London burns: Riots spread through UK capital city
LONDON — Violence and looting spread to new areas of London on Monday — and to a second major city — as shops and cars were set ablaze and authorities struggled to contain the spiraling disorder on a third night of rioting in Britain’s capital, which will host next summer’s Olympic Games.
The worst unrest in London in decades saw buildings, vehicles and garbage dumps set alight, stores burglarized and police officers pelted with bottles and fireworks, as groups of young people rampaged through neighborhoods across the capital.
Fire crews battled to control a raging blaze that swept through a 100-year-old family run furniture store in Croydon, in south London, and forced nearby homes to be evacuated.
In the nation’s central city of Birmingham, dozens of people attacked shops in a main retail district — spreading the chaos beyond London for the first time since violence broke out on Saturday night.
As authorities struggled to keep pace with the unrest, Prime Minister David Cameron cut short his summer vacation in Italy and will convene a meeting of the government’s crisis committee on Tuesday to toughen the response to the escalating violence.
It began late Saturday in London’s northern Tottenham district when a peaceful protest over the police’s shooting of a suspect turned violent, leaving parts of the high street charred and its shops looted. But some have blamed the unrest on unemployment, insensitive policing and frustration across Britain over the government’s austerity budget, which will bring deep cuts to social services and welfare payments.
“There is significant disorder breaking out in a number of our communities across London,” Tim Godwin, the acting London police commissioner said Monday, acknowledging that the 1,400 officers police deployed across London were struggling to halt the unrest.
Some residents called for police to deploy water canons to disperse rioters, or call on the military for support.
Witnesses in several neighborhoods said police were slow to respond as violence broke out in communities in the east and south of London previously untouched by the chaos, leaving young thugs free to set fires and steal from high street stores.
The small groups of youths — most with their heads and faces covered — used SMS messages, instant messaging on BlackBerry cell phones and social media such as Twitter to coordinate their attacks and outwit the police.
Once the preserve of businesspeople, BlackBerry handsets are popular with teenagers, thanks to their free, fast instant messaging system. Blackberry’s manufacturer, Research in Motion, said in a statement that they were assisting authorities in their investigation and “feel for those impacted by the riots in London.”
Police were also monitoring Twitter, and warned that those who posted messages inciting the violence could face arrest.
In the Peckham district of south London, where a building was set ablaze along with a bus — which was not carrying passengers — onlookers said the scene resembled a conflict zone. Cars were torched in nearby Lewisham, and shops looted in south London’s Clapham district.
“There’s been tension for a long time. The kids aren’t happy. They hate the police,” said Matthew Yeoland, a 43-year-old teacher watching the unrest in Peckham. “It’s like a war zone and the police weren’t doing anything. There were too many people and not enough police.”
In the Hackney area of east London, hundreds of youths attacked shops and set fire to cars. Hussain Sayem, a 25-year-old retail worker, said he had sympathy for London’s stretched police. “How can the police handle it?” he said.
Violence broke out late Saturday in London’s northern Tottenham district when peaceful protest over the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old father of four, who was gunned down in disputed circumstances Thursday, turned violent.
Two police cars and a double-decker bus were set alight, stores were looted and several buildings along Tottenham’s main street — five miles (eight kilometers) from the site of the 2012 Olympics — were reduced to smoldering shells.
Duggan’s death stirred old animosities despite efforts by London police to build better relations with the city’s ethnic communities after high profile cases of racism in recent decades.
Police say Duggan was shot dead when police from Operation Trident — the unit that investigates gun crime in the black community — stopped a cab he was riding in.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission, which is investigating the shooting, said a “non-police firearm” was recovered at the scene, and media reports said a bullet had been found in an officer’s radio.
However, the Guardian newspaper reported that the bullet in the radio was police-issue, indicating Duggan may not have fired at the officer.
Duggan’s partner, Semone Wilson, insisted Monday that her fiance was not connected to gang violence and urged police to offer more information about his death. But she said the riots appeared to be no longer linked to the initial protests. “It got out of hand. It’s not connected to this any more. This is out of control,” she said.
Many Tottenham residents claimed that the looting was the work of greedy youths — rather than fueled by anti-police sentiments.
“It’s nothing to do with the man who was shot, is it?” said 37-year-old Marcia Simmons, who has lived in the diverse and gritty north London neighborhood all her life. “A lot of youths … heard there was a protest and joined in. Others used it as an opportunity to kit themselves out, didn’t they, with shoes and T-shirts and everything.”
As the unrest spread to the districts in the south and west London on Sunday, and to other neighborhoods on Monday, some pointed to rising social tensions in Britain as the government slashes 80 billion pounds ($130 billion) from public spending by 2015 to reduce the huge deficit, swollen after the country spent billions bailing out its foundering banks.
The past year has seen mass protests against the tripling of student tuition fees and cuts to public sector pensions. In November, December and March, small groups broke away from large marches in London to loot. In the most notorious episode, rioters attacked a Rolls-Royce carrying Prince Charles and his wife Camilla to a charity concert.
However, the full impact of spending cuts has yet to be felt and the unemployment rate is stable — although it highest among youth, especially in areas like Tottenham, Hackney and Croydon.
Some locals insisted that joblessness was not to blame. “We are going to get people blaming the economy and what happened last week, but that’s not the real reason this happened,” said Brixton resident Marilyn Moseley, 49. “It’s just an excuse for the young ones to come and rob shops.”
Godwin urged communities to help clear the streets of people, and called on families to contact their children and ensure that they were not involved in the chaos.
Home Secretary Theresa May, the Cabinet minister responsible for policing, and London Mayor Boris Johnson also cut short summer vacations in an attempt to deal with the crisis.
May said 215 people had been arrested and 27 charged so far, including an 11-year-old boy accused of burglary. About 100 of those arrested were 21 or younger and 35 police officers had been injured in the violence, police said.
Police in the city of Birmingham, 120 miles (195 kilometers) north of London, confirmed that officers had arrested 35 people amid disorder across the city center, where shops were being vandalized.
In the south London neighborhood of Brixton — the scene of riots in the 1980s and 1990s — youths smashed windows, attacked a police car, set fire to garbage bins and stole video games, sportswear and other goods from stores on Sunday night.
Like Brixton, Tottenham is an impoverished area with an ethnically diverse population, a large black community and a history of unrest.
Tottenham was the site of the 1985 Broadwater Farm riots, a series of clashes that led to the fatal stabbing of a police officer and the wounding of nearly 60 others — and underscored tensions between London police and the capital’s black community.
Johnson condemned the “utterly appalling” destruction caused by the riots. “People have lost their homes, businesses and livelihoods through mindless violence,” he said in a statement.
For civic leaders and Olympic organizers, the violence was an unwelcome reminder of London’s volatility, less than a year before the city hosts the 2012 Games.
The International Olympic Committee said it had confidence in British authorities.
“Security at the Olympic Games is a top priority for the IOC,” spokesman Mark Adams said. “It is, however, directly handled by the local authorities, as they know best what is appropriate and proportionate. We are confident they will do a good job in this domain.”
Images of buildings and vehicles in flames broadcast around the world were poor publicity for the city as it prepares to host the games.
“You can imagine how stretched the police would be if this were to occur during the Olympics,” said Tony Travers, a local government expert at the London School of Economics. “So I think this will create a worry within City Hall and the Home Office.”
Jill Lawless, Meera Selva, Stephen Wilson and Dancia Kirka contributed to this report.
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