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Looking for looters in Manchester

Text by Mehdi Chebil

Latest update : 2011-08-12

As CCTV screen shots of suspected rioters spread across social media, FRANCE 24 goes into the streets of a rundown Manchester neighbourhood looking to find real-life looters.

Watching television in the United Kingdom, it seems that everybody is looking for them. Suspected looters’ pictures have been splashed across newspapers and reposted endlessly over social networks. As I go down to a looted shop in central Manchester to grab a morning cup of (bad) coffee, I almost expect to see an old-fashioned “Wanted: Dead or Alive” poster with the crappy screen shots typical of our digital era.

With millions of CCTV systems installed throughout the country, it’s impossible to loot a shopping centre without being caught on camera at some point. British police announced Thursday that they had arrested one of the culprits from an infamous video showing a bleeding man being robbed by rioters who are pretending to help him.

That witch-hunting atmosphere makes it all the harder to fulfill the mission of the day: interview someone who has actually taken part in the riots right here in Manchester. Several clues lead me to the rundown neighbourhood of Salford in the southern part of the city. A major shopping centre was attacked here on Tuesday night and a dozen shops were looted. It’s the only area in greater Manchester where I’ve actually seen police putting on proper anti-riot gear before starting their evening shift.

No Stalinist architectural monstrosities here: brickhouse flats line Salford's streets. © © Mehdi Chebil

Compared to the Stalinist grandeur of the grimmest Parisian suburbs, Salford’s small brickhouse flats look much prettier. There are signs of social mixing: on Liverpool Road, nice houses with neatly trimmed gardens face rundown apartment blocs just across the street.

My cab is cruising mostly empty streets, stopping every time we see a small group of youths. Some are wearing the hooded outfits ("hoodies") now associated with rioters, but they exhibit none of the bragging postures seen on much of the riot footage. The plan is to discuss what Salford youngsters think of the looting before asking if they were near the riot scenes or even took part in the action.

But most youths flee when I tell them I’m a journalist. As for photography, don’t even think of it --- the witch-hunt atmosphere is taking its toll.

In Salford, the kids can get pretty aggressive too. As I approached them, three girls appearing to be around 12 years of age shouted their hatred of the police at the top of their lungs before walking away.

“Police are fucking idiots so don’t ask us no more. Police are scums, that’s why the riots started, that’s all we’re saying!” 

It seems pretty clear that your average rioter is not going to justify his or her actions with a Powerpoint presentation that includes UK unemployment figures or a discussion of the percentage of single mothers living in Salford.

A youngster in a community centre in Manchester. © © Mehdi Chebil

I spoke to several young men in their twenties who were “on the scene” of the Salford riot, and not one of them is buying the social-resentment-boiling-over theory.

“When you see an opportunity, you don’t think of anything, you just grab it! Just everyone for himself! It’s got nothing to do with politics,” said one 19-year-old man in a grey hooded tracksuit.

It may sound like an oversimplification, but that’s all I got from talking to the youths on the streets of Salford.

I ended up finding someone who admitted to taking part in the rioting and looting. Daniel, 22, was so paranoid about being tracked down by police that he only agreed to a phone interview through a third person.

This third person also warned me not to overstay my welcome in hospitable Salford.

“When the newspeople came here, they got dragged out, got beaten up, their car was flipped over and burnt in the middle of the road,” he explained.

Fortunately, my cab driver was not within earshot.

 

Date created : 2011-08-12

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