Walking home through trendy Shoreditch in London’s East End, I get the feeling that things really are alright. People sit outside the trendy cafes and boutiques enjoying the August sunshine while others stand and admire the impressive mural art for which Shoreditch and Hoxton are famous for.
Turn a corner however and I’m confronted with the reality. Groups of policemen stand on the corners of busy intersections while bars and restaurants not brave enough to open past 6:00 PM are busy boarding up their windows.
Convoys of police “battle bus” vans head north to Hackney and Tottenham while lorries carrying police horses head south towards Clapham and Peckham. Sirens almost fill the air throughout the night as police hurry hither and thither.
The reason? Britain has been gripped by four straight nights of rioting in which people have fought running battles with riot police, looted shops and torched buildings. On Monday night, London faced its worst rioting in over 20 years as locations as far apart as Barking, Brixton, Clapham, Croydon and Ealing Broadway were attacked by gangs of masked youths. Police were stretched to breaking point as they sought to contain the violence.
The rioting was sparked by the death of Mark Duggan, shot by armed police as they tried to arrest him. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has said that Duggan was armed, he did not fire a shot. This sparked rioting on Saturday in North London, with Totenham the focal point of violence.
I live in Old Street which is about a mile or so from the Pembury Estate in Hackney, where some of the most high-profile rioting took place. I and my flatmate took to our roof, where we could see the helicopters hovering and the smoke rising from the multiple burned cars.
Disbelief. Britain is supposed to be an island of sanity in the European sea of discontent. While rioters run amuck in France, Greece and Italy, Britain sits in splendid, peaceful isolation. This isn’t supposed to happen.
Instead Britain awakes to a nightmarish reality where a combustible mixture of poverty, crime, racial tension and questionable morals have transformed its core cities of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and others into potential flash points.
Last night in London it took a colossal 16,000 police officers on the streets to keep things quiet, but rioting broke out elsewhere. Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham saw cars being set on fire, shops being attacked and police fighting to contain rioters roaming city centers. Television crews from the BBC and Sky News have been attacked in Manchester’s deprived Salford area.
Prime Minister David Cameron has returned home early from his official holiday and after hosting a meeting of the cobra emergency cabinet committee, has authorized both baton rounds and water cannons to be deployed if police require them. This is unprecedented in British history. Before, such things were limited to Northern Ireland.
Police forces in England, Scotland and Wales are coordinating to ensure that forces that require extra officers get them. Scotland is sending 250 officers to Manchester, for example, while the counties of Essex, Suffolk and Sussex have sent riot-trained officers to assist the Met in London. Courts across England, meanwhile, work through the night to process the hundreds of alleged rioters arrested by police.
Britain is mobilizing against the riots. In Clapham and Liverpool, crowds of people brandishing brushes and aprons cleaned up once the police forensic teams had departed. The mood is one of quiet, stoic defiance as the people of Britain dust themselves off and make do with what they have.
Despite this, details are slowly emerging of the cracks that have formed in local communities up and down the land.
It has seen the various ethnic communities in North London split off to protect their own families and property. Birmingham saw the most shocking episode when a car deliberately drove into a crowd of residents protecting their property, killing three. The father of one of the victims appealed today for calm and for the violence to stop.
In Dalston, the Kurdish and Turkish communities remonstrate about the police taking no action to protect their restaurants and shops and then mutter darkly about taking things into their own hands.
Dalston and Hackney are only a mile from me. But living in highly affluent Shoreditch, they might as well be on a different world. On Monday night, standing on my roof, I saw for the briefest of moments the full force of that world and I did not like it one bit.