Monday night in Peckham By Kate Belgrave

9 August 2011 — New Left Project

Kate Belgrave describes her experiences of the riots in Peckham on Monday night. Cross-posted from her blog Hangbitch

I thought if there was going to be trouble, it would start outside the bus, not in it – so I was watching the streets and footpaths as the 436 bus went along Camberwell New Road, across Camberwell junction and into Peckham Road last night.

Just past Southwark Town Hall (one of many south London town halls which saw protests about horrendous service cuts earlier this year), a roar went up down the back of the bus – a group of about ten very young teenagers, seeming to scream and shout at each other and pushing and shoving at the back door. I couldn’t see everything from my seat, but I could hear it and see the angry faces The kids were loud and their voices cold, and tension spread through the bus. There were young people outside the bus as well: at the time, I thought the kids inside the bus wanted to launch themselves at the kids outside. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, so couldn’t be sure. I could hear the fury.

The kids were cool and aggressive – very young, sweet-faced and chilling. Other people in the bus began to respond as the shouting got louder. Everyone stood up in their seats and started yelling at the driver to open the doors, to let the kids out. We could see that a bus had been set alight just in front of us – a double-decker (think it was a 36) – engulfed in thick orange flame. The smoke was high and wide – it looked pure soot and horrendous.

I was standing up myself by then, because it suddenly occurred to me that our bus might be set on fire while we were still in it. I don’t think that has happened anywhere – I just thought that it might at that point and I suddenly thought I understood why people were yelling at the driver about opening the doors. The driver opened the doors – and revealed another problem. Right next to the opened doors, kids were throwing masonry, I think, and bottles – I could see them moving and people in front of me on the bus rearing back from the doors. The kids who’d been yelling down the back of the bus got off. They may have joined the kids on the side of the road – I’m not sure. Now, people were shouting at the driver to close the doors – they were only metres away from the kids on the street. There were no police near the bus and I had a fleeting sense that we might have to defend ourselves. We didn’t – the driver didn’t shut the doors, but the kids moved on.

The threat passed and after a while, people started to leave the bus and wander around in a bit of a daze. We were outside the Camberwell Arts College. Riot police started to arrive by the vanload. The double-decker bus in front of us was still in flames, but firefighters in the Peckham fire station, just to the right, were dragging hoses out of the station to put the fire out. I could see a row a riot police ahead of us at the top of Peckham High Street then. Buses were parked along and across the road. Some people didn’t seem to know what was happening across London at that point – a woman came up to me and said ‘what is it? Can I go down there?’ and I told her kids were rioting in London and that she should stay away from Peckham High Street for the moment.

We couldn’t go down the High Street anyway – the police stopped us and tried to make us leave down side roads, but nobody was keen to go. I know the police have been complaining about rubberneckers and people hanging round to watch disasters unfold, and that is in part what we were doing, but staying put had other merits – there seemed to be better safety in numbers, in the middle of the street with riot police and other people. I could see police gathering on the grass outside the estate next to the BP connect on the high road and evil plumes of smoke further down the road to the right, towards New Cross.

The crowd seemed divided about the violence. One woman – probably in her 40s – walked up and down the street yelling ‘Rise up! Rise up! You see those kids? [They’re doing that] because they have nothing! They have nothing!’ Some agreed and clapped. Others shook their heads. The crowd was mixed – black, white, Asian, very young, middle-aged and ranging in affluence if you can tell by looking, which I can’t, generally. Some people appeared to be dressed for office jobs. Some were sitting on costly-looking bikes. Others were dressed casually. All sorts of people live in Peckham, Lewisham and Deptford – long timers, new affluents, small business owners, Canary Wharf commuters, people with money and people without. There were a lot of young people among the spectators – some stayed as spectators and some joined the rioting from time to time. I don’t know that mainstream commentators know what they are looking at. I didn’t know what I was looking at myself. Police on the line were talking to us – they said local stations didn’t have the numbers to cope and that they were having to bring other people in.

After about half an hour, the police said we could walk down Peckham High Street. That surprise me a little: I thought they’d keep it closed. They seemed to have a comedy copper in there – a burly, red-faced type who got behind us and started to drill us after a fashion. ‘Come on! Come on! Left! Right! Left! Right!’ People started to laugh.

The damage in Peckham High Road was obvious right away. Bins had been kicked out of the ground and there were flattened boxes all over the road. The Burger King had been trashed – smashed glass, bent frames and rubbish across the ground (when I walked past the Burger King this morning, there were round red Burger King seats lying outside on the pavement and an atm had been ripped out of the wall. That must have happened later last night). The betting shop had been destroyed and council bins round the back, near the library, were on fire.

People were milling around the centre of Peckham then, listening to a huge guy with a beer – on the incoherent side from time to time, but very entertaining. ‘Fucking brilliant! Fucking brilliant! Kick a fucking window in. Look at that. Look at that. Kicks a fucking window in just to get a fucking burger! This is why I would never vote for them.’ I couldn’t always understand what he was saying, but he had a congenial aspect. People were laughing.

Then I walked into it again, just like that and inadvertently. It was extraordinary how quickly you could move from an apparently safe pocket to the centre of aggressive action – a matter of metres in a matter of seconds. I walked down the road by Peckham Space and came out near the bus stop across the road from Peckham Bus garage. There were a lot of people standing round, hoping for a bus, perhaps, and then the footpaths were suddenly filled with very young people with covered faces, walking fast, pushing past and running. They weren’t interested in the rest of us. They couldn’t see the rest of us. If they touched you, it was inadvertently as they rushed through.

They ran from the middle of the road and across the street and then surged towards the ABC pharmacy on Peckham High Road. The pharmacy windows had already been smashed: a few people kicked them all the way in. Then, I heard a loud thumping – a heavy, brutal thudding: kids throwing bottles and bricks at the riot vans as they raced to the scene and parked. The police poured out and stood in a row across the street behind shields. I stood back against protected shop fronts – I didn’t want to stop a missile meant for a van. We all stood together and watched as kids looted the pharmacy – pretty, grinning youngsters with eager faces staggering out of the wreckage carrying wide loads of hair dye, shampoo and – apparently – piles of toilet paper. This morning, I saw red dye bleeding across Peckham Road.

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