported by a walking stick, she yells: “This is about a man who got shot in Tottenham, this is not about busting up the place!” Rioters move past her, laden with their booty, as she continues: “Get real, black people! If we’re fighting for a cause, let’s fight for a cause!”

Yet some would argue that this army of angry kids is fighting for a cause. They are expressing their rage with a system that seems consistently either indifferent or hostile to them. It is virtually impossible for a black youth in London to move around the capital without being stopped and searched by police at some point, while their white counterparts saunter by unhindered.  They are more likely to be arrested, and less likely to find work. It is not hard to see in this the seeds of real anger. “There ain’t no black in the Union Jack,” skinheads used to chant.  With every brick they hurl, these children defiantly answer them. DM

Photo: Fire fighters continue to tackle a fire at the Sony Centre in Enfield, north London August 9, 2011. British Prime Minister David Cameron said he would recall parliament from its summer recess for a day on Thursday after rioting swept through London for three consecutive nights. REUTERS/Chris Helgren.


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