THE destruction in dozens of parts of London began to look like the first “BlackBerry riots” yesterday, with gangs using the smartphones to co-ordinate some of their targets for looting and burning.
Instant messages sent on BlackBerry devices brought a 100-strong mob to pillage the Tesco store at Bethnal Green, while nobody touched the larger Tesco in the low-income area of Hackney, barely 200m from the spot where the third day of rioting began with a broad-daylight attack on a police car.
The use of social media and BlackBerry messages to identify targets led many politicians to characterise the rioting as a coherent operation, casting it as a deliberate protest against police brutality, government spending cuts and high unemployment.
The view looked very different at street level, where it was evident that the driving force of the riots was a brutal mob mentality: diverse, opportunistic and terrifyingly unpredictable.
A day among the mob in Hackney showed that while the networks of youth gangs are playing an important role in the riots, they are certainly not alone, and there is no shared rationale driving the thousands who have been emptying stores, setting fires and confronting hundreds of riot police.
There is no clear political agenda like the one that drove London’s G20 protests or its 1990 poll tax riots, and there is no common motivation such as the racial hatred that drove the Los Angeles riots of 1992. Instead, the people throwing bricks and looting stores range from teenage gang members to middle-aged opportunists, and the great majority care little about the fate of Mark Duggan, the 29-year-old drug suspect whose shooting by police in Tottenham last Thursday triggered the worst looting and violence seen in London for decades.
Duggan was black but one of the most striking things about these riots is that they have not been the sort of black-against-white affair that tore Los Angeles apart 19 years ago.
I was in LA for those riots and the stark contrast this time is that just like London’s street gangs these mobs are racially mixed, even though they are predominantly from ethnic minorities.
In LA, everybody on the street would tell you they were angry about the fact that four white cops had been acquitted of beating a black man, Rodney King.
In London, the shooting of Duggan has not been a rallying cause but a half-forgotten excuse for violence once people realised the police were so over-stretched it was open slather for criminality.
Thankfully, the London riots have not yet shown the savagery and heavy firepower that left 53 people dead in LA and blighted whole swaths of that city instead of the dozen or so small pockets that have been affected in London.
From what I saw in Hackney yesterday, where roaming mobs challenged 200 riot police backed by horses, dogs and helicopters, the largest contingent were gangs of young men grabbing the chance to break into stores and vent their resentment of the police.
They wore “hoodies” to beat CCTV cameras, were often masked, and were the most likely rioters to wield a stick, throw a brick or set a fire. Beside them was a small minority of anarchists delighted to have an open fight with “the system”. They tended to wear helmets and T-shirts.
“Why are you wearing a mask if you are not planning on committing a crime?” I asked a young white woman who insisted she was a peaceful political protester. “Because it’s stupid to get your face caught by their cameras,” she said as we watched a car burn.
The mobs were fleshed out with middle-aged men and women, largely but not exclusively black, who were simply greedy enough to loot their local corner store, even though they shop there every day and probably know the owner. And quite a few were idiots addled by drugs, alcohol and boredom and swept up in the excitement.
The result was a nervous edge that saw fights break out among looters with no apparent cause, and a constant awareness that at any time things could become deadly.
All across London, ordinary people had locked themselves into their homes in the late afternoon as the city went into a mild state of shut down. Hundreds of shops and pubs closed early and the city was quiet, apart from police sirens.
On a bus in Islington, not far from Hackney, strangers shared their fears about the chaos and advised each other to get home and stay there.
The inner-city youth gangs were making their own preparations, using the Blackberry Messenger (BBM) service to spread the details of targets for looting, guaranteeing that wherever they did strike, they would have strength in numbers.
Because BBM uses the internet rather than phone networks, it is virtually free and is replacing texting among the young. It is also harder than Twitter and Facebook for police to track in real time.
The first outbreak of violence was at 4.30pm in Mare Street, Hackney, a run-down shopping strip where a police car was hammered with sticks and a rubbish bin. A JD sports store was looted and when police reinforcements arrived, the mob raced into a public housing estate and targeted a row of shops on Clarence Street.
A late-model Volkswagen was torched, burning for two hours and creating an eerie centrepiece to the violence as night fell. A black cab was abandoned in the middle of the street, its windows shattered but its windscreen wipers still shuttling back and forward.
Families in surrounding council flats huddled at their windows or peeked out from their front doors, and I saw more than one family in tears at what was happening to their neighbourhood.
At one point, about 8pm, I heard somebody in the mob yell out “institutional racism” at the line of riot police who were keeping them away from Clarence Street shops, but most were intent on getting into those shops rather than complaining about racism.
At 8.40pm, the police guarding Clarence Street retreated, perhaps fearing a night of escalating clashes, and in two minutes the shops were at the mercy of the crowd.
For some reason, the brightly painted Clarence Street Convenience Store became the target and one of its three metal shutters was pulled away to let in the thieves. At first it was just one 30-something black man who went in to grab some soft drinks to the laughter of the crowd. Then they began queuing up to get inside.
A teenager with an Irish accent meekly said, “Oh, don’t do that! Why steal from the shop?” but by now the crowd was too busy pushing in for a few pounds of loot.
Elsewhere in London, it was flat screen TVs and sneakers that were carried off but the pickings here were pathetically slim. A local man in his 60s emerged with five bottles of beer but as he passed some watching neighbours, he copped an earful from a furious middle-aged mother of African descent. “You know the woman who owns that store, how can you do this to her?” she screamed at him.
The determination of police to minimise conflict with the crowds allowed mobs elsewhere in London to torch large stores and apartments; by nightfall, senior officers were conceding they could have done a better job in dealing with the family of Duggan.
Police had claimed Duggan was killed in an exchange of gunfire after they stopped a car in which he was a passenger as part of a planned arrest.
A police officer would have died in that exchange had a bullet not hit his radio, they said last week.
It is apparent the bullet that hit the radio was fired by another policeman, and it appears Duggan was armed but did not fire his gun.