ONE of the things that has surprised me most during my three years in London is the frequency with which protests escalate into violence.
The stereotype of the patiently queuing Londoner is strongly at odds with that of the hooded hooligan throwing rocks at police cars and setting double-decker buses alight.
In 2009 a string of protests preceded the G20 summit, protestors smashed the windows of the Royal Bank of Scotland with computer keyboards and forced their way into the building. This was apparently sparked by the recent £703,000 pension arrangement of RBS former chief executive, Sir Fred Goodwin.
Climate change protests outside the European Climate Exchange were more peaceful, their protest featured ‘music and meditation’ and tents pitched in the street. The major trouble was when officers tried to prevent demonstrators from reaching the protest, and were pelted with empty beer cans, fruit and flour – more like a bad night on stage than a protest.
Several hundred anti-war demonstrators marched to a rally in Trafalgar Square from the US Embassy in central London. As would be expected, this was the most peaceful of the protests.
In 2010 after a night taking in the Christmas lights on Oxford, Regent and Bond streets, my sister and I watched from a restaurant as demonstrators streamed past the window. When the crowd had cleared we emerged onto a smoky street to find ourselves on the wrong side of a crowd barrier. We must have looked harmless as police officers ushered us behind the barrier and pointed us towards the nearest tube stop. I was stunned to see that the Oxford Street Topshop windows had been smashed, though in retrospect Topshop probably faced more violence and damage from their own customers each time their designer collaborations went on sale.
We escaped this skirmish unharmed, but the papers the next day showed a frightened Camilla and Charles on their way to the Royal Variety Performance, cowering as their Rolls Royce was spattered with paint and the windows cracked.
There were also reports of fires lit in Parliament Square and an attempt to burn down the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree. This was one of a string of protests regarding raising university tuition fees to £9,000.
Obscene pensions, climate change, war and increased tuition fees are all worth protesting, and I am proud to be part of a democratic society with the right to peaceful protest. However last week’s London riots seem utterly mindless.
A peaceful protest in Tottenham over the fatal shooting by police of 29-year-old Mark Duggan escalated into the first night of riots, which quickly changed from a protest into an opportunity to smash, burn and loot. Over consecutive nights the riots spread to other London suburbs such as Hackney, Camden, Peckham and Clapham.
Aside from news reports, the only signs I have seen of the riots are increased activity at our local fire station, more helicopters overhead and the vastly increased police presence on the streets, but my boss had to negotiate her way around a burnt out bus at the end of her street in Peckham on her way to work one day this week.
Rioting spread to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol and Leeds making it quite clear that this is far from the initial peaceful protest, rather it is an opportunistic mob taking what they want with no thought of the impact on other people, or even the impact on their own futures should they be caught and arrested.
Businesses can be repaired and rebuilt, but a criminal record is forever. The rioters are being named and shamed in papers now, but this will persist when they apply for jobs, insurance, or travel visas. Perhaps it is its enduring nature that makes a criminal record the most fitting punishment of all.