Wednesday, August 10, 2011
THE STATESMAN GIVES FIRSTHAND ACCOUNT OF RIOT
BRITISH REAL LIFE SUPERHERO ENTERS BIRMINGHAM RIOTS- HELPS COUPLE REACH TRAIN STATION SAFELY, NABS LOOTER, HELPS CLEAN UP AND MORE
On rare occasions I like to invite members of the Real Life Super Hero community to share a write up of a first hand account of something going on in their world for Heroes in the Night readers. I have been following the story of the spreading rioting in Britain, and noticed that the Birmingham area RLSH known as The Statesman was posting occasional updates on his Facebook page. I asked him if he could share his story of what he is seeing on the streets and how he has tried to help out as a RLSH. His account, in full, follows.
This is a fairly stripped down, blow-by-blow account of my experiences during the riots currently affecting the major cities of the UK. I’m offering it here at Tea’s request, because I feel that it offers a ground-level story of the kind crisis situation that will, I believe, become increasingly common during the difficult years ahead of us all. There will, obviously, be areas that concern “superheroes” directly, but I’d like to take a moment before I begin to make two points clear.
Firstly, I am under no illusion that hundreds of men and women from our police forces, many of whom have worked tirelessly over the last 48 hours to make safe our homes, have done more than I could ever hope to. They are often vilified, and I sometimes question some of their actions as much as any free-thinking person, but have been exemplary throughout these few days. I for one am incredibly grateful to them all.
Secondly, I have done nothing over the last two days that I couldn’t have done in normal clothes. I have, however discovered a benefit to some of the very soft media that I have been a party to: In the middle of a large crowd of rioters, all of which are of a similar age, all with masks and scarves on their faces, both police and civilians recognized me for who I am and what I do. I cannot over-emphasize how much this helped me to get around; at one point, even allowing me passage through a police cordon.
If there’s anything that you would like to know, any questions that you want to ask, any comments that you would like to offer or any criticisms you feel need to be made, then feel free to add them after this article.
I found out about the escalating situation in Birmingham city centre through my iPhone; a fellow RLSH who goes by the name Citizen Obsidian sending me a heads up that things there had turned nasty. I was, at the time, in the neighboring town of Dudley, enjoying a meal with my girlfriend. I had heard about the “protests” during the daytime, but as I was at work and carrying a painful injury to my left leg I had decided to stay clear. I explained that I felt that I had to go, and we paid up and left for home.
I used the ride home to make a few phonecalls; to check on family and friends in the area, and to get an idea of what was happening, and where. At this point, things were just starting to get heated; police had formed three lines blocking the main access ramp into a shopping precinct called the Pallasades, with “protesters” who had started to throw bottles and bricks. I got home, geared up, and jumped in a taxi to head into town. It was quite an odd sight; floods of taxis and buses were streaming away from the centre of the city, but we were the only people heading in. The time now was around 9.30pm.
As I arrived in town, it was obvious that something had happened. The heavy internet rumour-mongering had, if anything, underestimated how much damage was being done to the city. After leaving the taxi, I jogged down to the most obvious police picket line outside New Street train station. Some eight or nine officers were spread across the roadway entry to the station, trying to stop the steady flow of out-of-town commuters from wandering into the uncontrolled parts of the city.
I introduced myself, and after a shared laugh about my outlandish dress, they soberly advised me to take myself home. “Have you got enough bodies on the ground as it is, then?” I asked. They answered, of course, no.
My first sight of the rioters came soon. As I was talking to these first officers, a group of 30-40 youths in hoodies, wearing scarves around their faces, boiled up from a stairwell across the street. They were chanting, “Fuck the pigs” over and over, and the officers radioed in support from their reserves inside the station.
A young Scottish man and his girlfriend stood behind the lines, loaded with wheeled suitcases and duffel bags. I approached them to see if they were okay, and they told me that this was their first night living in Birmingham; they were literally straight off the train, on the way to their first apartment together. They were scared; they had no idea how to get to the next train station- Snow Hill- which was located on the opposite side of the “Hot Zone”.
I explained that my name was the Statesman, and Craig (the young man) grinned and said that he’d seen me in the paper and recognised my moustache! We shared a laugh at that, which seemed weird with bottles starting to shatter on the road behind us. I took one of their bags, and led them off down a sideroad towards the other side of town.
The town was a wasteland. Shops were dark and empty, windows shattered with the tills and furniture strewn around outside. We came past the Information Centre, with a clothes rack still wedged through the security glass of it’s frontage.
I led them up a stairwell, and in the curve of the first landing, had to wade almost shin-deep through a huge quantity of clothes hangers. Looters had taken pretty much everything from the Primark store on the main high street, and dumped the useless hangers here. There was an underpass nearby, and I assume that they had parked a series of cars, stripped the clothes, and loaded up here; out of sight of passing police, and near enough to the main streets that they could make return journeys to the shops.
I raised my shield and shouted a warning twice at threatening groups as we crossed Corporation street. Groups of rioters in twos and threes, some riding bikes, were roaming around at will. I could see about three hundred yards down the main street, where a man was running away from a small group who jeered and threw bottles after him. It became clear that the police were holding a small cordon around each transport hub, and the church in the centre of town, but everywhere else was essentially the Wild West- gangs roamed at will, casually wandering through the smashed-open shops and helping themselves to whatever they wanted. It was not a safe place for an individual, and I was glad to have accompanied my erstwhile companions. I dread to think of what could have happened to two strangers, lost in this kind of environment.
I changed tack at this point- moving towards the nearest cordon by the quickest route. A policeman saw us coming, and I explained that I was escorting these people to Snow Hill. He nodded, joked that I should draw a wage, and let us through the cordon. We made good time, coming out almost on top of Snow Hill station- the police there had been informed via radio that we were coming through, and took the two visitors to where they needed to be. They said their thanks, and I said my goodbyes.
I spent another hour ferrying individuals and small groups between the two train stations.
It was now around 11.40pm, and all transport services had stopped. The central police cordon had expanded through most of the town centre- police in riot gear were now more apparent, having been drawn in from nearby towns. The main body of the mob had been pushed down through Chinatown, and I followed in their wake. My only violent confrontation took place here.
A young afro-Caribbean man of around twenty was smashing a rock into the store-front of a Sainsbury’s Local near the Mailbox shopping centre. I kept quiet, making as to walk past him. All night, I had been avoiding confrontations with bigger groups of rioters that I couldn’t hope to confront safely. As I drew level, I saw him do a brief double take at my appearance. I grabbed his arms, forcing them back and down. He twisted, and we struggled. It is INCREDIBLY difficult to grapple someone down who doesn’t want to be. My sleeve rose up, and he raked his nails down my forearm. I got his hands behind his back, and after a further struggle, he eventually gave up the fight. I zipped his wrists, tight over his sleeves, and took his by the arm to the Gala casino. Police took him off me there; although for a long while, they were going to apprehend me, too. I explained that it really WAS a citizen’s arrest, and prompted them to check for any CCTV in the area.
It took a long time. Resources must have been spread pretty thin, but after about twenty minutes, I was told to leave. They took my guy to a waiting minibus with a half-dozen sullen-looking figures inside. I headed towards Chinatown.
Around this time, people were leaving the Hippodrome Theatre in large numbers; families in smart clothes, who did not seem to be aware of the situation outside. I couldn’t believe that in the middle of the crazy situation that was developing, such a large group could have missed what was going on. I stood, waving my arms, directing them away from the Arcadian shopping mall, where a huge group of 100 yobs were still smashing up the bars and clubs, towards the safer roads that were now to be found towards the centre of town.
The night went by in a blur; I passed a liquor store being looted by six men, and not fancying my chances in a confrontation, ran to flag down a patrol car. All six were arrested. I paid for a taxi to take a Polish woman to the address she had written on a piece of paper, who did not speak a single word of English and was lost and alone. I helped three riot police, drawn in from Wolverhampton, to secure a burnt-out record store while youths jeered from across the road. My gear, when the mask is covered by a hoody, turned out to have an unexpected benefit- several times, mobs of rioters would run away as I passed, apparently thinking in the darkness that I was an off-duty cop. It turned out to be very useful!
I ended up on Soho Road, in Handsworth, trailing the last large body of the original mob. The police station here, though unmanned, had been petrol-bombed. It became apparent at this point that I was never going to start fighting against these kind of numbers, so I called a cab.
In the cab ride home, we passed a police car as it skidded to a stop on a petrol-station forecourt, and two policemen chased off a dozen thugs behind stealing fuel from the pumps. They ran to the back of the street, and started filtering through the alleys back towards us. I got out of the cab, and blocked a roadway between two buidings as one of the gang was running towards me. He balked, turned back, and the following copper clattered into him, bearing him to the ground. He gave me a nod, before I jumped back in the cab and, having a bit of a laugh with the driver, headed home.
The morning after (my day off from work) I headed back to Birmingham. A volunteer cleanup crew had gathered at around 10 o’clock. Work was already underway replacing windows and the major structural damage. We got to work sweeping, nailing up boards, and bagging up broken glass into rubble sacks.
All was clear until about 3pm, when the city-centre banks and offices closed early. There was a rumour of further violence… but none yet materialised.
I stayed into town til about 6pm, and while there were a few moments of tension when a group looked likely to charge a police picket, but the cops charged and they scattered.
I left the city centre as the night got on, instead heading out to Aston and surrounding residential areas. I talked to as many people as I could. There was growing anger against the rioters, and the general consensus was that any intent to “protest” was swiftly lost on day one; we were now looking at thugs and fools trying to steal whatever they could and get something for free.
The mood was tense, and at least once my patriotic style of costume caused suspicion with a band of asian youths who had formed to protect their street. There were rumours going around about the three men who had been killed with a car; anything from an attempted car-bombing of a mosque, to a revenge attack by the proto-fascist English Defence League under cover of the mayhem. It took several tense minutes of explaining before the situation cooled, and I took my leave.
All in all… I still don’t feel that I have adequately explained the extent or severity of the damage done by the crowds. This account was typed over a quiet afternoon at work because, frankly, I’ve been out almost every spare minute trying to help out. I’ve filled three pages and haven't talked about the emergency homeless shelter, pushing broken down cars off the expressway minutes before a mob arrived to smash windows in. Or the old woman who was walking up and down the street, trying to talk the younger guys into going home.
It is clear that without either gathering new recruits to the cause or joining an official body, one person can make a minimal impact. It also made me think about the need for more protection than I’m currently using. Anyway. I’m running out of time, so I’ll leave it there.