When a small group of protestors took to the streets of Tottenham, London on the night of Saturday 6 August, few could have predicted the chaos that ensued in the next few days. These protesters were angered by the killing of alleged gangster Mark Duggan by London police two days earlier. The police’s seeming lack of ability to diffuse the situation and control rioters in what ended up being nationwide unrest came as a surprise to many.
What started out as a peaceful protest outside Tottenham Police Station that afternoon, mostly by friends and family of the 29-year-old, escalated into a full-on riot by youths, gangsters and yobs. That night saw 26 police officers injured and four hospitalised as cop cars were torched, shops trashed and looted, and property destroyed at the hands of a small group of unruly young people. Riot police, armed only with plastic shields, helmets and batons, failed miserably in their attempts to contain the upheaval. Protesters spread like wild fire throughout London and by the following Monday night, to Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. Small groups of angry youths took to the streets, smashing shop windows, looting and burning cars with no police in sight. The youths apparently rioted because they felt that they have no prospects for a future due to increased education fees.
Prime Minister David Cameron swiftly returned from a trip abroad to attend to the matter. He and other state officials labelled the protests as “criminality” and “opportunism”, dismissing the youths’ claims. However, putting aside the validity of their complaints or the reason for the violence, the more glaring issue is the lack of police readiness, efficiency and tactical planning. This gives an interesting insight into London 2012.
Few could ever forget the tragic events that overshadowed the 1976 Olympics in Munich where a small group of Palestinian radicals managed to infiltrate the Olympic Village and kill several Israeli athletes. In light of the current global threat of terrorism and the high profile of the Olympic Games, it is alarming that the police of the city that will host the showpiece event in 11 months’ time showed such a lack of proficiency in dealing with sudden chaos. The mayhem which for four days engulfed the country may well have been prevented if London’s police had managed to adequately contain the situation on the Saturday night.
Eventually, the unrest came to a halt and the police then swiftly arrested over 1000 suspects linked to the riots, among them a 14-year-old ambassador for the London 2012 Olympic Games. However, these arrests do not undo the millions of pounds in property damage caused by the riots. What if it had been terrorist bombings or kidnappings of athletes during next year’s Games? What reason is there to believe that London’s police can cope with the threat which accompanies the honour of hosting the Games?
For now, the International Olympic Committee organisers don’t see too much reason to panic. Many have come out expressing their confidence in London’s police to manage the security operation. But with police refusing to use aggressive tactics such as water-cannons and rubber bullets until day four of the riots, one could be justified in questioning their faith.
In terms of facilities, London is well on course to be more than ready by the start of the Games on 27 July 2012. The awe-inspiring Olympic Stadium is almost completed and the football final will be held at the magnificent Wembley. Furthermore with the tennis tournament to take place at the pristine All England Club, home to Wimbledon, the 2012 edition of the Olympic Games looks set to be a lavish affair. With the fastest man in the history of mankind, Usain Bolt, super-swimmer Michael Phelps and other stars set to feature at the Games, security will be a critical component of the successful running of the event.
London, it appears by all accounts, will be ready. The key question though which remains unanswered, is will London be safe? And perhaps more specifically, will London be able to protect itself, its visitors and the Games?