London’s burning: PE expats tell of violent English riots

Roland Watson, Matt Fallon, Stefano Ambroyi and Estelle Ellis


BRITISH police are braced for more violence after rioting and looting – described as sickening by Prime Minister David Cameron – spread across and beyond London overnight in Britain’s worst unrest in living memory.


More fires were burning more intensely at one time in London than at any time since the Second World War, according to Wikipedia.






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The riots appeared to be led by mobs of young people who coordinated their attacks through BlackBerry text messaging services.


Fires broke out across the capital as looters smashed up and set ablaze buildings, shops and cars for a fourth night yesterday, while violence also broke out in the cities of Birmingham, Liverpool and Bristol – as well as Manchester late last night.


Up to 200 Olympic delegates arrived in London yesterday expecting to see a city proudly showing the progress it had made in its preparations to host next summer’s Games.


Instead, they were greeted with images of gutted buildings, burnt- out cars and rioters holding sway over police on the streets of the British capital.


The riots could not have come at a worse time for London 2012 organisers, with the eyes of the Olympic world focusing on a city at its ugliest.


The riots took one former Port Elizabeth resident now living in London straight back to “the dark days of apartheid”.


Speaking from Soho yesterday, Paul Chambers said he had spent the past 11 years in London and had never seen anything quite like the last few days’ looting while living in the UK. “It was like South Africa in the 1980s. I had flashbacks to Uitenhage Road in 1985. People were throwing stones and setting buildings alight.”


He said trouble had started at Clapham Junction early yesterday morning when about 1000 “feral children” took over the upper middle-class suburb and looted shops in the city’s busy shopping centre.


“This morning you just saw iPhone boxes everywhere.”


He said the police’s response to the looting had been very slow as the bulk of law enforcement resources had been focused on combating unrest elsewhere at the time.


He said at this stage he was not concerned about his own safety.


“The police response is vastly different from that of South Africa. Here the police tend to back off.”


Another former Port Elizabeth resident, social worker Michelle Schenkte, lives about half an hour away from Clapham Junction, where the riots erupted.


She had to travel through Brixton, one of the trouble spots, to get to and from work.


“There was a lot of broken glass in the street and I could see several shops had been looted and damaged. My journey to and from work took an extra hour each way due to having to take a different route.


“I have been working from home today as I have been very concerned for my safety. I hope to return to the office [today] if things have calmed down.”


Michelle’s twin sister, Lara Cragg, a marketing manager in London, said she woke up at 1am yesterday to the sound of sirens, helicopters and car alarms going off.


“I turned on the television and there was live footage of the rioting on Camden High Street … a 10-minute walk from where we are. Needless to say, I didn’t get any sleep last night listening to the sirens. This is absolutely horrifying and unbelievably disturbing as children are responsible for this.


“The problem in this country is that children have so many rights, more so than adults, and they abuse that. It has caused a social problem that could take years to rectify. Add to that the recession, consequent severe budget cuts and social unrest and it actually becomes not so surprising this has happened.”


Former Grahamstown resident Andy Bennett said he and his flat- mate had found themselves in the middle of the riot.


Due to their house’s location in a quiet cul-de-sac they did not suffer any damage apart from a few overturned bins, but their position provided them with a particularly good view of the police’s vain struggle to contain the riots.


“The police were outnumbered and outgunned. It was anarchy.


“There was nothing they could do,” he said.


Bennett, who works as an IT consultant for Sky TV and studied at NMMU, said when they arrived home from work there had been a bit of news on the riots on TV. They kept watching Sky News and following updates on Twitter.


“The main streets were cordoned off and youths were loitering about and challenging the police. Then they ran along the back roads to get away from the police and then the trouble started.


“My flatmate moved his car to a safer place. At about 2am, we heard the helicopters and saw them moving in the armoured cars … But even then you never knew which way the crowd would swing. It was very clear to me the police had no handle on this thing,” Bennett said.


The editor of South African Express Airlines’ in-flight magazine, Indwe, Piet van Niekerk, who is a former The Herald senior journalist, said many businesses had closed their doors early yesterday as a precautionary measure and the work day had been cut short by employees desperate to get home before any flare-ups of the riots.


South African restaurant chain Nando’s said its Brixton outlet had been damaged and it had closed its Clapham outlet for safety reasons.


The South African-owned Wimpy in Lavender Hill at Clapham Junction was also severely damaged in the riots. The refurbished restaurant opened its doors in January last year.


Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s restaurant in Birmingham also did not escape the riots.


“Sadly my restaurant in Birmingham got smashed up. Windows all gone, whole area closed, can’t open, staff and customers all safe!! thankfully jox,” Oliver tweeted early yesterday morning.


A mob of about 300 hooded youths gathered in the suburb of Toxteth as darkness fell on Monday night before marching on the city centre, torching cars and causing mayhem. Two police officers were reported injured as the rioters pelted lines of police with makeshift weapons including golf clubs, bottles, stones and fireworks. Looters attacked shops, setting many of them ablaze.


A fire tore through a Sony Corp warehouse in London’s riot-hit Enfield neighbourhood. But a Sony spokesman could not confirm if the blaze had been started by rioters. She said deliveries of compact discs and DVDs could be affected.


Cameron condemned the “sickening scenes” in London yesterday as he announced a recall of Parliament, the deployment of 10000 extra police officers on the streets and a more aggressive response to the escalating looting and rioting.


The prime minister, who abandoned his Tuscan holiday in the early hours to try to get a grip on the crisis, promised hundreds more arrests, swift justice for street thugs and “more robust police action”.


“This is criminality pure and simple and it has to be confronted and defeated,” he said outside Downing Street in London.


There would be 16000 police officers on the streets of London last night, he said.


All leave in the Metropolitan Police had been cancelled and officers from other forces were to be drafted into the capital.


MPs were to be called back from their summer holidays for a one-day sitting tomorrow.


The crisis poses a huge test for Cameron’s authority after he abandoned his holiday four days early after watching on television as the violence which started in Tottenham on Saturday spread across the capital.


He delivered a clear warning to rioters, many of whom have been described as being as young as 13, that they could expect to be dealt with harshly regardless of their age.


“I am determined that justice will be done and those people will see the consequences of their actions.” Some 525 arrests have been made in London alone and dozens were arrested in other cities. Police said plastic bullets would be “one of the tactics” available to officers to quell the riots.


The riots also claimed their first death – a 26-year-old found shot dead in a car. England’s soccer friendly against the Netherlands today was called off because of the riots. A friendly between Nigeria and Ghana in London was also cancelled.


Meanwhile, Scotland Yard yesterday released the first of what a senior officer promised would be “many, many” images of suspected looters from the London riots.


The CCTV images are from incidents of looting in Croydon and nearby West Norwood on Monday night and show suspects either in the act of breaking into shops or just before their crimes.


A watchdog investigating the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by police, which sparked the rioting and looting, said yesterday there was no evidence a handgun retrieved at the scene had been fired.


Reports initially suggested the 29- year-old had shot at police.


The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) said ballistic test results showed “at this stage there is no evidence the handgun found at the scene was fired during the incident.”


Duggan’s death had come after two shots were fired by a special firearms officer, the IPCC said.


Iran urged Britain yesterday to avoid using force to suppress the riots, mischievously turning the tables on Western critics of its own human rights record. In other reaction, France and Austria issued travel advisories to their citizens and a Belgian legislator said he feared copycat violence spreading to his own country.


“It must be weird for Londoners to read travel advisory from foreign countries against the UK; usually the other way around,” tweeted Gulf social commentator Mishaal al-Gergawi from a region that has witnessed a lot of civic unrest in the Arab Spring.

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