Brixton Riots 2011: A Detailed ItineraryTagged as: cuts londonriots riot riots_2011
Neighbourhoods: brixton stockwell tulse_hill
This is something I've been meaning to finish for quite a while, but haven't got round to. It seems good to get it done with before the end of the year. It's a fairly detailed eye witness account of the civil disturbances which took place in Brixton on the night of 7-8 August 2011. It can be considered a companion article to these two:
I realize it's out of date, but I wanted to get it all down before the memories faded.
It started getting mildly interesting on Stockwell Road. There was a young black kid, maybe 15, cruising down the other side of the street, clutching his cramped side. It looked as if he had been running towards Brixton for quite a long time and couldn't run any more, but didn't want to slow down.
As we walked past Brixton Academy, a grinning teenaged girl walked quickly toward us, carrying several stacked boxes of clothing. The look on her face was one of triumph, as she carried her boxes happily past the police station.
Everything was quiet until we walked under the rail overpass and made it into Brixton proper. Suddenly there was a confusing flurry of impressions.
On one side of the street, by the M&S, was a group of 30-50 neighourhood young people, ranging in age from mid-teens to mid-20s. On the other side was a pathetic string of maybe a dozen riot police. The police were uselessly ringed in a semi-circle on the east side of the street, guarding the shopfront of an already-smashed-in Footlocker shoe store. A tiny trickle of smoke could be seen coming out of it.
The kids would drift onto the street now and then, and the cops weren't eager to try and push them off it - this was done by passing motorists. Drivers coming up Brixton road were freaking out, probably with a thought process like:
"Police in riot gear on the right."
"Brixton youth on left."
"Time to flee."
Cars were tearing past, accelerating through 60-odd miles an hour in a desperate bid to get the hell out of a neighbourhood with a global rep for riots. Ironically, despite all the media talk of lawlessness, criminality, and street-kids out of control, it was the panicked car-owning classes that put us at most risk of serious physical injury during the night. Standing on the road looking at the line of cops, watching to see if they were going to attack, we were nearly blindsided by half a dozen cars accelerating up Brixton Road towards us. They missed us by inches. We stepped back onto the sidewalk, taking a quick look around. M&S had its windows smashed in, as did all the other chain stores on the west side of the street. We took a couple photos of the cops and surveyed the scene further south.
Looking past the tube station, there were a few groups of people milling around on Brixton Road further down, at the corner near the Ritzy Cinema. We decided to move down toward them and see what was going on.
More groups of people were showing up, coming together in a larger crowd. In the space of five minutes, there were perhaps 150 people on the scene. They started bashing in the front of the H&M clothing store. The police, meanwhile, redeployed into a widely-spaced line across Brixton Road, and stood looking on from maybe 100 meters away - they were roughly level with the Brixton Tube. By this time, despite the heavy rain which had started, the Footlocker behind had burst into quite impressive flames.
Not wanting to get our heads justifiably kicked in by people engaged in some seriously arrestable activity, we turned our cameras towards the line of riot cops in front of the burning shop, and got a few nice shots of them. Then we sheltered in a doorway, waiting for the rain to let up a bit. The cops moved up to Electric Avenue, to better keep watch as H&M was looted. People were heading into the pitch-black shop, coming out laden with clothes. While we waited, a guy who was huddling with us in the doorway let us know that there was a bigger group heading down Effra Road.
The crowd of people coming out of H&M had obviously heard about the group on Effra Road, because they moved off in a mass, heading south. As soon as this group made it past Windrush Square, the cops made a lot of paramilitary sounds and moved rapidly up to guard the now-empty shell of the shop.
I couldn't help but laugh at this - all the shouted orders, precision marching, and tactical formations in the world couldn't make up for the fact that tooled-up riot police had watched people steal stuff without intervening for over 15 minutes. The cops were scared. As they moved up to the H&M, all the disciplinarian noises rang hollow on the now-deserted road. It seemed as though they were trying to prove to themselves that they were, really, still the police, and not just a bunch of badly-dressed guys with sticks.
Meanwhile, the action had moved further south. We decided to go check it out.
In the distance, we could see quite a large crowd of people spilling across Effra Road from the estate on the west side of the road. Three riot vans full of cops suddenly pulled to a halt at the junction of St. Matthews Road and Effra Road, and a few dozen riot police got out, hurriedly strapping on their shields, putting down faceplates, and readying their batons. At this point, one of the most surprising moments of the entire night took place.
More vans were coming from behind us. As they pulled up, two of the young black kids near us looked forward at the cops deploying into line, and back at the flashing lights on the approaching vans. One looked at the other, and said, in a perfectly commonplace South London accent, "Shit. They're gonna fucking kettle us." "Let's go!"
A few things about this seemingly innocuous exchange caught my attention. First, until the serious student demonstrations started on 30 November 2010, the use of the word "kettling" was not commonplace in London except among activist types. Second, he said it with real urgency; only people who have been forcibly detained inside a kettle for hours have that tone of voice, or run so quickly to escape one. By their dress and accents, these young men were from Brixton, and from the local estates. They had also been in the political anti-cuts demonstrations and student riots, and knew about police tactics.
They didn't have to think much about their own tactical response: move quickly. The two of them ran around the riot cops, toward the waiting crowd up ahead.
We followed behind, and got behind a bus shelter while we evaluated the opposing forces. A few masked-up, white middle-class student-protestor types also used the bus shelter as a staging point, then ran ahead to join the fray.
On one side were several dozen cops moving south down Effra Road and steaming across the parking lot to save the Currys electronics megastore. On the opposite side was a crowd of large but indeterminate size, since we could only see the front of it. They were maybe 50 meters from the police.
At this point, with five vans stopped and emptied, the police weren't getting any reinforcements. But minute by minute, the crowd of people on Effra Road was being swelled by more and more locals.
On one side of Effra Road are two large chain-stores: Halfords, which sells hardware and building supplies, and Currys, which sells TVs, stereo equipment, computers, and other portable, high-value stuff. On the other side of Effra Road is a big public housing estate, where people who can't afford any of that stuff sit on the their balconies and ponder the allure of consumer goods, so close and yet so far away.
That night, the estate made a collective decision. In twos and threes, with groups of friends, people were trickling between the buildings of the estate and out onto the road, some carrying crowbars. Others stood between buildings, armed with long metal poles which looked as though they'd been ripped off some scaffolding, waiting for the cops to come onto the estate. A few people were visible on third or fifth-storey balconies. Whatever happened next, the estate was clearly a death-trap for the cops, and a safe zone for the people milling around in front of Currys.
Not wanting to get caught between the cop reinforcements coming up from behind us and the crowd in front, we decided to play safe. We turned around, walked back up to St. Matthews Road, and did a detour around the whole estate, so that we could join up with the crowd and approach things from a somewhat safer angle. We walked up Brixton Hill, and down Brixton Water Lane. As we came back to Effra Road, we walked into a strange scene.
Amazingly, the cops could barely be seen. When we'd last seen them, they were in a wedge formation, batons at the ready, heading across the Currys parking lot to save the beleagured megastore. Now they were in the far distance, back by St. Matthews Road, where they'd started out. They had clearly made no headway against the locals.
People were coming down from the massive Tulse Hill housing estates in a steady stream. Cars were lined up for 200 metres on both sides of Effra Road, starting at the Currys and extending to Brixton Water Lane. Hundreds of people were methodically stripping Currys of all available goods. Some people were coming out of the shop and stuffing the loot into the waiting cars. Lines of boys in their mid-teens carried 60-inch televisions off into the estate across the road, ripping the packaging off as they went. The road was paved with TV boxes. People were calling friends. Contrary to sensational media reports about Twitter and Blackberry Messaging being used for organising, almost nobody was bothering to text anything - voice communication is simply a lot quicker in a riot situation.
The atmosphere was a strange mixture of friendliness, tension, and businesslike efficiency. The friendliness came from the common danger and the feeling that tonight, it was everyone against the cops. The tension came from the several thousand years of jail time that would ensue if everyone got busted for everything they were stealing. And the efficiency: it was very different from an "activist" crowd in England. I remember that it struck me quite hard that not a single person was drinking, despite the triumphant, near-carnival feeling that was in the air. People knew the trouble that they'd be in if they screwed up.
A group of young girls, running headlong down Tulse Hill towards Currys, smacked into us in their excitement, stopped short, and said politely, "Oh. Excuse me!", then they kept going, off to score the consumer electronics of their dreams. One guy stood around with us for a while, watching the crowd, then came to some decision deep within himself, smiled, looked me in the eye, and announced: "I'm going to go get me a lappy." We grinned back. And off he went, through the rain. I hope he got something good, maybe a MacBook Pro.
Cars doors were slamming, tires were squealing down Morval Road as tail-lights faded into the distance. We decided to head back to Brixton and see what was up. Re-tracing our steps up Brixton Water Lane and down Brixton Hill again, we crunched our way over more electronics packaging, a few Playstations and TV boxes among them. Kids were trickling through the estate with their new stuff, heading out west up Hayter Road.
Brixton Road was still closed. Above the (smashed) KFC, a dance club had its windows wide open and was pumping out dubstep into the August night, providing cultural counterpoint to by the same sad-looking line of riot cops that had been guarding the empty street when we'd left an hour before.
To get back to Stockwell Road, and homewards, we would need to go the back way. We walked up Acre Lane, and stopped for a smoke, looking at a small band of police guarding the entrance to the big Tesco's there. As we stood there, a guy walked towards us up the street, looked us up and down, looked at the cops in front of Tescos, and then flashed a huge grin. My grin was a mirror image of his.
We made our way back past Brixton through the back streets, heading down Ferndale Road, and getting back onto Stockwell Road in front of Brixton Academy. Looking to our right, we noticed a strange light. We had to blink a few times to figure out what was going on, but then the scene resolved itself: inside the Nandos, a six-foot high jet of flame was coming off the stove, and a flower of flame was playing across the ceiling. Somebody had clearly set the stove to its highest setting on their way out of the smashed restaurant (located across the street from the infamous Brixton Police Station).
It was an interesting photo, so we decided to stop and snap a shot of it. As the phone screens lit up, a voice from twenty feet away rang out: "Hey. You. Time to fuck off." Looking back up Bellefields Road, a huge guy was standing there, holding the Nandos cash register in his hands. It made me realize that quite a lot of the burning throughout London was probably an attempt to destroy physical and CCTV evidence.
We put the cameras away. It was time to leave.
Stockwell Road was relatively peaceful. One group of kids was smashing in the William Hill betting shop, leaving the two locally-owned convenience stores alone. Eventually, we made it past Stockwell Tube and headed northwards, on our way home.