The Riots: Having Fun Smashing Shit Up
The 26th of March – the Day of Rage. This is it. This is going to be ‘The Big One’ – or at least that’s what every anarchist and anti-globalisation big mouth has been trumpeting since the anti-tuition fees and anti-cuts protests made headlines late last year.
I emerge from Marble Arch tube around midday, surprised at how minimal the police presence is. The reason for this soon becomes evident while strolling down Oxford Street – every single shop seems to have its own mini-police force.
A few calls to my anarchist mates and I’m on my way to Topshop, which I’m assured is about to “kick off”. I arrive just in time to see plumes of smoke rising from the store and the sky filled with a hail of rocks and bottles. Someone lobs a dead pigeon at the police, and this curious missile is followed up with lashings of blue paint. As the tarred-and-feathered cops wipe the shit from their eyes I can’t decide if they look more like something Jackson Pollock did or extras from Braveheart.
In the melee I meet a girl I know from Tokyo called Mako. Clutching her high street designer tote bag, she’s psyched up at the prospect of seeing a riot and hoping everything will “get mad”. Here she is railing against the state.
My phone rings again and I’m told to “follow the helicopter” to where 5,000 Black Bloc are amassing. I don’t need to. Like lava streaming from a volcano, the street fills with red and black flags and masked-up anarcho-nutters playing football with a policeman’s helmet. It’s like a ninja movie, only instead of nunchakus it’s baton poles that are wreaking damage on passing cars and windows.
Shops are smashed, banks are trashed and luxury hotel The Ritz is attacked with missiles and scaffolding. There’s a surreal moment as one rioter mimes throwing a brick through a window like Marcel Marceau caught up in this playtime for nihilists. The horrified diners the other side of the glass stare in confusion for a split second, before realising what’s coming next and darting for cover just before a projectile comes crashing towards their abandoned table.
A copper watching another youth batter at a window with a hammer moves in to apprehend him, before his target points at his weapon and fixes him with a stare that says, “Is your overtime really worth this over the head?” Quickly convinced, he scuttles back into the police phalanx.
Anticipating a kettling, we adjourn to a nearby pub, full to overflowing with anarchists licking their wounds, regaling each other with tales of chaos caused and planning next moves. The anticipation is electric. Veterans of the 1980s Poll Tax and Mayday riots discuss tactics with Millwall football hooligans and European crust-punks. Pints are downed and lines snorted. All at once the pub is abuzz with dozens of polyphonic calls to arms as word arrives that Fortnum & Mason has been occupied, prompting a mass exodus. Fuck the politics! I just want to nick a load of black truffles.
We arrive on the scene to find that the police have cordoned off the surrounding streets. My Japanese friend pretends to be a tourist, and sweet-talks a couple of weary looking coppers. Turns out they’re from out of town and haven’t a clue where they are, let alone where the ‘Piccadilly Circle’ they’ve just been told to assemble at is. Thanks for that!
We circumnavigate the cordon through the backstreets, emerging at Piccadilly where already there are bonfires on the streets and a burning barricade outside the Trocadero Centre. We’re having much more fun than anyone has ever had at SegaWorld. “Soon as it gets dark the CCTV won’t be any use,” someone shouts. “Hang tight till then, then farking go for it!” But you can’t keep a lid on a party atmosphere like this.
Throwing caution to the wind, a police car is set alight. Diesel fumes and black smoke rush up towards the sky in between the buildings. Soon another cop car is trashed. Schoolkids leap up and down on bonnets as missiles and poles rain down on the windscreens. Word spreads that the fence surrounding a nearby building site has been torn down and packs disperse in search of munitions, soon volleyed in the direction of the lines of baton-wielding riot cops.
Soon undercover police jump on everyone and bundle a few into the back of a nearby van. That’s the end of their weekend. The cops run at us, but we flatten against walls and somehow avoid their charge.
Close shave but no prisoners taken. Time to take stock in a pub along the road. Everyone is gathered on the pavement outside making friends. A shower of pint glasses immediately descends on an incautiously driven Daimler that appears from round the corner.
Eyeballing a slowly swelling squad of cops appearing opposite, we decide we’ve had enough fun for the day and a meal in China Town is a lot more appealing than being surrounded in the pub and picked off for arrest as we leave. The day’s clarion call of "Whose streets? OUR STREETS!" become distant echoes, only punctuated by the sound of police sirens and shop alarms. Smoke from burning bins fills our nostrils, and the journey back to the normality of Central London on a Saturday night has never felt so alive.
WORDS: CHRIS HIGH
PHOTOS: CHRIS HIGH AND HENRY LANGSTON