On Saturday, I spent the day in Hyde Park, covering the Women’s Elite Triathlon event before heading off to a barbecue. After a settling in for the evening at home, I got a text from my picture editor telling me of trouble in Tottenham. As it’s only down the road from where I live, I jumped in the car and wandered over there, expecting a few fisticuffs and swearing before it fizzled out. I was wrong. After four consecutive nights of violence and looting on a level unseen before in London, it seems as though the city may finally be starting to move into a state of healing.
Arriving in Tottenham, I walked into a scene of chaos as riot police held a group of people in an area on the main street from both ends while blocking people from entering from the non-enclosed side. Groups were gathering outside the cordon trying to get in and soon realised that they could easily walk down some of the many alleyways and find themselves right in the centre. As I moved around, I saw a camera crew working in the outer area and introduced myself. After checking who I was, they warned me that they’d just seen the first photographer mugging with the guy losing his gear before being beaten up. Thankfully, I’d anticipated this and was carrying a very stripped kit, hidden under my jacket.
After following the camera crew down one of the alleys to enter the central area, a group gathered and started to egg each other on with cries of “The media are targets too!”. I checked with the crew and decided to get out of there so I could find another way in. After trying and failing, I headed back to the same spot and walked in alone. As I got to the main area, the police helicopter searchlight lit the street and I saw exactly how bad it was already looking; the burnt-out remains of two police cars lay in the road while a nearby shop was collapsing in on itself as it burned. Within a few minutes of arriving, the police charged and I hid behind a phone box until they’d passed then switched to the other side as the area was pelted with rocks and bottles.
As I’ve often found in these situations, the riot police were exceptionally helpful to the media allowing myself and the other three or four who’d got through to work with impunity as long as we stayed clear of their front line. With so much pressure on and possible danger, it’s amazing that more don’t snap at the press but all was fine for a good ten minutes, allowing us to shoot the events as they unfolded. As the barrage of incoming missiles grew and a double decker London bus was set on fire, the police needed more room so asked us to move further back and I decided to head out. Just as I was reaching the police line to exit the cordon, I glanced back and saw a woman walking through the rocks and debris with two terrified children. Knowing that deadlines were fast approaching, I dashed back to my car, edited the stills and video and pushed them through to Washington for validation.
Returning to the area the next morning, I discovered just how badly the night had ended. Getty photographer Matt Lloyd had left the scene at the same time as me to edit, but then returned without any professional equipment due to the danger to photographers and shot the events on his iPhone 4. After being pushed from the main area by the police, the rioters had gone on to devastate the area. Driving down to Bruce Grove station was like entering a war zone.
The road leading down to the station was half blocked by burning bins and kids on mountain bikes zig-zagged across the street. As I parked my car and walked around the corner, I got to see the remains of what had, up to the previous day, been a busy bustling high street. Firefighters were still damping down the remains of a pub as police officers stood guard around an ATM that had been ripped from the wall and emptied. The few emergency vehicles that were moving around were slowly cruising as they crunched over the bricks, rocks and bottles that covered the road. The double decker bus that had blazed so brightly the previous night was now so reduced that I had to explain to another photographer what it was that he was looking at. Further down the street, a massive carpet warehouse had been torched, destroying all of the apartments of those living above.
The ground was covered in looted mobile phone packaging and blue plastic cases from the jewellery taken from the now-destroyed store next to the smouldering pub. Travelling a little down the road with Reuters photographer Luke MacGregor, we came across the local retail park where looters had run amok for hours on end, with no police intervention due to the escalation of arson and violence just around the corner. Massive electronics, computer, mobile phone and home goods superstores had been totally stripped. Speaking to one of the security guards who was standing next to some of the plasma televisions recovered from the car park, he told me that the looters had clearly been professional thieves as, on entering the buildings, they’d headed straight to the security offices where they disabled the cameras and removed all recordings.
Realising how serious it had been, it soon became clear that this was likely to happen again, I went home to get some rest ahead of the evening and any possible repeat.
By 6pm, word was beginning to spread that the looting looked likely to spread to nearby Enfield. Heading up there, I again stripped my gear down to the bare minimum of a single D3s body with one 50mm f1.4G lens and one 28-300mm f3.5-f5.6G “lazyboy” lens. On arriving, it was clear that there was likely to be trouble as small groups of teenagers wearing hoods, masks and balaclavas roamed through the parks and side streets around the town’s retail centre. Not wanting to risk my car, I parked outside the centre and walked in. I’d only been walking two minutes when a large group appeared around the corner of a side street and came walking towards me. My hope that they were peaceful didn’t last long as one of them punched his fist through a pub window as he walked. A bottle landed near my feet as I crossed the road and turned the corner. Thankfully, I walked straight into a line of riot police in full gear but the fact that the group was walking around freely smashing windows only metres away from the police front-line set the mood for how the evening would go.
After the previous night’s foray into no-man’s land, I decided to start out near to the police lines. Like the night before, one of the riot police broke away from the line to come and check on my safety wear before advising me that if I was injured at any point, to shout “Man down!” to alert the medic as the police line would be looking forward. After minor scuffles, the main group broke away from the front line and seemed to disappear. After checking out a smashed-up police car, I joined forces with Getty’s Peter Macdiarmid to try and track down the action by car. Reports soon started to come in that large groups were hitting a nearby retail park, so we headed over to find the police protecting two large electrical stores as a gang smashed in the front windows of a supermarket opposite. Within moments, the police raced over there and the group dispersed. This went on to be the pattern of the night; reports on twitter would speak of an incident, we’d race over to the location to find that the police had intercepted the same messages and had secured the area. A long night of frustration as we chased our tails around Enfield.
Day three of the riots was when things truly became unbelievable. Starting in Hackney, I arrived to find cars burning and riot police desperately protecting small sections of the main thoroughfare, Mare Street. With police helicopters swooping dangerously low, the action soon moved to a nearby housing estate. Again, more cars were burned and rioters charged before riot police counter-charged.
After seeming to secure the area, myself and a group of other photographers sat down in a shop doorway to wire only to suddenly discover that the police were pulling out. Looking up the road, we were suddenly faced with the same group that had, until moments before, been held back by a large group of riot police as they walked down the street to our position. One very fast exit later and I was in freelance AFP photographer Ki Price‘s studio a mile down the road. After a hasty recharge of batteries, I headed off to South London with photographer Jules Mattsson to check out reports of looting in Clapham Junction.
It’s hard to explain how unreal this whole experience was by now. If you’re outside the London or the UK and in an area untouched by these riots, just imagine your local high street being totally torn apart by looting and violence with the police nowhere to be seen. My picture editor was told to collect his child early from nursery as they wanted to close early. I was driving between every flashpoint using every bit of the small amount of hazardous environment training I know, making sure to keep distance between myself and other vehicles at all times for fast getaways and braking early at lights so that I never reached total standstill. A colleague of mine was surrounded in his car at one point with youths in balaclavas and masks grabbing at the door handles and when he raced down the road, he saw that they’d been setting up roadblocks at the junction so that they could stop every car to burn them. Truly insane and often terrifying.
Arriving in Clapham Junction was one of these moments. Kirsten used to live here so I know the area reasonably well, but turning onto the main road we found ourselves looking down a long open road, littered with debris as youths in hoods loitered on both sides. I seem to remember that I did actually whistle the opening bars to the theme from “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” at this point. After some evasive driving when passing through the centre including a very fast getaway through a large group in the middle of the road, we parked up and walked down to the main shopping area. I’ve written this too many times already so far in this blog, but by this point I was running out of ways to comprehend what I was seeing. The same road that Kirsten and I had shopped in and enjoyed lazy Sunday breakfasts on was destroyed. A smashed plasma screen was lying in the middle of road and everywhere people milled around looking in the remains of the shop windows at the total chaos. While the police battled a large group of rioters and looters a few hundred metres down the road, two remained on guard outside a branch of Currys electrical store to protect both the stock and the injured man that they had discovered on entering the premises. He was later taken away in handcuffs.
It was clear that we’d arrived too late to record the looting, but Sun photographer Lee Thompson and AP photographer Simon Dawson had seen it all and were clearly shocked. Heading back to Lee and Simon’s apartment to wire our pictures, we’d just about reached the door when we heard that it had kicked off again and the looters had set fire to a shop and apartments on the main junction. Racing back we caught the fire crews tackling the blaze before more rumours came through of a blaze at a nearby cinema. You can hopefully get the idea of how frantic this was all getting. If we were at the major news story of the night, this kind of action would have been insane enough but to consider that a few miles down the road, absolutely massive fires and riots were tearing Croydon apart, while similar smaller flashpoints were occurring all over the capital was truly shocking. We head back for a recharge and an edit session and discussed where to head next.
Leaving Lee and Simon in Brixton, Jules and myself headed back up north to Waltham Abbey where reports were coming in of a huge fire at the Sony distribution centre. Forty five minutes later, we arrived and managed to gain entry to the cordoned area to see the fire crews as they continued to tackle the blaze. One fireman there admitted that the heat was so great that the spray was turning to steam before it even hit the building due to the sheer volume of flammable plastics and media in storage. By now it was 6am and the end of another very long night.
The fourth night arrived and the whole of London held its breath as it waited to see what would happen. With the weather forecasts predicting fair weather, there was no reason that the crime and violence of previous evenings would not continue. Joining forces tonight with Matt Cetti-Roberts, we monitored the news, the local radio stations, Twitter and other photographers to see where the action was occurring. Unlike previous nights, it seemed that the violence had begun to move on from London. While other cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool were about to face their first evenings of riots, the capital seemed to reach its first point of near-calm in days. With the police flooding the streets with 16,000 officers on shift, and groups of vigilantes and “protection groups” patrolling their neighbourhoods, we watched and waited to see if the peace would hold. Sporadic reports of looting came in and Twitter was alive with gossip and rumour but knowing how to sift through the lies and speculation has become quite a well-worn skill. With five photographers on shift for AFP, we ended up with very little to cover. Following the community angle, Matt and I headed up to Enfield to see if we could find the group that were said to be patrolling the neighbourhoods. After half an hour we came across the main group and started to walk with them. While it contained people of all races, the vast majority were white and in a very heated mood. We walked with them for an hour or so, the mood was mainly one of bravado and community strength, but I can’t deny that I saw some disturbing outbursts. During our time with them, the group at one point targeted a young black man who was walking alone. While some were wanting to injure him, it was good to see that there were also many who were shouting for them to leave him alone as he was only one man against four hundred.
Moving on from this, we headed down to Southall in South London to find one of the Sikh temples that was reportedly being guarded by members of the local community. Arriving at the Sri Guru Singh Sabha temple, it can’t be denied that the vibe was entirely different. While Enfield had opted for a marching show of force with cars honking their horns and the police on hand to break up any signs of violence, Southall’s residents had chosen to remain in position outside their temples, sending out motorcycle patrols around the area to report back on movement of the hooded gangs that were seen in the outer streets. The police were showing trust in the group’s peaceful means and were happy to leave them to it. A cup of tea and a chat with one of the spokesmen proved a much needed return to normality after such a hard few days.
On Tuesday night, I tweeted that despite the fact that I have so far avoided conflict photography due to responsibilities to my family, I found myself using evasive driving to avoid masked gangs who were out to torch cars on the streets of my home city. I truly hope that in years to come, Max will be as shocked as we all are today at what happened and that this will remain one of the most bizarre and unique periods in UK history.
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I should point out here that there are also some incredible examples of the work by friends and colleagues over the last few days available to see elsewhere online. As ever, the Boston Globe’s “Big Picture” site has put together a strong collection of images from the first two nights. My favourite set of images has to be by PA photographer Lewis Whyld who has put together a slideshow here. He managed to be at all the right places at the right times through a combination of all the usual factors, and has come away with a strong collection of work. Nice one, bud.
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While there are many stories of loss that have come from these nights of violence, one that has caught the attention more than others is the case of Aaron Biber, the 89 year old barber who lost his store to looters. An online collection was set up here and has, at the time of writing, raised £25,000+ to help rebuild his livelihood.