Thursday 11 August 2011
The White Truth
Highbury Magistrates' Court
They were, some told us, the alienated poor, those without hope, lashing out in rage and despair. But as the accused London rioters started appearing in court they included university students, a wealthy businessman's daughter and a boy of 11.
At Highbury Corner magistrates court, the custody vans queued in the street and the paperwork poured across every spare surface on Wednesday.
They had been working all night, even as the roads fell silent and the local shopkeepers boarded themselves in. "Have you been home yet?"asked a dazed-looking court official to her colleague.
By the end of the day in London 805 people had been arrested in connection with violence, disorder and looting since Saturday and 251 had been charged.
Here in court, as David Cameron condemned the "sickness" in parts of British society, we saw clearly, for the first time, the face of the riot: stripped of its hoods and masks, handcuffed to burly security guards, dressed in white prison T-shirts. And it was rather different from the one we had been expecting.
Among the accused was, for instance, Laura Johnson, the 19-year-old daughter of a successful company director. She lives in a detached converted farmhouse in Orpington, Kent, with extensive grounds and a tennis court.
She is an English and Italian undergraduate at Exeter, favourite of the Boden-wearing classes.
Before that, she attended St Olave's Grammar, the fourth-best state school in the country, and its sister school, Newstead Wood, gaining nine GCSE A grades and four A*s.
At St Olave's, she studied A-levels in French, English literature, geography and classical civilization. On Wednesday, at Highbury, she was accused of something slightly less civilized - looting the Charlton Curry's superstore of electrical goods worth five thousand pounds.
The case was transferred to Bexleyheath magistrates where she was placed on bail with a strict curfew. Her parents, Robert and Lindsay, run Avongate, a direct marketing company, but Mr Johnson was also a director of a company that took over the Daily Sport and Sunday Sport newspapers in 2007. A neighbour, who asked not to be named, said: "I just wouldn't expect someone from round here to be accused of this."
Another defendant who could not have been motivated by need or despair was an 11-year-old child. When sitting down, the scrawny, rosy-cheeked little boy, who cannot be named for legal reasons, could barely be seen in the youth court's high-security dock. In a smart blue Adidas tracksuit, he bit his nails and shifted from foot to foot as he admitted looting a Debenhams store in his home town of Romford, Essex. Charges of violent disorder were dropped. He was, it transpired, already on a "referral order" for another, unrelated offence.
He'd been in custody since Monday, arrested at 10.30pm with a mob of twenty other children - though his offence, reaching through a broken window and stealing a waste-paper basket on display, was hardly the crime of the century. The mother who'd let him roam the streets was in court, angry and aggressive, refusing to talk to the Press.
The judge, James Henderson, seemed as nonplussed as we were. "Eleven is too young for a tag, isn't it?" he asked his clerk. "I can't even detain someone who's under 12."
After being bailed to his family, and sent to his local court for sentencing, the boy set off alone down the street, before his aunt and mother chased after him, dragging him back by the scruff of his neck.
Most defendants conformed more closely to Mr Cameron's "sick society" template. There was Richard Myles-Palmer, with a foot-long list of convictions, found wheeling a shopping trolley full of stolen power-tools through south London. He and his co-defendant, Jason Gary White, pleaded guilty. Humble in the dock in their white issue T-shirts, they were transformed men when they emerged from court, masked up and making hand-signals of defiance.
They may not have the last laugh, for they were referred to the Crown Court for sentence. The maximum penalty available at Highbury was six months. But most cases on Wednesday were referred to courts that can send you to prison for ten years.
At Highbury, only a minority had no record. Many seemed to be career criminals. Most were teenagers or in their 20s, but a surprising number were older. Most interestingly of all, they were predominantly white, and many had jobs.
Christopher James Harte, a 23-year-old scaffolder, pleaded guilty to taking a pair of Lacoste trainers and a bodywarmer from a sportswear shop in Hackney. "Sorry, I'm panicking," he said, as he gave his address wrongly. Anxious, wiping his eyes, he seemed the classic opportunistic looter who saw a chance and took it.
Alexis Bailey, 31, a worker at a primary school, admitted being part of a mob that tried to loot an electrical shop in Croydon. Bailey, who earns pounds 1,000 a month at Stockwell Primary School, south London, left court with a newspaper over his face. A headline about "copycat cretins" covering his eyes, he walked into a lamp-post.
A postman and his A-level student nephew were caught by police in a Ford Focus full of stolen televisions and laptops outside a looted superstore, City of Westminster magistrates' court heard. Jamal Ebanks, 18, and Jeffrey Ebanks, 32, were stopped outside PC World in Prospect Retail Park, Croydon, at about 9pm on Monday. Jamal admitted breaking into a nearby Comet store and stealing two Acer laptops and a BlackBerry tablet worth pounds 1,000 and handling a stolen 32in Toshiba television worth pounds 700. Jeffrey, a postman since 2004, admitted dishonestly receiving a JVC flatscreen.
Student Samon Adesina, 23, is said to have been one of the looters carrying a flatscreen television away from Surrey Quays shopping centre. He was remanded in custody for a week and will miss his final exam in electrical engineering at an unspecified university, Tower Bridge magistrates' court heard. At Camberwell Green, an Essex University student, Banye Kenon, was accused of looting a Currys shop.
As one lawyer said, these defendants might well have been the second wave of looters: too old, slow or stupid to avoid getting caught. But on Wednesday at least, the underclass stereotype beloved of certain politicians simply did not apply.
And while the courtrooms, with their parade of defendants, felt more like railway stations, Mr Cameron's other promise, of swift judicial retribution, was very much beginning to be achieved.
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