Shine A Light

London riots: eyewitness view from Walworth Road

When a young man from south London came face to face with looters on his way home from work, it was a shock. Here, he tells his story.

Nick Smith
11 August 2011

Whilst at work I saw on the internet that trouble had flared in Hackney [East London]. I expected it would kick off, but not so early and in broad daylight. I left work at about 6:30pm and my worry at the time was whether or not to go to the barbers, I didn't want to be left with half a haircut if things kicked off. I live in Camberwell [south London] which borders Brixton, where there had been riots the night before and I was actually lucky not to get caught up in. I was driving home pretty late in the evening and I would normally have gone through Brixton, (exactly through where the looting and fires were taking place), but I recalled there had been some road works the last time I'd been in the area (couple of weeks ago) and so instead went a different route.

Anyway at my bus stop on the Strand in central London, I didn't get on the first bus to Camberwell. It was rammed and I didn't fancy standing up the whole way home. The next bus came a few minutes later and I jumped on. Just as I was approaching Elephant and Castle, I got the first phone call checking that I was ok. My mate told me that there was rioting going on in Peckham, (which borders Camberwell on the opposite side to Brixton) and wanted to know where I was and how things were in Camberwell. At this point I started paying attention to what was going on the street rather than listening to my music. Elephant and Castle looked completely normal and so I assumed I'd have no problem getting home as I thought that this would be the likely place of any trouble. However, I was wrong. The bus didn't get very far away from Elephant down the Walworth Road, before the driver pulled over behind two other buses and turned off the engine and everyone had to get off.

Walking in front of the other two parked buses, I saw that about 15 police officers were blocking off people and traffic from going any further down the Walworth Rd than Manor Place. A massive crowd started to gather, Walworth Rd is normally very busy, lots of buses and cars pass through and as buses were pulling over more and more people were joining. This was all very peaceful, it was full of ordinary people wanting to carry on their journey. The officers seemed very calm, none were in riot gear, most were in uniform and a few in suits, but they didn't seem to have much of a clue what was going on, (all they would say is there is some disturbance down there) or when it would be sorted. I watched officers repeat themselves again and again as different people questioned them. It didn't seem that any police officers were using common sense; I actually wanted to take control. I wondered why they didn't use a megaphone to speak to the increasingly large crowd - this was all taking place 200 metres from Walworth Police station (on Manor Place), so they must have been able to get one. I wondered why they didn't do anything about the traffic... ok, the buses had to remain stationary, but Manor Place and Browning Street were open and cars were coming out of both of these roads. Why weren't cars stuck on Walworth Rd diverted down there away from Walworth Rd? It was common sense and would have only taken one officer to sort out and would have stopped the jam being all the way back to Elephant and Castle.

After updating my Facebook and replying to a couple of texts I was trying to figure out what to do - there was no advice from the police. Surely they knew looting was going on, that there was debris all over the street and that the Walworth Rd would not be open for hours, so sensible advice would have been to make your journey home avoiding Walworth Rd if possible. They could have advised people to walk to Elephant and Castle (a substantial transport interchange of tube, train and bus to get advice on finding an alternative route home).

I was feeling quite hungry, and ironically was standing outside a closed McDonalds - they would have made a lot of money if it had been open. All the shops in the area were shut, even Bagel King, and anyone who knows the area, knows that Bagel King is open 24/7. I didn't fancy standing around for an unknown period of time and although I could have gone back to Elephant and Castle and taken a longer route home, I decided to try and make my way through the back streets to Camberwell. I followed a woman down Manor Place past the Police Station, we'd got about 400 metres past the station when a young mixed race or asian guy ran past us with some small items in his hand (maybe mobile phone boxes) and he shouted something boasting about his loot. The young black woman (in her 20's) I was walking with kissed her teeth and said something about him being an idiot for conforming to stereotypes. We walked down Penton Place, and had the choice to walk up Penrose Street back to the Walworth Road or continue on the back streets. I was not 100% sure of the way on the back streets and to be honest curiosity got the better of me and I walked up Penrose Street back to the Walworth Road as did the young woman.

As we got to the Walworth Road, I couldn't see the police line further back up the road which had stopped us coming down, but I did notice the first 2 shops I came across (on the corner of Penrose and Walworth and on the other side of Walworth Rd opposite Penrose) had their windows and doors smashed as you can see in the pictures, but other than that it was sparse in the immediate area.

Looted shop on Walworth Road opposite Penrose Street - 8th August

I could see further down the street that there was a group trying to break into the footlocker and that there were buses stationary in the street. I wondered what would have happened if I'd got on the earlier bus - guess I'll never know.

I decided to head further down the street. There were a lot of people out on the street, but relatively few involved in looting. There were a lot of people (my estimate is 30% of people there) who looked as though they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time (like the two girls and the guy on the bike in front of the bus). It wasn't really a scary environment, I'm not saying that people weren't frightened, but I think a better description would be shocked and disgusted. I saw a middle aged woman walking with her elderly mother through the worst hit area and they were obviously concerned, but I (and I hope they also) didn't feel that they were unsafe. It sounds stupid to say it, but the atmosphere amongst everyone else seemed like carnival - I actually saw a girl getting chirpsed (chatted up). There were plenty of people (my estimate is maybe as many of 50% of people there) hanging around, fascinated by everything and enjoying watching the 'entertainment'. They didn't seem to be in the wrong place, they wanted to be there and to see what was going on. I got the feeling that they wouldn't get involved in smashing any shops in, but if there were goods dropped by looters, they wouldn't hesitate to pick them up and I actually witnessed this later on. Lots of these onlookers were females and young kids (10-13) and they came from ALL races. I didn't notice any racial tension, Walworth is a very diverse area and white and blacks were mixing together whether that was in watching or in looting.

On to the looters. A lot of them (more than half by my estimates) didn't bother to hide their faces. I don't know if this was down to bravado or stupidity, but also maybe because there were no police in sight and no media, although I suspect there is plenty of CCTV around there. From what I noticed the instigators were older guys (20+) but a lot of the followers were teenagers. It didn't feel like it would get violent. Nobody seemed interested in fighting each other and as mentioned there were no police to fight. I wasn't paying attention to where I was walking and barged quite hard in to a big black guy with a bandana over his face, who was with three or four other guys, instinctively I said sorry and he responded "Cool bredren" and spudded me (touched fists). The only thing that made me a little nervous was taking pictures. I was careful not to capture anyones faces, I felt that was the only thing that could have got me into trouble.

As I continued walking through the Walworth Rd, I noticed a couple of interesting things. As pictured, a LCD TV lay on the street, it didn't seem damaged, so not sure why it was left there, maybe because it was only about a 19"!!!


A discarded LCD TV on side street off Walworth Road - 8th August.

A local convenience store had its shutters down, but all the staff (between 6-8 Kurdish men) sat on crates outside. They were obviously making sure that nobody looted their shop. They seemed calm and didn't appear to have weapons and nobody seemed interested in bothering them. I also noticed that the bus drivers had remained inside the buses that were stuck in the middle of the looting. I was surprised by this, I thought they would have taken their keys and quietly slipped off, rather than being a sitting target. However, they looked calm, one driver had an old white lady still on his bus that he was talking to. I felt sorry for her, getting off the bus in an area that she may not know whilst looting is going on would be terrifying and she may not have been able to walk very far. She really didn't have much choice except to wait on the bus until the police came - I imagine she was waiting a long time. Hopefully, the fact that the driver was a black man considerably bigger than any of the looters made her feel a little at ease. I also felt bad when I noticed a young black girl (maybe 13) crying, she was being comforted by a number of people and I overheard that she was upset because she couldn't get into her home.

As I got further south down Walworth Rd, there were less and less people and no looting was currently going on, although there was evidence that looting had happened earlier.

Outside the Argos a number of DVD's were scattered all over the floor. A car that had come out of a side street and realised there was no way of getting up the road pulled over and two white women jumped out the car and started picking up as many of the DVD's as they could. One of the women then shouted to the other "come on let's go, let's not get greedy" and they drove off. This was at approximately 7:30pm.


Assorted DVD's on the street outside Argos Walworth Rd - 8th August

It may sound like I don't feel the goings on were that bad, when I'm saying that it wasn't violent etc., but that's definitely not the case, I'm just stating facts. It's annoying me that a lot of the reporting I'm hearing and reading is opinion, speculation and rumour rather than fact. I only want to hear accurate reporting (especially when it comes to race - it's definitely not just black men involved). I don't really care what people think, I can make my own decision on what to think, but if you want to hear my thoughts, you can do below.

I'm really angry about ALL of those involved. Those that are causing the trouble, have no respect for innocent people - homes and cars are being destroyed - there can be no excuse for that. As in Walworth where the damage didn't (during the time I was there) involve fire or damaging peoples property, the fact that shops were ransacked still made me mad. It wasn't just chains that were targetted, independent shops were hit too, they can't afford these losses and many will go out of business. Even looting chain stores is far from being a victimless crime, they employ many people and the looting will likely cause jobs to be lost, maybe some stores won't even reopen. I've heard a lot of people speculate on the reasons for people getting involved in the looting and there are lots of them, many very complex, (although none come close to justify what is happening) but to me there is one reason that is key and more important than anything else and that's that people thought/think they can get away with it. They can't be allowed to get away with it and MPs and Police have said they won't. That's the only thing that politicians and police have said that I actually believe. I'm sure they will spend months going through videos and photos identifying the looters and arsonists, but the time for this is after the disturbances have stopped.

I'm also really annoyed with the police. I'm not the police's biggest fan (like most young black men), there are a lot of things they could do better. When I was younger I was constantly getting hassled by them, including getting pulled over 3 times by different coppers whilst driving down the Old Kent Road on the same night. Although things have definitely got better over the years, it just seems there are so many things that could be improved very easily. Communication being a key example.

After the shooting of Mark Duggan, the truth should have been put out straight away. Rumours were leaked to the press that he had shot at the police first, when the police officers on the scene (and any witnesses - the cab driver for example) knew this wasn't the case. The police belatedly now admit this. The Police may have feared a disturbance if they had admitted they had shot a man dead who hadn't shot at them, but they made it worse when they didn't clarify that reports he had shot at them were wrong.

I think that they presumed that people would believe this story until the IPCC report came out and tensions had calmed down. What they didn't expect was that Mark's family and friends would completely reject that he would shoot at the police, he may have been involved in criminal activity, but by all accounts wasn't a violent person, at least not a killer let alone a copkiller and those that knew him smelt a rat. I know they can't put out the full details when an IPCC investigation is ongoing, but they could have said a man has been shot dead by a police officer and the officer has been suspended (surely they have to suspend even if on full pay) whilst an investigation takes place. People may have been angry, but at least it wouldn't have felt like a cover up, which obviously would make people more angry. It just seems that those leading the police are making some pretty big mistakes (let's not forget phone hacking and the [Jean Charles] de Menezes shooting at Stockwell), which makes it hard to justify their six figure salaries. Unfortunately it seems to take something to go majorly wrong (Stephen Lawrence for example) for things to be improved and let's hope lessons will be learnt from this. Having said all that, I can't have anything but sympathy for the police having to deal with the disorder that has occurred over the last few days. Their mistakes don't deserve bricks being thrown at their heads.

I'm also angry with the politicians. It took [prime minister David] Cameron and [Mayor of London] Boris Johnson a long time to come back from their holidays and it seems they came back for the wrong reasons i.e. they realised it was going to affect their political careers if they didn't rather than wanting to sort out the country. Now they are back it seems they are more concerned with looking good on BBC and Sky news than really getting the situation sorted. We don't need them walking around Croydon, Clapham Junction etc. shaking hands and thanking people. If they haven't got better things to do than kissing babies they should have stayed on holiday - I'm sure they are protected/accompanied by a number of police officers (who definitely have better things to do) whilst on their jaunt.

I'm glad that Boris got a hard time in Junction - hopefully this buffoon will never get elected again. But it's not just the Tories: [Labour leader Ed] Miliband has also only just come back and was also in Peckham for the cameras. I've seen a lot of MP's on the TV (I've been watching constantly) and so far the only one that has done himself any credit is David Lammy. I'm sick of hearing MP's saying that these people will be punished. Theresa May has made an idiot of herself calling on people to ring the police and identify looters - people on the same news programmes are saying at the moment police can't respond to 999 calls,  they haven't even been able to get through to the police to report break ins etc. and she's advising people to ring up and say they've seen Tony with a new pair of Nikes. Surely it's more important to stop the looting happening before worrying about grassing up Tony.

I presume that it is up to the government as to whether police can use rubber bullets, water cannons or even bring in the army. Therefore its disgraceful that the most senior politicians were not here. I obviously don't know all the pros and cons, but I am massively in favour of water cannons. As I state earlier, people are rioting because they can. They have realised that if enough of them do it, in enough different areas, then the police can't stop them. Also, I have mentioned that I feel a lot of people involved are hangers on. Therefore if you have a water cannon, you can first send a megaphone warning that people need to clear an area before the water cannon is fired - I think most people will leave then (as I said a lot of people are just onlookers), police can then approach, they may not need to even shoot the water cannon or only give it a short burst. At the moment, the police are looking on and the looters are looting in their faces knowing they can't be touched. Having a water cannon means that you can take on a crowd that is bigger than the police force. Surely they are safer than driving armoured vehicles towards a crowd, which they did last night!

I wouldn't say I'm angry with, but I'm annoyed by, the media (even though I work in it myself). There have been a number of innapropriate people getting airtime and the presenters have been ill equipped with the basic knowledge of who the people they are intereviewing are. Case in point being this interview with Darcus Howe, whom I am not a fan of.

The reports on the trouble in Ealing [west London] also really pissed me off. I keep hearing that Ealing is a "leafy affluent area" where you would never expect this type of thing. Well we don't expect this type of thing in Tottenham, Brixton or Hackney either - it's been 25 years since we've seen disturbances anything like this in these areas. Reports keep talking about how people must have come from other areas in to Ealing because locals would never do anything like that. Maybe, I'm being over sensitive, but I just don't like the connotations of what they are saying. Sky News and Dermot Murnaghan the worst culprits. Lastly, the jesters that they have giving the weather reports are annoying at the best of times, but when something serious is going on, we really don't need to see their inane smiling faces and chirpy voices cracking jokes. Can a producer not tell them just to bring it down a notch?

The looting in Walworth hasn't been mentioned on TV, obviously there are a lot of disturbances in other areas that were a lot more serious, but on a normal day what happened in Walworth would have been headline news. It makes me wonder how many other smaller scale disturbances there were and whether the police (even with increased numbers tonight) will be able to cope especially if forces are coming from other areas that might find that they have their own disturbances.

I think I've just about managed to spit out everything I want to say, and I feel a little more calm. Let's hope it calms down in the high streets too. It's taken me the full day, in between doing some bits of work to write this up. I don't imagine many will find this, let alone take the time to read it all. However if you are reading this do let me know :) and if you've got any comments then I'm of course really interested to hear - oh and apologies for the bad grammar.

Stay safe.

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