Reporter: Liam Bartlett
Producer: Howard Sacre
We've all been shocked by the images coming out of Britain this week; streets ablaze and frenzied mobs cutting loose in an orgy of violence and looting.
It's extraordinary to think it is the same country that just four months ago charmed the world with the royal wedding and is set to host next year's Olympics.
Liam Bartlett was on the ground in England to make sense of the madness.
LIAM BARTLETT: Michael, this is the City of London Magistrates’ Court. Local media are waiting outside here, waiting for the next suspected looter to emerge. This Court usually sits nine to four but it’s been operating right around the clock trying to cope with the number of arrests that have been made from the week’s riot, currently numbering well over 1000. Initially these riots were thought to be a product of unemployed youth, but some of those who’ve appeared included a graphic designer, a postal employee, a dental assistant, a teaching aide, a forklift driver and a youth worker. Hardly disadvantaged, but as they’re saying here, perhaps more the product of a sick society. It was extraordinary to watch the week unfold – this grand, civilized, respectable country – the Olympic City, convulsed by fires and riots. At one point, more fires were burning across England than at any time since the blitz in World War II. A community convulsed by a new lawlessness which seemed rooted in deep social decay…an underclass of people, rising up in anger.
CITIZEN #1: We’re pissed off with the Government. People suddenly get deported innit, yeah? That’s what I’m saying, yeah. There’s no jobs. There’s nothing, yeah. There’s nothing for the community.
CITIZEN #2: So how are you supposed to buy the food when you don’t have work to buy food that is already available everywhere? We have the technology and the resources.
CITIZEN #3: I’m sorry, listen, listen, hold on. Nobody’s robbing food shops. They’re robbing gadget shops, clothes shops and all the goods. It’s got nothing to do with basic poverty. It’s not basic poverty.
LIAM BARTLETT: The ordinary citizens of England were left to wonder what had gone so terribly wrong in their once great country.
CITIZEN #4: I think it's always something that was building up slowly, slowly for so many years and this is the result. Because I don’t think people would, you know just wake up and then all of a sudden, everybody starting looting and everything else.
CITIZEN #3: They were getting really good goods. It’s just really easy to do it. It’s easy to bully the whole community, easy to bully the whole police force. It was really easy to do it – and that’s why it’s happening.
LIAM BARTLETT: Britain was completely unprepared for the sudden uprising, a police force outnumbered and outmanoeuvred. A Prime Minister struggling to explain it.
DAVID CAMERON: There are pockets of our society that are not just broken but frankly, sick. When we see children as young as 12 and 13 looting and laughing, when we see the disgusting sight of an injured young man with people pretending to help him while they are robbing him, it is clear there are things that are badly wrong in our society.
CITIZEN #1: The poor, they’re the poor. Yeah, that we should get richer, innit? That’s what Cameron said isn’t it? Yeah, what did Cameron say?
LIAM BARTLETT: But what I’m asking …
CITIZEN #1: That richer get richer, the poor get poorer. If Cameron wants to do this, we’ll do this innit, yeah. We want him out, man. Come on, man.
LIAM BARTLETT: Hang on. It’s got nothing to do with David Cameron…
CITIZEN #1: No one’s happy with this um, people getting killed or that could have been my mum in it. It could have in that fire in it.
LIAM BARTLETT: Could be anybody.
CITIZEN #1: It could be anybody. Anybody. No one’s happy with that.
LIAM BARTLETT: It was on this pavement in Tottenham that the London riots effectively began. This is where police stopped a taxi nine days ago, carrying local father of four, Mark Duggan. Now, Duggan was wanted by a police task force investigating gun crime. The forensic truth of what happened next is still unclear but within moments Duggan had been shot dead. Those were the shots that were heard around the world. Just two days later, 120 of his friends and family marched on the local police station and protested, demanding justice. Within hours two patrol cars were set alight, petrol bombs were thrown – the fuse was well and truly lit for an explosion of anarchy. What had begun as an anti-police demonstration, spiralled out of control into a looting free-for-all. Four frenzied nights of destruction, attracting thousands of opportunistic thieves. But it soon became clear, the riots were being coordinated. Warring criminal gangs had joined forces and were using social networking to stay ahead of the police.
JOHN: There’s no doubt in my mind that they were saying, “We’re going to cause trouble, meet me there.”
LIAM BARTLETT: Social networking analyst John Akwae was first to raise the alarm about how the rioters were communicating – using the Blackberry network and its free texting service, BBM.
RQ: John, I’ve got a Blackberry, you’ve got a Blackberry. So even if I’ve got no credit I can send you a message and 200 other people and say, “Look. Turn up on that street corner in half an hour?”
JOHN: That’s exactly right. We can also send group messages so I can send you a message and then you can forward that message onto a group of people. And that’s what was taking place.
LIAM BARTLETT: One message John intercepted said, “Link up at Enfield Town station at four sharp. Leaving your yards (your houses) and linking up with your niggers and F the Feds (the police). Bring your ballies, your bags, trolleys cars, van, hammers, the lot.” This the suburb of Ealing, reasonably upmarket. In English terms fairly posh, certainly not one of the places in London you’d expect to find rioting. Up and down this high street, virtually every single shop here has been plundered. Including of all things, a baby shop. Have a look at this. Liz Pilgrim’s shop wasn’t just looted, it was maliciously trashed. Hi Liz. How are you? You’re in a bit of a state here aren’t you?
LIZ: Yeah, it’s a bit depressing really.
LIAM BARTLETT: At first she was angry at the mob who did this, but she’s since had a change of heart.
LIZ: I feel sorry for them. I feel sorry that things have got that bad that they’ve had to do this. You know I think we as a as a town, as a nation, you know I think we have to look at ourselves, because there’s obviously a section of society which just needs help and they need it badly.
LIAM BARTLETT: But eh, look around you here, I mean, who would want to cause just this sort of wanton destruction for the sake of it?
LIZ: I know. I know. I know. I think though as a group we keep saying about this mob feeling, that I think when things are happening and the adrenaline’s pumping and I guess you just lose all sense of right and wrong.
LIAM BARTLETT: In the wake of the destruction, civic leaders like London’s Mayor Boris Johnson, can offer victims like Liz solace, but few real answers.
BORIS: I’m really sorry. It’s absolutely terrible.
LIZ: It’s sick, absolutely sick.
BORIS: Apparently the judges are really getting amongst these guys and giving them some very serious sentences so I’m afraid the law is going to take its course in a very tough way for these guys. And that is, you know, it’s the right thing.
LIAM BARTLETT: More robust policing and tougher sentencing is an easy political answer for now, but it’s hard to avoid the bigger social issues. When it comes to who’s to blame, Mayor Johnson knows better than to point the finger– he just won’t go there. The looters and the rioters, who are they, in your opinion?
BORIS: They’re a large, they’re a wide body of people, predominantly young men.
LIAM BARTLETT: They’re not just the poor though, are they?
BORIS: As I say they’re a wide selection of individuals but they’re all going to be treated with impartial severity.
LIAM BARTLETT: But some of these people coming through the Magistrates’ Courts now have varied backgrounds they’re not just the have-nots?
BORIS: It’s disgraceful whoever they are, it’s disgraceful whoever they are.
LIAM BARTLETT: A lot of that disgraceful behaviour is thought to have originated in places like this, the estate housing that you won’t see on the postcards. For all its splendour, this city is the most unequal in all of Europe. The Olympic Game precinct is only five kilometres away, they’re spending billions on that, but the people here believe there’s nothing in it for them. Lord Coe, you can’t run a successful Olympic Games no matter how good your preparation is in all other aspects, if you’ve got anarchy on the streets of the city that the games are being held in.
LORD COE: Yes, we won’t have anarchy on the city, on the city streets during the games. We will have systems in place that will stop that.
LIAM BARTLETT: The riots coincided with the ‘one year to go’ celebrations – bad timing for the man running the Games, Sebastian Coe.
LORD COE: With one year to go, actually if you look at it in one way what we’ve witnessed over the last few nights was probably not a bad test event for us. It al-…
LIAM BARTLETT: A good test run?
LORD COE: Well, you know, I’ve always made the point when I’ve been asked this question, “What is it that keeps you awake at night?” And I’ve always been very open about this. I’ve said nothing that I know about because what we have within our control I firmly believe is under control. But I’ve always added the caveat to that that it’s the stuff that comes at you out of left field that you don’t see happening and yes, the last few nights in London and throughout the UK have been that type of event.
LIAM BARTLETT: How much damage has it done to London the brand?
BORIS: The proof of the pudding is going to be in the eating. The overwhelming facts are that London is a safe city, people do not need to be worried about coming here. The true spirit of London is in the shopkeepers who are opening their businesses again and the people who are members of this community who are going out to spend money in their shops now as an act of support and helping to clear up the neighbourhoods and who are going to help rebuild it.
LIAM BARTLETT: But the Government knows this must not happen again and to prevent it will take more than the British stiff upper lip. Curfews, water cannons, rubber bullets – all are under consideration, along with constraints on smart phones and social networking sites used to incite violence.
LORD COE: We are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.
LIAM BARTLETT: But out here on the streets, with the smell of smoke still lingering, Londoners of every colour and class are troubled. They sense something fundamental about their country has changed…and they fear it may be lost forever.
CITIZEN #2: We do share the same planet. We share the same place and the same city and we can clearly see that there is a big difference between rich and poor. That difference is getting bigger. You know there is bigger all the big corporations they are making shitloads of money – sorry about the language – and while poorer people are getting less education, they’re getting less money.
LIAM BARTLETT: But surely, surely you don’t expect that that we’re going to fix up that imbalance by looting and rioting?
CITIZEN #2: No, but that’s just a cry of the people to say, ‘Hey, this is wrong. We are not taking this anymore.’ We don’t want to take this anymore.