How I almost became a rioter: An account of the Manchester riots
How I almost became a rioter: An account of the Manchester riots
By David Keane, Editor
There was an almighty roar and everyone began to run.
Ten or more riot police complete with shields, visors, spacemen-like outfits and most significantly swinging batons, were charging at us, bellowing. Glass was all over the floor and stuck in the soles of my shoes. Fear turned coldly in my stomach and my muscles braced themselves to run.
But I didn’t want to run. I hadn’t done anything wrong.
Then again, I had sneaked around the police lockdown of Piccadilly Gardens, I was nearby those who were kicking through a shop window and looting the contents in the middle of the night, and I had my grey zip-up hoody on, with the hood up over my head. Suddenly I was no longer a journalist. To anyone else who was there, I was one of the rioters.
Let’s rewind a little.
Rumours had been circulating all day that riots would be occurring in Manchester city centre that night. Police vans had arrived in Piccadilly Gardens. Then shops started closing early. Evacuation of the rest of our office block occurred at 16:00. MM reporters stuck around, but there was no trouble in sight, and everyone remained hopeful that we could all go home as usual.
At around 17:15, our reporter Charlotte Duncker was on her way home through New Cathedral Street when a gang of over thirty hooded and masked youths began running down the street. They smashed various windows, including Ugg and Thomas Cook, before moving onto Market Street.
DAMAGE: Glass pieces are all that remain of the door to Ugg
Before long Miss Selfridge’s was on fire, transport in and out of the city was locked down, and the three of us who were left in the MM office realised we wouldn’t be going home for a while.
By 20:30 the rioters were heading up towards Piccadilly station, and the streets around the MM offices were full of gangs smashing bus shelters, kicking about bins, and throwing anything to hand at shop windows. The nearby Tesco Express had its windows kicked in, as did Abode hotel and restaurant next door, and others. Hidden behind the window ledge only a few feet over their heads, we frantically got batteries into the video camera and tried to film the ensuing violence without being spotted.
Moments after we began filming, the swarming mob became more agitated and then broke into a run. Five riot police on horseback were charging down the street and managed to move the gang on from the shop windows they had just been destroying.
Fast forward to around 21:00 and we could no longer see anything happening from our office windows. I decided to head out into the streets to see what was still going on. Taking the a camera with a zoom lens and locking the door behind me, I headed out.
After reclaiming the main Piccadilly strip, the police moved to lockdown the area and stop movement between Piccadilly station and Piccadilly gardens. I was forced to take the backstreets and alleyways into the northern quarter, camera flicking away as I went, attempting to capture the riot police, the glass, as best I could without being too conspicuous.
The plan didn’t work. Down one alley way a gang of four men suddenly emerged. Three had hoods up casting their faces in shadow, but I could tell instantly they had seen me. The large black Sony Alpha 350 camera stood out against my grey hoody and sang ‘media’. There was nowhere to hide it.
They started shouting something and coming towards me. I didn’t hear their words, only that there were words and that they had acknowledged my camera. I allowed the camera to swing down on its shoulder strap and rest under my arm in a futile attempt to hide it and began to walk back down the alley way, as calmly as I could. A bottle came skidding across the wet concrete past me and clunked dully against the wall – luckily they were only kicking them in my direction, for now.
“Oi, News of the World!” One of them shouted, closer to me than I had anticipated. I wasn’t sure if this meant he followed the news or not. They must have only been a few yards behind me now, but I was at the corner. I turned as I went round it.
“I said News of the World!” he shouted again.
Two police officers were stood on the next street. I turned to the group and shrugged. I thought of the guy in Birmingham who hadn’t been so lucky, who got beaten and had his camera stolen, and then realised my heart was racing. The group moved off back down the alley way.
Feeling like the intrepid journalist now, I took a couple of photos of the police officers.
“Go home!” One of them shouted angrily at me. Feeling a bit foolish, I sheepishly retreated back to the MM office.
I informed Liam and Amy, the other two reporters who were sat tapping away in the dark, that I was chickening out. The Sony Alpha 350 was like having a Tannoy system strapped to me. I picked up a tiny digital camera and stuffed it into my pocket.
“You won’t get much with that,” said Liam.
“It will have to do,” I said. “I like my face roughly how it is.”
Again, I managed to snake through the back alleys into the northern quarter, but even the main streets here were now under a heavy police presence. Spying another back alley I slipped into the darkness, and hood up, accompanied another group of five hooded youths as they slipped unnoticed around a police van and into Piccadilly Gardens.
“This is it.” One of them kept saying. Evidently, this was the place to be.
I had expected it to be empty. Instead, the gardens were swarming with people. It was almost as if these people were trapped in here by the police, who were guarding the entrance to Oldham Street, Market Street, Mosley Street, Portland Street as well as the run up to Piccadilly station. Not that anyone here seemed bothered by this.
It would be unfair to say that everyone there were males in their teens. There were groups of teen girls swigging wine and flinging the bottles around, laughing wildly. There were men in their thirties and forties even, either with shaved heads or balding.
But still, there was a large percentage of males in their late teens or early twenties, all with hooded tops, many with the hoods down now as if it no longer mattered if you were seen. While many stood moved around aimlessly, as if waiting for something, a large number were moving quickly over to the row of shops next to the bus station adjacent to the gardens.
I followed a group of three men. As I crossed the empty bus lane, I realised the commotion was centred on the amusement arcade on Piccadilly Plaza. It looked like the windows were broken and people had managed to get inside. I pulled out my camera, but as I tried to take a photograph more people pushed past me almost causing me to drop the camera.
The ensuing scene was becoming chaotic and a few of the rioters seemed to be fighting with each other. Backing away a little to a safer distance to take the photo, I noticed that the window to the fashion boutique store ‘Cow’, next door to Marks and Spencer, had been kicked in and one man was halfway into the gap in the broken glass, scrambling to pull clothing from the display and the mannequins.
LOOTING: A looter reaches into the broken window of fashion boutique 'Cow'
It was as I was taking pictures of this as quickly as I could so as not to be spotted by anyone, that an almighty crash came from the direction of the amusement arcade. Later the next morning I would realise that this was most likely the sound of one of the games machines being tipped over, but at the time it made such a ‘bang’ that my heart skipped a beat.
And now we are back where we began. With the running, and the riot police who decided now was the time to charge. It was these officers who were roaring, coming at us with batons in the air, riot gear and heavy plastic shields like human bulldozers.
Like I said, I didn’t want to run. But given my outfit and who I was surrounded by, I was left with little choice. Luckily the main group of riot police were charging down Piccadilly Plaza towards the arcade and with a light jog I was able to get across Piccadilly Gardens and away from the mayhem on the other side of the usually serene lawns.
Numerous others followed my path – people who seemed to be just there to watch the scenes unfold, the youngsters drinking bottles of cheap wine, and even those who simply couldn’t find a way to get home now that their bus/tram/train was no longer coming.
The police on the other side defiantly approached us and shouted at us to clear off, go home, leave the city. But there was nowhere for us to go. All the entrances into the gardens were blocked, so again I had to take the back alleys to get back to the MM office. A few followed me, and I found myself running down alleyways with people shouting ‘this way’ – ‘no that’s a dead end’, ‘no you can get through this way, trust me’ around me.
Eventually I slipped into the darkness away from everyone and retreated back to the office. I have no idea where the others went. It puzzled me where the police expected everyone to go if they did want them to ‘clear off’ or ‘go home’. There was no way to do either very easily if all the exits out were blocked and no transport was allowed in or out. But then again, one had to question what people were doing there by then in the first place.
As I unlocked the MM office doors, I asked myself the same question. What had I been doing? I had barely taken any pictures, and most of the ones I had taken were so blurry and out of focus because a) the camera was cheap and couldn’t deal with night settings and b) I was always running/rushing/shaking, and I’d only pulled a small handful of quotes from by-standers.
I could only think that I had gone out there to see with my own eyes what was happening. Any journalistic instinct to record what I could see had gone out the window once the adrenaline kicked in and I had been moving with the crowd. In some ways it felt I had been pulled along by an invisible force. If I’d been a different person, or at least had a different life experience, perhaps I too would have picked up a brick and thrown it.
I realised that while many moments had been driven by pure fear, and the body’s reflex reactions to get out of harm’s way, for large parts of the past half an hour or so I had been pretty excited. Smashing stores and causing unnecessary harm and damage revolted me, but feeling the city descend into a frenzied anarchy and then being out there in it had been almost... thrilling for those minutes it had existed.
I unzipped my hoody and took it off. I was stood in my shirt and grey trousers, scuffed but smart(ish) shoes. The door was locked safely behind me. Again, I worried about the windows to our building and thought about what would happen if the computers got smashed or stolen.
For a few moments anarchy had been almost fun. For a few moments I had almost understood what it took to pick up a stone and throw it through the window.
But stood in my shirt and trousers, surrounded by things that meant something to me, to my job, to our company and everyone involved in its livelihood, it all seemed terribly sad.
Main image courtesy of Andreas Andrews, with thanks.