There was nothing Inspector Simon Blondell and his colleagues could do but stand there.
Vastly outnumbered by the rioters causing havoc on Walworth Road in Southwark the police officers held their line.
“Unfortunately we were in a position where we couldn’t do anything other than watch as shops like Argos were looted,” he told My London.
“We just didn’t have the numbers to get that far up the road and protect the properties.
“We were there for hours, constantly having things thrown and verbal abuse directed towards [us].”
Inspector Blondell was a Police Constable based in Lambeth at the time of the 2011 London Riots. He was on the frontline as the capital experienced its worst disorder this century.
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‘How quickly it escalated’
Riot police watched by a youngster on a bike during the 2011 riots
(Image: Ming Yeung/Getty Images)
From the moment he was asked to cut short his holiday to return to work that August, the South London-based officer knew the situation was serious.
“To have had a phone call when I was on annual leave [gave] me a sense that things were as bad as they have ever been.”
When he reported for duty, however, it became clear just how stretched resources were.
“There were no [police] vehicles left,” he explained.
“We had to go to Bromley to pick up three hired mini-buses, just regular [vehicles].”
Considering police cars had been set ablaze the night before, driving into the worst disorder Britain had seen in 30 years in civilian buses was hardly ideal.
Nevertheless they loaded up the vehicles at Brixton Police station and waited to be sent out. The expectation was they would be headed North to Tottenham or Hackney where the trouble had erupted the night before.
But things quickly spread a lot closer to home and they were soon sent to Southwark.
“We were told; ‘you are the final, last resort you won’t get deployed unless we really need you,” Inspector Blondell said.
“20 minutes later they were like ‘right, it’s time to go,’ that was how quickly it escalated.”
Middle-aged woman helps looters
Facing the rioters, despite knowing how ineffective a charge against the rioters would be, Inspector Blondell felt a twinge of frustration.
“I’m a realist, I knew that we just didn’t have the resources at that time to deal with the numbers, complexity and sheer level of violence.
“I was frustrated that we weren’t in a position to do anything. But at the same time I was conscious of the fact we simply [couldn’t].
“[I’m] grateful that nobody made the decision to say ‘right you’re going down there’ because we wouldn’t have been safe doing that.”
Watching the looting take place Inspector Blondell saw a scene he’ll never forget.
“I distinctly remember at the front of Argos on Walworth Road a middle aged lady was holding the shutters while the kids went in, got whatever they were getting, and came back out.
“She was helping them so they didn’t have to keep lifting it up every time.”
For Inspector Blondell it showed the extent to which the chaos had spread. Even though many of those involved were youngsters who the police would often have contact with, there were others who had clearly been taken by the moment.
“That lady at the front of Argos will stick in my mind for quite a long time,” he added. “She was just completely different.”
‘Like something from 28 days later’
Image 1 for ‘riot_pix_readers’ gallery
Another moment which brought home the scale of events to the police officer was when his team was redeployed to an area where the rioters had been and gone.
“We got sent out to Croydon to White Horse Lane,” he said. “At the time, there was a retail park with a Tesco, Staples, office supplies place and a couple of other shops.
“It was like a scene out of [the zombie apocalypse film] 28 Days Later, the shops had literally been stripped bare of anything, whether it was useful or not.
“They smashed all the fronts and the shutters had been ripped up. It was just a scene of devastation. One image of the night that really sticks with me was how broken everything was by the rioters.”
When he and his team returned that night they did so in the knowledge that they would be on duty not long after.
“Having started at about four the previous afternoon we finished at about 9.30am that morning,” he said. “We’d already been told we were going to be expected back in the following afternoon. So most of us didn’t go home.
“We slept wherever we could find at the police station and literally four hours later, we were back up and driving to find out where we’re going to get deployed.”
‘Like nothing we’d seen’
Image 5 for ‘riot_pix_readers’ gallery
In the short moments that officers could speak to one another Inspector Blondell said they struggled to come to terms with what they were seeing.
“There was a lot of disbelief, none of us had ever seen anything like it,” he said. “[There were also] a few conversations around ‘I wonder how long this is going to go on for’ and aligned to that, because we were so tired, ‘how long we can keep going?’”
Pushing through the sheer exhaustion and chaos unfolding Inspector Blondell said he didn’t have time to consider how he was dealing with the challenge himself: “[Afterwards] everybody’s got different perspectives [and] recollections. Different things stick with them.
“But the time you’re literally in the moment and you’re not even thinking about what’s going on around you. You’re just dealing with it.
“I don’t think it’s until afterwards and you’re looking back that you realise it was anything to manage.”
‘Finding Playstations weeks after’
LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 07: Fireman walk past the smouldering remains of a burnt out building after riots on Tottenham High Road on August 7, 2011 in London, England. Rioting broke out late last night in Tottenham and the surrounding area after the killing of Mark Duggan, 29 and a father-of-four, by armed police in an attempted arrest on August 4. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Even a year after the rioting ended officers had reminders of the scale of the disorder.
During arrests and raids on properties for unconnected offences police would often find “three Playstations instead of one” and “boxes of trainers” looted from stores.
Inspector Blondell went on patrols in the immediate aftermath of the riots, designed to reassure the communities most affected.
He said there was tension in the air, but it felt like most of it had been released, “as if the lid had come off the pressure cooker”.
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“It was like everybody had got it out of their system,” he added.
During this time the general public went out of their way to speak to officers and support them in a way Inspector Blondell had never experienced before in his career.
“It was quite noticeable that people were going out of their way to speak to us first when before perhaps they wouldn’t have done,” he added.
LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 08: Youths throw missiles at the police on Goulton Road, Hackney on August 8, 2011 in London, England. Pockets of rioting and looting continues to take place in various parts of London this evening prompted by the initial rioting in Tottenham and then in Brixton on Sunday night. Disturbances broke out late on Saturday night in Tottenham and the surrounding area after the killing of Mark Duggan, 29 and a father-of-four, by armed police in an attempted arrest on August 4. (Photo by John Cantlie/Getty Images)
Unlike many of the politicians at the time, who were reluctant to take responsibility for what had happened, Inspector Blondell said there was a strong feeling within the police, after the riots, that community relations must be improved.
The whole chain of events had of course been sparked by the police shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham.
“I think we were conscious that we needed to rebuild bridges with the community.
“Everybody realised considerable damage had occurred and it was time to rebuild the [relationship].
“We were, of course, carrying out community engagement before then, but it definitely intensified after that.”
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