‘A game of cat and mouse that would define the evening’s disturbances’

Eye witness: Mare Street 08/08/2011

Scenes of police officers fighting running battles with mobs of teenagers haunt the capital this week. But at 4pm on Monday afternoon a seemingly peaceful crowd gathered at the corner of Mare Street and Amhurst Road in Hackney, North London.

The small group — which surrounded 10 or 12 police officers who had attempted to search a young man — was made up of an unexpected cross section of the local community. While hooded youths were dispersed in the group there was also a large contingent of elder residence and onlookers.  Mothers with children in prams and community leaders, like the local vicar, were among those gathered as a third day of violence loomed over London.

It was ten minutes later as police reinforcements arrived through the grounds of the St Johns at Hackney church that temperatures began to rise among the crowd. Around 30 officers formed a cordon as they attempted to arrest one young man and move him to an awaiting police van.  In doing so they enraged some members of the growing crowd, still largely made up of spectators, who surrounded the police as they tried to move away from the church grounds.

The corner of Mare Street and Amhurst Road where a heavy police presence appeared to antagonise the crowd

Tensions increased and the tipping point between peace and disorder approached as a single brick thrown from the crowd made contact with a helmetless-officer.  The attack changed the atmosphere immediately. Within minutes riot police formed a cordon around the injured officer (pictured) as reinforcements and police dog units made their way to the scene.

Police make a protective cordon around an injured officer before moving rioters along Mare Steet

As one teenager, no older than 16, posed for photos in front of a police van, an officer, clad in riot gear, pushed him out of the way with his shield. A chorus of protest rang out from the crowd of spectators, many videoing the unfolding saga on smartphones.  The officer, struggling to supress his rage, told the teenager that his colleague had been injured and that it was no longer a joke.  Police officers now appeared agitated and angry, while eager to protect their fellow officers and prevent riots of the scale seen across London on Sunday night.

Police became increasingly agitated after an officer was injured

One onlooker, attempting to control his two dogs amid the panic, tried to justify the violence. “This has been coming for a long time. They asked for discussions with police and it didn’t happen, so now they’re doing this,” he shouted.

It soon became clear the police were waiting for reinforcements to amass before charging the crowd and as the police lines moved South on Mare Street the majority of the onlookers tried to move out of harm’s way but were hampered by gridlocked traffic in all directions.

The size of the crowd rapidly increased in the next few minutes, as hooded youths swarmed in from the South. Masked groups appeared from side streets to launch bricks and pieces of wood at police before disappearing down alleyways in a game of cat and mouse that would come to define the evening’s disturbances.

At 4.45pm a helicopter circled low overhead while police looked on helplessly as a patrol car was pelted with bricks before two rioters calmly walked forward and threw a dustbin through the shattered windscreen.

The lawlessness spread back from the police lines as groups of youths, some making vein attempts to obscure their faces and others wearing motorbike helmets, broke up curb stones to provide more ammunition, laughing joyfully as they launched rocks towards the police. Among the chaos on what is normally a busy shopping street an increasing number of onlookers, some clearly on their way home from work and others looking to grab a snapshot of the disturbance, became caught up in the violence.

As the number of rioters continued to swell, police charges succeeded in driving the rioters into side streets along Mare Street where the chaos began to fully unfold as youths torched cars, vandalised buses and looted shops into the early hours of Tuesday morning.

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