I never thought the next big international story I would cover would be on the streets where I live. Al Jazeera in London has not shied away from covering the underbelly of UK society, but this was different. Suddenly rioting Britain was worldwide news.
How had this happened?
Trying to get past the images of looting and rampaging and look at the reasons why seemed to be a journalistic no-brainer. Yet few media outlets seemed to want to broach this difficult topic.
Voices of kneejerk condemnation drowned out any soul-searching about what emboldened so many young people to take to the streets committing crimes regardless of the banks of cameras ubiquitous in today’s Britain – whether they be iPhones, street surveillance cameras, or amateur or professional TV news crews.
Some of the worst clashes took place in the borough of Hackney where I live. On the notorious Pembury Estate, police were baited into running battles with residents.
During extensive reporting on this event one youth was quoted as saying, “I’ve waited for years to do this to the Feds.”
But none of the articles on the clashes mentioned the fact that only three days before a massive police raid on the estate resulted in the arrest of 23 alleged members of the Pembury Boys gang. The raid was described by police at the time as a ‘Wire-style’ raid, using, they said, tactics from the popular US police show. So it’s not only the young who are looking to the States for their influences. Despite lauding the raid at the time, the police have been remarkably quiet about it since the riots began.
Lack of respect and even hatred of the police seems to be part of the problem. I spent an afternoon listening to court cases in one London court and the list of what people stole – a case of water, a sim card, a t-shirt – showed that it wasn’t the end but the act which provided the thrill.
On a sprawling south London estate where gang activity is rife I spoke to one boy, Jordan Cross, who told me that although he hadn’t been involved in the riots he would have, given the chance.
He told me: “Police are harassing you all the time, you want to hurt them but you can’t do anything because otherwise it’ll just be worse for you. That’s how it is. If I was living in Hackney right now I would have been there [at the riots]. How would you feel if the police were on you every day, every time they see you, you haven’t done nothing but they just want to stop you anyway?”
However, one of Jordan’s friends, 16-year-old Chuck Enriques, told me it was possible for kids from their background to get educated and get a job. But he admitted over the years he’d drifted apart from many of his friends who’d been unable to resist the lure of the gangster life.
Enriques himself is taking his school-leaving exams early and hopes to be an accountant and youth worker, clearly in awe of the youth workers at his local club who work tirelessly to listen to the problems of the young people and show them an alternative to a life without a job or an education.
Enriques and his friends listened rapt to a lesson on how to protect themselves against knives – the idea being that learning martial arts skills would mean they were less likely to want to carry knives as protection themselves.
Youth worker Marlon Kerr explained some of the difficulties the kids face: “There’s abject poverty, there’s peer pressure, there’s a huge pressure for them to be involved in crime. A lot of them only join gangs after some sort of street robbery and I think it’s the fear, a lot of young people are scared to be themselves, scared to be intelligent, scared to show their peers that they’ve got direction.”
The last word has to go to Lady Angel aka Nya Ekpo who I found serenading my embarrassed cameraman outside the courthouse in Tottenham, where the riots began. In her self-appointed role as an unofficial counsellor to many young men in the area, she said: “I had young teenagers crying their eyes out … You’ve got a large percentage, more than ever who are going to tell you ‘My dad’s in jail’, or ‘I don’t have a mum’, I’ve never even met my mum or I was taken away from my mum at such and such an age’.
“What governs over these children is me and you, we are the ones who need to show them the law. Somebody can come from a deprived situation and be successful. Why? Because of guidance. But nobody has opted to take these children out of that situation and that is where the problem has escalated and gotten worse and worse and worse.”
Then she sang again, this time for our camera.