Riots in London: A City in Flames

Written on August 9, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Culture & Society, Democracy & Human Rights, Europe

Another part of London belongs to the police tonight after hours of conflict with young and not so young protesters and looters. In Hackney, north-east London, a burnt-out bus, a boarded-up optician’s, broken glass on the pavement outside JD Sports, a retailer, all bear witness to the conflagration sweeping through the capital’s poorer neighbourhoods for the past three days. Fourteen mounted police are passing me on their horses. The clop of their hooves sounds oddly bucolic against the throaty thrum of helicopters overhead.

The horses were big enough to scare Marie (not her real name) and her eight-year-old daughter, she says. “People here are angry because of that boy the police executed in Tottenham,” she says, speaking of Mark Duggan, whose death on Thursday ignited a three-day wave of violence around the city, “and the police are so rough when they want to make you move.” But another couple of mothers (their children are older) take a different tack. They say it was the looters who were rough. “Maybe they don’t have jobs, but a lot of people don’t have jobs. You don’t have to rob and steal and smash things up. It ruins it for everybody else here.”

But in the confusion there were some modest signs of civic heroism, of bystanders who did not just stand by. A group of looters smashed their way into a Boots optician in Mare Street, wrenched shelves off the wall and made away with fistfuls of spectacles. Rob, out for a walk after breaking his Ramadan fast, was taking food to the owner of the shop. He stopped some of the smash-and-grab crew. “This is his life,” he said, and took back what glasses he could.

Rob told me of another earlier episode. A het-up gang of young men were advancing on a police line on Mare Street, stones in their hands. A large man intervened, coming between the two lines with his hands raised. “Don’t!” he shouted at the men. “Don’t do this.” Most of them turned back, though word has it that the man who spoke up got a stone in the head later. Read more…

As published in The Economist on August 8, 2011.


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