London's Burning? Trying to Cut Through Last Night's 'Walthamstow Riot' Bullshit

The internet went mad for the idea of girl gangs conducting violent college warfare on the streets of East London.

by Michael Segalov
07 October 2015, 11:36am

All photos author's own unless otherwise stated

Last night, the internet was ablaze with rumours of a riot brewing in Walthamstow, East London. VICE sent a reporter down to see what all the fuss was about.

Making my way home from work last night, I got an email marked "urgent" from my editors.


From the platform at Highbury and Islington station I ran underground towards the tube, before realising I'd inadvertently cut myself off from the internet. Whatever was happening in the East London town would remain a mystery until I arrived.

Read: Walthamstow, Where Fascists Go to Die

As I made the 15-minute journey on the clammy Victoria Line, I played through the possibilities of what might be going down in my head. I didn't know a lot about Walthamstow, except that it has a Nando's, and an old greyhound-racing arena that has now shut down. My mind was running wild.

Then a kid sat opposite me turned to his mate. "Bruv, you know there's some next riot happening in Walthamstow?"

"Oh really?" I jumped in, pleased to have finally made some progress. The guy just looked at me, tutted, and whispered something to his pal. "I'm not a cop, I promise," I came back with, but this didn't help matters.

Video from YouTube

Pushing past the Tuesday night commuters at the station, returning late from work and uniformly looking miserable, I was aware that this could be my big moment. I'd been too young to bring hard-hitting reporting to your screens from the student protests of 2010. The riots of 2011 had been really far away from my suburban family home.

But now it sounded like I'd be at the centre of an uprising, standing alongside disaffected young people who'd had enough of the perpetual inequality that neoliberalism has provided us. The right-wing press would paint these teens as hooligans, but I'd be embedded within the vanguard to tell it how it was. As I sprinted up the escalators at Walthamstow Central, my slot on Newsnight defending our lost generation played out in my head.

Video from YouTube

Press card in hand, camera switched on, my notepad and pen were ready to go. Bollocks. My phone battery was only half full, which worried me. What if I had to be patched through to 5 Live and my iPhone died?

Then I was on the mean streets of Walthamstow, just outside McDonald's. There was a police car. It was raining. Some people were sat in chicken shops; some people weren't. Nando's wasn't on fire. I was too late; the revolution was over.

But I'd travelled a way to get there, and frankly I was pumped. The people of Walthamstow might no longer be on the streets, but Twitter was certain there was some rioting going on.

I surveyed the scene. The local branch of Foxtons was still intact, so it seemed like there had been no #fuckparade railing against gentrification. The doors to Sports Direct and Tesco hadn't been smashed to pieces, and there was no sign that the police had been shooting people dead; this wasn't Tottenham 2011.

What exactly had happened, nobody seemed sure. Plenty of cops were swarming about; although each one I asked said there'd been "a disturbance", seemingly keen to not give too much away.

Outside Fosters' Supermarket was a local guy named Munshif. I asked him if he knew what was up. "There were two students fighting each other," he recounted nervously, eyes darting around as we talked, clearly concerned we were being watched by, well, I don't really know. "Then they called their mates, and they fought, and then the police came, but that's all I know, I swear."

I thanked Munshif, who was adamant he didn't work in the shop that he'd been standing in, although he remained there for the next two hours by the counter. The bloke at the counter next to him also refused to spill any beans.

'Where would millennials go after a fight?' I asked myself.

I darted into McDonald's.

At first I thought it had all been kicking off inside this MaccyD's. It's one of those new ones with iPads everywhere, where these weird machines make clicking noises as you work out how you want your McFlurry. The walls were covered in graffiti (the manager assured me it was supposed to look like that), and a sign informed us that there were no mozzarella sticks.

The fucking state of it all.

I got chatting to a group of teenagers.

"Yesterday there were two girls fighting outside here," Jay told me. "Then two other girls wanted to fight here today. Everyone came to watch, and then it moved up the road when the fighting girls showed up. The police started following us, there was at least 300 people."

"400," one of his mates chimed in.

"Naah, more like 700."

"A thousand. There were a thousand people." [The BBC, quoting the Met, are reporting the number of people involved as 200.]

Video from YouTube

Back to Jay. "We moved up the road, we all came into McDonald's where there was a fight. We all piled in here, then the police made us all leave, so we walked up towards Nando's where people started fighting again. Then they pulled out their batons and arrested a boy who didn't even do anything," he continued.

"Then I ran, because the police were all coming, SWAT teams with batons and dogs," said a mate of his named Courtney. "A boy next to me fainted and fell on the floor, they put a dog right next to his head! I was shouting, 'Bring an ambulance now!' Then a policeman came up to me, and I put my hand up saying I was innocent. I was about to walk out and go somewhere else, and then a cop hit me in the back with a baton. Twats." Jay told me at least 40 arrests had been made. Courtney assured me tasers were being fired off left, right and centre.

Back on the street, two guys had appeared outside Betfred, so I asked them if they knew any more than I'd heard already.

"Basically, I was nicking my laser shot," Ali explained. I didn't really know what he meant. "The guy was phoning my phone, and I was like, 'Ten minutes, innit.' I was coming down with my other brother Abdul. I gave the guy his laser, and I saw a big group of youths, a lot of youths running around, and it was all over a college, people were fighting about college."

The other Ali joined in. "It was something to do with sex and pussy. Some guy cheated on this girl, and she was pissed, so wanted to fight the girldem who her man had been fucking. The girls had baseball bats, knives, you know, calling each other stuff like 'bitch' and 'snake' and 'hoe'."

They wouldn't tell me the names of the young women, or of the guy who had allegedly fucked them both. But the skirmish had taken place on Hoe Street, which is still providing Twitter with easy lols some 20 hours later.

Back to Ali #1: "There was fighting, hundreds of people and cops marching. Our line was just popping."

When they told me there'd been machine guns and helicopters, I started to think that they might be taking the piss. To be fair, I couldn't really blame them. I was a 22-year-old with a camera, walking around at night asking teenagers who was fighting who at their college.

Videos I later saw online showed a lot of students taking pops at each other, and the Met running down a side street in the dark.

It seemed only right to put a call in to the police. If these guys were telling me the truth, it sounded like the cops had stormed in in their hundreds and kicked the shit out of everyone in sight, before arresting an entire Media Studies class.

"Shortly after 17:00 hours police were called to reports of a large group of youths causing a disturbance," a Met spokesperson told me.

"Officers from Waltham Forest Borough and the Territorial Support group (TSG) attended the scene."

The group of 200 or so teenagers were dispersed by 8.45PM, he said, with no report of any injuries.

"Three people have been arrested – a 16-year-old male and a 16-year-old female on suspicion of affray and an 18-year-old man on suspicion of violent disorder. All remain in custody."

I asked if tasers had been deployed, and was told it was possible as the Met do carry tasers, but it remained unclear at this stage.

"What about tanks and helicopters?" I went to ask, but he'd already hung up.

Conscious that there were still a lot of cops lurking about, and for all intents and purposes I was approaching groups of teenagers in the darkness and asking to take their photos, I walked around the high street one last time, to check Nando's was still resolutely not on fire.

After a couple of hours on the scene, I decided to call it a night. Did I learn anything? Yes, I think so. Was it worth standing in the rain for hours to learn those things? Probably not.