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When the underbelly roars

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I grew up on south London council estates in the 70s and 80s and vividly remember the riots that tore through my city, along with Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham and several other parts of Britain with large black communities.

When the first riots hit Brixton in 198, I was 12 years old.

My mates and I came from council estates in Wandsworth, Battersea and Earlsfield and while we were no angels, we certainly couldn’t be described as bad kids.

I can’t pretend that I had any real grasp on why people were rioting but I knew it was against the same police who would stop and bug us constantly despite the fact that none of us had either the balls or inclination to commit crime.

It’s been said many times, but the police really did feel like an occupying force rather than our protectors.

There were countless incidents but one that sticks in my mind was the same year as the first Brixton riots when, riding my bike on Oxford St, I was passed by a police van and every single officer made monkey noises at me as they went by.

It wasn’t particularly upsetting, it just solidified in my mind the idea that the police were the enemy.

So when we heard that the police were struggling to keep control of chunks of the country, we were excited.

It felt like people were afraid of us just for being young and black. We were used to being disregarded, undermined or hassled but we weren’t used to being feared. As an immature group of bored boys, we enjoyed the temporary shift of power.

We talked about how we hoped the troubles would come to our neighbourhood and about the stuff we would loot.

Fortunately for the protection of our posturing bravado, the riots didn’t hit Wandsworth.

30 years on, I still live on a council estate.

I even have a couple of the same friends.

We’ve grown up as British society has.

While still sometimes irrationally wary of the police, I now see them as ordinary people, most with good intentions, working hard at building bridges with many formerly “hard to reach” communities.

The police are far from perfect but most are at least trying to do an immensely tough job in a very difficult environment.

When trouble flared up in Tottenham on Saturday, I was surprised and saddened.

I lived in Tottenham through my university years and my daughter was born on the notorious Broadwater Farm estate six years after the 1985 riots that saw PC Blakelock viciously hacked to death.

Even back then it felt that much of the anger that lead to such a monumental act of barbarity had subsided.

Broadwater Farm, like every other council estate I’ve lived on, was a diverse mix of ordinary people trying to get by while avoiding the crime that infected these communities in a way that mainstream society simply wouldn’t stand for.

Seeing parts of this moody but vibrant part of London in flames was distressing and surprising.

I worked at the Voice, Britain’s biggest black newspaper, in the mid-nineties and covered numerous stories about black people mysteriously dying in police custody, like Roger Sylvester or being killed without anyone being brought to justice like Stephen Lawrence. But following the Macpherson report and some commendably progressive policing, it felt like things had improved.

Of course discrimination still exists but to say there haven’t been major improvements both in the law and in the nation’s culture is to be chained to the anvil of pessimistic rhetoric.

It’s human nature to look at new phenomena through the prism of your own experiences so I couldn’t understand what there was to fuel the sustained bout of anger needed for a riot.

I concluded from the scenes of that burning bus and an inexplicably looted and burned Carpetright, that society had becomes so empty and mindless that a new pair of trainers or the thrill of setting fire to something was now enough to provoke these apparently crazy acts.

Coming home from work on Monday evening was eerie.

The afternoon had been full of stories about trouble in areas as far apart as Hackney and Croydon.

I had to comfort a colleague who was scared of going to her Hackney home alone and my girlfriend called to tell me she had to get off of the bus because trouble near her Peckham home had caused massive traffic jams.

Even in Tooting there was a pensive atmosphere with a clear police presence and nervous looking shopkeepers.

After watching the rolling news for a while I got a text warning me to keep away from Clapham Junction as there had been some signs of trouble there.

Some old redundant journalistic instinct kicked in and I decided to go to ‘Junction’ to see if I could work out what was happening in the city I still love unreservedly.

Walking towards Clapham Junction down Falcon Road, where my aunt lives, every face I passed seemed wired – with trepidation, excitement or plain, stark fear.

The roads were empty and shops had shut and, where possible, were boarded up.

As I got closer to Debenhams that marks the entrance the pedestrianised St Johns Rd, I passed hooded figures nonchalantly going the other way with arms full of booty.

More and more people passed me with their grabbed sportswear, electrical goods and general tutt. One young guy, who looked about 15, stopped to throw a couple of tracksuits to a girl he fancied from the pile he was struggling to carry.

I looked at the faces of the looters and didn’t see anger, hatred or even a desire for justice. These were just opportunist young people having the time of their lives.

When I got to Debenhams I saw people walking in and out of the smashed door and window as if they were doing their shopping.

I saw people walking up escalators looking for more prized items than then costume jewellery on the ground floor.

I saw a group of around 30 people desperately trying to smash their way into JD Sports.

I saw people watching, open mouthed, struggling to take it all in.

What I didn’t see was the police. Not a single one.

The police had an impossible job as area after area caught the rioting bug and in Clapham they clearly decided to simply stand back and let the rioters run out of steam.

What was also strangely missing, especially watching the coverage of other areas, was anger or even a feeling of danger.

The mood was more like a street party without the music.

The looters and the onlookers were both stunned that this was being allowed to continue.

It seemed that the police would surely show up but with every police-free minute, the looters grew bolder.

The group breaking into JD sports had now made their way inside, through a smashed window and were emptying the shelves. Not in a panicked way but as if they had all day. People had time to try clothes on, swap them with their fellow looters and even throw away items that weren’t up to scratch.

Some of the group threw footballs out of the store and these started being kicked around St Johns Rd as the increasingly frenetic mob laughed and ran amok.

I saw a woman watching from her balcony as it all went on under her home. She looked terrified. I tried to catch her eye to offer some form of reassurance but doubt she could distinguish my face from any of the others that were twisted with greed and pure devilment.

A police car showed up going at speed from Lavender Hill and was met with bottles and quickly sped away.

It felt like the streets had been conquered by this disparate, opportunist mob.

There were people there with their children walking into busted shops and filling their hands with property.

I spoke to a guy with a cycling mask and a hood who told me that he saw nothing wrong in taking stuff from the shops. “They’ll get it all back on the insurance anyway” he said.

This wasn’t indiscriminate destruction either.

The legendary Dubvendor record store, which has been at the forefront of reggae for 30 years, is a small glass fronted shop directly opposite Debenhams, but while I was there, it went untouched.

In fact it was protected by two guys, one white, one black, who may have been the owners or may just have been passersby. They stood there and spoke to anyone who looked likely to attack the shop.

Later I saw that the party shop next door had been looted by people looks for masks to hide themselves from CCTV cameras and then set alight.

Despite its neighbour being virtually burned to the ground, Dubvendor survived unscathed.

On and on it went. I saw some people return several times to get more stuff, apparently heading home and unloading and coming back to get more.

I imagine the car boot sales and markets of London will be full of sparkling new sports gear and electrical goods as surely no one can wear the volume of stuff that was being taken.

Eventually, after about two hours of rampant looting, the police showed up in the shape of two vans. They sped through along St Johns Rd and the majority of the mob scattered instantly, fleeing with their arms full along Falcon Rd back towards Battersea.

The vans screeched to a stop outside Debenhams and JD Sports. They were both full of officers in protective gear but no one got out. The vans then sped back the way they had come down St Johns Rd and within minutes the looting started up again in slightly smaller numbers.

Then from down St Johns Hill, where the police had set up road blocks, officers with dogs came walking into the trouble zone.

I decided that this would be a good time to leave as I doubted the polices’ ability to tell me apart from a looter even though I made sure not to have anything covering my face and I carried no bag.

Trying to take in what I saw, the most prominent emotion was one of sadness.

I’m sad that the streets I grew up on have been destroyed, I’m sad for the shopkeepers whose livelihoods have been brutalised, I’m sad for the terrified residents who now probably don’t feel safe in their homes and neighbourhoods, I’m even sad for the young people who put so much value on to material goods that they behave this way to get them.

Most of all I’m sad for the inevitable backlash.

When crime and disorder rip through poor areas, everyone shakes their heads and bemoans the lack of community.

When crime spills out into the surrounding areas people call for curfews and the army on our streets.

With social media tools meaning groups can organise and gather within minutes, it feels like these disturbances can happen again whenever they want to.

The police, who from what I saw behaved with incredible control, can only do what their numbers allow. They rely on those that want to commit crime fearing being caught and for the rest of us to feel empowered to stand up to them when they get too brave.

None of that happened last night.

It’s not a comfortable thing to admit but the riots will probably actually benefit the communities that descended into lawlessness.

It’s a sad truth that change often only comes when extreme things happen.

The 1981 riots lead to Lord Scarman’s report, which changed how the police did their jobs and the money that was invested into urban areas.

The death of Stephen Lawrence lead to the Macpherson’s report and more revolutions within the police force.

The killing of 29 year old Mark Duggan in Tottenham provided the spark for this week’s troubles but I fear that anything could have sparked the tinder try society we have all nurtured.

When black kids die in alarming numbers, mainstream society shrugs and turns away.

It’s now wonder then that some young people feel disconnected from the world of the people who turned up with brooms to sweep up the next day.

While the police still provide a target for the rioters when they show up, this feels more like “because we can” from a group of people who feel no link society or the world around them.

The racial make-up of many, but far from all, of the looters, will play into the hands of those who would seek to divide communities rather than bring them together.

There will be claims that multiculturalism has failed and that we need to instill ‘old school’ discipline.

This isn’t the way to go, in my opinion.

I’m sure curfews and troops on the streets will quell problems in specific areas but this is not a long term fix.

While funding for the very organisations that seek to improve the lives of our have nots are cut in the drive to reduce our deficit and our society carries on celebrating avarice, it’s hard to see how we improve things.

While some people will dismiss these disturbances as simple criminality, we need to bring these increasingly disaffected groups inside the tent.

We need to build a society where we really do feel like we’re ‘all in it together’.

The late nineteenth century black social reformer Frederick Douglass said: “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is in an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”

He said this in 1886 but it still rings true 125 years later.

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