London riots; the dark side of the bicycle

Here at i b i k e l o n d o n we are always extolling the virtues of the humble bicycle; how you can beat traffic, zip through back lanes where cars can't go, whizz through parks and get from A to B in a flash of gears and be at your destination before a London driver has barely even set off.  Sadly, the looters who took over large parts of our city on Monday also know this and used the bicycle's inherent flexibility to devastating effect.

As looters and thugs in my neighbourhood threw stones and bottles on the Bethnal Green Road, hooded bike riders were zipping up and down my street scouting out police-free locations.  As the riot cops arrived, it was the bikes that led the way to new scenes of disturbance, seeking locations in advance for the rioters to then follow on foot.  As re-enforcements arrived on the main road, a kid on a BMX clad in a black track suit with his face covered called out "I've just been to Whitechapel, it's safe, let's go there now!" The shouts of "Whitechapel! Whitechapel! Whitechapel!" came back, and the young men were off, scurrying down local lanes and dissipating down dark passageways before the police, who aren't from round here, had even got their A to Zs out.


BBC footage from Hackney yesterday afternoon.


As fires were lit and news cameras were focused on the big flare ups on Hackney's Mare Street or down in Croydon, there was plenty going on in the back lanes and alleyways away from the media glare.  Reports of people being violently mugged for their bikes along the busy cycle route through London Fields park were all over Twitter.  Over in Islington, popular independent and local bike shop MiCycle was attacked; looters poured in and raced out with bikes.

Looting MiCycle; footage via London Cyclist

***

Update, 10/08/11:

The Daily Telegraph's Andrew Gilligan was robbed of his bicycle whilst riding home from Tottenham through Hackney on Monday night.  You can read his full report here.  He writes; "It was one of those microseconds when you know exactly what is about to happen, without the slightest chance of stopping it.
The big black boy rode his bike straight at me, crashing me off my own and leaving us both tangled up on the ground. Then four more of them were racing towards me, clawing at my legs to get them off my bike, kicking me in the head as I tried to hold on. Two minutes later, it was all over. Ten minutes later, no doubt, it was being used to loot a newsagent’s.
Bleeding a little, I thought I might as well call 999. It was a recorded message. After four and a half minutes, a tired man answered. “There’s nothing we can do,” he said. “You know what’s going on. We have to give priority to saving people’s lives. I suggest you just go home.” 

Micycle in Islington is now open for business again, reports GoingGoingBike, who contacted their mechanic Julian Sabetian; "We’ve had lots of concern from customers and locals alike, so the support has been palpable and very welcome.”
“I think that the redeeming factor’s just being the local community and their support. A few people have deliberately come to make small purchases [to show support]. Other shops have swung by or phoned, it’s nice for potential competitors to show their concern.”


There have been further reports of bike shops being raided and looted across London, including Evans Cycles in Chalk Farm and Clapham, and Geoffrey Butler in South Croydon.  BikeBiz online is keeping a tally, and also has advice from insurance firms for traders who may have been affected.

***

Down in Brixton, the BBC's Podraic O'Brien reported; "I'm standing outside Halfords on the other side of the road and they've just smashed through the door of Halfords.  They're taking bikes out the front entrance."  Guardian journalist Peter Walker live-tweeted similar occurrences at the Halfords store in Catford.  "Trouble spreading again in - gang breaking down door of Halfords by station. Full view of main road. No police."  Later, as the police moved on to other hot spots, the trouble returned; "Bizarre. Police have now abandoned Halfords in and, guess what... the looters are back."

If you see streets as a network - channels of movement and routes for communication - there's no better way of operating it than by bike.  Sadly, as last night has shown, those who are taking part in this mindless looting and violence are all too aware of it.  Bikes can be used to pass messages, weapons and drugs quickly and easily between flashpoints.  Untraceable and too quick to catch, whether we like it or not the humble bicycle is at the forefront of events.

The Money Shop on Bethnal Green Road this morning

What can you do to stay safe?

  • Avoid unlit or sparsely populated cycle routes; especially those through parks such as London Fields or along canals.
  • Keep up to date of where trouble is flaring up; consider changing your route home if necessary.
  • Consider teaming up with friends or colleagues to cycle home together or in small groups.
  • Avoid cycling through or near large groups of youths. Turn around and go back the way you came if you have to.
  • If someone offers you a brand new bike for sale in the street or at a market, do not buy it, you could be paying for stolen goods.
  • Exercise caution and common sense on websites like eBay and GumTree
  • Ensure you have a record of the frame number and particulars of your own bike.  Consider using a security website like BikeRegister and ensure your bike is always kept secure with at least two good locks.
  • Support your local bike retailer, especially if they've been the victims of looting or theft.

Share |

14 comments:

Philip Loy said...

Hi Mark. Sadly, those top tips are pretty much always true at any time, let alone during a riot.

ibikelondon said...

Sadly you're right, of course, Phil, but I thought it worth re-airing them so they're fresh in people's minds. Short of inciting people to ride home with baseball bats slung over their shoulders sadly I couldn't think of what else to recommend!

Anonymous said...

Much like after the Japanese earthquake the bicycle is prominent in news pictures. Whilst obviously not condoning wanton acts of criminality, I take heart from that. The bicycle is just there, like the metal railings or the lampposts.

It should no more surprise anyone that looters are using bicycles than that they’re wearing shoes on their feet!

Regarding what advice to give to cyclists caught up in the violence surely that's best summed up in two words: Run away!

Peter

Henz said...

Interesting take on the riots. Thanks.

Most cyclists in London carry D-Locks, I'm sure they would stand in for a baseball bat if needed.

On a more serious note:
I hope this doesn't fuel more calls from the "road tax" brigade for number-plates on bicycles.

ibikelondon said...

@Peter You're right of course that the bicycle really ought to be as ubiquitous as shoes, but when used as a tool to orchestrate something so huge, I think it's worth recording. I concur that 'Run away' is of course the best advice there is!

@Henz I hope so too. I fear these riots will be used as an excuse for more CCTV, more shop front shutters, brighter street lights and all the other pseudo-military paraphernalia that people try to sell concerned businesses and none of which has been shown to be effective in countering these riots. It's also worth pointing out that there are plenty of hoods running about in cars, too, though obviously the get stuck in much the same traffic as the cops. I doubt they have licenses or 'road tax'.

Philip Loy said...

Expect Norman Tebbit quotes sometime soon:

"In the aftermath of urban riots (Handsworth riots and the Brixton riot) in the summer of 1981, Tebbit responded to a suggestion by a Young Conservative (Iain Picton) that rioting was the natural reaction to unemployment:

I grew up in the '30s with an unemployed father. He didn't riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking 'til he found it."

Paul M said...

Without wishing to condone their behaviour, it is not entirely surprising that the bicycle is the mobility aid of choice of the rioters and looters in Tottenham or Hackney - at least part of the motivation (not excuse) for their behaviour is their exclusion from the Anglo-American dream of personal motor travel for all. the bicycle is all they have.

Anonymous said...

How has the bikeshare done in the riots? Have the stations and the bikes on them been destroyed? Or has the riots been out in the suburbs and bikes are in downtown and they're safe?

ibikelondon said...

@PaulM This is true, although there are plenty of hot motors in the neighbourhood.

@Anonymous Most of the trouble has been outside of the bike hire zone (broady, zone 1 and zone 2 edges), however there were twitter reports of a hire bicycle being thrown at windows to smash in to a store last night (they are very heavy). However, one in 6000 bikes is nothing when you see how many cars and buses have been set on fire. In general, across the whole of the first year of it's life the scheme has encountered much less vandalism and theft than expected; long may it continue!

Jez Andrews said...

Watching this from the north I can only begin to imagine the terror that these riots have caused. Let's not hope that this is not a taster for more to come. Thieves that get away with such crimes get a taste for it and will strike again.

Will anyone trust a group of young people when cycling by now?? It's a sad state of affairs. Hope things work out and you get your city back.

Jez
www.followingthechainline.blogspot.com

Duncan said...

Interesting thoughts, but I don't know about 'dark side' - they are just machines. It's a mistake to think bicycles are a good thing, so therefore the people who ride them must be inherently good. Look at all those pavement riders and red light jumpers. Half the appeal of cycling is exactly that it is mainly unregulated, leaving a lot of freedom to behave only according to your own sense of responsibility, or lack of it.

cyclerdelic said...

Did you see ...?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Db-0dX4ORA

ibikelondon said...

@cyclerdelic Thanks for posting, don't want to piss on your chips but I'm afraid that clip is fake.

cyclerdelic said...

Of course, now that you've pointed it out it's so obvious. But not a word to my nephew, please - he still thinks it's real :o)