Chaplain to Media City in Manchester, The Revd Hayley Matthews writes about being caught up in the riots that are sweeping Britain's major cities
From The Anchor & Chaplain MediaCityUK
I’m just in from work – it’s taken me five hours to travel a mile and half. I’d been in Salford City just four hours before to pick up my new glasses. Old ladies were buying groceries, young mums topping up on hair products, the precinct the usual busy, sociable hub it always is. Somebody always stops and says hello, ‘Are you really a vicar…?’ Today we had a laugh in the opticians because they have a £5 eye test promotion and the woman on the phone could be heard to respond to her caller, ‘No not £5 for one eye, it’s £5 for BOTH eyes…’ and we all fell about laughing.
There were rumours of riots then and I knew it was false, but by the time I drove home, I was pulling up behind the BBC van that was later torched (not ten minutes after I’d decided to park mine in a car park a little way away as we were on double yellows).
Lots of riot police, lots of vans, thousands of spectators, and a handful of teenage hoodies with bricks and stones, more mouth than action. The police did a really good job of dispersing them over an hour and a half and it seemed that all was quiet.
But just a couple of lads and one drunk elderly man began pulling at bargain Booze’s shutters, as another kicked cracks into the bank’s door. He was drunk and angry and clearly hated the police, and judging by the first name terms he was no stranger to them either.
To cut a long story short some of us ended up ‘kettled’ while the police at either end of the precincts kept control of the lads with the stones. I was wearing my dog collar being on my way home which made this experience all the more surreal.
As some men picked up half bricks and got in line to lob them at police vans, the action shifted from one place to another so no matter where you stood you ended up in the thick of it at some point. Bizarrely, whenever it came near me, one or other of them (yes, the brick throwers) would basically halt fire and ensure I was somewhere safe (even to escorting and physically shielding me from rocks) before giving the OKay for more missile throwing.
I was being protected by the people instigating the violence!
More bizarrely still, during the lulls many men came and spoke with me. Young, old, missile throwers, spectators, residents, the employed and the unemployed.
They all had a story, they all had a theory. We’ve heard them all so I wont recount them. And there was a grain of truth in every one. Then some of the youths set fire to Salix: a place that enables people to find somewhere to live. People began to get really pissed off with the ‘bored young lads destroying our community’ as one bloke put it.
I spoke with the reporter whose car was set on fire just moments before. He seemed really shaken and later some residents told me that the lads had set on him for filming/recording/photographing them – after all it would count as ‘evidence’. And there I was with hundreds of others with my iPhone out seemingly completely immune.
Oddly, one man put down his golf club (being used to smash shop windows) when he saw my collar. He went red and nodded at me. Others put down stolen goods, and still others walked up to proclaim their disgust at what was happening. But as the drinking (‘free beer!’ (stolen from the aforementioned Bargain Booze)) got underway, cars screeched into the area that clearly were the organised element of the criminal culture and I thought it wise to cover up.
As I watched from the thick of black smoke billowing from a burned out car, talking to residents of the blocks of flats in direct line of the fire, I watched teenagers loot an electrical good sole trader’s shop. Don’t get me wrong when I say this, but if they’d nicked the TVs and laptops I could almost understand it, but they simply brought them outside and smashed them to bits in the street.
Young girls on alcopops ‘dared’ each other to go and nick something. Lads tried to break onto Lidl and set fire to it, and mothers sent small children in to fill shopping bags with food and beer because they are too young to be arrested. I wasn’t the only one challenging some of this – other residents were trying to talk sense into those who had somehow lost all sense of their normal boundaries but it seemed like one big joke to a mass of hysterical people laughing all the way to the bank. How could anyone putt their children in such a dangerous position, never mind ask them to commit crimes?
Suddenly a mass exodus: the precint had been compromised and there were shouts of ‘iPhones! Xboxes! Everything! You can get whatever you want!’ Hoodies went up and scarfs went over faces, in they went and more ‘respectable’ cars started arriving to collect the goods. Youths started arriving with hammers and the women and girls backed off. What appalled me most were the amount of families, and I mean kids in the back seat, involved in all of this. Like some kind of surreal supermarket sweep, winner takes all, what a larrrff! Children hung out of their car windows video-ing it all on their mobiles.
I could smell cannabis on the street, big time, and of course everyone had beer and wine bottles in hand from the looting. The police were just a focus for all of the aggressive energy, and watching what was going on, I felt that letting them loot themselves out would be preferable to seeing them turn back on the police and smash all of the allegedly bullet proof windows in yet again – and take another pummeling with potentially lethal missiles.
I left just half an hour ago, as I was able to leave once the police vans were smashed up and they retreated temporarily. Amazingly, just a few hundred yards away all is at peace and the riot is ‘on TV‘. My clothes stink of smoke and I want to weep with rage at a society that has disenfranchised so many for so long whilst brainwashing two/three generations of children to want, want, want! I can still hear the sheer joy in that lads voice, ‘X-boxes! iPhones! You can get whatever you want!’ All of his empty dreams being fulfilled – well temporarily anyway.
I also feel a kind of empty, shocked sorrow that I heard young children being taught to hate the police as they arrived, that parents would send them into dark, dangerous buildings to loot to feed their own greed, happy to teach them that stealing and looting and robbing and mindless waste and destruction are ‘funny’, because if I heard that once I heard it a thousand times tonight. ’I just think it’s funny!’
I saw the faces of police personnel, hardened with concentration for the task at hand, while people laughed at the potential damage they would inflict on somebody else’s wife, son, daughter, mother.
The trouble is, we do have a two tier society without a doubt, and while bankers have been allowed their bonuses having stitched us up every which way, we will continue to pay for this in more ways than one, and tonight is just one of them. With the cuts aimed primarily at the poor and the needy and the disenfranchised, things can only get worse.
And what will we do? Continue to promulgate the values that have created this deadly cocktail of haves and have-nots, faithless, hopeless people who have been taught that consumerism is a recreational right and all moral and religious education completely nonsensical? Surely THIS is nonsensical?!
Please God that we wake up and smell the coffee, before we condemn yet another generation (no pun intended).