The Boy Who Refused to Riot
5 Sep 2011, Evening Standard
Five teenage boys are sitting on a park bench in east London. Most of them are wearing hoodies and hiding their faces. They look intimidating, the kind of group you would normally cross the street to avoid.
These boys, four of whom were involved in the London riots which took place exactly one month ago, want to give their side of the story, despite the danger of being caught by the police. They are taking a huge risk: very few perpetrators have been bailed and most are receiving lengthy custodial sentences. No one is talking.
Their friend Dangelo has convinced them to speak. Dangelo, 17, is a former gang member whose school sent him on a peer-to-peer mentoring scheme called Debate Mate last year in an attempt to turn his life around. It worked: Dangelo is preparing to study law and has a job. He is the only one in the group who didn’t riot.
Two of the group, Tyrone, 17, and Gregory, 16, are nominated as spokesmen.
Tyrone explains what happened on the evening of Sunday August 7, as the boys watched Brixton kick off on the news.
“The first broadcast [BBM] my mate received was Monday early morning 3am. We were together and it said something like every endz [areas] forget the postcode, we are united and meet at a specific local area. We thought it was a joke, it didn’t sound realistic.”
Tyrone and his friends ignored the message but the next day riots spontaneously started in the Hackney area “at about 5pm”, Tyrone explains.
The “broadcasts” were still being forwarded by people around London. Gregory’s friend received the same message at about 7.30pm Monday.
“My friend told me he wanted to go,” explains Gregory. “We got there [Hackney] about 8pm. There was a big parade of people through the street, they had already gathered and started to riot.”
Tyrone was in the same area. “There were loads of people smashing cars up already and shops like Argos, Currys, mobile stores. Policemen were being chased in opposite directions.”
Even though it was two days after the Tottenham disturbances, both boys claim the riots were directed towards the police because of Mark Duggan‘s death: “Everyone was thinking about Mark Duggan, that’s what I was thinking about, an innocent boy’s life. We were angry and frustrated with the Government,” says Tyrone.
“People were shouting that the police need to pay for what they’ve done,” confirms Gregory. “Because of the loss of another life, some were saying the reign [of the police] has to end today.”
The groups of people were varied: “There were white, black, Asian people – I saw businessmen join in. It wasn’t just one race or set of people,” says Tyrone. However, the rioters were predominantly young: “Mostly it was pissed-off teenagers, I only saw a few adults,” says Gregory. The youngest person both Gregory and Tyrone encountered was around 11 years old. “I saw a little kid with a TV running down the street,” Gregory confirms.
There were hundreds of people in this riot, mostly local to the area. “I bumped into people I knew,” says Gregory. But apart from meeting in the same area, nothing was organised: “We were just there at the time and angry, so everyone went mad,” explains Tyrone.
“I was smashing windows, like shop fronts and kicking things over, but I didn’t set anything alight. We’re not stupid, we’re not going to burn down our whole community because we’ve got to live here afterwards,” says Gregory. “In the distance I saw people burning a car.
“The focus was to get revenge on the police, not to harm any civilians; people care about our area – I don’t think the Croydon people do though.
“I was targeting the big franchises like McDonald’s. They’ve got insurance on their places, so they could be rebuilt,” he adds.
The scene was “chaos”, Tyrone says, “Lots of people were running away, trying to get away from the madness. People were shouting because their cars, their windows or their businesses were being destroyed. But the majority of the people that were there were getting involved.”
The police were quickly overwhelmed. “The police like to outnumber people and because they were outnumbered for once, they were scared,” says Tyrone. “They were just standing there watching the rioting happen.”
“I saw one guy phone the police to help stop people stealing from his shop, they said they didn’t have enough officers. The shopkeeper couldn’t do anything. Police officers doing nothing about it,” says Gregory. He describes another scene where rioters confronted the police: “I saw a group of guys fighting the police, pushing their riot shields back, they were throwing beer cans and rocks. The guys were shouting quite violently so I ran away.”
“The police vans and cars were getting destroyed,” Tyrone confirms. “I smashed up police cars because there wasn’t any local police station. I threw a few stones and bottles – loads of stuff was getting launched. The police were hiding behind the vans seeking cover.”
The looters followed the rioters. “I was in the front,” says Gregory. “When I turned back I saw people running into stores. People were looting after the rioters had broken windows. I asked, ‘What are you doing, that’s not rioting?’ They wouldn’t listen to me. There was more than one type of people out there,” he continues. “I didn’t steal anything. My mum brought me up better than that. People were using the opportunity to take free things. Some were clearly criminals.”
Tyrone also makes the distinction between the rioters and the looters: “Looting was pointless. Small-time businesses shouldn’t pay the price for something the Government did.”
The boys say “two different types were stealing … ‘organised criminals’ and ‘idiots'”. Some were opportunists, others, Tyrone explains, “came out just because they knew there was going to be a riot in this area and it’s their chance to make their money and go. Those people had vans.”
But the majority fell into the idiot category. “Look at what was looted: trainers, BlackBerrys,” Gregory explains. “If you wanted to make money you would have taken the tills. They went to Tesco and took bags of rice.
“I know kids whose mums drove them to the areas and told them what to steal,” he adds. Tyrone had people calling him to put in clothes orders. “You can tell the looters,” they said. “They were the ones posing in front of the news crews.”
“There was a guy who just wanted a Lyle & Scott T-shirt, stole it and went home,” says Tyrone. “But then another guy has at least £1,000-worth of trainers in his bedroom and he plans to sell them. From talking to looters I know it wasn’t for any political reason, that was the rioters’ job.”
Both Tyrone and Gregory say this was not mindless violence. “Peaceful protesting is pointless. What do the Government care? All you’ll get from protesting is a consideration. Rioting means they’ll get the message a bit quicker,” Tyrone considers. “I think the word is ‘publish’, we’re bringing a message to the Government, that we will fight back.”
“We were people protesters who switched to being rioters,” Gregory concludes.
All the boys come from single parent households. “We don’t see my dad – I don’t remember him,” says Tyrone tentatively. He lives alone with his mum in a council flat: “My mum is sick, she can’t walk so she can’t work, we all get on well, I respect my mum.” He is the main carer and emotional support as his siblings, who are older, have all moved out. “Sometimes there aren’t all the necessary funds all the time but we’re just like any working-class family, everyone is struggling,” he adds.
Tyrone was excluded several times from primary school for fighting. At school, he says, there are a lot of children with issues: “It’s not just normal problems, there are kids with anger management issues and that have experienced child abuse. A lot happens to children who live in an underprivileged community where the Government aren’t helping.”
Gregory also lives with just his mum in a council house. His mum works but Gregory will not talk about his father: “My mum manages, we don’t give her much trouble, she’s strict but fun.”
Gregory, who wants to be an aerospace engineer, has just finished his GCSEs and got “a few As, Bs and Cs”. The boys say Gregory is a good student, “I am well-behaved, but sometimes the teachers say I’m too smart for my own good.” Like all of them he has got into fights at school but has never been excluded.
Tyrone wants to go to university and eventually set up his own business so he “can give my kids something I don’t have, so they don’t have to struggle”.
“It’s harder if you are a young black male, they stereotype us a lot,” Gregory says. “Once you hit the age of 10 or 11 you start looking and fitting the part of this person that the police officers are looking for, who carry knives and weapons.” To these boys it’s not surprising that there were children on the streets the night of the riots.
“I see a lot of discrimination,” Tyrone says. “We get stopped [and searched] several times a day [by the police]. Even if you have the report paper proving they have already searched you.” “Even,” adds Gregory, “if it is the same officer.”
“We have to live in these communities but the police just come and patrol here,” says Tyrone. “The police only talk to the snitches, they don’t talk to the communities.”
They compare knife scars but, aside from Dangelo, none of them has been in a “criminal” gang. It is important to get the distinctions right. A gang, Gregory explains, is a loose term: “A group of more than four boys is classified as a gang. A gang is just a label they [the police] have slapped on us.”
They instead talk of “communities”, which include everyone in their geographical area. Gregory clarifies: “We live in a multicultural community that is labelled a gang. Everyone has respect for each other within it, which is why we don’t harm each other. If someone from another area has a vendetta against us, the logical thing is to provide self-defence which may result in a violent action.”
To the boys, the riots were specifically about youth issues: “Adults don’t feel the need to get involved because they don’t know how we are living it,” Gregory explains. “At the moment we’re being shunned by the community because the media are saying the youth are bad. TV shows like Skins depict us as drug users. The Government calls us gang members.”
“There is nothing for us,” Tyrone sums up. “How are we supposed to get a job to afford anything, when we can’t afford education in the first place now?”
“They need to stop taking away from the future generations. The first thing that went in the budget cuts was our education, our university, our Educational Maintenance Allowance. I can’t afford my books for college now,” Gregory adds: “I feel like the Government has doomed us to living the way they want us to.”
However, the boys do feel remorse. “I feel sorry for the people whose houses and business were trashed,” says Tyrone. “Now that everything has calmed down, it’s good it’s back to normal.”
All names have been changed
Dangelo’s story: I’ve realised you are not tied to the life you were born into
Dangelo, 17, is a hero among his friends. A former gang member, he has knife scars on his legs, admits to committing robbery and was sent to a correctional facility at 14 for a violent offence. As a final resort, his school chose to send him to peer-to-peer mentoring scheme Debate Mate.
It worked: Dangelo has debated at the House of Lords, is preparing to study law and now has a job with Debate Mate. While his friends were rioting, Dangelo, who lives in a council house with his mum, was at work.
“A few years ago I didn’t have any options, I was excluded from school, it was years of fight on the street. Teachers always said I had potential but no one actually helped harness that.”
Debate Mate mentors are top university students who are national and world debating champions. Some have come through the Debate Mate programmes themselves.
The scheme teaches debating to children from impoverished inner-city schools. The results are staggering. They train more than 2,000 pupils a week across London, Manchester and Birmingham, with some of their star debaters going on to study at Oxbridge. There is a real need – the UK has one of the world’s worst social mobility records, with four million children living in poverty.
“Not being able to express yourself is frustrating,” says Dangelo, “I had anger management issues.” At Debate Mate he was taught verbal skills and communication. “I got confidence, especially when I started winning all the debates. It also taught me leadership and teamwork.”
“Debate Mate gave me a sense of understanding and community. There wasn’t just one mentor there, all of them actually cared for the young people.
“The mentors are all university age, so could connect with you on another level that your parents and your teachers couldn’t. To have someone like your mentor actually help you get there and believe in you was so important.”
Dangelo’s dad is not around, although he recently got in touch: “It’s kind of hard without a dad but you get used to it,” says Dangelo. “It made me stronger in a way.” Dangelo’s mum works and in Dangelo’s words “tries to do everything she can”. In his GCSEs he got an A in English plus a crop of Bs and Cs.
“I am disappointed with my friends for rioting, there are better ways for them to express themselves,” he says. He even had a debate with them about it, “but we couldn’t see eye-to-eye so we don’t talk about the riots any more.”
“My friends would definitely benefit from mentoring and learning debating skills. The riots weren’t a coincidence. If I hadn’t done Debate Mate I would have been a part of the riots but I’ve changed my outlook. I’ve realised you’re not tied to what you were born into.” debatemate.com