Civil unrest can be a very difficult subject to cover as a journalist. Too far away and you may as well be watching it on television; too close and you end up being one of the grisly screen-grabs for the ten o’clock news.
There’ve only been a couple of times in my working life that I’ve been genuinely frightened. Covering a Bloody Sunday March years ago here in London, we were attacked by Combat 18 supporters: that was one. I was in real danger of a hiding but more worryingly, as I took pictures of the masked fascists, they were taking pictures of me. The other was being lowered 40m into a sewer shaft in steel cage on the end of a crane cable (but then I do have vertigo).
But tonight, we have a winner. I’d heard reports of rioting in Lewisham so I determined to walk down and see for myself just how bad things were. My wife had warned me against it and Christ knows, I wish I’d heeded her.
As I walked back, a tall heavy-set black youth wearing a camouflage scarf over his face and brandishing a fencing post started shouting ‘Police!’and pointing at me.
Round about 6.15pm, I got as far as the turn off for Ladywell Road on Lewisham High Road when I saw the first incident. Over at the swimming pool, a bus with its windscreen put through had been beset by a mob which was dragging a young man out into the street, beating him with makeshift clubs and kicking him down. The high road up by the firestation was barricaded with dumpsters and there wasn’t a policeman in sight. But that didn’t stop every group of young black males that passed giving me the five-oh look.
At that stage, I decided to leave. As I walked back, a tall heavy-set black youth wearing a camouflage scarf over his face and brandishing a fencing post started shouting ‘Police!’and pointing at me. Jesus Christ, that’s all I needed. I had decided to leave precisely because I was afraid this would happen. Trying to defuse the situation, I went straight over all smiles and started remonstrating with him: ’No mate, not police, Irish—‘ I had the wind knocked suddenly out of me by someone jumping me behind, I hit the deck stunned with two feet on my back. A hand came down and ripped the chains from around my neck.
I got off the deck and went straight after the thief but immediately, I was surrounded by youths with clubs and others hinting at ominously by tapping the waistbands of their sweats for my benefit. ‘Wrong move Paddy, walk away.’ As I staggered away, I could see another man across the street taking an unmerciful beating outside a barber shop.
I got my Irish ass home sharpish after that. My wife and I drove through Catford about an hour later and the looting had spread. It was bedlam. All the usual suspects had been hit, your JD Sports and your Argos as well as Blockbuster and Lidl. (Lidl!)
Looters brazenly walked about with flat screen TVs and laptops. Adidas boxes and discarded trainers littered the street. Youths on scooters sped along the pavements and still not a police man to be seen.
About twenty minutes later, we drove back through Catford and the riot police had arrived. The next inevitable phase; conflict with the police had yet to begin. Before I started writing this piece two youths raced passed my window carrying Toshiba laptops.
Tonight there is rioting all over London, this was a just a little snap shot. Most people I’ve spoken to today think there’s more to come.
Oh, it took me nearly half an hour to get through to emergency services, I guess they were experiencing an unusually high volume of calls...
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