Sunday, August 14, 2011

Background to the riots

I re-publish this article from today's Times, which seems to me to reflect a mature attitude to whet happened last week in London. Well done Tim Rayment!

Soon after Leni White settled herself into a seat on her London Underground train, she knew something was wrong. First her fiancé rang to say there was trouble on the streets. Then she realised that two girls sitting opposite were heading for where she lived, intent on mayhem.

The girls, one black and one white, were no older than 15. They were dressed as if for a night out, anxious not to be late for the rendezvous sent to their diamanté-covered BlackBerrys.

“We’ve got to be in Ealing by nine,” they were saying, “because that’s when it’s kicking off.”

White, a classical music singer and composer, wondered if she could deter them. As the train rattled west from Bond Street she rehearsed lines in her head.

“I wanted to say: do you understand the gravity of what you’re about to do?” she recalled. “You won’t realise the consequences until it’s too late. You’re going to ruin your lives.”

In the event, it was her life that suffered. Looters later set fire to the shop below her flat. As White, 31, prepared to flee, she bundled her heavy Apple computer into the kitchen in desperation, thinking that if she could get her life’s work into the oven it might survive the flames. It did not.

Her flat was destroyed and she lost everything, including an unreleased album.

White was just one of many victims as riots, looting and arson spread across London. Pictures of the capital, host of next year’s Olympics, were broadcast around the world showing fires and mayhem on the streets. As disorder spread to other cities, the toll rose to five dead, scores of displaced families, more than 1,600 people under arrest, £200m in stolen and damaged property and a country in shock.

Many of those responsible were gang criminals who could not care less. Others were baffled by their own conduct. One young woman turned herself in after three sleepless nights, unable to explain the theft of a television that she did not need. “I don’t get it,” Natasha Reid sobbed, fearing that her hard-won university degree was now worthless. “Why did I do it?”

Why indeed? Some blamed deprivation, others the consumer society. Many pointed the finger at feckless, failed parents. Perhaps all those factors played their part: what is clear is that last week’s events shattered any illusion that the sort of disorder more often associated with other countries could not happen here.

Few have tried to dignify the lawlessness with a cause. But in one place, and one place only, it started with a grievance. The trigger was a police shooting in north London.

Mark Duggan, 29, was the target of a pre-planned arrest by Operation Trident, Scotland Yard’s gun crime unit.

Described by police sources as “an important player” in the criminal underworld of the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, he was also a father of four whose dual reputation is shown by his entries on Facebook.

As a family man he posted pictures of his children and a poem for his stillborn daughter: another photograph shows him in a T-shirt bearing the words Star Gang, one of the criminal groups whose turf wars in north London have caused at least three deaths. During the bid to arrest him, police, who suspected that Duggan was armed, shot him dead in the back of a minicab. In a misunderstanding, no family liaison officer was sent to tell his parents that they had lost their son.

The intelligence was correct: Duggan did have a firearm, an Olympic BBM 380 starting pistol converted for live rounds. Popular with gangs, these guns were banned two years ago because they can be adapted in under an hour to fire short 9mm ammunition. Before the ban they were available to anyone aged 17 with identification and £85. At one time they were being used in four in 10 shootings in the capital. At first it was claimed that Duggan opened fire on the police. Then it emerged that his weapon had not been discharged. Seventy people gathered for a peaceful protest at Tottenham police station on Saturday, August 6.

The demonstrators included families with children who wanted answers to the confusion over Duggan’s death. The police station was the obvious place to seek them.

Although local officers have worked hard to improve community relations since the hacking to death of PC Keith Blakelock at Broadwater Farm in 1985, the police were in a difficult position. First, the shooting was a Scotland Yard operation and had nothing to do with them. And second, like all fatal police shootings, it was being investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. A constable kept promising the small crowd that someone would address them. Nobody did.

As the afternoon wore on, passers-by joined the group. Many of the newcomers were not close to Duggan and had their own reasons for resentment. The crowd swelled to 300 when fans streaming from the Tottenham Hotspur football ground joined in.

“A local black constable kept telling us the commissioner was going to come down and give us a statement,” said a female resident who is close to the Duggan family and who asked not to be named.

“First he told us it would be just an hour, then 10 minutes, then two hours. He was treating us like idiots, hoping we would just go home, and people were getting more and more frustrated. You could hear the crowd getting angrier and angrier but the police were just standing there saying nothing. At about 8.30pm one guy threw a bottle at the police and that set everyone off. We decided to get out of there because we just knew it was going to get nasty.”

The mob broke windows and set fire to cars and a double-decker bus. At 2am, more than five hours after the first thrown bottle, the mob turned on a 1930s landmark, the Carpetright showroom. Windows were smashed and the store was set alight, with tyres thrown through the broken glass to intensify the blaze. Residents in 26 flats above the showroom pleaded to be spared the fire, pointing out they had children. They were ignored.

Omar Malik, 47, who lived with his wife and young son in one of the flats, called the police twice and the fire brigade three times. Nobody came. In a measured voice, he said: “We felt completely abandoned in our hour of need.”

Their son Oskar, 5, was traumatised. As therapy, his father later asked him to draw a picture of the fire. The child drew his burning home with firefighters pointing their hoses in the wrong direction, while police stood by doing nothing.

The response to the riots was run from the Metropolitan police Gold Command centre in Lambeth, south London. The commander in charge of the response that night was Simon Pountain, the force’s highly respected deputy head of intelligence.

As it became clear that a crisis was unfolding, Gold Command began to fill with dozens of uniformed officers. They sat at banks of computers studying email and radio reports from officers on the ground.

Shortly after midnight on Saturday, Tim Godwin, the Met’s acting commissioner, arrived to be briefed. He stayed into the early hours of Sunday, watching the increasingly alarming situation unfold on huge television screens in Gold Command’s suite of open-plan offices. Yet Godwin and his team failed to grasp the nature and scale of the disorder. Their limited response seems to have encouraged others to chance their luck.

On Sunday a text message sped from phone to phone, inviting “all the brehs in north” to rally at Enfield station, north London, at 4pm. “Whatever ends your from put your ballys on link up and cause havoc, just rob everything”, read the street-slang message.

Soon after 6pm there were reports that shop windows on Enfield’s high street were being broken. Other gangs had targeted Brixton, south London, where three police officers were injured after intervening in an altercation. By 12.45am on Monday, a Foot Locker store on Brixton Road had been set alight. Fanned by social network sites, riots were rippling through the capital Next up was Hackney, in east London, where, according to one former gang member, local youths were bent on revenge against the police. The borough is home to the Pembury Boys, one of London’s most notorious gangs, who had been raided the week before.

On August 3, a “Wire-style” operation by the Met had hit 32 addresses around the Pembury estate, arresting 23 alleged gang members, including the leaders, and confiscating drugs and firearms. The dawn raids had been 18 months in the planning and were presented as a decisive blow against the gang culture dominating Hackney’s estates.

Darrell James, a reformed gang member who works with youths in the area, said the rioting in Tottenham and Enfield had given the Hackney gangs their chance to strike back. As many as four gangs co-operated.

“These guys have each others’ numbers: they talk all the time,” said James, who has served three years in prison for gun dealing. “They clash when some of the younger guys fail to show respect but for those in charge it’s about making money. Their phones were going crazy all morning.”

The Pembury Boys came in from the north and the London Fields crew hit the side streets to the south. “This was a chance to smash up a few coppers and make money,” said James. “They didn’t care about Duggan.”

Mare Street runs through Hackney. By 8pm on Monday the whole road was on fire, cars and rubbish bins ablaze, glass and rubble crunching underfoot, shops with their fronts torn down and the contents looted. Hundreds of people were cheering, yelling obscenities at police and throwing bricks, stones and bottles.

A girl drinking cheap white wine from a looted bottle staggered past and cried at an onlooker: “Welcome to Hackney! This is the best time ever.”

There were children, girls, blacks, some whites, young men, middle-aged men. John Cantlie, a photographer for The Sunday Times who was present, said: “You were immediately struck by the complete lack of coherence or sense of point. It was like a street party but with Molotov cocktails.” Some rioters concealed their faces: others did not bother.

Richard Kenworthy, a film director who lives in the area, noted the body language of the rioters. It was all swagger and male display, he said. One young rioter threw a Molotov that did not ignite — and was visibly embarrassed in front of his friends.

“They do it to show off to their mates,” Kenworthy said.

In his view, the police did an “amazing job” but elsewhere there was no sign of help and precious little protection.


Manu Manickvel said...

Ignoring the drunkards/addicts/criminals - they always provide the volatile triggers - the frustrations of the underprivileged / luckless (bad parents / bad company / poor education or just peer pressure to top it all) somewhere somebody has to care about all these young misguided & un-cared for (the label 'animals' was sad but quite descriptive of their current attitude); punishment for them & their there no better answer in these modern times? Given a second chance most of them, i would wager, would not commit these impulsive many of us are so lucky to be able to weigh the consequences of our acts - teenagers?! Forget it!

Manu Manickvel said...

Of course, all gangs should be broken up - this is where the authorities should do all they could.

Burke said...

This is the result of an entitlement society and its underlying morality: altruism, selflessness, and self-sacrifice.

If these people had to earn what they had, they would have more respect for the property of others. But when they are taught from birth that getting rich is evil and that virtue consists of having a "social consciousness," why should they?

When I see people "protesting," my first thought is why aren't they working. And that one way or another, I'm probably being forced to support them.

My grandmother once told me that the best medicine for whatever ails you is usually good hard work.

Something most of these bums have no clue about.

Get rid of the welfare state, and see how eager they are to spread the wealth they have to earn around-and what they think of vandals who steal and destroy it.

Manu Manickvel said...

Hard work for any ailment is good, Mr. Burke, certainly, but these neighbourhoods were clamouring for exactly that - they felt neglected and ignored - with the highest rate of unemployment in the UK. I live in India, and i can understand that - there are simply not enough jobs for everyone, whether one is qualified or not...this is not an ideal world, sadly.

Manu Manickvel said...

And when you say 'these bums' - i always recall Oscar Wilde(seems he repeated an older saying) - there, but for the sake of God, go i. we are so lucky to have the conscientiousness we can we condemn others not so lucky?! Some solution to this difficult problem of teaching the unteachable has to be found...