How the police lost control on night of untold destruction
Published 10/08/2011 | 05:00
Shortly after 9pm on Monday night, as daylight bled from the sky, the police finally lost control of London.
A gang of boys and girls, most no older than 15, and some apparently as young as eight, broke into a row of shops in Bethnal Green, in London's East End. As they left carrying piles of clothes, a police car drove past. It did not stop.
Locals waited for 40 minutes after the first 999 calls were made for two police vans to arrive at the scene, already too late.
On a night of untold destruction that left businesses and homes across the city in flames, it counted as a small incident. But the detail said so much about how life in Britain's capital city has changed over the course of the past four days.
As rioters looted and torched their way through London's shopping centres and high streets for a third successive night, Scotland Yard's 6,000 police officers were hopelessly outmanoeuvred. In many cases, they were simply outnumbered.
When they eventually arrived at riot scenes in force, such as during Monday night's first dramatic clashes in Hackney, the police were forced into retreat as youths bombarded them with bottles and rocks and set cars ablaze.
Not even the deployment of armoured vehicles to protect some of London's most expensive neighbourhoods, in Clapham in the south and Ealing to the west, could prevent the destruction from spreading.
The victims -- London's hard-working shopkeepers, commuters and families, proud of their homes and their well-kept streets -- began to lose faith in the law.
Returning early from his Tuscan holiday, the British prime minister David Cameron appeared to reflect the growing anger of many in the capital as he called for "more robust" action against the rioters. He promised 16,000 officers would be on the streets to maintain order last night, an unprecedented number representing half the Metropolitan Police's manpower.
But for some, the time had already come to take matters into their own hands.
During the course of Monday, police chiefs had themselves urged shopkeepers and businesses across the city to use their own security guards to protect themselves.
The Met suggested that businesses take "precautionary measures" including conducting regular checks of their buildings and patrolling the surrounding area, adding: "Where possible, retail premises should be suitably staffed with security guards."
Reports suggested that members of north London's Turkish community had taken their own decision. Hundreds were said to have lined the streets of Stoke Newington, brandishing baseball bats.
In Clapham, an area of boutiques and fashionable restaurants beloved of London's young professionals, local residents formed a line to stop the looters getting through.
They had little option.
At one point, between 10pm and 11pm, up to 1,000 rioters tore through the area, looting designer shops. Dozens of teenage girls were filling suitcases that they had stolen with clothes and other items. Yet there were no police officers in sight.
One resident, who gave her name as Daniella, asked: "Where are the police? Why are they not here? People are frightened."
Duncan Mundell, owner of Party Superstore in Clapham, which was gutted by a fire, said he had suffered more than £800,000 of damage.
In Peckham 500 youths ran through the high street, vandalising shops, starting fires and attacking police officers with missiles.
A bus was set alight at about 6pm before 30 riot police arrived, followed later by seven vans carrying reinforcements.
Hackney, in east London, saw the first of Monday night's clashes. The area around Mare Street had been well publicised in advance as a potential target for the violent gangs. Riot police turned out in force, prepared for the fight.
But still they could not stop the violence, as 300 rioters pelted them with rocks and bottles and forced a band of 20 riot police to retreat. The area was apparently left unattended for up to two hours.
Officers fell back and watched from a distance when the mob set fire to cars, fearing that the vehicles would explode. The gangs, meanwhile, simply continued their attacks behind the burning cars.
In Camden, shortly after 1.30am up to 10 police vans responded to calls of looting, and arrived to find that the gangs had already gone, leaving only a trail of destruction among the ransacked mobile phone and clothing shops.
Just two police officers were seen guarding a burnt out bus in Dalston at 11pm as 50 rioters ran through the streets. About 200 locals took matters into their own hands guarding the corner of Shacklewell Lane.
In Ealing, residents fled their homes in terror when the violence began. One resident, who was named only as Helen, described how she and her family were forced to spend the night at a hotel after hearing thugs break into the shop beneath their flat.
"We were utterly terrified," she said. "We didn't know what to do. You could hear people shouting 'Let's start fires'."
One eyewitness in the area waited an hour for police after calling 999 as a gang of 150 set light to cars and looted local shops during six hours of rioting in the area.
Meanwhile, the cruel opportunism among London's looters was laid bare when a video emerged showing rioters pretending to help an injured youth to his feet before robbing him.
Footage posted on the internet showed a young man collapsed on a railway bridge in Barking, east London, with blood pouring from a facial injury.
A black male appears to come to his aid, putting a reassuring arm around his shoulders and lifting him to his feet.
But while he is distracted, clutching his bleeding wound, another rioter wearing a baseball cap approaches him from behind and unzips the rucksack on his back.
Dazed from his injury, the victim is unable to put up any resistance as the supposed good Samaritan and his accomplice rifle through his bag, joined by two other hooded youths.
The thief wearing the cap then snatches something from the rucksack, before swaggering off. (© Daily Telegraph, London)