Last August’s riots in London and across Britain were followed by an unprecedented police crackdown (which I wrote about for n+1at the time); 3,927 people were arrested for their suspected involvement. Special magistrates’ courts were set up, the usual bail procedures were discarded, and prison sentences were handed down with unusual severity and pace. For several days, local newspapers carried reports that illustrated how far the courts were willing to go: four years for creating a Facebook event, six months for stealing bottled water, eighteen months for handling a stolen television. At the higher levels of government there was talk of extending curfew powers, increasing the use of the Army, shutting down social networking sites, and stockpiling plastic bullets.
Life in many working-class areas of London has remained difficult. Local groups have reported repeated police raids and a tightening of policing. A friend who attended some of the court cases put me in touch with George (not his real name), a 44-year-old black man from London who was arrested in a raid on his home some weeks after the riots. I traveled to his house in East London, not far from the Olympic venues, then hastily being thrown up, and we spoke for a couple of hours in his living room.
I was born in Islington, but grew up in the East End of London. As I was growing up, I lived in a part of Tower Hamlets where the community was divided into two—black people and white people, at that time. Just around the corner from me there lived skinheads, and they used to chant stuff at us, things like, “Go back to your own country.” Till I reached 16 or 17, when I left school, there was still a lot of racism about, but I could see it was getting better. It wasn’t so much in school, but mostly when I left school. You’d see gangs of white youths hanging about with their jeans, big black boots, red laces. Skinheads, just waiting on the corner. One day a couple of skinheads came up to a few of us and told us to lick their boots. We refused. They thought they could beat us up, we got into a fight with them, and from then on it was like that—whenever they saw us, they’d chase us.
Every time I left my house there’d be a police van waiting on that street, about nine or ten police officers waiting in the van. I’d be on my own, walking down the street, and they’d shout, “Oi, you, come here!” And I’d be going, oh no, they’re on me again. I know they do good work, I’ve mixed with some police officers when I was working in the community. But I do know a majority of them are corrupt. I see that all the time.
One day—this was in 1984—I heard footsteps behind me and two of them grabbed me from behind and pulled me back. They said, “Didn’t you hear us calling you?” They said they were going to charge me with possession and resisting arrest. All a lie. They didn’t give me bail. I was held on remand until it went to court. Nine police officers against me, and I got found not guilty. When I stood up in court—I told the story like I told you—the judge stopped me halfway through, he told the jury to be dismissed, and he looked at me, and he said something like, I advise you to get a proper solicitor and make a complaint against these nine officers. That’s when I knew there was something wrong with the whole system. I didn’t know police officers could stand up in court under oath and lie like that.
My friend’s got a studio in Hackney, near Clapton, and that day [the first day of the riots] I went to his studio—I went on my bike. When I got there, he’s telling me, there’s a lot of violence, a lot of shops have been smashed up. We were at his house and you could see on the telly what was going on in Hackney. I wanted to get back before it was nighttime, so about five or six o’clock I decided to go back home. On the road I remember a couple of buses had blocked the road. No traffic was moving. I was like, what’s going on now? I was on my push-bike, police were pushing people, I could see some commotion with some young black guys and the police. I could see some of the black guys being arrested. I could hear sirens.
I thought, it’s getting really bad isn’t it? The police were saying, “Move on, move on!” But the road was blocked off, so they were moving everybody to go the opposite way. I thought, might as well try to go around. Then these riot police just come from nowhere in a van and they stop. A policeman comes out with a truncheon and says to me, “Go that way!” I told him, “I can’t go that way, it’s blocked.” Another one—he didn’t say nothing—he just lift up my bike like that, I fell off the bike, he threw me back to the floor.
Then after more of them came out, they started trying to lick [beat] me, as I was dragging my bike. All of them stood in a line. They started running towards us. I tried to get on the bike to ride it, but the wheel had buckled. I’m running with the bike, following where everyone else was going. All I could see was some estate—hundreds of people. I didn’t like where I was heading, it looked quite rough. You could see burning cars down there, people getting ready to throw sticks and rocks.
This bike I had is an expensive bike. I didn’t wanna be going down there with this bike. So I locked my bike up on this railing, just before I got shoved right down into this estate. They pushed everybody there, and there was no way out. Mostly young people were getting licked. They were getting dragged and beaten. I could see the police going, yeah, come on. There were kids, parents. I felt like I was in a siege. These young people didn’t like their estate being closed off. They were standing with their bricks, pelting them, and the police were going back a bit, then they’d move forward again. It was like cat and mouse.
Mostly people were talking. I listened to a lot of people talking. Loads of people were trying to calm the situation down. People were saying don’t smash up this, that’s a public building. At first I was scared, but after being there and seeing what the police were doing with the youngsters—with the young black people, mostly—I felt more safe with the crowd. The police were the bullies. They had the right to be there because there was some disorder, but us lot were just confined in one spot, we weren’t smashing up shops. There was one point I nearly got out, went round a corner, but it just led to another block of officers. There was this building, I could see people going in, coming out—later on I found it was a shop. I went inside to look and I saw people just being silly really, smashing up shelves, taking drink, what was left. The police were getting closer, moving people off. They’d opened up one road and were moving everyone.
I had to get back to my bike, but the police were moving everyone the total opposite way. I thought, I’ve got to get away. Tried another way, it was blocked by police again. I went up to them and asked if I could go that way. “Move. On.” That’s all they said to me. Wherever you went there were more police. More riot police come in: “Move that way!” I was talking to an officer, when another officer with a shield just licked in me in the back of head: boom! When I’m on the floor, I go, “What you doing that for?” He goes, “Move on!” I goes, “I am moving, I’m going!” So I’m walking that way now, as I’m walking, some more policemen— they’re coming from the opposite direction—he doesn’t say nothing, he goes bam!, punches me in the face, licked me with the shield. I go, “What are you lot hitting me for?” And he comes at me, and this time I start hitting them back. They’ve got it all on CCTV. They force me back with all these people. And I thought, well, I’ve got to wait again.
Luckily at one point the police changed formation and I got back to where my bike was—my foot was hurting by this point, I couldn’t ride my bike easily, I had to sit down for a minute—I’m feeling it now, I’m thinking, wow, that must have hurt more than I thought. The police had still blocked off the main road. I’m sitting there now waiting for them to open it up. I’m sitting there on the floor with the pain in my foot. Then: “EVERYBODY MOVE!” I’m thinking, oh no, no, not again. This time I stood there, I was hurt, I’m not moving.
These shiny boots come next to me, all I hear is shouting: “Move it, fucking move it, hurry up, move, move!” I said “I’m hurt, I’m not moving.” Next thing: boom, boom, boom! I was curled up in a ball, and waited until I couldn’t feel any more beats. I must have stayed in that position for two, three minutes. Then someone came over to me, saying, “Hey, mate, you alright?” I looked up, see this black guy with a mask. He goes, “Are you mad? They’ve chased everyone down the road. You stayed there!” There was no one else around—he’d been hiding. I asked him the time—it was 11:45 PM. I’d been trapped for almost six hours.
I made it home on my bike, told my mum, told my friends what happened. Next day I told my doctors what happened, I went to Newham hospital. Found out that they broke two parts of my bone in my left foot here, they broke my ankle, they broke two of my fingers—pushed the knuckle right in. Told the hospital that the police had beat me up. Sky News wanted to film me and everything, but I’m not into that. Everybody said, you have to make a complaint against the police. I’m like, you cannot win against these police. Even if they swear at you and beat you—and try and get you to hit them back, and even if you don’t hit them back, they’ll just lie and say you did. I’m seeing a lot of things to do with this system. I know that in court there’s no way I could win against the police.
I’m sitting at home one day a few weeks later, early hours, bang, bang! Seven o’clock in the morning. I was just about to open it but they banged through. I was so calm, they were shouting so loud, all red in their faces, shouting at the top of their voices, “GET ON THE FLOOR!” I go, “I’m not resisting.” My dog didn’t bite nobody. They searched my house. They go, “We’re arresting you for violent disorder.” I’d seen myself on Sky News, it showed me getting beaten up, and me throwing a few punches, so I knew they’d get me. Got to the police station around half past eight, and was there all day.
The next morning went to court, got bail—I wasn’t expecting to get bail—and went back to get my dog. It was like they’d seen a ghost. At first they said they didn’t know where my dog was. When they came back with my dog, its nose was busted, it looked terrible, it was weeing blood. I go, “What did you do to my dog?” They told me that’s how it was when they got it. I know they beat my dog. It was traumatized; it wouldn’t go near anyone else for a while.
I went to the Crown Court in Wood Green, pleaded not guilty. Now I’m just waiting for the trial. They said that they have a picture of me throwing a rock. I admit, I did throw a rock, but it didn’t hit anyone. That was well after I got beaten up. If it wasn’t for some young people, I’d have got beaten to a pulp. Young kids throwing bricks and stones at the police to stop them from hitting me. Hoodlums and thugs stopped me from being beaten to death. I felt comfortable being amongst them. In the crowd, there was a lot of people talking about lots of things, really interesting things too. About Mark Duggan [black British man who was killed by police immediately preceding the riots]. At the time the Steven Lawrence case [a murdered black teenager whose killers were not convicted for almost twenty years] wasn’t up—people saying they knew who the killers were, but they couldn’t touch them. Saying the police started off the rioting by picking on some young black boy—they beat him to the floor for no reason, and that’s how it spread. I saw mostly young black guys getting beats.
This is what I keep hearing: it’s not a police service, it’s a police force. They’re just getting more and more power and authority. You can’t trust them. People aren’t stupid. Some people think this is all planned and all—the riots were all planned—by a bigger group, the Big Society, or whatever the government’s trying. A lot of people are saying, they want riots to happen, so they can force certain things on the people. Say there was another riot now. Now the government’s got more rights. They could do things like logging everyone’s mobile phone. I think they’re trying to get more control over the population, and mold us into how they want us to be. I feel we’re all slaves. They’re frightening the public—where I was standing, it was the police causing the fear. With the trial, it doesn’t matter what I say or what evidence I bring. They’ve already decided that I’m guilty. And because it’s the riots, the sentence will be five times worse. I’m going to get a big, long sentence.
George is currently serving a two-year prison sentence in London.