A fire lit in Tottenham that burned Manchester: the rioters’ story
He looked on as youths with covered faces pushed a second police car across the road. It struck a wall and rolled back into the street. Alex, who is 32, white, and from south London, watched the young men smash the windows and put a black bin-bag on the seat. Then he joined in.
“I went up, put my head in there – the front-seat window – set light to the black bag and walked away from there and just slowly watched it, and everybody was cheering,” Alex said. His real identity, like that of others interviewed for this study, has been disguised.
It was 6 August – two days after police shot Mark Duggan dead – and a small demonstration over his death was sliding into a riot. For three hours, Duggan’s family and friends waited outside the police station for a senior police officer who never arrived. They left the protest when the crowds swelled, and began attacking the police cars.
Saturday 6 August, 8.30pm
Alex watched the car he set fire to smoulder. He waited for the windows to crack and the petrol tank to explode. He had known nothing about the protest when he first left the pub. When people in the crowd explained why they were there, he quickly decided to join in.
“It was the police car – I know what they stand for,” he said. “For the record: yeah, I do hate the fucking police … I was caught up in the situation. And it was like: let’s cause fucking chaos – let’s cause a riot.”
Instead, what followed was a lull. “No one was looting or nothing like that. We went back to the pub, came back out again and then shitloads more police arrived, and the horses, and they just shut off the whole road.”
The image of the two burning police cars were circulating on thousands of mobile phones within minutes. People from neighbouring boroughs were pouring into Tottenham to see what was going on.
The fires that began in Tottenham would burn through English towns and cities for four nights. The summer disturbances left five people dead, hundreds injured and more than 4,000 arrested. It was the most serious bout of civil unrest in a generation, with as many as 15,000 people taking to the streets.
In an investigation into how – and why – the disorder spread, we have interviewed 270 people who rioted in six major cities. Each had a different story to tell. But like Alex, their accounts challenge the many assumptions about the riots.
Sunday 7 August, 12.15am
“I could see the smoke from Edmonton,” said Angela, 18, a student. “And I was like: ‘Oh my God, I want to see what’s happening.’” She arrived with friends to see more fires blazing along Tottenham High Road.
Following messages on their BlackBerry smartphones, Angela and her friends headed to take pictures of the fire engulfing a Carpetright store. Then they jumped into the car of a friend who said they were going to Wood Green.
Less than 100 yards away, James, a 19-year-old student from Hackney, was also thinking about leaving the area. He had headed to Tottenham with the intention of fighting police.
“I didn’t plan to rob anything,” he said. “Someone came up with the idea: if we spread this, could the police like control it? So like, let’s go to Wood Green. I called as many people as I could: ‘Oh, I hear everyone’s going to go to Wood Green – call as many people as you can. Go to Wood Green.’”
He arrived to see people breaking into jewellery shops and a man running out of Holland & Barrett with protein shakes. “We had one motive, that was to get as many things as we can and sell on,” he said. “The phone shop close to JD [Sports] got ripped apart,” he said.
James stole several phones. “I think the looting came about because it was linked to police,” he said. “We’re showing them that, yeah, we’re bigger than the police, we are actually bigger than the police. Fair enough, we are breaking the law and everything, but there’s more of us than there are of you. So if we want to do this, we can do this. And you won’t do anything to stop us.”
Angela – the teenager taking pictures of the burning Carpetright store – was being driven to Wood Green along backstreets when she saw the commotion. “We saw lots of people in cars. They were like: ‘Get what you can.’” They parked the car and walked along the high street to find the Shopping City mall being emptied.
“And then we saw H&M got smashed in too, and we went to H&M. Some of my friends took some of the clothes,” she said. It was a surreal sight: “People were just running about really, like headless chickens. And I was just laughing about it. Like when my friends were walking with clothes in their hands, I was just like: ‘Oh my God. You lot are mad, absolutely mad.’”
Angela and her friends put the looted clothes and some creams stolen from The Body Shop in a wheelie bin and pushed it home. They passed a supermarket that had been gutted by fire. “What are you going to set places on fire for?” she said. “This is a place where you go to shop sometimes and you want to set it on fire?” She said her sister lived nearby. “I know Asda’s there but Aldi’s cheaper. So, she’s got nowhere else to get cheap stuff – but she’s got kids.”
She said she saw 10 police vans drive past her friends as they pushed their wheelie bin. “I was just thinking to myself: you see a group of girls, with a big wheelie bin going across the road and you’re not going to stop them? They’re not doing their job.”
The next night, Angela joined the thousands of people who headed to Enfield. All day a message had been circulating on BlackBerry phones announcing the riots would continue in the suburb, six miles north of Tottenham.
“Everyone in edmonton enfield woodgreen everywhere in north link up at enfield town station 4 o clock sharp!!!!” it said. The message urged people to bring balaclavas, hammers, trollies, cars and vans – but advised against starting fires. It added: “Police can’t stop it.”
At the same time as crowds were gathering in Enfield, violence was breaking out 16 miles south, in Brixton. Denise, a 17-year-old from Norbury who had spent the day at the Brixton Splash music festival, was sitting on a grass mound talking to friends. Suddenly, she saw people putting on masks and taking out weapons. “All the police come running down,” she said. “I just see bottles flying. I’ve never seen police so scared before – it was like they had no control whatsoever. Like even the police cars, the police vans, they was just throwing rocks at them.”
When police were overpowered, Denise joined the crowd that began running down the high street, covered her face and walked into a corner shop.
“People was just passing fags from the counters,” she said. “You know what? For once it felt like you had so much power.” Denise didn’t want to go into H&M because it was too dark. She was waiting outside for her friends when a man ran past with trainers. “I was like: ‘Where did you get that from?’ He was like: ‘Foot Locker.’ And everyone started running to Foot Locker.”
The shoe shop was being ripped apart. “I seen an old guy running out of Foot Locker – literally this guy was like 70. He took a hat and was running for his life.” The images of Foot Locker were being broadcast in real-time on BlackBerry phones. One message showed a photo of a teenager grinning beneath eight boxes of trainers. Another showed the store in flames.
Tony, 25, was at a friend’s birthday party in Brixton when he started receiving the messages. “At first I thought: ‘Wow, this is terrible.’ But then I started to think about everybody else getting free stuff,” he said. “I did stop myself for – for quite a few hours. More and more messages were coming in. I saw people running down the street with stuff. And before I knew it I just left the house.”
Tony took some phones from a T-Mobile shop before joining the huge crowd battling police. “Like, about a thousand people started running and then just like the whole crowd just started chanting ‘Currys, Currys.’ One girl was in her shorts and her bra because she had her T-shirt wrapped around her face, going: ‘Come on, let’s do this.’ And I thought: ‘Wow, this girl – she’s about 13.’”
It took about 45 minutes to prise open the shutters of the Currys electrical store. Then it began to rain. “You had youths from the area that were really prepared for it: they had sports bags, they had gloves, they had bicycles, they had clothes that you wouldn’t ever identify them by again. There were commuters stopping in vans and stuff going: ‘Get us a TV. I’ll give you a hundred quid.’”
Tony added: “We had Currys for almost an hour. Going in, coming out, pulling out TV boxes. I’d say people left with like 80in TVs running straight across the road into the estate. I just wanted to get anything that’s worth money. We got Canon lenses, we got PlayStations, we got Xboxes, we got small TVs.”
Denise never made it to Currys. She was on the other side of Brixton. “A guy that I knew earlier that was passing fags from the corner shop, he come with like a big box of trainers from Foot Locker. He had about 15 trainers roughly in there, but I don’t know how he was carrying it because it was just him alone – it was a huge box.”
She added: “And I was like: ‘Have you got any size fours?’ He was like: ‘You was the one who gave me fags, innit?’ So he just gave me a box.” Denise got the bus home. “I was wary because I had bags and stuff like that,” she said. “If any police tried to stop the bus I was thinking: what am I going to do?”
Monday 8 August, 5pm
The whole of Britain was waiting to see what would happen next. The answer was that the third day of riots would begin in Hackney, before spreading throughout London, and erupting in towns and cities across England.
It would be worse in scale and intensity than anything experienced over a similar period during the 1981 riots.
Andrew, a 16-year-old schoolboy, knew the riots were coming to his area, Hackney. “It was planned,” he said. “Everyone knew: as soon as it comes 5 o’clock, start rioting.” He saw all the young people from his area come together. “Basically, all the gangs put down all the beef [rivalry] for one day,” he said, listing the names of local groups of teenagers. “Suwu red bandannas, Pembury, Mare Street, Well Street, Mother’s Square – the whole of them, Holly Street.”
Andrew added: “Police don’t think we’re rioting for a reason. They believe we’re rioting because Mark Duggan died and we have no other reason. Like, we’re rioting cos they’re not giving us nothing to do, they’re taking away EMA [educational maintenance allowance], taking away free travel, taking away certain allowances that teenagers have and they’re not replacing it with anything good.”
When it began, he started hurling bricks at police. “The frontline would be attacking the police while the backlines would be in the shop,” he said. “So the frontline’s holding off the police and then the people at the back are looting the shops. So it’s like a formation.”
Meanwhile, Catherine, 20, a college student who wants to be a primary school teacher, covered her face and started walking along a street in Peckham with her friends. Peckham was quiet, but they found a police car, smashed the windows, stole the radio and used a petrol bomb to set it on fire.
“It felt good, that police car – it felt really good,” she said. “Especially when my friend took the radio and started saying all this hullabaloo over the radio and confusing them and all that. It was fair for us to do that.”
Police recently broke her brother’s nose, she claimed. “My little brother, he’s always in trouble with the police. They have no respect, especially for my mum who’s just a little old woman. She’s always polite and stuff as well and they’re always rude to my mum – had no respect for any of us.
“You get to the police station and they think they can sit there and take the piss out of you so, obviously, in my eyes, I don’t see them as good people.”
Her friends wanted to go looting. “I was like no,” she said. “I didn’t want to rob anything. It was just the police, that’s what I was totally against.”
Back in Hackney, Andrew returned to the home he shares with his parents. “Had a shower, changed, chilled, smoked a bit,” he said. “Then at about 1 o’clock in the morning went out again. Everyone got called saying, ‘Yeah everyone’s going to Ealing now. You lot best get there before everything gets looted.’”
Disorder was spreading to areas across London such as Lewisham, Catford, Croydon, Queensway, Notting Hill, Kilburn, Barnet, Woolwich, Barking, Balham, Southwark and Camden.
Kay, 16, was watching the chaos unfold from the comfort of her bed in Wandsworth. “Laying down, watching the news, flicking through, watching Sky News. ‘Oh my God, mum did you see that?’” Kay received a text from a friend: “Oh, do you wanna see what’s going on in Clapham Junction?”
Kay and her friends arrived there shortly after rioters had chased away police and taken over the high street. “I was like standing there gobsmacked,” she said. “People running down the road with TVs on their backs, who wants this, who wants that, like T-shirts, TVs on the floor smashed up, wires, everything was just there, on the floor, laying in the street, trainer boxes, trainers. Tags on the floor, boxes, smashed bottles, cigarette packs. You name it, everything was out there.”
Her friends joined in. “Everyone else was just like, ‘Yeah, I got this’ and I was like, ‘Can’t we just go now?’” Her friends started hiding looted items under cars and in skips.
Kay laughed when she recalled what happened when she stood outside the pawnbroker’s. “I was just standing in the road. A man said: ‘Do you want a bag?’ I was like: ‘No, not really.’ He was like: ‘Here man, just have it.’ I was like: “OK.”
Standing on the same amstreet in Clapham Junction, Joshua, a 14-year-old from Lambeth, also faced a moral dilemma. “I was just thinking: ‘Oh wow, I could get a new computer, yeah, might get my little brother his birthday present.’ That kind of wore off and I was like: just forget it now.” Joshua had told his mother he was going to a skate park with friends. Instead, his night had begun at 5pm in Hackney and ended in Clapham Junction.
“There was some trainers I wanted to buy from JD, some white ones, and I was thinking: I can go inside and get them. So I just went inside and got them. Then once you do it and nothing’s happened yeah, you’re like: ‘Oh my gosh!’ And you’re like: ‘This is a once in a lifetime thing. You’re going to get everything you want for free.’”
It didn’t quite turn out that way – as Joshua discovered when he encountered “bigger people”. “My friend had an Xbox and I was holding it, me and him, then one of them run up and punch my friend and took the Xbox and ran off. Because they was smart.”
At times, Joshua said he felt people were “looking up” at him. “We saw a black lady in the car. She was like: ‘Go on son, dash the brick at them, dash the brick at them.’ I looked at her, then I looked at the policeman, then he run up to me and I went: ‘What?’ then threw the brick at him. It never hit him, it went like [over his shoulder].”
The woman told Joshua to get in the car. “Then I was like: why am I getting in some person’s car I don’t even know?” Joshua decided to walk home. “I saw a man on the floor and then I see his BlackBerry and I was like: oh, should I take it? And I just left it. Then I see some woman dressed all in black. She run up to him and kept kicking and kicking him and she went there and took his wallet out, took his phone, everything.”
Kay – the girl who had been given the bag outside the pawnbroker’s – didn’t want to walk home. She called her mum and asked her to pick her up. “A week later, the police are knocking on my front door,” she recalled. Kay said her mother “took the rap” for the stolen items found in the house and has been in prison since. “It’s a bit hard because the only person I’ve always lived with is my mum. So for her not to be there is death.”
As midnight approached, the riots were fanning out across England, with disorder in Leicester, Bristol, Leeds, Milton Keynes, Reading, Huddersfield and parts of Kent. Outside London, the riots were worst in Birmingham.
“Firstly, it was just running into shops, pulling clothes off the hangers and running out again,” said Omar, 16, from the suburb of Erdington. He had got the train into the city centre with friends. “We seen some windows being smashed in. We just thought, everyone else is doing it. It just seemed like a good idea really.” He wore a mask. Omar said he hated the police. “They call us little shits and little bastards and everything,” he said. “They’re not what you see on the TV and that – acting all good and that.”
He said he stole Nike tracksuit bottoms to make him feel like “people with money, good families”, who he said look down on him. “I hate feeling like people are judging me. They don’t know about me and then they just look at you and I hate it, I absolutely hate it.”
Before the riots, Omar said his clothes were all ripped or dirty. “And when I get new clothes I feel better,” he said. “Then they will have to look down at someone else.” He added: “I have gone to loads of jobs with my CV. But I’ve got no qualifications so people just don’t want me – there’s people better than me.”
At the same time Omar was looting the city centre, a father of two called Terry was in breaking into a police station. “I wasn’t going looting,” he said. “I was just there just to piss off the police.”
He said he was tired of being stopped and searched and wanted to get his own back. “At first they was throwing bricks at windows, going in shops, robbing the shops, and then they moved down to the police station. So in the end I just ended up joining in,” he said.
After breaking through a metal gate, Terry and the crowd surged into one of two buildings. “Turned on the lights, found all the documents, started burning the documents – I don’t even know what documents they was. We just found them all over the place and in drawers and just ransacked the whole building – burnt it.
“Then we went to the other building, with all the helmets and that in, because [the first one] was getting too hot. There’s more documents there. So we just decided to burn them as well.”
As the crowd stormed out of the yard, they encountered police cars. “We were wearing the [police] vests,” he said. “We started throwing the helmets at the police cars so they couldn’t get past … I just got the biggest adrenaline rush I’d had in my life.”
Around that time, the crowds in Toxteth, on the fringe of Liverpool city centre, were at the height of running battles with police. Charlie, a student in his 20s, said he just “moved with the current”. “There must have been at least 200 people,” he said. “It was just a horde, like a mosh pit.” He watched as people jumped on to the roof of a moving Transit van and smashed the windscreen. “Cars got destroyed. Boss cars. Like Beemer, Mercedes. I’m sitting there watching kids just rain stones on them.”
Charlie turned the corner to find police cars on fire. “There’s this one kid with a golf club running up to the [police] Matrix van itself and repeatedly going bam bam bam. These two kids managed to get one of the doors open as they were driving back and forward. “I hate the police. I hate the fact that one time I’ve been stopped and searched on the street and this man’s thought I had a weapon just because of the way I had a certain fucking scarf,” he said. “They talk as if they are above you.”
Charlie refused to say whether he fought police that night. But he described the experience as “like a dream”. “I was actually doing it. I felt alive, there’s no word to explain it. It was like that first day it happened will always be the best day of my life for ever – I swear to God.”
The man in a military-style balaclava walking through a graveyard 200 miles away – in Croydon – was Simon. He was 18, and from Lewisham. That night, he and friends had been looting in Peckham, Catford and Clapham. When they arrived in Croydon – site of the most intense arson in England – they became anxious and decided to stash their haul of looted goods.
“We thought: ‘We can’t be walking on the road with this,’” he said. “So we left it there [in the graveyard] and basically come back for it in the van.”
Simon was not alone in feeling terrified at the huge, raging fires that warmed the faces of thousands of looters who arrived in Croydon after hearing about the chaos there.
Simon got a good feel for Croydon. He stole a bike and cycled round before he saw a teenager with a looted iPhone4. “I took it off him. Fresh, brand new and that’s £500. Brand new out the shop. Easy, easy quick money.”
Then he saw six people bundle a police officer down an alley. “I think they put a T-shirt over his head and kinda dragged him down the alley and starting kicking him. I was seeing him getting hit with planks of wood. I was thinking it was getting too much, these guys are going too far now.”
Tuesday 9 August, 4pm
On the fourth night, there were no more riots in London. But disturbances would escalate in cities including Birmingham, Nottingham and Gloucester. And for the first time, the riots would start in GreaterManchester. Barry, 46, watched locals take over Salford shopping precinct. The crowd broke into a supermarket, off-licence and pawnbroker’s and then set fire to the library. “I heard someone say, ‘Let’s burn the bingo down,’ and I heard someone say: ‘I can’t burn that, my mam will kill me.’”
“I think most of the spectators did exactly the same – they came along just to watch; they just found themselves wound up in it … I found this iPod and as I picked it up this girl was looking at me. I just gave it her. I actually went into one of the shops and I took a load of the cigarettes and I gave them to the people.” Barry saw some teenagers “being stupid” and turned his attention to the CCTV. “I was sort of like putting cameras out of action,” he said. “Smashing them – I just made sure none of them could focus on anywhere.
“I think it was about having a go at the police – you know, after years of abuse. Because the police do abuse people, they do like take liberties. I know people who get harassed by the police on a regular basis, and it will always go on – and I can’t see it ever stopping.
“What you have to understand is there are a lot of people from Salford who love Salford – who will fight for Salford.”
Wednesday 10 August, 12.30am
After Salford, the disorder moved to Manchester city centre. It would be the last major city to be touched by the summer riots.
Among a crowd systematically looting shops was Polly, 17. “It was exciting to be there and it was sort of, you know, like when you’re driving a fast car,” she said. “And you just look around you and you think: ‘My God, this is my city, what’s happening to my city?’”
Polly’s boyfriend forced open the door to a Greggs bakery. “I picked up five bags of crisps and a drink and I already had a bottle of Pinot Grigio in my hand. I was thinking, ‘Come on, we need to go, we need to go.’ But he wasn’t listening to me. We come out of Boots and the police were there. Then we both got arrested.”
TV channels relayed live pictures of looting in Manchester into the early hours. Among the millions of people watching was Alex – the man who, four days earlier, had set fire to the police car in Tottenham.
“Never thought it would turn out to be throughout the country,” he said. “I never knew it was going to escalate, all the way up to Croydon, Liverpool – I never knew it would go all over the place.
When I seen some of it on TV, I thought: ‘Go on you fuckers, keep going – fucking riot away. But I was also bricking it as well. Because I don’t want to go to jail at the end of the day. There was even points when I had to switch the TV off because I was sitting thinking: ‘Oh my God.’”