In the Media

Unreported riots ? trouble across the country

PUBLISHED December 6, 2011

Incidents of violence and disorder flared across England, many of which would have seemed much more serious any other week of the year

As city centres across England descended into chaos, the rest of the country braced itself. Where would trouble flare up next? Police forces desperately struggled to tread an impossible balance between maintaining calm and preparing for the worst.

But as the London riots wore on and spread, windows were smashed, cars damaged, and rumours started in towns and cities from Gillingham to Derby. Many of these warning signs never escalated into full-scale disorder, and went unreported. But among the riots that never happened there were some serious incidents. Had they not taken place within the context of those few days in early August, they would perhaps have been looked at very differently.

The first the public heard of riots outside London was in Kent. By Monday 8 August, the social media rumour mill had gone into overdrive, with unsubstantiated reports of violence throughout Medway.

Petrol stations were advised not to not sell fuel in containers, while the Bluewater shopping centre saw increased police patrols.

There were some isolated incidents: a few bin fires and damaged cars in the towns of Rainham, Gillingham and Chatham. A group attempted to set light to a community centre in Dartford.

But most of the predicted violence in Medway did not happen. That evening police recorded a 43% increase in inaccurate crime reports.

According to the Kent Messenger, one caller said they saw a 100-strong crowd of teenagers. But when police turned up, they found two youngsters buying food at a takeaway.

Medway councillor Mike O'Brien says early intelligence that led to the arrest of some would-be rioters travelling from London prevented any widespread trouble.

"We are not like London or Birmingham. Crime and anti-social behaviour are going down and Medway youngsters are fantastic. I would have been very disappointed if they had been caught up in this."


Leeds was the largest city in England not to descend into full-scale disorder. But it came very close. On Monday 8 August, a 34-year-old man was shot in Chapeltown ? an area that suffers from widespread deprivation, a lack of job opportunities, and tension between local youth and police ? all factors common to some of the areas where disorder took place.

Police swiftly confirmed that the shooting was not riot-related. But witnesses described the victim as someone "very close" to the community, and a crowd of around 100 young people gathered at the scene.

A police dog bit a 14-year-old boy; he was taken to hospital. With riots raging in London, Birmingham and Liverpool, tensions between police and the crowd grew. A car was torched and a police vehicle damaged.

"The atmosphere was one of distress and concern," explained Lutel James, chairman of the Chapeltown Youth Development Centre, which works closely with young people in the area. "Feelings were running high and there was a sensitive atmosphere. In a situation like that, some officers can take advantage."

James, aware of the potential of the situation, got together with 20 other volunteer mentors. They stayed up until 4am on the night of the shooting, talking with local youngsters, calming them down and coaxing them away from taking further action.

He reckons the team made contact with between 800 and 900 young people during the hours they were on the streets. The following day, locals held a peace rally; police denied accusations they had been heavy-handed.

"We were all out in the community, making sure we didn't copy everyone else. We led from the front to stop our young people going down the wrong avenues," James says. "Although other people were rioting, they didn't have to do the same. It is not about expressing your concern in that way. These are the moments that can get you criminalised and affect your future."

He added: "It didn't happen in Leeds because people are taking responsibility to make sure that they are supporting young people to think differently. There were issues. But it was not a riot."

The following evening, Derbyshire police started getting uneasy. In Nottingham, just 12 miles down the road, police stations were being attacked in a second night of violence.

Yet the violence in Derby never escalated beyond damage to around 20 cars and one shop. Police said at the time it was "the sort of thing they deal with every day".

"We have just had some fairly significant job losses here so you would have thought that there could be the potential for something to happen," says Assistant Chief Constable Dee Collins. "But the people of Derbyshire are very, very proud and care very much about their community. There was really a sense of responsibility, and a sense of: 'What can we do to stop this happening here?'"

Street pastors

In common with the approach of mentors in Leeds, street pastors, voluntary organisations and youth offending teams patrolled the streets of Derby, talking to young people and persuading them to go home.

But, Collins admits, there are certain factors ? including a less transient population ? that have helped foster close ties between local police and the Derby community.

"Historically we have not perhaps had the types of criminality that big cities might experience. Although there are gangs in Derby, there isn't the same level of gun-related crime that there is in neighbouring Nottingham.

"We do have some issues, but generally have a good relationship with the public. The fact that people were coming out on to the streets that night reflects that."

But although a full-scale riot in Leeds was averted on Monday, there was still trouble the following night.

The office of the Leeds Caribbean Carnival ? Europe's oldest ? was torched at 12.30am on Tuesday 9 August, destroying costumes that were being prepared for the forthcoming bank holiday festivities and causing ?10,000 worth of damage.

In neighbouring Huddersfield, youths targeted a total of four shops, stealing TVs and cash machines. Local police played down any talk of riots, and said it was, "an attempt to copy the disorder and theft seen in other parts of the country".

Yet whatever phrase is used to describe what happened, victims remain traumatised. The stewardess at Huddersfield's Deighton and Sheepridge Working Men's Club, where windows were smashed and a cash machine stolen, has since refused to return to work.

Arthur France, chair of the Leeds Caribbean Carnival, says: "It was very, very upsetting. It is ridiculous for anyone to destroy something that means so much both to the community, and to the country." © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds