THE ‘community summits’ organised by Camden Council have attracted bigger crowds than I expected. There is a feeling detected out there that the time has already passed on last month’s riots, that it happened in Camden Town and Chalk Farm, it was dealt with by extra police numbers, and now people have moved on.
The chaos – and it was chaos – has already been written off a curious one-off by many people who wouldn’t dream of going to public meetings on the subject three weeks after the event. This opinion is set against the reasonable perspective that Camden did not suffer in the same way as other parts of London.
Nobody wants to drag people back into a debate they don’t want to have, nor hype the idea that Camden was burnt to cinders, that it is perennially unsafe and prone to riots. Businesses have already had to deal with this fear factor and I have even been tweeted messages asking me whether Camden Town is now a safe place to go to.
But the night of the riots was so surreal, so extraordinary in scale that it would be a waste to see no sensible debate come from it at all. This was a night, we shouldn’t forget, where authority broke down as police were pelted with bottles and hit by flying bins. There were frightening chases and stand-offs. The places we know as part of daily life had to shut early and board up their windows. Politicians and police are scratching their heads for a parallel in Camden over the last 20 years.
When the first riots began on the Saturday in Tottenham and spread to Enfield the following day, most of us would be lying if we said we didn’t expect at some stage that the disorder would come to these streets. Some were surprised it didn’t come sooner. Now, if people assume this about their own area even before a window is smashed, we probably should have been meeting more and talking more as a community beforehand.
Truth is, the issue of youth disorder – it wasn’t just young people out that night but it is a big part of the debate at the summits – pops up in Camden here and there, intensifying after a stabbing or a murder. We tell each other that long term solutions are needed and it won’t change overnight. Sadly, they were saying the same things ten years ago, 20 years ago and so on. Check the local newspaper archives at Holborn. The work is long term, but we don’t want to be in the same place in 2021 and 2031.
For me, the summits and the council’s attempts to help and understand will achieve little unless there is a proper understanding of who was actually out there that night. The police in the days afterwards described it as simply criminality, where people just went out to the loot from the shops. If you saw the speed in which the LA1 fashion store was ripped apart, it’s clear that was the case… but only for some of the crowd.
Other people I saw in Chalk Farm Road didn’t steal anything, they were too busy screaming and pelting police officers. They were clearly riding an adrenaline rush behind the scarves. Caught in the moment, they just found it exciting to take on the police.
The council’s planning must also take into account the people who were there but didn’t take part in violence or looting. Why were there youngsters out there at 1am after being told to go home just standing and watching, laughing? These horrible scenes were taking place in front of their eyes and they didn’t seem to have any desire to go home to get away from them. There were groups of teenagers, some young, 12, 13, 14, on the corner of Inverness Street treating it like a film unfolding. Maybe they need some guidance, diversions too.
There seems to be a move to sum up who was out there that night simply by looking at who has been arrested and charged. I don’t think that’s particularly reflective. People’s impressions of these cases have already been distorted to some extent by journalists leaping on the teachers and ballerinas who found their way into the courts. They make for good headlines. ‘How could they?’, we are supposed to ask, ‘they are not even poor’. I don’t believe the majority who were ruling the streets that night were from middle class or privileged backgrounds. For the council and the police’s work on this to really work, they need to be precise on who, because that will lead to the why. There were the looters, the adrenaline rushed and the spectators – and maybe some others too. Find them, and they could provide the raw analysis the experts really need. The rest of us are at risk of simply speculating.