London's festival of broken glass
As politicians holidayed and police were caught by surprise, rioters looted and high streets burned across England. Andrew Gilligan describes how the horrifying events unfolded
Published 14/08/2011 | 05:00
IN the Thursday evening rush hour, a silver Toyota Estima taxi turned off the Tottenham Hale gyratory to cross the railway bridge. Its passenger was expecting to be home for dinner: just over an hour before, he'd asked his girlfriend, Semone Wilson, to cook it for him. At six o'clock, he sent her his last message: "The Feds are following me."
Fifteen minutes later, Mark Duggan was dead, shot twice in the chest and right arm by a single officer from London's Metropolitan Police firearms squad. The trigger had also been pulled on four nights of anarchy that profoundly frightened Britain and may change it for ever.
Within hours, the lies were circulating: one witness told the London Evening Standard that he'd seen the 29-year-old dragged out of the taxi and "shot on the floor".
The UK's Independent Police Complaints Commission falsely told journalists that Duggan had fired at the police. Ten days on, the IPCC still hasn't quite got its story straight -- its latest statement says that two shots were fired, but in fact three may have been, since a police bullet also lodged itself in another officer's radio. An alternative explanation is that one of the bullets fired at Duggan went through him, then hit the officer -- but police rounds are designed not to go through people.
Duggan, a known associate of gangsters, was armed when he died, and was the target of a major operation involving three units of the Met -- firearms, Operation Trident covering black-on-black crime, and the undercover surveillance taskforce, SCD11.
The following Saturday, a peaceful demonstration outside Tottenham police station turned into a full-scale riot involving many people who may well not have known that Mark Duggan existed. And what is most striking is how relatively slowly the situation turned, and how long the police had to stop it getting out of control.
The demo reached the police station at 5pm. Just over three hours later, at 8.20pm, the first violence flared, with two police cars attacked and set alight. Not until 10.45pm, two and a half hours after that, did things begin to reach critical mass.
Niche Mufwankolo, owner of the Pride of Tottenham pub, fled upstairs as a mob invaded the bar, locking himself in his office and watching on his own CCTV cameras as they tore his business apart. Then they poured up the stairs, kicking down his office door as he squeezed through a window and down a drainpipe to safety. One footprint on the door, Mr Mufwankolo said, looked no bigger than a size two.
Chris, a mature student living above the Carpetright building in Tottenham High Road, watched from his balcony for several hours as the riot moved towards him. "The flames were getting closer and closer, and we were just thinking: this is unbelievable. I was saying: 'Please don't set fire to the building, please don't.' But then they were inside, and within half a minute it was on fire," Chris said.
"My girlfriend was standing on the balcony, panicking. I grabbed her, and we ran through the smoke. We tried the fire exit stairwell. But it was pitch black. You couldn't see 15cm in front of your face.
"We came back up, crossed over, and went down the main stairwell. Where were the police? Where was the fire service? It felt like we were left there to die."
The trouble quickly spread to two other places, Tottenham Hale Retail Park and Wood Green High Road, more than a mile away. The looting in these locations was allowed to continue, entirely unimpeded, until around 6am. Now in broad daylight, the looters were relaxed, taking their time over their choice of sportswear and making no attempt to cover their faces. In one of the iconic images of the riots, 22-year-old Shereka Leigh tried on several pairs of trainers to make sure she was stealing the right size.
Were the British police too slow to respond, the Met's commander Adrian Hanstock was asked? "No, not at all," he said. "Bear in mind this was midnight on a Sunday." But as one London Labour MP, Diane Abbott, put it, the Met's failure to intervene in Wood Green and Tottenham "gave the green light to every little hooligan in London to come out on following days to loot and steal".
BlackBerry Messenger, the secure service used by more than a third of teenagers, started buzzing. "Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some free stuff!!!" read one message sent that Sunday. "F*** the feds we will send them back with OUR riot! We need more MAN then feds so Everyone run wild, all of london and others are invited! Pure terror and havoc & Free stuff....just smash shop windows and cart out da stuff u want!"
The trouble swiftly spread. On the Walworth Road, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Simon Hughes, witnessed "parents with their children, going in with the younger people to take things out of shops. People were crying on the street because they had just been promised a job in a shop that was being broken up". In Notting Hill, mobs broke into and attacked private homes.
In Croydon, a ring of fire set by arsonists threatened to cut off an entire street while 999 calls from the desperate residents went unanswered. In Ealing, a man was set on and murdered, just up from the film studios which defined a rather different Britain. Now, with hours of anarchy in Battersea, the Lavender Hill mob was all too horribly real.
Disorder broke out in 22 of the 32 boroughs, including in deepest suburban Romford, Sutton, Ruislip and Orpington. At the busiest point, around 10pm on Monday night, more than 2,000 emergency calls were received within 15 minutes. All over London, people in deep trouble faced the terrible realisation that there was nothing the police could do for them. They were on their own.
In the early stages, some saw the violence as a kind of Tottenham Spring. Even as Croydon burned, the Labour candidate for mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, called the riots a "revolt" against coalition spending cuts. He said, "a lot of these young people, they are criminals, yes, but there's a disengagement -- they feel no one at the top of society, in government or City Hall, cares about them or speaks for them".
But it swiftly became clear that the main target was JD Sports, not the UK government, and the main cause was far more tactical than strategic. Throughout history, under any political conditions, there have always been people keen to cause "havoc" and steal "free stuff", if they thought they could get away with it. Last week, they could.
There were, broadly, three groups of rioters -- organised career criminals, targeting specific high-value merchandise; semi-organised youths wanting "pure terror" and whatever they could lay their hands on; and those who got carried away in the excitement. Many of those turned out to be very far from the stereotype of the hopeless underclass. These were the holiday riots, a kind of festival of broken glass, where the normal rules of society were suspended.
And they were the holiday riots for another reason, too: at the two critical moments when the authorities lost control, first of Haringey and then of London, everyone in Britain was off duty and no one was in charge. In Haringey the borough commander, Sandra Looby, was away. The prime minister, the home secretary, the deputy prime minister, the chancellor of the exchequer, the mayor of London, the mayor's chief of staff and head of communications, the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, the head of the London Fire Brigade -- they were all on holiday.
"There was complete chaos in city hall," said one source. "No one knew who Boris had delegated his powers to, if anyone." Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in a camper-van in the Rockies, was reduced to communicating on a mobile phone that kept cutting out in the mountainous terrain.
Though the Met now insists that none of this had any bearing on the crisis, the fact is that the decision which stopped the trouble in London -- to deploy 16,000 police officers on the streets -- was not made until 9am last Tuesday, after everyone had got back and 61 hours after the violence first started. As another London Labour MP, Chuka Umunna, said: "Why was that decision not made sooner?"
Even last Tuesday, however, the looters were still ahead of the law. The violence simply moved on to Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham and dozens of other towns. For hours, the city of Salford was under the control of a thousand-strong mob. The full spread of Tuesday's disorder is yet to be understood -- but a compilation of local media and court reports suggests that it occurred in at least 121 separate places. The accused ranged from two 11-year-olds to Ingrid Smith, aged 58, charged with burglary at a supermarket in Manchester.
They were black and white, rich and poor, old and young -- but mostly they were young, often very young.
The issue of gang culture was described by David Cameron as "at the heart of all the violence". According to the home secretary, Theresa May, 6 per cent of all British young people are thought be in gangs. There was much talk last week about atrocious parenting, but as Kate Hoey, the MP for another riot-torn area, Brixton, says: "For many of the people involved in gangs, their parents are the gangs."