I included a short account of what I saw in Mare Street on the day the trouble reached Hackney in one of my many Guardian articles about the London riots. I arrived on the scene in the mid-afternoon after most of the shop keepers had boarded-up in anticipation of trouble but, I think, before any significant trouble began. Here's a portion of what I wrote:
Some men were boarding up a section of the JD shopfront. Had looters been and gone? It all seemed very quiet. People were shopping normally, though here too [as in the Narrow Way] many stores were closed. Some cop cars came and went. I leaned against a wall to tweet and was suddenly almost knocked over by three youths riding the pavement on their bikes, their faces concealed by scarves. They too melted away. It turned out that the boarding-up of JD was pre-emptive. Was something brewing or was it not?
I wandered for a minute, and then more police arrived: van loads. They pulled up outside Marks and Spencer, piled out in a pack and crossed the road towards the apron of the usually tranquil St John-at-Hackney graveyard and the branch of Coral that occupies the Old Town Hall. Suddenly, they'd snatched two guys and had them pinned against Coral's wall. A crowd gathered fast. Many were snapping and filming. Kids sat chattering on a wall. I found that I was sharing my tombstone vantage point with an after school play worker I know. "These kids should be back in their yards," she told me emphatically.
One of the detainees was released, to cheers: at a recent local public meeting about youth crime, Boris was left in little doubt that stop-and-search attracts a lot of opposition around here. I lost track of what happened to the other guy, because suddenly police were moving behind the Coral, past St Augustine's ancient tower, and then a teenage girl was giving them verbal abuse, and then a crowd had gathered round and an officer bellowed to a colleague by the vans to "Get the NATOs out" - riot helmets. "You should tear gas their asses," my friend advised a nearby group of constables. They grinned, noncommittally.
The graveyard crowd evaporated as swiftly as it had formed, leaving a small line of cops behind a wall of see-through shields looking as though they'd been inserted into the wrong scene of a film. And then all eyes were back on the Narrow Way, where some sort of stand-off was taking place. At one point the onlookers turned and fled, then turned and crept back. The focus switched again, to the section of Mare Street just behind the railway bridge. By now, the road junction was a cop car park. Buses backed up down Amhurst Road. I saw a missile thrown, but the attacks on police cars being shown on TV via the helicopter overhead was beyond my line of vision.
I hope that passage conveys some of the strangeness and sheer confusion of the scene. I can add that the man (pictured) whose release I described was briefly detained again a few minutes later, this time behind the Old Town Hall building beside St Augustine's tower, and released again. (I don't know what became of the second man who was stopped). I'd like to emphasis the feeling I had at the time that the confrontations between members of the public and police officers, notably involving the young woman I described above, seemed to come out of nowhere.
Indeed, the whole sequence of events was bewildering in the sense that identifying what action caused what response at that point in the proceedings was impossible. Why were the two men held against the wall of the Old Town Hall in the first place? Why was the young woman so angry? Why was there suddenly another confrontation of some kind taking place a little further up the Narrow Way? I couldn't see it at the time for all the people in the way, but I think I watched the incident later on television. Then, all of a sudden, the junction with Amhurst Road was blocked and something was taking place just beyond the railway bridge. I saw one missile being thrown, but little else. In this case too I would later have the ironic as well as disturbing experience of seeing more on the telly later than I could at close range at the time - a police car being attacked.
Here's a bigger question. How did a scene in which no violence or confrontation was occurring transform within minutes into one where riot police were blocking roads and police property was being smashed? Obviously, things went on that I didn't see. Yet it seemed to escalate from nothing, generating a momentum of its own. For at least some of those involved - maybe all of them - the entire incident was set in train by material circulating via the BlackBerry Messenger service. That's how I found out about it. And according to one local police officer I spoke to, that's pretty much how he and his colleagues heard about it too. "It's all just rumour in the beginning," he said.
I can't help wondering what would have happened had the "van-loads" of police I described not turned up in the first place. Aside from those three kids on bikes with covered faces, I'd seen no sign of anyone who looked as if they might have been interested in causing trouble and, as I wrote for the Guardian, those masked kids disappeared from my sight as quickly as they'd arrived, so I have no idea what they did next. As far as I could tell, the disturbances began and a "riot" scenario took shape only after the two men were stopped. Is it possible that no trouble would have occurred had the vans of riot cops stayed away?
To some people such a question will appear stupid and even anti-police. I hope it's not the first, and I can assure that it isn't the second of those things. The police might have had all sorts of other information about plans to cause trouble in Mare Street or about the two men they stoppped that made their intervention appear essential. It could be that had those van-loads of officers not arrived, the trouble in the area around the station would have been worse, with cars burned and shops looted as elsewhere - not least a couple of minutes' walk away in Clarence Road.
Rather than showing the police in a bad light, I think the incident demonstrates the enormous difficulties of deciding how to best respond to reports of impending trouble on the streets. Doing nothing can't be option. But how do you assess the quality of information? How do you judge how many officers to send in to a neighbourhood which you fear may be ransacked and how should those officers proceed? How do you calculate if the decision you take will make matters better or inadverently worse, perhaps by becoming a target or magnet for further trouble - not least instigated by dedicated trouble-makers - simply by being there? How can you even tell after the event if your actions prevented crime or indirectly triggered more of it?
I hope that all such questions are asked by those in authority seeking to ensure that the riots do not recur. Those questions should be asked not solely in relation to operational decisions, but in the wider context of relationships between the police and the public they serve. In the immediate aftermath of the riots here and elswhere, the immediate focus of politicians and most of the media was on the police response. Had it been too slow? Too small in scale? Should they have had water cannons? Should they have used greater force? Should there be more police at all times, everywhere?
These seem to me to mostly miss the point. At the end of the day, you can't reduce crime or foster a tranquil civil society simply by endlessly putting more uniforms on the street with more weapons at their disposal. The police are less effective in high crime areas if law-abiding people living there lack confidence in them, and a "heavier" policing style can erode it. I have quite a lot of confidence in my neighbourhood police, though of course I cannot speak for everyone. As for the Met's top brass and various specialist units, several well-publicised events in recent years, preceding the London riots, have given me some cause for doubt. It makes me all the more intrigued by whatever actually happened that day in Mare Street, and all the keener for any lessons to be learned.
PS: Your calm and sensible help in adding to the sum of my knowledge would be welcome.