LONDON (Reuters) - Residents of a London housing estate laughed at a televised plea by police for parents to call their children and help rein in the youths who looted and burned swathes of the city.
Not only were some of the parents at the riots themselves, but many of those taking part were not the hooded, teenage delinquents on which many have pinned the blame for the worst street riots Britain has seen for decades.
“Some of the parents were there. For some parents it was no big surprise their kids were there. They’ve gone through this all their lives,” said an Afro-Caribbean man of 22 who gave his name as “L,” voicing the frustration and anger felt by youth and parents over yawning inequalities in wealth and opportunity.
“I was on the train today in my work clothes and shoes. All different types took part in the riot. The man next to me was saying everyone who rioted should be gassed. He would never have guessed that I was there, that I took part,” he said.
L was seated at the entrance to a housing estate in Hackney, a London borough that suffered some of the worst destruction and violence in three days of riots that hit the British capital after the fatal shooting of an Afro-Caribbean man by police.
Other young men were sitting with him, on a wall outside the drab flats typical of the subsidized housing that is home to many of Britain’s poor.
One man held a marijuana joint, another rode in circles on a bike with his hood drawn tight over his face, a so-called “hoodie,” a stereotype blamed for much of the violence.
“They were not your typical hoodlums out there. There were working people, angry people. They’ve raised rates, cut child benefit. Everyone just used it as a chance to vent,” L said, referring to government austerity measures the poor say have hit them hardest.
Witness accounts and media footage reinforce his view — Afro-Caribbeans, Asians, whites and others of various ages were involved in riots that spread across London and further afield to the cities of Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham.
Politicians and police have described the riots as pure criminality, with youths emptying out shops in what looked like targeted raids. Some social commentators, however, point to swingeing public service cuts and high unemployment that have scarred poor, disadvantaged communities the most.
The unrest has stirred a debate about law and order and the social divide in modern Britain with many trying to pinpoint just who participated in the rioting and looting and fighting with police in London and other cities.
Britain’s mainstream media have seized on the stereotype of hooded, unemployed, violent youth as the culprits.
Among a large number of detained rioters that kept one London court busy throughout the night were a graphic designer, a graduate student and someone about to join the army.
On a typical day at the Hackney estate the young men, who apart from L were unemployed, congregate and while away the time, being careful to avoid the police, whom many refer to as the “Feds,” a term derived from U.S. federal law enforcers.
“If you’re not working, you find out what your friends are doing. We’re just socializing, generally. Keeping out of the radar of the police looking to get in our business,” said Ariom, 23, wearing baggy jeans and sporting corn-rows in his hair.
The young men sat within sight of a recently installed surveillance camera at the entrance to the estate.
A police car drove by, and all heads turned toward it.
“These black boys are just sitting around, the Feds drive through, some harassment, they have a little weed on them. I used to work with youth offenders, and it hurt me to see the police’s approach,” said Michelle, 40, who had stopped to chat.
“My son is 12 years old, and he already knows that police do not work for black people,” she added.
Hatred of the police is a recurring theme in Hackney.
L, back from work in a smart white shirt, smart shoes, black tie and black trousers, said he would still get stopped by police, despite his efforts to blend into wider society.
He declined to describe his job. All of those interviewed in Hackney were wary of giving away details that could allow them to be identified by the police.
“This supposed law and order is dishonest. I get stopped and searched. You won’t. They should just say ‘I’m stopping you because you’re black’,” L said, standing and raising his voice.
“If you ask the youths, they’re going to say they have the same dreams as the middle class. The same chances, a decent job, a high standard of living. I know guys that are selling drugs and they want to start their own legitimate business.”
Michelle said she had quit her job with the police youth offenders unit because her children and others saw her as an informer.
“The reason I don’t work for them any more is ... it’s a white institution, and I won’t change my identity,” she said.
She sympathized with the rioters and looters.
“Before, it was if a black man is killed, it’s OK, ‘black on black crime’. Now, when it’s property damaged or stolen, it’s uproar. What other platform have the youths got?” she said.
At a nearby housing estate, heavily tattooed Jackie, 39, resented what she saw as the media’s portrayal of the riots as mindless youth violence.
“This was not kids. This was youths and adults coming together against the crap that’s been going on since the coalition,” she said, referring to Britain’s conservative-led government, which has made deep austerity cuts since coming into power last year to tackle a big budget deficit.
“They’re saying it’s all young hoodies. Look at me, now I’m a hoodie,” she said, putting her hood up, and with her small slender build instantly looking like the lithe teenage rioters shown in television footage.
“I was out in the riots. My 16-year-old daughter was calling me asking where I was,” she said, chuckling.
She stood with a group of Afro-Caribbean men and women on a street corner, muttering and eyeballing the police who stood some meters (yards) away across the road. Shattered glass from the riots still littered the road in places.
She and others had little sympathy for many of the store owners whose premises had been looted and burned, identifying most as big chain stores that offer little to their community.
Many of the more upmarket stores cater for growing numbers of middle-class professionals and white hipsters who have moved in recent years into Hackney’s handsome townhouses, of which many sit yards away from poor housing estates.
“The looting was done, not just because they can’t afford the stuff, it was done to show they just don’t give a shit .... We’re here and not going away,” Michelle said.
Politicians have given several interviews since the riots began, blaming the rioters for wrecking their own communities.
Some in Hackney do not see it that way.
“It’s like the old days. It’s bringing the community spirit back. Even though it’s a sad way to do it, it’s bringing the community together,” Ariom said.
As the sun set, the men at the estate said they would hang out on a typical evening, play football or visit girlfriends.
“But if the riots kick off again, I’m going. It’s history, it’s a revolution,” Ariom said.
“I loved Hackney during the riot. I loved every minute of it. It was great to see the people coming together to show the authorities that they cannot just come out here bullying.”