Jesse Levene on documenting the aftermath of the London riots

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Ten years on, the sheer power and scale associated with 2011’s riots remain frightening. But David Levene taken a counter-narrative to the “seductive” side of the chaos, taking photos of the aftermath and clean-up

Communicated via the now deceased medium of BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), the calls to hands that ignited and sustained the 2011 London riots are no less shocking ten years on.  

“Just got the word that boys are making way to #croydon, make it occur boys! Burn the place to the ground #Lewisham #Hackney #londonriots, ” reads one.  

“H. U. D huge range tonight kingsgate at twelve. Be there … SPREAD THE WORD, ” says one more.

Hastily typed with an nearly gleeful call to extremism, these BBM broadcasts immortalise a moment that has now already been largely forgotten and – for the sake of national posterity – cleansed from collective memory. The sheer power plus scale of the violence plus destruction that erupted throughout those summer months, however , talk to a moment of intense national reckoning.

Triggered by the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by police in Tottenham, North London, on Friday 04 August 2011, chaotic clashes with police officers ensued. Police cars, double-decker buses and shop fronts were smashed, and by the end from the night parts of the city had been ablaze, with looters running free. Lawlessness spread more than subsequent nights to twenty two out of London’s 33 boroughs, before triggering widespread assault and looting across the country. Upon 10 August, more than 3 or more, 003 arrests had been produced nationwide, along with five deaths. An estimated £200m of harm was incurred.

Invariably, many photographs of the riots show a city at war with itself. The stills that made the morning papers show riot police clashing with hooded perpetrators. Others capture rioters looking gleefully at their arson as firefighters desperately attempt to fan the flames. A now iconic image by paparazzi photographer Amy Weston shows a woman leaping from the two-storey flat to escape the particular rising blaze.

Photographs simply by Guardian photographer David Levene, however , show a different side of the story. At the time, Levene lived in Walthamstow, simply four miles east of Tottenham. He felt the strain escalate throughout that weekend as the riots continued in order to spread across London. “It was like the fires had been lit. The whole of London felt like it was burning, ” he recalls.  

Onlookers in Rye Lane, Peckham, near to the remains of a building burnt during riots that took place the previous evening. © David Levene.

Tasked by the Guardian’s head of photography, Roger Tooth, to find an alternative angle to the story of nationwide disharmony, Levene rushed to Clapham, where a large crowd of local residents took to the streets with dustpans and brooms.  

“I remember being slightly late… knowing that this clean-up procedure was happening and sensation like I was late plus flustered, ” Levene recalls. “I had a sort of long walk down seeing this particular crowd of people… There was a general sense of camaraderie and this overarching sensation of people having to fight… It was not the physical clean-up so much as fighting the major narrative [in the media]. Individuals just wanted to kick back from that and say, ‘look, we are still out here’. People wanted to do good things and possess positivity. ”

A board of communications outside a Poundland shop which was damaged during the rioting. The message board was set-up on 09 August last year by local theatre company ‘Peckham Shed’, asking passers-by to write a message of ‘Why We Love Peckham’. © David Levene.

Levene’s photographs contrast sharply using the widespread anarchy of the night before. They show ordinary people striving to rebuild amid popular devastation, caused not only in order to local buildings and companies but to entire towns. In one image, local inhabitants congregate by a shop, looking at the remains of a burnt-out building. In another, a new girl stretches up to a message board imposed on a Poundland shop, asking passers-by to write a note about “Why we like Peckham”.

The next day, Levene followed his editor’s orders and hurried to Birmingham, where three men – Haroon Jahan, 21, and brothers Shahzad Ali, 30, plus Abdul Musavir, 31 – were tragically killed within a hit-and-run incident, while trying to protect local businesses from being destroyed. His images, taken in Winson Green, show friends and family grieving their reduction.      

By capturing that aftermath, Levene created a counter-narrative to the “seductive” side of the chaos. When he puts it, while these people aren’t the key perpetrators, they are still part of the story. “As the society, or as photographers we get drawn straight into those sorts of dramas, ” Levene explains. “I think it says a lot in regards to the way that we have our judgments clouded, I guess that we are usually drawn to that kind of spectacle and, I guess, [I was] trying to battle towards it. ”

Birmingham, 11 August 2011. © David Levene.

Liverpool, 11 August 2011. © David Levene.

A decade on, it is unclear how much has really transformed. If anything, the issues that ignited the riots of 2011 have been amplified by years of austerity. Cuts to youth services – a key driver in the widespread anger and alienation that led to the rioting – have intensified. Council wallets have been slashed by forty-four percent across London: equal to £36million. Meanwhile, Tottenham has the fastest growing rate of unemployment in the country .

“I think there was clearly a lot of optimism following the riots, ” Levene recalls. “I remember that lots of people were worried about this image of England burning because we were due to sponsor the Olympics the following 12 months, which turned out to be an unbelievable occasion in terms of how much positivity this generated for everybody. Ultimately, however , the things that spurred on the riots of the time are absolutely still present today and arguably worse. ”

Ten years ago, Levene captured a nation doing its best to process widespread anger and destruction. Now, they speak to a community whose wounds never really recovered.  

Will Moffitt

Will Moffitt can be editor of The LEAF Evaluation, a journal dedicated to European architecture, and a freelance correspondent. He studied Theology and Philosophy at Edinburgh University or college, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. His work has been published in The Telegraph, Wired and The New Critique.

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