I was cutting the grass the first time someone asked me to go and take part in a riot. My then wife came down the garden holding my mobile phone,
“It’s the Job, they want to see if you want to go to Bradford.”
I looked up from untangling my mower lead and shrugged,
“What’s happening in Bradford?”
It was her turn to shrug; she passed me the phone and wandered back into the house. Who’d be a Policeman’s wife?
“Hey Shoey, fancy going to the riot in Bradford?”
“It’s all kicked off, copy cat stuff after what’s happened in Oldham.”
“What’s happened in Oldham?”
“Don’t you have a telly? There was rioting all night there, they reckon it’s going to go off in Bradford tonight. There is overtime of you fancy it.”
“I’ll be there in the nick in half an hour.”
And I was.
When I arrived the place was a hive, Bobbies were running around waving shin pads and balaclavas whilst they begged and borrowed bits of missing bits of equipment, the well oiled Merseyside Police machine was spluttering into life.
There is a widely held belief that Police Forces are well run, well disciplined organisations that are always ready for action. The truth is they are very human and anything but machine like. They are organisations that are full of tiny cogs that mostly spend their lives doing their own thing. It’s very rare that all of those cogs are asked to come together to pull together. And when they are, they are usually thwarted by a flat battery… or at least we were.
“Go get the jump leads out of the sergeants office!” shouted our supervisor as we all crowded around the Police Riot van that was supposed to take us from Liverpool to Bradford.
The laughing and joking of the journey had given way to grim silence that was only broken up by the odd comment pointing out that there were an awful lot of young Asian men standing on street corners
Eventually our big yellow van sparked to life and with much huffing a puffing it pulled out of the yard to meet with the waiting convoy at HQ. Soon a thin yellow line of reinforcements was on its way to support the good men and women of West Yorkshire Police.
Once we arrived we were quickly dispatched to follow some local officers to an expected hotspot. The laughing and joking of the journey had given way to grim silence that was only broken up by the odd comment pointing out that there were an awful lot of young Asian men standing on street corners looking very unhappy. We were already wearing our riot outer overalls, the powers that be had decided that pads and helmets would be too antagonistic to the youths and that if required we could change into full riot gear in our van.
We eventually stopped on the corner of a tiny terraced street full of tiny terraced houses. Told to stay in our vehicle we sat, sweltering, watching the locals watching us. The odd brave one would wander to the open side door of the van and ask why “some scousers are here?”
Our sergeant replied we were on holiday and we all smiled bravely, or as bravely as we could manage and the cock of the walk would wander away, a brief hero in the street.
The afternoon dragged on and the van got hotter. We didn’t chat much; we mostly listened to the inspector’s radio as it chattered with names of roads none of us recognised. I remember the local Bobbies left after a few hours for their refs. We grumbled about that, and I for one worried that we didn’t have a clue where we were if anything kicked off. The unwritten rule of protect each other and the van was all that mattered. We knew our driver wouldn’t leave us, and that whatever happened, that transit was going to get us out of there… as long as the battery wasn’t flat again.
Early evening an Asian lady approached the van with two small children carrying a massive teapot and some biscuits, she didn’t stop for a chat. She just smiled and handed them over and we thanked her profusely. She quickly left and I think I made a joke about “poison hobnobs” and we all laughed nervously and I felt guilty. She was braver than us.
If anyone wasn’t scared they were lying. I was terrified.
It was dark when the call came to put on our helmets and pads, we decamped the van and started to fumble with our kit bags, I remember not wanting to be the last one ready and thinking about Wifred Owen’s line in Dulce et Decorum Est about the “ecstasy of fumbling”. I decided not to mention it to the lads around me.
Eventually we found ourselves with some Greater Manchester Bobbies at the end of a high street facing about two hundred youths. The Manc Bobbies had whistled when we arrived, bravado from the boys in the blue. We retorted with “Merseyside are here to sort it out, don’t worry boys” but the fact is there was safety in numbers, and if anyone wasn’t scared they were lying. I was terrified.
The youths seemed excited to see us, and they shouted and tossed the odd stone or pushed the odd trolley towards us. At one point about twenty came forward and tried to incite us by jumping up and down and shouting at us from a few feet away. Scared or not I wanted to get stuck in, the waiting was the worst, my uniform was itchy, my visor was steaming up, my feet hurt and the shield I was holding weighed heavier by the minute.
I remember once, as our line ebbed and flowed with the shuffling aching feet of steel toe capped boots I lost sight of the Bobbies to my right. For one horrible tiny fleeting second I thought I was alone and my heart skipped faster than the stones that skidded by my feet. I turned my head and there they were, six inches further back. I shuffled back eight, just to be sure.
That’s how it went for most of the night. We held and they pushed, they didn’t break through and we saved life and property, as we were supposed to do. When we stood down the sun was up and the kids had gone home.
The talk in the van was mostly that of frustration; we had all wanted to get “stuck in”
We sat drinking some grey tea in some grey canteen and moaned that the Yorkshire Bobbies had taken all the bacon butties. Our inspector came in and told us we were heading home and we boarded the bus, which thankfully started, and headed back down the motorway to our beds.
The talk in the van was mostly that of frustration; we had all wanted to get “stuck in”, we’d all wanted to “crack a few ‘eds”, and we all thought we would have ended the trouble sooner rather than later. Truth was though, we’d done our job and everyone was heading home safe and sound. The night had been a success and it was one nil for Liverpool away at Bradford.
That afternoon, after some snatched sleep I was sitting in my garden when the phone went again,
“Tony, it’s the control room, do you fancy going up to Bradford again for the riots?”
I looked at the garden and listened to the suburban birds.
“No thanks, I’ve got to finish cutting my grass.”
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