It’s been called “Nappy Valley,” a gentrified patch of south London much favored by the affluent parents of young children for its proximity to the green spaces of Clapham or Wandsworth Commons, its handsome Victorian homes and—for the fathers—easy rail access to the City, the capital’s financial district.
But the cherished tranquillity of one of the city’s most desirable inner suburbs is gone. Last night the shopping district on the edge of the neighborhood was among a score of new flashpoints for the looting and arson that’s spread across London since the weekend, as youths as young as 14 went on the rampage and fought running battles with police.
More than 1,000 are said to have gathered at the local rail station, Clapham Junction, the busiest in Britain. For at least an hour, roaming gangs smashed windows, ransacked stores and set fire to a building before outnumbered police officers managed to restore a degree of order.
“The sense that I have is that police at the sharp end and the system overall has lost control,” says local resident Duncan Crole, who—like many others—believes stronger tactics are needed to deal with what’s seen as opportunistic violence. “I would like to see the use of water cannon, snatch squads, and baton rounds.”
Similar scenes were reported across the city, including in Tottenham, where the disturbances started on Saturday night after the fatal shooting of a local man by police. Provincial cities have not escaped, with violence on the streets of Birmingham, Nottingham, Bristol, and Liverpool.
More than 450 people were arrested and 60 police officers were hurt. A statement from Scotland Yard described the disturbances as “unprecedented in recent history.” Front-page headlines in the national press read “Rule of the Mob,” “The Battle for London,” and “The Anarchy Spreads.”
Prime Minister David Cameron broke off his holiday in Italy, and returned to Downing Street to chair an emergency summit early this morning, amid calls for tougher action, including a curfew or even the deployment of troops to curb the violence. Afterward, Cameron said: “This is criminality pure and simple and it has to be confronted and defeated.” Parliament will be recalled to debate the trouble.
One urgent problem is the apparent failure of the police to tackle the disorder. Already Scotland Yard has been forced to borrow officers from neighboring forces, adding an extra 1,700 officers last night, but the extra numbers appear to have made little difference.
But the authorities face an awkward tactical challenge. Many of last night’s rioters were riding bikes helping them to escape, melting away into nearby housing estates when the first police sirens were heard. Meanwhile, criminals have targeted private houses in the knowledge that the chances of arrest by an overstretched police are slight.
To compound the problem gangs are using social-networking sites such as Twitter or Facebook to coordinate their raids. Particularly worrying is the use of the free messaging service on BlackBerry smartphones, which police are unable to monitor. Manufacturers have now offered their help.
The conflict in Clapham underscores an alarming aspect of the riots. The last time London saw street violence of such intensity, the trouble was confined to particular pockets of deprivation, home to a black community with longstanding grievances against the police, accused of stopping and searching youths without cause.
Not so this week. The mayhem has touched richer areas usually considered safe from crime of any description, even when they border on rougher districts dominated by social housing. Some of last night’s ugliest scenes—including the torching of a department store—came in Croydon, a peaceable white-collar outer suburb.
If that’s bad news for local residents, it’s also deeply disturbing for the capital’s tourist industry. London is hoping to attract millions of extra overseas visitors next year when the Olympic Games are held in the East End. Who’ll want to come to a city where mob rule might prevail?