The London Riots: How the Community of Croydon Consumed Itself

It took 140 years to build up the House of Reeves furniture store, but only a few hours to destroy it. On Aug. 9, the morning after arsonists left the Croydon landmark in ruins, its owner put on a brave face for reporters. “It’s been there since 1867, survived two wars, a depression. Yet the community seems to have burned it down,” Maurice Reeves told news crews. “I’m 80 years old. It was my wedding anniversary yesterday. I don’t know how I’m here today, but I am.” On Aug. 10, Reeves paced around the wreckage — red bricks charred black, wooden planks split like toothpicks — but kept his eyes glued to the asphalt. Then, when a yellow bulldozer emblazoned with the word “Demolition” pulled up, Reeves walked away.

For a town recovering from the worst violence since bombs rained down during World War II, the destruction of the House of Reeves symbolizes the mindless thuggery that engulfed Croydon as well as cities and towns across England. Millions watched the Croydon blaze grow larger on live television; police couldn’t ensure that the mob wouldn’t attack the fire crews, so the firefighters were delayed and arrived too late to save the store. Rumors spread from neighbor to neighbor that the rioters had torched the building to distract authorities from the looting taking place in the town’s shopping district. For two decades, Kim Watkinson, a secretary, worked six doors down from the furniture store. She locked herself in her house that evening. “I was watching TV and thinking, If the wind changes, my office will be burned to pieces.”

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She can count herself among the lucky ones. The fire stopped well short of her office and the nearby Croydon Parish Church. But elsewhere, vandals set homes alight, leaving 28 people homeless. In the town’s busiest shopping district, hooligans — many of them young women — ransacked a computer store and torched cars. Sociologists have theorized that social exclusion fueled their rampage, and some Labour politicians have pointed the finger at spending cuts. But the onlookers surveying the damage at the House of Reeves attribute the destruction to something sinister in the looters themselves. “My 9-year-old granddaughter said, ‘Granny, what possesses these people to do things like this?’ ” Marilyn, a 60-year-old resident remembers. “I said to her, ‘They’re savages.’ There’s no other word.”

As Maurice Reeves surveyed the damage one final time ahead of the demolition, the streets leading to the wreckage seemed unusually quiet. Locals say the gaggle of teenagers and 20-somethings that usually loiters on the street corners and near fried-chicken shops has thinned in the wake of the riots. “It’s quite noticeable,” says Francis, who doesn’t want to give her last name for fear of reprisals. “They’ll keep their heads down for a couple of days, and then they’ll come out with their new trainers and new phones, won’t they?”

It’s more of a statement than a question, and underscores the skepticism many have about the police’s ability to control the country’s youth. “The police were absolutely useless,” says Malcolm Carter, a street sweeper who has spent much of the past two days cleaning up the mess. “Two hundred kids ruled the police in Croydon. The police are scared of them.” Sure, 16,000 police swelled the streets of London on Aug. 9 — up from 6,000 the previous night. And it’s now clear that the show of force helped reinstate a degree of calm. But when police ranks inevitably thin, vigilantes may need to keep the peace using chains and cricket bats. On the two nights after the fire, up to 50 men assembled at a pub in Croydon at sunset to prepare for the worst. “If they come down here, they’ll be at them,” Carter says. “They’re going to do what the police won’t and take the law into their own hands.”

The majority of residents endorse less-extreme solutions. Some suggested pelting rioters with paintballs so they could later be identified. Others want a curfew in place that would discourage onlookers from taking photos of the chaos — and help police identify the true threats. Joanne, 47, who sells flowers at the Surrey Street Market, believes the police have done well with limited resources but says the time has come to “batter them all out of the way.” “I think they should bring the army in,” she says, passing lavender thistle to a customer. “They should bring in plastic bullets too.”

Worryingly, the rioters have their supporters. On a small alley off Croydon High Street, not far from a ransacked electronics shop, the hum of Jamaican music leads to a Bob Marley tribute store. A shopkeeper inside says he sympathizes with those lashing out at the government officials and bankers who “are earning more money and buying bigger yachts” while the underclasses struggle to get by. “David Cameron and these bankers, they are devil worshippers. Money is their god,” he says. “There will be more riots. You remember the French Revolution? The Russian Revolution? People killed all their leaders. That’s going to happen here.”

See “London Riots: Why the Violence Is Spreading Across England.”