In Brixton

Harry Stopes

From Josephine Avenue the first sign that something was up was the sound of a helicopter overhead just after midnight. A Telegraph journalist tweeted that ‘youths’ were throwing bricks and bottles at police. I walked up to Brixton High Street to have a look. Shops near the station like H&M and Vodafone had already been looted and the JD Sports was on fire, with flames spreading to the Foot Locker next door.

At about 1 a.m. a group of teenagers managed to lift up the metal shutter of the Games master on the corner of Ferndale Road and the high street, attacking the window just off the high street out of sight of the police. There were shouts of ‘quick, quick’, but the police didn’t move and possibly didn’t realise immediately what was happening. One boy of about 14 stood at the corner with his thumb up to signal it was OK to carry on. The smoke from the burning shops was getting thicker and blowing towards us, and the rain was getting heavier.

A group across the road got under the shutters of a pawn and jewellery shop and one of them ran over to our side encouraging others to join him. Two boys with bandanas on their faces heading south bumped into some others coming up from the police cordon. ‘What’s going on down there bruv?’ – ‘Nothing.’ – ‘This is bare jokes!’

The glass of the jewellery shop, just a little shop front, was smashed and about 20 people ducked under the remains of the shutter and ran in.

Outside Gamesmaster a group of girls was egging the boys on. ‘Look at him, what’s he trying to get through the glass with his foot man, is he a dickhead?’ Moments later though the window was smashed and the crowd jumped in. The police started to move up the high street and the looters ran off towards Brixton Cycles and Stockwell Road.

Along with a group of other onlookers I made my way to Acre Lane through the side streets. Passing a lock-up garage in a railway arch on Ferndale Road I saw a group of men looking through a large bag. I think I heard one of them say: ‘Where’s the dough?’ The high street was open again by the time we reached the McDonald’s on the corner.

Dozens of police were blocking off the road and guarding the smashed doors of the Curry’s on Effra Road. People were running through the estate opposite; it felt as if the police might charge at any moment. It seemed prudent to get away; for the first time we broke into a run.

Going back a little while later I saw a lot of empty cardboard boxes and packing foam, and a guy walking across the road with a flatscreen TV under his arm. A group of girls, phones out, were discussing what was going to happen next. Croydon? Streatham? ‘No one’s going Streatham,’ one of them said.


  • 8 August 2011 at 9:59pm
    JWA says:
    Here’s a passage from Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral about the Newark Riots of 1967.

    ”The factory was empty. There was only the nightwatchman who’d come on duty with his dogs. He was down in the parking lot, patrolling the perimeter of the double-thick chain-link fence, a fence topped off, after the riots, with supplemental scrolls of razor ribbon that were to admonish the boss each and every morning he pulled in and parked his car, “Leave! Leave! Leave!” He was sitting alone in the last factory left in the worst city in the world. And it was worse even than sitting there during the riots, Springfield Avenue in flames, South Orange Avenue in flames, Bergen Street under attack, sirens going off, weapons firing, snipers from rooftops blasting the street lights, looting crowds, crazed in the street, kids carrying off radios and lamps and television sets, men toting armfuls of clothing, women pushing baby carriages heavily loaded with cartons of liquor and cases of beer, people pushing pieces of new furniture right down the center of the street, stealing sofas, cribs, kitchen tables, stealing washers and dryers and ovens -stealing not in the shadows but out in the open. Their strength is tremendous, their teamwork is flawless. The shattering of glass is thrilling. The not paying for things is intoxicating. the American appetite for ownership is dazzling to behold. This is shoplifting. Everything free that everyone craves, a wanton free-for-all free of charge, everyone uncontrollable with thinking, Here it is! Let it come! In Newark’s burning Mardi Gras streets, a force is released that feels redemptive, something purifying is happening, something spiritual and revolutionary perceptible to all. The surreal vision of household appliances out under the stars and agleam in the glow of the flames incinerating the Central Ward promises the liberation of all mankind. Yes, here it is, let it come, yes, the magnificent opportunity, one of human history’s rare transmogrifying moments: the old ways of suffering are burning blessedly away in the flames, never again to be resurrected, instead to be superseded, within only hours, by suffering that will be so gruesome, so monstrous, so unrelenting and abundant, that its abatement will take the next five hundred years. The fire this time -and next? After the fire? Nothing. Nothing in Newark ever again.”

    • 17 August 2011 at 8:46pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ JWA
      The weird about these most recent riots is that at least some of them took place in areas which are not decaying or deindustrialising, but becoming richer, more 'cosmopolitan', and more superficially 'successful' with every passing year. You couldn't write the sentence 'Nothing in Brixton ever again' after what happened the other week. Why have we built, or permitted, cities where lives diverge so?