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London Riots: On the Ground in Camden Town

Posted: 08/12/11 11:05 AM ET

You know you're in England when locals gather at the scene of a prospective riot armed only with cups of tea. On Camden High Street in central London -- just across from the dank, urine-scented waters of the once-bustling Regent's Canal -- residents gathered Tuesday evening on the rooftops of boarded-up buildings to await pandemonium. They brought cameras and refreshments.

The night before, the neighbourhood was visited by hundreds of rioters, who wrestled with police from nightfall to early morning. The clash was part of a wave of violence that started Saturday in rough-and-tumble Tottenham, then spread, immobilizing large swaths of North London. Quivering (only slightly) in my bed, in a flat above a dollar store on gritty Camden Road, I listened to sirens, the patter of running and some especially foul-mouthed hollering.

A day later, Masud stood guard in front of his Camden Road convenience store. After Monday night, he was feeling nervous and planned to close early. His young employees were stationed up and down the street, ready to report the first sign of trouble. "I'll close the minute I see something," Masud said. As we talked, three Northumbria Police vans barrelled down the road. Evidently, the city had called for national backup.

"I'm not scared," said George Fletcher, a small, crinkled man sitting outside the Spread Eagle pub where he works, smoking cigarettes in his chef's apron. But his pub was "half open," he explained. "We're open. But if we see unfamiliar faces, we'll let them know that we're closed to their business. Anyway," Fletcher added, a moment before pushing me to try his homemade meat pies, "there's always trouble in Camden."

It's true that Camden Town, the area around the famous Camden Markets, has maintained the same grim, beleaguered sheen for decades. Filled with rows of tall, narrow houses -- crumbling relics of ambitious postwar development projects -- the streets host a colourful mix of kebab stalls, mobile phone outlets and pubs. But parts of the borough have entered decisively into nouveau-riche territory: after all, posh Primrose Hill, home to the likes of actress Gwyneth Paltrow, witnessed the worst of Monday's violence.

The next day, locals spoke of a sense of lawlessness. London MPs made churlish threats to call in the army. The BBC reported again and again that "no police were to be seen."

Back in Camden, local businesses were hedging their bets. On High Street, seven sturdy men with cropped hair, bulging biceps and titanic bellies stood in a cluster, finishing up their KFC dinners. Wearing tight shirts with Guardforce Security Limited logos, the men said they were private security officers, hired by local businesses to keep an eye on things. "The problem is the police," Phil sneered. "It's all political-correctly-softy-softy."

"[Criminals] go to jail, but they get Playstations in their cells," added Paul. "It ain't that hard inside."

"We need to batter them a bit," laughed Sid. Another man interrupted, mumbling that London should bring back the SPG, the famously heavy-handed, long-disbanded Special Patrol Group.

As Maclean's magazine went to print Tuesday night, things were quiet in Camden. But Manchester, Birmingham and other cities were reporting standoffs with enraged rioters. And Scotland Yard had authorized the use of rubber bullets for the first time on the British mainland.

Just before returning to my flat, I asked my new private security friends if there was anything else I should know. "Yeah," said one. "Run."


This article was originally published in Maclean's magazine.