Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

Turks Police Own London District Amid Rioting

LONDON, Aug 10 2011 - As London simmered under a heavy police lid last night, there were some areas of the city that had no need for flashing blue lights and riot shields to maintain the ragged sense of calm.

With much of the violence focused on the other UK cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham, a battened-down London enjoyed a relatively quiet night on Tuesday, 24 hours after the city was rocked by some of its worst rioting in decades.

Key to that calm was a massive police presence. Some 16,000 officers were deployed on the streets, nearly triple the presence of the previous evening when officers fought running battles with masked street fighters and failed to prevent widespread looting and arson.

But though there were officers visibly standing sentry on street corners in most affected areas, the forces of law and order seemed happy to leave the battered district of Dalston to its own devices – because Dalston, it seems, can take care of itself.

The turning point for Dalston, a generally low-income district of the capital that is home to a significant ethnic Turkish population, came at around 11pm on Monday. As looting and violence terrorised swathes of the city, the shopkeepers of Dalston decided they had had enough.

I arrived in Dalston minutes earlier to check out reports of a bus being set alight by a gang of youths who then went on the rampage, attacking shops and restaurants along one of the district’s main roads. The reports appeared accurate; police were already cordoning off the burned vehicle.

Members of the local Turkish community, who had poured onto the streets in the wake of the violence, were reluctant to talk to journalists on the record about what had just happened. But as anger boiled to the surface, some recounted making a stand against the gang of attackers.

Then came the real action.

As I stood among the milling Turks, the gang returned, brazenly strolling through the crowds. Insults were exchanged then, after a bizarre interlude in which one of the gang members offered to shake hands with a few bemused locals, they walked off.

Turks in control

The street suddenly exploded into life. Scores of Turkish men, many carrying makeshift weapons, began giving chase, their whoops and shouts only just drowned out by the sounds of police vehicles, sirens blaring, driving over debris scattered in the road.

It was hard to see what happened next. Wary of getting caught up in any violence, I hung back. Police were on the scene, but it seemed the Turks were in control of the situation. Minutes later, as many came trickling back, the shopkeepers claimed victory. “The Turks kick them out of the scene, bruv,” one shouted. “That’s it. All done.” Overhead, people shouted down from apartment windows: “You guys are heroes.” Certainly, for all the trouble seen that night, the area seemed safer than other volatile districts I also visited.

Fast forward to Tuesday night and the sidewalks of Dalston’s Kingsland High Street were again teeming with Turkish men, some carrying sticks that could be used as weapons. Police, highly visible elsewhere across the city, were keeping a low profile (one armoured police convoy was applauded as it passed through the road shortly after 11pm).

Unlike many high streets in the capital, where businesses brought down the shutters in the early afternoon to minimise the risk of looting, many of the the restaurants and shops in Dalston were defiantly open.

Although Dalston appears to have stood alone in its resistance to the gangs on Monday, there were reports that other districts had on Tuesday begun following the Turks’ lead.

Local radio reported that about 2,000 people in the riot-hit southern suburbs of Lewisham and Eltham were “reclaiming the streets”. In Enfield, another trouble spot to the north, there were claims of smaller-scale acts of retaliation and to the west, photographs posted online showed about 100 members of the Sikh community rallying against potential rioters.

Elsewhere in the city, during daylight hours, there was a broader sense of defiance, with scores of people volunteering to join co- ordinated clear up efforts in their neighbourhoods.

Some observers have suggested that other communities – whether based on ethnicity, religion or otherwise – could in coming days contribute to the sense that Londoners are reclaiming the city from the troublemakers.

But it remains to be seen whether this would match the aggressive stance which the Turkish community has taken.

Lavish praise

Certainly, under different circumstances, the actions of Dalston’s shopkeepers could be seen as a risky form of vigilantism that perhaps has the potential to incite longer-term communal violence in London. This would certainly spell further trouble for a city that relies on tolerance to unite its many culturally diverse communities.

But for the time being, many Dalston residents have been lavishing praise on the men unofficially policing their district. Twitter, widely used by many of the young “hipsters” who have made Dalston their home, was on Tuesday buzzing about the events of the previous night.

“Our local shopkeeper refused to close. He said ‘we are Turkish’ as explanation,” said one post. Another added: “Reports of heroic scenes on Dalston High Street. Turkish families lining the streets to oppose riots. What great Londoners.”

Another, along similar lines, read: “Upper Dalston looks busier than a Saturday night with all the Turks on patrol! Thanks for Keeping Dalston safe!” followed by: “Who needs riot police when you’ve got Turkish shop owners.”

One posting characterised the showdown between the Turkish restaurateurs and their masked adversaries as “baklavas versus balaclavas,” while another summed up prevailing sentiments with “Say what you will about letting Turkey getting in the EU, they’re there when we need them.”

Perhaps extrapolating the policing skills of London’s Turks somewhat implausibly to the level of international diplomacy, one post mused: “If only Turkey can bring to Syria in the next few days what they’ve brought to Dalston and London in the last few.”

In what is perhaps the ultimate endorsement of the Turkish community’s efforts to impose a sense of normality on their cherished stretch of northeast London, there were reports last night that Gilbert and George – an eccentric elderly pair of avant-garde artists who dine nightly in the same Dalston Turkish eatery – were on Tuesday night placing their regular orders.

For a community that pulled out the stops to protect itself on London’s darkest night in decades, their restaurant reappearance was no doubt a moment to savour.

*Published under an agreement with Al-Jazeera.

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