Rioting in South London: An Eyewitness’ Take

By James Le Grice

It’s not very often that you get to physically enter a story you’ve just read.  I had the rare occasion on Monday evening, the third and most destructive night of the London Riots.  It was 6.45 pm and I was returning home from Elephant & Castle station. The Evening Standard’s articles about the rioting in North East London were fresh in my head when I turned down the Walworth Road and saw them vivified in sobering 3-D.

Gangs of teenage boys in black hoodies were clustered along the pavement, not itself an uncommon sight in my neighbourhood. It didn’t hit me until I realised that there were only gangs of teenage boys in hoodies on the pavement, and the shops were all barred shut. The youths were pouring in from the side streets, most masking their faces with scarves, some carrying cricket bats and wood planks.

“Yeah, keep walkin cuz. Keep walkin,” a deep voice from behind me said. I kept walking. They were not rioting yet, but waiting, boasting loudly about the shops they planned to rob. Their teenage masculine bravado was in overdrive and I could only hope to get home before it exploded.

Suddenly a mob of masked rioters came charging towards me. I dodged out of the way, and to my relief they ran past, fleeing a police van that had pulled up ahead. I quickened the pace and got home safely, only to find my neighbours across the street abandoning ship.  They loaded their suitcases and pets into the car and drove away.

Walworth is a very mixed neighbourhood, ethnically and socially. It is home to both members of Parliament and gangs alike. Its residential streets are a mixture of middle class Victorian row houses, such as mine, surrounded by council estates. Though I never felt a sense of being “surrounded” until that night. Out the back window, I saw hooded thugs dashing out of the council estate; out the front window, they were gathering together in my street. I thought they were planning to storm into the houses, and I debated to myself whether it made more sense in the event of a break in to try and fight back, and most likely get hospitalised, or let them rob the house, and also most likely get hospitalised.

I did the only thing one could in that situation, which was to make some tea and watch events unfold from the front window with my landlord. We soon saw that they weren’t after the houses, but the vacated shops full of trainers, electronics, jewelry, and cash. It was noisy. There were alarms ringing, glass smashing, bangs, and thuds, as the youths pillaged the Walworth Road. Some came running past the window with bags full of loot, others with televisions, others with bloodied faces. There was the occasional roar of yells and scream of sirens as fights broke out between looters and police, but by 9.00, after police reinforcements arrived, the storm was over in Walworth. Far worse storms were just beginning elsewhere.

Who were these rioters? They were not political crusaders, protestors, nor anarchists. They were teenage boys who discovered they were free to do whatever they wanted. These boys, and the girls who stood behind smiling longingly at their “bad man” boyfriends, may belong to an urban youth subculture that idolises the gangster life. However, the immediate problem is not any one of the myriad roots of that subculture, rather it is the sudden absence of authority.

The rioting teenagers in Walworth, and throughout London, felt free to do whatever they wanted because no one could stop them. Part of the fault lies with the parents; part lies with the under-funding of the Metropolitan Police. But the London Riots highlight another fault,  an inconvenient truth.

British law denies property owners the authority to sufficiently defend their possessions. This issue appears in headlines occasionally, such as in 1999 when Norfolk farmer Tony Martin was jailed for shooting a burglar, and in 2009 when Munir Hussain was jailed for defending his family from three knife-wielding intruders.

This fault in the legal system forces the public to rely entirely on the police to defend their property, and as these riots have proved, the police cannot be everywhere at once. Shop and homeowners, such as in Walworth on Monday night, then become sitting ducks forced to flee or beg for mercy. This fault also removes the sense of consequence from breaking and entering itself. Instead the consequence is getting caught breaking and entering by the police. When the police are either absent or overpowered, there is the illusion of no consequence.

David Cameron has spoken previously about changing the law so that people may use “reasonable force” to defend themselves and their property. Perhaps it is time for ministers to fully explore this proposal and formulate clear rational measures for its implementation. Property owners need the necessary powers to defend their possessions, and prevent violent youth gangs from taking authority in the absence of police protection.

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One Response to Rioting in South London: An Eyewitness’ Take

  1. Pingback: 2012 Olympics: Another East End Soap Opera? | Josh Cowls

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