'Bleeding, I called 999. A tired man told me to go home'
Andrew Gilligan reports on his own experiences of the lawlessness that swept across much of London and elsewhere.
It was one of those microseconds when you know exactly what is about to happen, without the slightest chance of stopping it.
The big black boy rode his bike straight at me, crashing me off my own and leaving us both tangled up on the ground. Then four more of them were racing towards me, clawing at my legs to get them off my bike, kicking me in the head as I tried to hold on. Two minutes later, it was all over. Ten minutes later, no doubt, it was being used to loot a newsagent’s.
Bleeding a little, I thought I might as well call 999. It was a recorded message. After four and a half minutes, a tired man answered. “There’s nothing we can do,” he said. “You know what’s going on. We have to give priority to saving people’s lives. I suggest you just go home.”
He was right, of course. I was in Hackney - which, that evening at least, was a law-free zone. That’s the worst thing about riots. Across much of London on Monday night, if someone had decided to break down your door and rape your daughter, there would have been nothing to stop them. There would have been no one to call.
When I was mugged, I was on my way home from a day in Tottenham, listening to the stories of the people who had lost far more and been at far greater risk than me, burned out of their homes at 30 seconds’ notice.
They called 999 too, frantically, desperately, as the riot moved closer. There were 100 police just up the road. The emergency operator could do nothing but listen to their terror.
I finished my journey in a cab. Three or four times, we had to stop and skirt round hooded boys spilling into the road, our windows closed and the door lock on. If they had fancied my taxi, there would have been nothing I or the driver could have done about that, either.
Even on Monday, the victims of Tottenham, black and white, were already tired of outsiders blaming racism, police brutality, or cuts. (What were they rioting about in prosperous, suburban Enfield – rising season-ticket prices?) The real reason for the rioters’ behaviour is much simpler: because they can.
Forget BlackBerry Messenger. After seeing — on television — how much leeway the looters of Tottenham were allowed, every criminal and every excitement-seeking child in London took note.
By the next day, critical mass had been achieved. Disorder had erupted on a scale much more difficult to suppress than the original outbreak.
There are, and always have been, plenty of people keen to break the law. On my taxi ride, I saw many other youngsters in twos and threes, hoods up, looking for the next crowd to join.
These are sights, with variations, that I have seen in foreign conflict zones: the loss of state authority and the loss of individual inhibition from being in a big group. But in London, the geography of fear is particularly potent.
Unlike Los Angeles or Paris, the riots are not happening in ghettos where nobody goes. They are happening amid the organic gastropubs and latte bars. Alongside poverty, inner London is full of the sort of middle-class progressives who agree with Ken Livingstone that the rioters “feel no one at the top of society, in government or City Hall, cares about them or speaks for them”.
I predict a lot of those people, as they cower behind their sash windows, are revising their views tonight. The hardening of liberal opinion in London is palpable, and is taking even the likes of Boris Johnson by surprise.
In my neighbourhood, Greenwich, they boarded up the shops at noon. God knows how much damage this is doing to the economy. It’s a beautiful, sunny evening. But our area is empty, like so much of inner London, as we wait in our homes with the TVs on to discover if they will be coming for us tonight.