London: London picked itself up on Sunday from some of the worst violence seen in the British capital for years which politicians and police blamed on criminal thugs but residents attributed to local tensions and anger over rising financial hardship.
Rioters throwing petrol bombs rampaged overnight through an economically deprived district, setting police patrol cars, buildings and a double-decker bus on fire.
Police said 26 officers were injured as rioters bombarded them with missiles and bottles, looted buildings including banks, shops and council offices, and torched three patrol cars near Tottenham police station in north London.
The riots erupted after a street protest over the fatal shooting of a man by armed officers this week turned violent.
Residents said they were forced to flee their homes to escape the trouble as mounted police and riot officers on foot charged the crowd to push rioters back.
As day broke, the Metropolitan Police, which will handle next year’s London Olympic Games in what is expected to be Britain’s biggest peacetime operation, faced questions about how the trouble had been allowed to escalate.
The disturbance was only finally brought under control on Sunday after hours of sporadic clashes. Buildings were still smouldering, bricks littered the roads and burglar alarms continued to ring out.
At a nearby retail park, electrical stores and mobile phone shops had been ransacked, with boxes for large plasma televisions discarded outside, along with CDs and glass from smashed windows.
“They have taken almost everything,” said Saad Kamal, 27, branch manager of retailer JD Sports. “Whatever is left is damaged.”
Appeal for calm
Local member of parliament David Lammy and police chiefs appealed for calm.
“This must stop,” Lammy told reporters, saying they did not know if everyone had escaped flats above shops that were gutted by fire. “A community that was already hurting has now had the heart ripped out of it.”
The trouble broke out on Saturday night following a peaceful demonstration over the shooting of Mark Duggan, 29, who was killed after an exchange of gunfire with police on Thursday. Duggan’s death is now being investigated by the independent police watchdog.
The riots also come amid deepening gloom in Britain, with the economy struggling to grow amid deep public spending cuts and tax rises brought into help eliminate a budget deficit which peaked at more than 10% of GDP.
“Tottenham is a deprived area. Unemployment is very, very high ... they are frustrated,” said Uzodinma Wigwe, 49, who was made redundant from his job as a cleaner recently.
“We know we have been victimized by this government, we know we are being neglected by the government,” said another middle-aged man who declined to give his name. “How can you make one million youths unemployed and expect us to sit down?”
Tottenham has a large number of ethnic minorities and includes areas with the highest unemployment rates in London. It also has a history of racial tension with local young people, especially blacks, resenting police behaviour including the use of stop and search powers.
Notorious race riot in 1985
The disorder was close to where one of Britain’s most notorious race riots occurred in 1985, when police officer Keith Blakelock was hacked to death on the deprived Broadwater Farm housing estate during widespread disturbances.
Locals said there had been growing anger recently about police behaviour.
“I’ve lived in Broadwater Farm for 20 odd years and from day one, police always pre-judge Turks and black people,” said a 23-year-old community worker of Turkish origin who would not give his name.
Fingers were also pointed at the police for failing to anticipate the trouble, although Commander Adrian Hanstock said there had been no hint of what was coming. He blamed a “mindless minority” for the trouble.
The London force has been heavily criticized for its handling of recent large protests against austerity measures, while its chief and the top counter-terrorism officer have quit over the handling of the News Corp phone-hacking scandal.
“I’m concerned that what was peaceful protest ... turned into this and it seemed to go on for many hours before we saw the kind of policing that I think is appropriate,” Lammy said.
Politicians said that criminals, rather than those with genuine grievances, had taken advantage of the situation.
“The rioting in Tottenham last night was utterly unacceptable,” a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said. “There is no justification for the aggression the police and the public faced, or for the damage to property.”
The capital also saw riots at the end of last year when protests against government plans to raise tuition fees for university students in the centre of London turned violent with police and government buildings attacked.
During the most serious disturbances last December, rioters targeted the limousine belonging to heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, kicking its doors, cracking a window and reportedly jabbing Camilla with a stick.