On the mini looting spree that hit Portobello area as the troubles escalated around London

By James Simmins
Looting in Portobello
James Simmins writes about the events on Monday night.  
We publish this article with some delay due to problems in our server... still, we think it's worthwhile publishing it, even if a bit late.  
Intrigued by facebook reports of rioting in Harlesden and Kilburn yesterday, I decided to take a stroll into Portobello yesterday evening at around 7.30 pm. Arriving on the Portobello Road, I found the place to be slightly quieter than usual, although the people that were hanging out in the area seemed to be carrying on with the usual evening activities, such as visiting Tesco or having a few drinks in the pub. It had been spitting with rain for just a couple of minutes and I noticed a rainbow over the Portobello Road and managed to photograph it with my phone before it almost immediately disappeared.
Seduced by the tranquility of the evening & beginning to doubt my previous alarm at the reports of rioting further North, I decided to take a stroll up Ladbroke Grove, to see if maybe I could see anyone hanging around, or maybe a telltale plume of smoke that might point to distant rioting. Arriving at the canal bridge near Sainsbury's, a locally elevated position from where I could survey the skies above Harlesden & Kilburn, I was partially relieved to not see any apparent signs of trouble there. Whilst I was there, contemplating the chances of any of the reports I had received being accurate, who should appear bowling over the bridge but my ex-neighbour and friend from the area of 20 years, Piers Butler. 

There was immediately only one topic of conversation on the agenda, the rioting around London. Piers had been visiting a friend and watching the riots progress on TV and it sounded like it had been really kicking off all around town. As neither of us actually have a television (personally I find them a bit brainwashing and would rather focus on other stuff), we decided to visit our mutual friend Pete on Talbot Rd and watch the unfolding spectacle there, as there was little spectacle to be found locally. After bumping into a few people along the way, as is standard practice in Portobello, we sat down to a cup of tea at Pete's and watched footage of a few buildings on fire and a bit of looting for an hour or so.

By now it was quite dark outside and, having heard what I thought may have been a gunshot (but probably wasn't), I thought it might be wise to go home a little early (about 11ish). As I was grabbing my coat I noticed a large group of youths running South along Ledbury Rd. Pointing this out to Pete and Piers, we watched as about 200 kids ran across the end of the road, followed by one police van. Leaving the flat quite cautiously, there were still quite a few kids hanging around at the junction, accompanied by that distinctive brouhaha that you only get when something really frightening is going on - such as a stampede at a festival, or steamers mugging crowd members at carnival - similar to the sound produced by a herd of worried cattle but slightly higher pitched.
Immediately we decided to move away from the perceived trouble and round the little park to Westbourne Park Rd and started quickly walking round the block to ensure a safe withdrawal from the scene. Imagine our surprise when we were confronted by the charred remains of a scooter on the pavement. A conversation along the lines of "Fucking Hell, that is nuts" ensued with a few girls who were standing on the pavement. Noticing we were receiving strange looks from some kids in hoodies a little further down Westbourne Park Road, we decided to quickly nip down the Great Western Road and hang a left to hit All Saints Road. Even this seemed well dodge - there were pockets of kids mooching about here and there and a sense of unease filled the air. Walking down the road itself rather than negotiating the uncertainties of the pavement, whilst periodically ducking into the shadows, we made it safely to Piers's flat. A glass of wine to take the edge off the adrenaline buzz was by now a no brainer and phone calls and online conversations galore ensued, as we ascertained the extent of the situation and the safety of friends. A call to Joao revealed that 50 kids had gathered and been throwing rubbish around Ladbroke Grove 20 minutes earlier, but the coast appeared to now be clear. After a couple of glasses of red with Piers, we were reassured to see a police van drive past and decided to take a stroll around. Walking down the Portobello Road, a SWAT team were hanging out on the junction of Westbourne Park Road - one of them was overseeing the boarding up of a shoe shop, which had been looted after the window had been smashed. We were immediately told to hop it, but I stronged it and said I was a journalist, so they let us take some pictures. 

Reassured by the police presence, I decided to take Joao to see the burnt-out scooter on Westbourne Park Road and, whilst chatting to a couple of West Indian guys en route, an interesting story emerged. They had been travelling East on the 70 bus up Westbourne Park Road when a guy on a pizza delivery bike stopped the bus and told the driver to turn round as there were a load of kids ahead on the rampage. As the bus was turning around, 200 kids steamed in and some grabbed the guys scooter before setting it on fire - this was the burnt-out scooter we had seen earlier. As we strolled up Westbourne Pk Rd towards where the scooter remains were located, past an expensive looking furniture shop with smashed windows, we reached 'Bumpkin" - the windows of the ground floor had been totally smashed in. On enquiring what had happened, we were told that 50 kids had steamed the place and stolen all the drinks, as well (I guess) robbing everyone. They were all obviously looking a bit shocked and trying to secure the place/tidy up. 

After a quick stroll to photograph the burnt out scooter, we decided to stroll up Ledbury Road, which was where we had seen the kids running earlier. We were constantly coming across small groups of potential rioters periodically, 

At the junction of Westbourne Pk Rd and Ledbury Road, we bumped into long term Grove-ite Georgia. She told us that she had been dining at The Ledbury restaurant, when again it had been steamed by a gang of kids. When we arrived at the scene, they were boarding the door up, as it had been smashed in. The looters had lined the diners up against the wall whilst threatening them with metal bars and broken bottles and stolen their wallets, watches, jewellery - anything they could get their hands on, whilst others had rampaged up the road and upended a small blue van. It appeared that these kids had also smashed into and looted The Walmer Castle pub just up the road, although here the staff appeared to traumatised to talk. 
Crossing over Westbourne Grove, we decided to check out Beach Blanket Babylon, to see if this had also been looted. As we reached it, it appeared undamaged and we arrived just in time to catch the manager locking up. I asked him if they had seen the rioters go by and he told us how, remarkably, they were tipped off just in time to get everyone inside and lock the doors. A polite and genial man, he described how the rioters set fire to rubbish bags as they progressed up the street, as well as pointing out the the police did not arrive until 5 minutes after they had been past (which seemed strange as we saw them right behind the rioters as they crossed the Talbot Road junction).

At this point we decided to stroll down Westbourne Grove back onto the Portobello Road and check it out. The glass door of Emma Hope had been smashed, as had that of Joseph, although neither premises had been robbed. On the corner of Lonsdale Rd we found the almost unrecognisable remains of a motorbike. Hitting the Portobello Rd we bumped in a small colourful Irishman known as 'Jockey', who is often to be seen perambulating the area - apparently the rioters had set fire to the bike remains we had just found and he had put the fire out in the absence of the fire brigade. As we strolled back along the Portobello to Joao's for a cup of tea and a heated debate about the social, moral and financial issues that have triggered this (now) countrywide spree of looting and rioting, I worriedly surveyed The Castle and The Ground Floor (two of my favourite local pubs) for signs of damage. Thank goodness they had survived unscathed! After all I'll be playing at The Castle on Wednesday evening and the family who own and run The Ground Floor are old friends....

Whatever the motivation for this looting/rioting spree, there was undoubtably an element of taking advantage of overstretched police resources by staging very rapidly organised attacks that are carried out with great haste. The financial cost of all these troubles is microscopic compared to that used to bail out the irresponsible bankers (£850,000,000,000) who gambled and lost £21,000 a head and who still swan around unpunished whilst arrogantly still collecting huge bonuses and treating the common man with barely disguised contempt. It seems that the press, public and politicians will not let this senseless destruction go unpunished however. Whilst I agree that these kids should be made to pay a price for their actions, to do so without trying to understand how they have become so disillusioned with the system as to treat it with such violent compunction, may rob us of the chance to persuade others against taking such action. To approach the entire situation from a top-down dictatorial approach, without seeking to understand and address the concerns of those who sympathise with the rioters, whether those concerns are cultural, racial or economic, would, in my opinion, only serve to broaden the apparent divisions that have sparked this opportunistic violence. 

We need to try to reach out and communicate with these troubled youths, if we are going to stem this tide of senseless destruction and start to heal these wounded communities. Let us do this first, before we point the finger of blame. It seems that we may have lost this year's Carnival as a result of these regrettable events, but to lose our faith in each other would be much, much worse........ 
Find out more about James Simmins:
James Simmins Journalist
James Simmins Guitar Teacher 
Loco Cabaret 
James Simmins on the Source business directory 
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